Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Girl Called Echo: Pemmican Wars - Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, Donovan Yaciuk

Title: A Girl Called Echo: Pemmican Wars (Vol. 1)
Author: Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, Donovan Yaciuk
Publisher: Highwater Press, 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 48 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Science Fiction
Started: April 28, 2018
Finished: April 28, 2018

From the back cover:

Echo Desjardins, a 13-year-old Metis girl adjusting to a new home and school, is struggling with loneliness while separated from her mother. Then an ordinary day in Mr. Bee's history class turns extraordinary, and Echo's life will never be the same. During Mr. Bee's lecture, Eco finds herself transported to another time and place - a bison hunt on the Saskatchewan prairie - and back again to the present. In the following weeks, Echo slips back and forth in time. She visits a Metis camp, travels the old fur-trade routes, and experiences the perilous and bygone era of the Pemmican Wars.

Pemmican Wars is the first graphic novel in the series A Girl Called Echo.

Lately, I've been actively trying to hunt down YA literature with Indigenous characters in them, so when I came across this I decided to give it a try.

Echo is a young Metis girl living in foster care. When she's learning about Metis history in class, she actually manages to travel to the Qu'Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan in 1814, in the middle of the Pemmican Wars. As she does this several times, she actually becomes involved in seeking out more of her history by checking out books from the library and relaying what she's learned to her mother during a visit.

The only downside of this book was that it wasn't even 50 pages long. The series does continue, but it is unfortunate that each volume is so small. I do like that the author includes historical timelines and notes to help explain concepts.

This is definitely something I would buy for a classroom. Echo is a relatable character and the content is not only Canadian, but also representative of Indigenous history, something we sorely need more of  in YA literature.

Thoughts on the cover:
I lie the colour palette, and Echo's profile image is pensive and quiet, much like she is for most of the book.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Prince and the Dressmaker - Jen Wang

Title: The Prince and the Dressmaker
Author: Jen Wang
Publisher: First Second, 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young Adult, Adult; Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale
Started: April 17, 2018
Finished: April 18, 2018

From the inside cover:

Paris, at the dawn of the modern age. Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride - or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia - the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian's secret weapon is his brilliant dressmaker, Frances - his best friend and one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone's secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect her friend?

Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

I fell in love with this book. It's an adorable story that not only gives you the warm and fuzzies, it restores your faith in humanity for the time that you read it.

Prince Sebastian is sixteen and visiting his Countess aunt in Paris for the summer while his parents are searching for candidates for his future bride. He feels pressured to do as his parents expect, but he also has a secret he is reluctant to saddle any future bride with: he likes to wear dresses. When he sees  some of Frances'  ground-breaking work at a fashion show, he hires her to be his personal dressmaker.  With Frances' help, soon Sebastian is turning heads as alter-ego Lady Crystallia, and people want to know who makes her clothes. Unable to further her own career while still maintaining Sebastian's secret, Frances feels conflicted, and Sebastian's parents are pushing wedding plans more than ever.

This is an amazing story of a gender non-conforming prince who feels that he can't be true to himself without disappointing those around him. I like how the author added in Frances' story as well, not only to illustrate her goal of wanting to be a well-known designer, but also to show that sometimes keeping secrets for a friend isn't the best way to help them. I also have to give the author credit for how she ended the story: the interaction between Sebastian, his father, and Frances was just absolutely perfect. It shows that when families and friends come together to support each other, we can all have more resilience towards taking on challenges that scare us. It's interesting how Sebastian's gender identity is left up to the reader to interpret: we're not sure if this is the beginning of him realizing that he might be transgender, or that he's simply a cisgender male who likes to wear dresses. Either way, I'm so glad that type of gender diversity is portrayed in this graphic novel.

A must-read, if not for the gender diversity then for just how freaking cute it is. This should also be on lists for classrooms and school libraries too.

Thoughts on the cover:
Very cute, just like the content. I like the shot of Frances and Sebastian set against the backdrop of Lady Crystallia's dress.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Best We Could Do - Thi Bui

Title: The Best We Could Do
Author: Thi Bui
Publisher: Abrams Comic Arts, 2017 (Hardcover)
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Adult; Graphic Novel, Nonfiction
Started: April 14, 2018
Finished: April 14, 2018

From the inside cover:

The Best We Could Do, the debut graphic novel memoir by Thi Bui, is an intimate look at one family's journey from their war-torn home in Vietnam to their new lives in America. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family's daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves. At the heart of Bui's story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent - the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through.

With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home. The Best We Could Do brings to life her journey of understanding and provides inspiration to all who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past.

As the third generation of an immigrant family, this book spoke to me when I read the synopsis. I know my experiences (and obviously those of my Canadian-born parents) have been directly shaped by both my maternal and paternal grandparents and their decisions to immigrate to Canada over 60 years ago.

