Monday, December 31, 2012

What Happened to Ivy by Kathy Stinson

"I could ask him now.  I could ask him:  Did you drown her? Did you plan it, like I planned the worms?  Did you know when you helped her into her bathing suit...what you were going to do?  Or not till you carried her into the water and made her laugh one last time?"

What Happened to Ivy is a great example of the kind of book that's not getting published as much these days, but which I think is still welcomed by many young readers--what librarians refer to as "the problem novel".  Not in that the book itself is a problem--but in that the book presents a problem, often some kind of ethical issue, as its main underpinning, and explores it deeply enough to expand the reader's understanding of the issue's  emotional and  philosophical complexities.  Such as, in this case, euthanasia.  Although What Happened to Ivy is fiction, it bears a strong resemblance to the real-life Robert and Tracy Latimer case, in which a Canadian parent was convicted of killing his disabled daughter in 1993 because of her pain management and quality-of-life issues.  This case generated huge controversy for many reasons, but I think most of all around the issue of consent;  euthanasia generally involves adults who are able to make their wishes known, but in this case the victim was a minor who had never expressed any desire to die. 

Stinson's fictionalization gives us over to the point of view of David, a young teen with an even younger sister, Ivy, who has cerebral palsy, just as Tracy Latimer did.  The first half of the book takes us through what it's like to be part of a family which includes a person with neurological disabilities.  Ivy consumes a lot of family focus, leaving David feeling frustrated and invisible sometimes--this family operates in a near-constant state of crisis, and his needs will always come in second to his sister's.  On the other hand, sometimes he's too visible, being out in public with a sister who's frankly embarrassing.  Ivy drools, she wears a diaper, she's loud, repetitive and hard to understand.  She has violent seizures and has had multiple painful surgeries. She can scare away other kids, leaving David isolated.  But Ivy can also be joyful, communicative and very loving, and when she has a seizure in a lake and drowns, despite being with their father, David is devastated.  He's even more devastated when his father admits that, instead of rescuing her,  he deliberately let Ivy go.  

Despite being a pretty easy read, this is a thought-provoking book.  Was Ivy better off dead?  Was failing to save her an act of love or an act of emotional exhaustion, and does the motivation even matter?  Was Ivy capable of making her own decisions about life?  How do we, as a society, value people with complex disabilities and how successful are we in offering their families support?  What Happened to Ivy succeeds in presenting Ivy as a person of value, whose family, both before and after her death, has no easy choices.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Bride's Story; A Manga Series by Kaoru Mori

"Acclaimed creator Kaoru  Mori (Emma, Shirley) brings the nineteenth-century Silk Road to lavish life, chronicling the story of Amir Halgal, a young woman from a nomadic tribe betrothed to a twelve-year-old boy eight years her junior. Coping with cultural differences, blossoming feelings for her new husband, and expectations from both her adoptive and birth families, Amir strives to find her role as she settles into a new life and a new home in a society quick to define that role for her. Crafted in painstaking detail, Ms. Mori’s pen breathes life into the scenery and architecture of the period in this heartwarming slice-of-life tale that is at once both wholly exotic, yet familiar and accessible through the everyday lives of the rich characters she has created."
From Yen Press, the English-language publisher's web site.

Kaoru Mori's exquisite depiction of culture is, for me, the most compelling part of the still ongoing series A Bride's Story.  Created in Japanese, volumes 1, 2, and 3 have recently been published in English, and volume 4 is forthcoming in 2013.  A French translation is available as well.  Mori apparently specializes in historical fiction, and is most famous in the West for her award-winning series Emma, about a young maid in Victorian England.  A Bride's Story is set in an unnamed area along the  Silk Road, and in volume 3 it becomes clear that we are close to Russia.  In case you, like me, only have a fuzzy idea of where the Silk Road lies, here's what YoYo Ma's Silk Road Project has to say about it:

"The historical Silk Road comprised a series of land and sea trade  routes that crisscrossed Eurasia  from the first millenium B.C.E. through the middle of the second millennium C.E. The intersections among people from diverse cultures along the way promoted an unprecedented sharing of commodities, ideas, arts, sciences and innovations."

My husband Doug thinks the story is probably set in Mongolia or Kazakhstan, so I'll go with that.  It's a bit frustrating though--Mori seems to have done a huge amount of research, considering the intricate, almost photographic detail of the art.  Would it kill her to name the people she's depicting?

