Fatty Legs by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton & Christy Jordan-Fenton

Read: 17 July, 2017

Olemaun desperately wants to learn how to read. So, despite her sister’s warnings and her father’s fears, she demands to go to the Outsider’s school.

The story of Olemaun is told in a very straightforward, factual manor. There are the hardships and the bullying from a nun nicknamed ‘the Raven’, but there are also sweet moments, such as her few interactions with the nun nicknamed ‘the Swan’. It’s a very human story.

With its simple narrative style and many illustrations (including a number of photographs), this is perfectly suited to early chapter book readers. This would make a perfect introduction to the issues surrounding residential schools and cultural genocide.

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Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

Read: 10 July, 2017

Maya has Cystic Fibrosis, so her family has to move to be closer to a specialist for her. This, of course, makes her older sister Cat feel all sorts of complicated and uncomfortable feels. To make matters worse, they’ve moved to a down where the boundary between the living and the dead isn’t particularly strong…

This is a story primarily about the relationship between the two sisters, complicated by the younger’s illness. Cat feels responsible for her little sister, and understands that her sister’s needs are important, but she also resents her for it. She understands why they had to move, but still feels angry about it. It’s tricky and nuanced and messy and Telgemeier approaches it beautifully.

The titular ghosts themselves are just there to force the two sisters to face their demons, but they do so well. Their reliance on “the essence of the world breathing around them” mirrors Maya’s own shortness of breath. And the fact that they are ghosts obviously works with Maya’s shortened life expectancy.

I see some people complaining about the authenticity of using Hispanic culture – particularly the Dia de los Muertos – as a backdrop for the story, but that’s really out of my area of expertise. It’s clear, however, that it’s done with reverence. And while the Dia details are a little fudged, I read that as having to do with the particular nature of the setting – the celebration takes place at the mission because the mission is where contact is strongest.

In all, I found it to be a sweet story that has a surprising amount of depth for such a quick read.

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Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde by Harold Lamb

Read: 6 July, 2017

Another entry from my mother’s biography collection from the 1950s (the first being William the Conqueror).

This, along with the one about Odysseus that I’m sure I’ll be reading eventually, were my childhood favs. As I was reading this book to my son, I was surprised by how many of the stories and pictures were carved into my memory.

That said, it isn’t terribly great. The writing style is a bit clunky, and the scenes themselves aren’t nearly as evocative as they could be. I had hoped to infect my child with some of my enthusiasm for the Mongols, but this book failed to capture his interest (even when I tried to supplement it with a Crash Course History video!).

Still, it’s not a bad primer for interested kids, especially in a market that has so little world history offerings for the early/middle readers.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events #5: The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket

Read: 14 June, 2017

As the fifth instalment of the Beaudelaire miseries comes to a close, I’m not left with too much to say. I enjoyed this one, as I have all of them. They do seem to be getting even better, which is lovely.

While I know the repetition of these books gets criticised, my kid loves it. He gets a lot out of being able to spot when Plot Point A is building up, or when Character X is about to make an appearance. And, meanwhile, I’m getting more than enough out of the narrative voice for me to enjoy the series as well.

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My Side of the Mountain by Jean George

Read: 28 May, 2017

This book was utterly up Kid Me’s alley. I was that loner child who used to sneak off into the woods every afternoon to make my own bow and arrows. I’m that kid who once got a bunch of sticks smoking using nothing but forest stuff and a piece of string pulled from my school uniform tie. I’m that kid who read “kid survives in the wilderness” stories almost exclusively. And I loved this book.

My kid has been getting into the same spirit, so I figured it was time to share My Side with him. And he really loved it. The best part is that it’s been great for getting him to come out on nature walks with me, and he’s been really interested in how different plants can be used, what’s edible, that sort of thing. I’m looking forward to camping season starting to see if he’s more engaged there, too.