There's no denying that the immigrant experience is a powerful one, and the author does an incredible job of exploring both her mother and father's pasts and her own early life in Vietnam in the midst of the experience of giving birth to her first child. It's well known that becoming a parent leads one to seriously examine one's own parents; I know I called my mother sobbing and apologized for everything I had ever done shortly after the birth of my daughter because I suddenly understood exactly what it was like to be her in a way I had never fathomed before that point. The author wonders how much of her identity was shaped by her parents and their experiences, and how much of that (either positive or negative) will she potentially pass on to her son.

The graphic novel looks at each of her parents' backstories in Vietnam in the 1950s and 60s, the birth of her older siblings and herself, their escape in early 1978, and their resettlement in America a few months later. In effect, she does realize that considering the circumstances, her parents really did do the best they could for their children, sacrificing so they could have safety and opportunity while suffering from their own trauma.

A must-read; beautiful and a testament to strength and family.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how everyone in the family except Thi (the little one) is looking forward while she's the only one looking behind, just as she's the only one taking a retrospective look at their past.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Shadowsong - S. Jae-Jones

Title: Shadowsong (sequel to Wintersong)
Author: S. Jae-Jones
Publisher: Wednesday Books (St. Martin's Press), 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 387 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Fantasy
Started: April 6, 2018
Finished: April 13, 2018

From the inside cover:

Six months after the end of Wintersong, Liesl is working toward furthering both her brother's musical careered her own. Although she is determined to look forward and not behind, life in the world above is not as easy as Liesl has hoped. Her younger brother, Josef, is cold, distant, and withdrawn, while Liesl can't forget the austere young man she left beneath the earth, and the music he inspired in her.

When troubling signs arise that the barrier between worlds is crumbling, Liesl must return to the Underground to unravel the mysteries of life, death, and the Goblin King - who he was, who he is, and who he will be. What will it take to break the old laws once and for all? What is the true meaning of sacrifice when the fate of the world - or of the ones Liesl loves - is in her hands?

I read Wintersong last year and loved it to pieces, so of course when I found out there was going to be a sequel I knew I'd have to read it. Unfortunately, Shadowsong is a bit of a mixed bag; it didn't focus on what I loved in the first book (Liesl's relationship with the Goblin King), but instead was an amazingly intricate look into Liesl's growth as a character, including her (and by extension, Josef's) struggle with mental illness.

Shadowsong begins in winter, six months after the events of Wintersong, with Liesl, and her family struggling to keep the inn afloat after her father dies and Josef is away in Vienna. After a mysterious benefactor and patron of the arts offers to send Liesl and Kathe to Vienna to reunite with Josef, the siblings and Francois struggle to adapt to society there. When the Wild Hunt comes to make Liesl pay for defying the Old Laws and escaping the Underworld, she tries to come out of it alive while also trying to save both Josef and the Goblin King.

In the forward to the book, the author explains that like herself, Liesl struggles with bi-polar disorder. Although Josef's depression and self-harm are explained as an aspect of his changling status rather than mental illness, they are present as well. The book is a testament to madness: both for the people who experience it and those that love them. Although that aspect is truly touching and unique, I think the book suffered as a result of its inclusion: the book has pacing issues, it moves along so slowly since it is mostly introspection and the same character interactions over and over rather than anything really happening. In terms of atmosphere, it's dark, deranged and creepy; a big contrast from the fire and passion from the first book. I applaud the author for including mental illness as a focus in this context, but unfortunately I don't think every reader will be willing to trudge through the novel to really appreciate the underlying message.

I did enjoy the inclusion of the Goblin King's backstory, it all leads up to the ending where Liesl needs to divine his true name. This I feel ties up the plot from the end of Wintersong nicely, I just wish there had been more of a focus on this to balance out the heavy introspection from the first three quarters of the novel.

Well-written and a powerful insight into mental illness, but does suffer from pacing and dark intensity  that not all readers might be willing to stick it out for.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the continuity from Wintersong's cover, this time substituting poppies rather than a rose, and having the glass orb breaking rather than intact.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Speak: The Graphic Novel - Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll

Title: Speak: The Graphic Novel
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux (Macmillan), 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Graphic Novel
Started: April 8, 2018
Finished: April 8, 2018

From the inside cover:

The critically acclaimed award-winning modern classic Speak is now a stunning graphic novel.

"Speak up for yourself - we want to know what you have to say." From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless - an outcast - because of something that happened over the summer. Now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen. So what's the point of talking? Through her work on an art project, Melinda is finally able to face what really happened that night. But before she can make peace with the ghosts of the past, she has to confront the reality of the present - and stop someone who still wishes to do her harm. Only words can save her. She can't stay silent. Not anymore.