In volume 1 of A Bride's Story we meet Amir, an adult woman, and her husband Karluk, who has probably just hit puberty.  Some reviews have mentioned a discomfort with this, and I can see why, although it is clear that they have not consummated their relationship yet.  I think the difference in ages makes an interesting twist; this is obviously one of many cultures where marriages are arranged in terms of tribal alliances and not necessarily personal preference, but stories of older men and younger brides are more common.  Amir's a strong protagonist; she's an expert horsewoman, a crack shot with a bow and arrow, and is pretty resourceful with a stewpot.  The story shows a tremendous respect between her and her young groom;  although Amir and her adjustments to a new family are a focus in the series,  we also see Karluk struggling a bit to grow into his adult role as husband.

In some ways Karluk is still a child. 

Amir and Karluk relaxing together. 

Amir's amazing hunting skills. 

Looking good on a horse. 

The things we women will do to impress a man...

In volume 2 we see Amir's rather boorish male relatives arrive to take her back, hoping to ally themselves more strategically by marrying her off to another, more powerful family.  Amir refuses to go, now making a deliberate choice to remain with Karluk and his tribe, who unhesitatingly fight to keep her in one of the saga's more exciting turn of events.  (It's partly exciting because they don't look like they'd be such good fighters.) In volume 3 a western linguist and anthropologist, Mr. Smith, becomes a more major character and takes over the point of view for a time, taking us away from Amir and Karluk in his wanderings and adventures.  Some people have complained about the the meandering, picaresque storyline, but I think that's a little unfair;  we haven't read the whole story yet.  Besides, my favourite parts aren't necessarily the ones that further the action.  I think the best parts are the ones that highlight things like handing down traditional skills and crafts through the generations (woodcarving, cooking, embroidery).  We're really shown not just how intricate and meaningful the work is, but how long the skills take to master.

A young boy learns carving at the hands of a master artisan. 

A full-page close-up of a carving in progress.

The teaching process. 

A Bride's Story depicts material culture with loving attention to detail every step of the way, but it also depicts family culture with great sensitivity.  Amir's marriage literally takes her away from her birth family and into a new extended family community.  Unlike Amir's birth family, her marital family seems very warm and supportive. I enjoyed meeting all the characters, from the children to the elders.  I really loved the scene in book 3 where Tileke, a young girl who only likes embroidering hawks (embroidery is very important here, as you may have guessed by the clothing illustrations), is shown patterns associated with her maternal ancestors many generations back.  All the women gather to pass on their family heritage and inspire a member of the youngest  generation with their personal and collective memories.   There is certainly a power structure in this family, but it seems based on respect and it doesn't feel like anyone's being squashed.   This stands in contrast to some other families we see peripherally, where family power structures are used to benefit men at the expense of women.  Mori's not afraid to show us the range of experience possible in the culture she's depicting, but so far at any rate, her storyline emphasizes the positive.   I'm looking forward to following the rest of this series as it unfolds.
Amir's new family.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True by Gerald Morris

Of all the Arthurian tales, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of my favourites.  I read the original in high school, and I found it so dramatic and vigorous and full of personality.   (Mind you, I also read and loved Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. That's full of personality in a different way.) Since then I've read a few different adaptations of Gawain's adventures,  including a Tolkien edition which I read not too long afterwards, and a children's version by Selina Hastings (she also wrote a great version of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady, another fine tale).  Now Gerald Morris has come out with a chapter book version of the Green Knight Incident aimed at younger children (grades 2-4 is probably the target audience) as part of his Knights' Tales series.  These books bring a very fresh feeling to Arthurian stories for kids.   Morris's tone is a little like a Boy's Own Adventure story, but more literate.  It's respectful of its source material, down to earth, and full of cheerful humour.  It's also very clear and readable,  just right for emergent readers.  

"But what many do not realize is that, at least in King Arthur's court, knights were also expected to be very courteous and respectful.  The king was very clear about this:  He wanted no bullies at his Round Table.  In fact, he said that courtesy was even more important than wearing metal suits and bashing people from horses.  Not surprisingly, this notion took a while to sink in.  Knights who had spent their whole lives learning swordsmanship and pointy-stick-bashing did not always see how something else could be more important.  Indeed, King Arthur had reigned for several years before he felt that his knights were starting to get the idea."