I have to admit, though, all the talk of running away made me rather nervous. I ran away all the time as a child, and I’m sure I worried my parents grey. But, blessedly, the idea never seems to have occurred to my child. Even when he’s upset and totally hates me,he still stays close to home. It made me super nervous that this book was going to put the idea of running away from home into his head. So far, though, that seems to have been unfounded. We’ve talked about going into nature together, and made plans for camping together. For whatever reason, running away just doesn’t seem as appealing to him as it did to me. Maybe he’ll age into it.

As a story, I found that My Side dealt a lot more with Sam’s contact with people than I remembered (I actually didn’t remember these parts at all!), and less with the nitty-gritty of his survival. On the whole, though, I found that there was a good balance between the two.

I had also completely misremembered the ending – which I recall as being a traumatic ripping away from the mountain with police and such. I’m not sure why I remember it that way, or if I’m crossing memories of another book.The real ending, however, is much gentler.

This is a charming book with fairly good pacing. It’s also great for teaching kids that they are resilient and capable of being useful, despite their small bodies. Some aspects of it are a little dated, but not nearly as much as I would have thought.

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How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Read: 1 May, 2017

My copy’s cover boasts that this story is “now a major DreamWorks Animation film.” That’s a lie. There is a DreamWorks movie with the same title, and even the main characters have the same names, but it’s not the same story. At all.

That was rather unexpected.

But not unwelcome. The movie was a wonderful story about a friendship between a boy and a dragon that sort of crammed in a thing about a Big Bad to be defeated at the end because I guess the screenwriters felt that they needed a grandiose climax but couldn’t be arsed to write a second draft in which the two plots actually make sense together.

Whereas in the book, there is a Big Bad, but it’s better integrated into the story. And, perhaps more importantly, it actually makes sense.

Unfortunately, I just wasn’t feeling the book. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless in the movie tugged my heartstrings in all the right ways. But in the book, the two don’t really seem to have much chemistry together.

It didn’t help that the only human female in the whole book was the main character’s mother. I get it, “boys don’t want to read about girls”, but what do you think teaches them that? Sure, the movie crammed in your normal Stock Strong Female Love Interest #3, but at least she was there. It was a start.

I also had trouble with the narration. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t find the rhythm of the text, and I kept stuttering and stumbling over myself while trying to read it out loud. The writing just didn’t have any poetry in it.

There’s a whole lot of your typical boy media “gross-out” stuff, like references to snot and belching and such. I can imagine those being a hit for some kids, but mine couldn’t care less. I can see how this book might hit a lot of a kid’s interests and become a family favourite, but it just wasn’t working for us. Maybe in a few years…

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A Series of Unfortunate Events #4: The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket

Read: 28 March, 2017

Another instalment in the Beaudelaire saga, and likely the last one that we’ll read for a little while. The goal was to read the first four so that we could watch the Netflix show, and now I think that we need a bit of a breather. Not because there’s anything wrong with the series, but simply because we are fickle creatures who crave variety (and because I accidentally stayed up too late one night and put about a bazillion picture books on hold at the library and they’ve all come in at once).

The Miserable Mill changes things up a little, in that we get to meet a new accomplice. Sort of. Because we don’t get very much of Dr. Orwell. But still, she’s an interesting one. She’s different from Count Olaf – smarter, more cunning. I would have liked to see a bit more of her.

Without getting too much into spoiler territory, there’s a rather horrific scene at the end that rather disturbed me. This book has upped how graphic the death and maiming is.

Gender is an interesting theme in this series. We have the ambiguously gendered henchperson, which comes off feeling a bit transphobic (particularly in The Wide Window), and in this book we get a cross-dressing Count Olaf. And I don’t really know what to make of it.

But then there are gender reversals that feel refreshing, like having Dr. Orwell be a woman (which I wasn’t expecting, based both on my own biases and the name), and having the co-owner of the lumber mill seem queer coded (and not be a villain!).