With powerful illustrations by Eisner Award-winning artist Emily Carroll, Speak: The Graphic Novel comes alive for new audiences and fans of the original.

I read Speak when I first started teaching, over a decade ago (before I even started this blog); it's what started my love affair with Laurie Halse Anderson's work as a whole.

Speak is such an influential novel, we still have it on reading lists for high schools today, even though it came out in 1999 when I was in high school. It allows for much-needed conversations about sexual assault and rape, more timely now than ever in the wake of the MeToo movement.

I was incredibly pleased to learn that Speak was coming out in graphic novel format, it only makes it even more accessible to new generations of readers. The artist brilliantly illustrates Melinda's struggles through her first year of high school, and the visual format allows for some really creative choices for expressing the book's themes.

If you've already read Speak, you need to pick up the graphic novel version; it serves as a nice compliment to the original. If you haven't read Speak yet, just go read both of these.

Thoughts on the cover:
Similar to the original novel's cover, you have a fraction of Melinda's face mingled with a tree. I like the consistency of it and the nod to the original.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Marrow Thieves - Cherie Dimaline

Title: The Marrow Thieves
Author: Cherie Dimaline
Publisher: Dancing Cat Books (Cormorant Books, Inc.), 2017 (Paperback)
Length: 231 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: March 21, 2018
Finished: March 31, 2018

From the back cover:

Just when you think you have nothing to lose, they come for your dreams.

In a world nearly destroyed by global warming, the Indigenous people of North America are being hunted for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream. Frenchie and his companions, struggling to survive, don't yet know that one of them holds the secret to defeating the marrow thieves.

Cherie Dimaline is a Metis author and editor whose award-winning fiction has been published and anthologized internationally. In 2014, she was named the Emerging Artist of the Year at the Ontario Premier's Awards for Excellence in the Arts, and became the first Aboriginal Writer in Residence for the Toronto Public Library.

This books was recently named one of the five nominees for the CBC Canada Reads competition, which made me take notice since its rare that a YA novel actually makes it to that panel. Secondly, this novel features Indigenous/Aboriginal protagonists, which we never see, which also contributed to my interest. Lastly, it's won a crap-ton of awards and had a lot of positive hype overall, so I thought this would be a good choice for my students and even promote for a reading list in our department at work if it was as good as everyone claims. Thankfully for me, it really is as good as the hype claims, and I'm lending this out to my fellow teachers at work so they can read it too.

Francis, aka Frenchie, has survived longer than anyone could've imagined. He lives in a futuristic Canada (specifically Ontario) in the aftermath of a global warming crisis: huge swaths of land have flooded due to the melting ice caps, and once people managed to survive that, they went mad and began killing each other once they realized they had lost the ability to dream. Once it is discovered that the Indigenous populations have retained this ability, and that harvesting their bone marrow can restore the ability in everyone else, the hunt begins.

As they move north to escape the Recruiters, Frenchie eventually becomes separated from his family and is found by a group that's also on the run. Miigwans is the leader, Minerva the Elder, followed by several children ranging from small kids to young adults. Several years pass with the nomadic lifestyle as their status quo, when a series of tragedies force them to change tactics and try to recover some of what they've lost.

Its hard to know where to begin in regards to the themes at play in this novel. The allusions are just teeming here. The "schools" where the Aboriginal people are taken of course reference residential schools where the historical genocide of Aboriginal people took place. The fates of RiRi and Minerva brought to mind the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that are currently being investigated all over the country. The pipelines that Miigwans mentions contributed to the environmental damage to the land after the ice caps melted are constantly protested today. Also, the significance of the bone marrow itself and correlating it to dreams signifies hope for the future, a theme that the author herself has said was a huge inspiration to write this book.

The writing is well-done and engaging. Frenchie is a realistic, likeable protagonist that struggles with his decisions and actions and fears not being able to protect his newfound family. I appreciated the diversity included in the book as well, having Rose and Ivan who are biracial.

The ending was a little bit disappointing, you get this big reveal in the last fifty pages or so and then nothing really comes from it. I suppose the author wanted to let the reader interpret how things ended, but for something that big and integral to the plot at large, I personally want some closure. That alone isn't enough to sour my opinion of the book, it's still amazing and should be required reading for practically everyone.

An incredibly important story that not only tells of our collective past but also a disturbing vision of our future. Its worth reading just for the positive Aboriginal representation, but the fact that it's a good story and well-written too makes it damn near required.

Thoughts on the cover:
The half shot of Frenchie's face would look empty on the cover if not for the slew of award emblems on the other side, so perhaps that was a stylistic choice knowing it would accumulate so many of them.