Morris's story follows the trajectory of the original:  the Green Knight's challenge at King Arthur's Christmas Feast, Gawain's commitment to the Knight's beheading game, his year of wandering, his stay at the Green Knight's castle and the exchange of prizes (the kissing game is toned down a lot here) and finally his visit to the Green Chapel, where he discovers that the whole thing has been an elaborate test of his (and by extension, King Arthur's) chivalry and knightly honour.

I think what Morris does best is to turn these mythic characters into concrete personalities, characters which are not necessarily so lofty but who still do King Arthur's court proud.  Kids are going to root for these knights, and the books will lay a great foundation for appreciating more mature versions of these stories later on.  Or for appreciating Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as the case may be.

Currently, other books in the Knights' Tales series include The Adventures of Sir Lancelot the Great;  The   Adventures of Sir Givret the Short, and The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated.  I have to mention that Aaron Renier does a great job of illustrating--don't you love that Green Knight cover?

My original Sir Gawain, read when I was about 16. 

Tolkien's translation.  I don't remember anything at all about Pearl or Sir Orfeo.   Only the Green Knight stuck with me.

Selina Hasting's children's adaptation of the Loathly Lady story, another time Gawain gets into hot water. 

Another of the Knight's Tales series. 

Charley's First Night by Amy Hest, Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

I haven't reviewed a picture book here for a while, but this one is so special I have to share it.  Charley's First Night is about a boy and his new puppy.  Look at the lovely eye contact between them on the cover.  And here's some of the writing:

"I carried him in my old baby blanket, which was soft and midnight blue, and we were new together and I was very, very careful not to slip in the snow and I thought about his name.  I was the one who thought up his name.  Charley.  Charley Korn.  My name is Henry.  Henry Korn."

Lovely, lovely, lovely.  This book is so pure and warm.  Henry is such a thoughtful and empathetic little lad, and we see him looking after Charley on his first night at the Korn household with the attentiveness of a new parent.  He's practically bursting with excitement, but it's expressed in a very nurturing way. There's a fresh, first-time innocence about how Henry cares for Charley that's very sweet.

Of course, Charley's first night is fraught--Henry's parents have a few rules, and one of them is that Charley sleeps in the kitchen, not in Henry's bed.  Henry carefully puts a pillow, a teddy bear and a ticking clock down in the kitchen to make Charley comfortable, and waits with Charley until he falls asleep.  But late at night--oh no!--Henry hears a noise.

"The crying started in the middle of the night and you knew right away it was Charley. 

'Don't cry, Charley!  Don't cry!' I ran to the kitchen and scooped him and held him close in my strong arms, and he shivered."

Henry gets Charley settled down again, only to be woken up for a second time.  I can relate--Charley's just like a new baby.  After a lot of soothing and walking around, Henry lays Charley on his bed just for a moment, thinking all the while about how his parents were pretty clear on where Charley should and should not sleep.  Of course, Henry and Charley both end up drifting off, and the last thing we see is Henry's mother's coming into his bedroom in the morning to find them fast asleep.

Helen Oxenbury is a revered name in picture books, a major talent who I'm sure will go down in illustrating history like Caldecott or Sendak or Quentin Blake.   Her specialty is drawing babies and young children, and here she just suffuses the pages with trust and quiet joy. Amy Hest's text is magical. This isn't a Christmas book per se, but it gave me the feeling of Christmas.  Love, and night-time, and excitement, and being together.

Playing with Charley in the snow.

Here's Helen Oxenbury in her studio:

Friday, December 21, 2012

(you) set me on fire by Mariko Tamaki

"Allison Lee is seventeen and off to college in the fall. So far, she's been in love once (total catastrophe) and on fire twice (also pretty bad). Both love and fire have left their scars."
Cover copy for (you) set me on fire. 

Q: Why do you write strong female characters?
A:  Because you're still asking me that question.
Joss Whedon, quoted on Mariko Tamaki's Website. 

Mariko Tamaki is a Toronto writer who is most well-known for her graphic novel Skim, illustrated by her equally talented cousin Jillian Tamaki.  Skim was on many best-of-the-year lists when it was published, including the shortlist for the 2008 Governor General's Literary Award.  Tamaki is also the author of the Minx graphic novel Emiko Superstar and several indie-type books for adults.  Her personal, character-driven writing is woman-centric (Skim takes place in a Catholic girls' school) and definitely takes an outsider stance.   Her characters are not always immediately sympathetic;  she's a writer who will take some risks.  