So, as with most things, I think it’s complicated. Snicket is doing a great job sometimes, and riding his own biases at other times.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events #3: The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket

Read: 13 March, 2017

How fortuitous that we finished this book on the 13th!

I’m not sure if the series is just growing on me or if Snicket is hitting his stride (or, perhaps, a mixture of both), but I really enjoyed this one! It has amazing passages like:

“Stealing, of course, is a crime, and a very impolite thing to do. But like most impolite things, it is excusable under certain circumstances. Stealing is not excusable if, for instance, you are in a museum and you decide that a certain painting would look better in your house, and you simply grab the painting and take it there. But if you were very, very hungry, and you had no way of obtaining money, it might be excusable to grab the painting, take it to your house, and eat it.” (p.136-7)

Even though the stories are a bit formulaic (kids are handed over to a new guardian, Count Olaf appears in disguise, no one believes the kids, guardian dies, Count Olaf traps the kids, the kids unmask Count Olaf, Count Olaf flees), each one is still different enough to feel fresh and interesting.

The stories are dark, but my kid is finding it titillating (possibly hereditary, given my own obsession with Edgar Allen Poe at his age). They’re funny on a kid level as well as an adult level, making them fantastic family read books. And, lastly, they’re wonderful at initiating teachable moments (and handle the teaching themselves quite often, such as when the narrator explains new vocabulary).

Kid and I are both really enjoying the series.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events #2: The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket

Read: 24 February, 2017

A solid follow up to Bad BeginningThe Reptile Room follows the Beaudelaire children to a new home, and to new horrors.

The jokes and tone are very consistent with the first, so people who didn’t enjoy Bad Beginning really shouldn’t bother. As it was, we liked it quite a bit. My kid loves the titillation of the horror (which is only just barely stylistic enough to qualify as “for kids”), while I’m enjoying the dark humour in the narrative style.

I love that the series explicitly uses – and even explains – literary techniques. Just as an example, there’s some dramatic irony in Reptile Room that the narrator actually names and explains. It’s such a wonderful way to introduce my youngling to concepts, not to mention to some bigger vocabulary. Plus, “herpetology” is terribly fun to say.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

Read: 10 February, 2017

With the kid wanting to watch the new Netflix series, it seemed about time to read A Series of Unfortunate Events. I hadn’t read it before (I was a little too old when it came out), so this was new for both of us.

It markets itself as a dark and depressing story, which it is. Mostly by telling us so. The writing style itself is a little too melodramatic to really be taken seriously, but it works well as a “baby’s first gothic” (in the Mysteries of Udolpho sense).

The book has a fairly strong narrator, who will break the fourth wall fairly frequently to comment on the story, or to explain what a word means. Sometimes these explanations are great, as when the definition is tailored to the specifics of the situation in which the word was used. Sometimes, though, it’s more of a straight definition, which is helpful for my five year old, I guess, but sucks the humour right out of it. On the whole, though, I do enjoy visible narrators, and I found that the interjections were usually quite funny.

I like that the children each have a thing to differentiate them – Violet is the inventor, Klaus is the reader, and Sunny likes to bite. But unless the children are actively doing something that fits within their area of interest, they seemed somewhat interchangeable (well, Violet and Klaus, anyway). It’ll be interesting to see if they become stronger as the series wears on.

As for the plot itself, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Readers are amply (and strongly!) warned that this series is all about terrible things happening to children, but I didn’t think it’d jump right into child brides. Still, it was a legal thing to access their fortunes, fine, but I was reading through a cringe for much of the book, silently chanting to myself “please no wedding night jokes, please no wedding night jokes…” Until, of course, one is made. It’s quick, it’s in passing, I’m 100% sure that my kid didn’t pick up on it, but this kiddie book straight up mentioned child rape, and I’m pretty not comfortable with that.

All in all, I didn’t find this book to be spectacular. It was entertaining, funny at times, and I can see the gothic imagery being very memorable for younglings.

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