(you) set me on fire is about Allison, a young woman in first-year university who wants to reinvent herself after not particularly fitting in during high school, and having her heart broken by her only-quasi-lesbian best friend.  Allison's dorm is filled with perky, friendly, mainstream-type girls, but she is irresistibly drawn to the Dark Side, in this case represented by a flamboyant, angry goth named Shar.  Shar is a real Bad Girl, but unfortunately she's not hiding a heart of gold.  She's destructive and dangerous.  At one point I was really afraid for Allison's life.  It's actually kind of unusual for teen fiction to be set in a university, but I thought the setting made emotional sense--it's when your family is no longer around that the possibility of becoming unmoored is the greatest. 

The best things about this book are the voice and dialogue.  Mariko Tamaki studied linguistics for three years, and obviously pays careful attention to the way people speak.  The writing here is deceptively simple--sentences are short and conversational, but the more I read, the more I felt that Tamaki chose each and every word extremely carefully.  Another thing that Tamaki does really well  is give secondary characters dimension.  Allison's dorm-mates start out as silly stereotypes, but become surprisingly more. Tamaki's background in theater shows in her pacing and characterization. She's good at small, uncomfortably illuminating scenes.     

I found the character of Allison really challenging.  There's a passivity about her that makes her a frustrating protagonist.  She gives so much of  her power over to Shar, who keeps her off balance emotionally, pulling Allison close (even sleeping with her) and then pushing her away.  Shar also sabotages Allison scholastically and isolates her from others who might want to be her friends.  Allison bumbles around a lot--missing classes, getting drunk, getting called in to the Dean's office to explain her academic floundering--and becomes increasingly unhappy without really naming the reason to herself.   Shar, on the other hand, is so decisive and controlling that it seems to everyone--Allison included--that she's the stronger of the two.  Allison's not a traditional unreliable narrator though--she's very observant and she does slowly see the machinations of her new friend.  That's what's frustrating--even when she's figuring it out and others are reaching out to her, she's slow to separate herself.  She won't let go until it's almost too late.   To me, the end of their relationship felt like a wound as well as a release.  There was a definite ripping-apart quality to it.  

 Here's an interview with Tamaki in Xtra! magazine, and another one on CBC Books.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Endangered by Eliot Schrefer

Quick science quiz:  who is the closest living relative to homo sapiens?

Did you guess chimpanzees?  Until recently scientists would have told you that chimps and humans share between 94% to 99% of their DNA, with lower estimates being more current.  It makes sense, then, that studying chimps will teach us about human behavior as well, and we've known for some time now that chimps are smart.  They can learn rudimentary sign language, use tools, and evolve unique behaviors within their communities to adapt to their particular circumstances.  But anyone studying chimps to find out more about human behavior will also find lots of bad news:  despite their intelligence they're a violent bunch, not just towards predators but also amongst themselves.  Rape, infanticide and murder are behaviors which have been observed in chimp communities, although there is debate over how common these behaviors are.  Nevertheless, observation of chimps has led to the argument  that violent behaviors are hard-wired into humanity, bred into our genes and waiting only for the right situations to bring them forth.

Well, surprise!  It turns out that chimps, while genetically close to us, aren't necessarily our only close relatives after all.  That distinction is now shared by the Bonobo, a cousin of the chimp who has  98.7 percent of its genetic material in common with ours, and has a vastly different behavioral repertoire from chimpanzees.   Bonobos, unlike chimps, are matriarchal and infants receive close and excellent care from their mothers and from the community.  Rape is virtually unknown; Bonobos are non-monogamous and use sex to cement social ties and group cohesion.  Although bonded, affectionate and cooperative within their group, they are shy of strangers.   Like the chimp, they are an endangered species and rapidly losing habitat.  And they live only in the Congo, one of the most violent and conflicted areas on earth.  It is this irony, of peaceful primates co-existing with warlike humans, which inspired Eliot Schrefer's new novel Endangered.  This is a book which I can picture appealing to a few different audiences--teens interested in science and animal behavior, teens interested in issues around development and social justice, and teens just wanting to read a great adventure novel.   

The plot is simple--Sophie, a teen of mixed race and nationality, flies from her home in America to spend the summer in the Congo with her mother, who runs a Bonobo sanctuary close to the capital city Kinshasa. On her way to the sanctuary, Sophie sees a young Bonobo who is close to death and being hawked by a poacher on the street.  She insists on stopping and buying the Bonobo, which puts her into immediate conflict with the rules of the sanctuary and her mother (who has been working hard to stop the trade in wild animals).  Unfazed, Sophie nurses the Bonobo back to health, becoming his surrogate mother, giving him 24 hour care and developing a strong mutual bond with the animal she has named Otto.    

The real trouble starts when Sophie's mother leaves for several weeks to facilitate the release of some of her rehabilitated Bonobos into the wild.  While she is gone, the government topples and an unruly band of militia attack the sanctuary, killing most of the women who work there.  Sophie and Otto manage to flee and hide inside the sanctuary forest, which is protected by an electric fence.  For a few weeks they live with a band of Bonobos there, but when the fence breaks down Sophie knows the soldiers will come into the forest looking for Bonobo meat.  She flees with Otto and together they make a long and very risky trek to find Sophie's mother, over the course of which they face both natural and human dangers.

There are a few things, I think, that make Endangered particularly good.  It's easy in adventure stories to let plot and suspense take over the book, but Endangered features wonderful characterization both of its humans and animals.  Each Bonobo is individually drawn, and their group dynamics are complex.   Sophie is a relentless spirit, refusing at several points to save herself when it means leaving Otto behind.  She won't prioritize her own human life over Otto's animal one, even under the most extreme circumstances. Her sense of responsibility is very personal, and is about honouring the relationship that she has developed with Otto;  whether, as a reader, you agree or disagree with her choices, you can really feel the emotion behind them.  Endangered could be a used to start deep conversations about important issues.  I think would be a great choice for teen book clubs.

Here are some videos of Eliot Schrefer a) promoting Endangered, b) giving an interview about Endangered, and c) playing with some friends in a Bonobo sanctuary:

And here's a picture of Eliot and his own Bonobo friend:

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: The Raven Cycle, Book 1

 Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood
there, wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever 
dared to dream before...
(Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven)

 I finally got a chance to read the much-anticipated Raven Boys, the first book of a projected four-book series,  by the multi-talented Maggie Stiefvater.  Stiefvater's reputation as a fantasy writer is stellar, particularly after her breakout trilogy The Wolves of Mercy Falls and last year's stand-alone blockbuster The Scorpio Races.   I kept thinking of Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising series as I was reading The Raven Boys, and also a book by Madeleine L'Engle called A Swiftly Tilting Planet--there are a lot of  thematic overlaps between these stories, as well as similarly mysterious characters and a compelling, slow-building atmosphere of suspense. 

The Raven Boys circles around a quest for the remains of Owain Glendower, legendary Welsh ruler who, like King Arthur, is said to be waiting to rise again when the time is right.  Gansey, one of the four Raven Boys in the novel (they're private school boys whose uniform has a raven on the jacket) is convinced that Glendower's remains lie somewhere in the area of Henrietta, Virginia  (that's in the USA, not Wales, but Gansey has an explanation for the geographic discrepancy) and has involved his three friends Adam, Noah and Connor in his search.   Meanwhile, Blue Sargent, a young woman born into a family of clairvoyant females, has a vivid and peculiar vision regarding Gansey and his death.  When Blue and the Raven Boys meet and begin to investigate the ley lines and other manifestations of mysterious energy in the Virginia landscape,  boundaries between the real world and the otherworldly begin to shift.

It's interesting that there are really two worlds at work here--Blue and her family, all women, all highly intuitive, private,  and  naturally attuned to the world of myth and spirit, and the Raven Boys,  living in a very masculine world of private school, grades, money, cars, and ambition.  Stiefvater is too sophisticated a writer to make this division simple, but moving back and forth between the two groups adds to the reading experience.  I really like how diverse the characters are, and how challenging some of them are to understand--I'm certain there's a lot more to find out about them.  The last line, uttered by Connor, utterly mystified me.  Stiefvater's always been great at creating atmosphere, and I would describe the atmosphere of The Raven Boys as "heightened".  By the end, I was getting chills up my spine.  Of course, I was reading in bed in the dead of night, when I should really have been sleeping...

As well as being a writer, Maggie Stiefvater is a musician and a visual artist.  Here is some art she drew for the trailer of The Raven Boys...I think it's exquisite.  Remember those 19th century illustrated novels for grown-ups, with their colour plates?  I so think Raven Boys could have been done like that. 

And here's the trailer: