Helen

The Case of the Missing Auntie: A Mighty Muskrats Mystery by Michael Hutchinson
In this mystery, the Mighty Muskrats go to the city to visit relatives and attend the Exhibition Fair. Since they have proven their investigative skills time and again at Windy Lake First Nation, Chickadee decides to try to track down their grandpa’s little sister, while they’re in the city. He hasn’t seen her since she was taken although he often dreams of her.

Some of the Muskrats are hearing about this sister – their Great-Auntie Charlotte – for the first time. As they learn about what happened to her the reader learns about how the sixties scoop and residential schools affected the Mighty Muskrats family. These explanations are extremely well done and even handed, perhaps to a fault. They are not didactic or opinionated. Various adults and kids explain history and facts in small segments, spliced seamlessly into the action of the story. They do say that these separations are/were heart breaking but leave outrage, blame, etc. to the reader.

This is the first time some of the Muskrats have been to the city. The first time they’ve been on buses, to malls, etc. They are conscious of being visible minorities for the first time and crowds make them feel panicky. They also volunteer at a street fair and meet a guy from their favourite rock band. Both things they’d never experience at home on Windy Lake First Nation. Their pursuits of information about their Auntie are equally two sided. At government agencies, they meet resistance, delays, obstacles and rules that seem to be unnecessary. They also encounter kindness and people willing to take personal risks, break rules, protocols and policy in order to help them.

The story ends with a FaceTime call. The author tempers the super emotional, climactic scene with the Mighty Muskrats’ crazy technical challenges. They rig “borrowing” a WiFi signal from a neighbour which results in hilarious antics, people tearing from the backyard to the living room, ducking their neighbour’s windows, etc.

Give this book to kids who love mysteries, and kids doing homework projects, alike.

Juvenile Fiction Paperback pr5289270

Genius Jolene by Sara Cassidy / Illus. by Charlene Chua

Jolene has a positive relationship with both of her parents. They both call her Genius Jolene. In fact, her grades are strong enough that she can travel for a week, each year, with her dad in his eighteen-wheeler truck. Her teachers give her special projects each year. This year, her teacher gives her a camera, asking her to record special moments throughout the week. Upon her return, she’ll share the photos in a presentation for the class. These photos become the illustrations in the book. Jolene climbs into the cab on the first page. She and her dad play a game each year, trying out and rating different foods – cheeseburgers, hashbrowns, milkshakes, etc. This year, they choose onion rings. Part way through the trip, there is a rockslide ahead of them. Jolene’s dad leaps into action, pulling an injured woman to safety as Jolene calls 9-1-1. It’s an action packed story.

As a bonus, this book in the Orca Echoes series also checks a lot of boxes: diverse characters, LGBTQ characters, mixed marriage, and divorce. While travelling, Jolene remembers all the changes in the past year. How Jolene’s parents explain that her dad has realized he has romantic feelings for a man, and not her mom, is really well done. Jolene asks her mom if she's mad. Her mom says no, and that she's actually proud of him. Divorce books Jolene read were full of yelling and crying kids. Jolene remembers that there was none of that. Her mom is very sad, and her dad feels bad, but there was no yelling.

The book ends with two recipes, one for Jolene’s favourite onion rings and one for spruce tip syrup. You can also put spruce tips in a salad! How very Canadian.

Juvenile Fiction Paperback pr5589478

All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney
I have read a few excellent YA novels with Muslim protagonists. These novels have offered many valuable perspectives on both positive and negative aspects in the lives of young Muslims. Like them, this book also deals with the protagonist’s Muslim community and family, secular society, negative stereotypes, hostile strangers, perspectives on dating, school, etc. Like real, live, Muslim people – of course – Muslim protagonists’ attitudes, ideas and beliefs vary. This is, however, the first protagonist who begins the story with very little understanding of actual Islamic teaching.

Allie Abraham’s father was raised Muslim, his first languages were Circassian and Arabic. His mother doesn’t speak English. He wanted his daughter’s childhood to be different from that. He refused to teach her Arabic, they don’t pray daily – or ever, really - they celebrate Christmas but don’t fast at Ramadan, etc. Allie’s mother is blonde and American, and, although she converted, she and Allie – red-haired – aren’t recognized as Muslim, unless they tell people, which Allie never has. Her family moved around a lot while her dad sought tenure through various short term positions. Now, that he has a stable career, Allie's family has settled for the first time. Mirroring this development, Allie is establishing roots in a new way, too. Throughout the course of the book Allie buys her first Quran, her first hijab , makes her first Muslim friends, etc. With them, she studies her Quran, is excited to learn Arabic, and looks forward to a new connection with her grandmother. She asks her friends, “what do we believe?”, because, even though her knowledge of Islamic history is extensive, she has never known what certain Islamic beliefs actually are. As Allie learns, the reader learns. Studying her Quran and praying, offer Allie a new peace and solace. She learns why Muslims fast at Ramadan and then - for the first time - she fasts, too.

Where other books with Muslim protagonists have been more plot driven and focused on exterior challenges, while the faith of the character remains fairly constant, this book focuses on Allie’s spiritual life and how her faith grows, enriching her life and relationships. Although much more is going on, I felt this aspect of the book to be brilliant and extraordinary.

Check out Nadine Jolie Courtney's interview with Kirkus Reviews!

Young Adult Fiction Hardcover pr2777857

Itty Bitty Princess Kitty: The Newest Princess by Melody Mews / Illus. by Ellen Stubbings
A colleague recently commented that his daughter loves a popular series for fledgling readers; said series shall remain unnamed to protect the guilty. He and his daughter read the books together, which is lovely. Lovely, except that the plot of every book is exactly the same, which he finds tedious. Enter Itty Bitty Princess Kitty!

In this first book – also targeting fledgling readers – Itty Bitty Kitty learns that she will become a princess. Suddenly, she is entitled to tutors, new dresses, hairdressers and a renovation of her room. These things make her feel sad and uncertain. She wants to keep going to school with her friends; she likes dresses she can run and play in; she likes her hair plain – the way it is, and so on. She feels guilty, and worries she’s letting everyone down. Her parents realize something is bothering her, so they sit her down. Once she tells them how she feels, all is resolved.

Although most little girls aren’t likely to become princesses, they will have to face change, and this book will help them with that. Itty Bitty Princess Kitty (which is just so much fun to say!) is a sweet little character, with a positive relationship with her parents. Supporting characters, her friends, an “announcement fairy”, etc. all have some level of character development, which kids and parents will find fun and funny.

Full disclosure - I am a cat person (in case you didn't know already). Dog people might not find this series so much fun. I particularly loved the scene in the climbing room: Itty Bitty Princess Kitty finds her parents climbing and leaping around in a room covered floor to ceiling with impressive climbing structures. When I was little, I would have loved to imagine such a place. Little girls will also enjoy Itty Bitty Princess Kitty’s adventures. Beyond this, I think the Itty Bitty Princess Kitty series – there are four books scheduled so far - promises adventures dads and daughters can enjoy together, while also opening opportunities for important, positive conversations.

Juvenile Fiction
Hardcover pr5240326
Paperback pr5238664

Grumpy Unicorn by Joey Spiotto
Grumpy Unicorn consists of a frowning unicorn doing various things with virtually the same expression on his face in the entire book. It is an extremely simple concept and remarkably funny. There are one-hundred and eleven pages with four parts listed in an illustrated table of contents. Each page is illustrated with a maximum of 7 words per page but most are wordless. There are almost no other characters.
I offer this much detail to give credence to my assertion that this is a perfect book for kids to transition from picture books to early readers. That is, I believe adults should read this book with kids; but, children will really, really want to learn to read it themselves. There are words like topiary, unicycle, and Piñata but most sentences are two words with a maximum of seven.

Reading a book of this length will give little readers immense confidence. 

Juvenile Fiction Paperback pr4672243

Pickles vs. the Zombies by Angela Misri
I admit this awesome title was irresistible to me, which is almost as bad as judging a book by its cover. However, things only improve – if you can imagine - from the title. Pickles the house cat notices her pet (AKA human), 2 year old Connor, is late getting home from daycare. So are Connor’s parents. Also, normal looking pets are being attacked and eaten by shambling looking pets...
An outside cat, Ginger, has learned that all the non-shambling pets have congregated at the hospital. And so Pickles decides to undertake a quest – outside – to the hospital, to save her pet. Eventually, this quest leads further afield, with many cats, a bossy hamster, a raccoon, horses and an owl, all uniting to confront rats, chipmunks, a religious cult of cats, and, of course, the zombie apocalypse. There are some truly hilarious scenes - Pickles as calmly as possible instructing horses how to kick off zombie heads, in the heat of an attack; hostage negotiations with chipmunks; the hamster ferociously fighting zombies, at every turn, etc. The zombie action is fairly tame as none of the good-guys die or become zombies. Also Pickles falls in love with a female cat, which is a small but lovely detail. This relationship and all of the characters are well developed. This book is all one might hope it would be – from the title – and much, much more.

Recommend it to everyone… except dog people. 

Juvenile Fiction Paperback pr2769332

Born by John Sobel / Illus. by Cindy Derby
When parents tell their child a new baby will be joining their family it’s an opportunity to expand the child’s understanding. Beyond the question, “Where do babies come from?” a more engaging, challenging question is, “What’s it like to be born?”
This book provides some perspective. The images and text lean toward emotional empathy rather than physiological precision but there are heart beats and voices, kicking small feet in an enclosed, safe world.  This safe world quickly transitions into the experience of opening eyes for the first time, fuzzy sight, welcoming arms. Helping children relate to what it’s like to be born, will help them to relate to their new brother or sister. This simple idea is executed extremely well in both its ethereal, peaceful images and soothing, comforting narrative. In my experience, this picture book is one of a kind.  

Picture Book Hardcover pr5384194

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane by Julia Nobel
This 2020 Silver Birch Award nominee is a debut novel. You may have already read a few of the other nominees from more famous Canadian authors. I urge you to give this book a try. Our protagonist Emmy has a mother who writes parenting books. She has a new reality TV show where she will be a live-in instructor for families experiencing challenges. With her mother thus engaged, Emmy is sent to a prominent – competitive - boarding school in the U.K. Weeks before leaving, Emmy receives a mysterious letter that leads her to a hidden box. It belonged to her father, even though her mother destroyed all of his possessions when he abandoned them a decade before. Reeling, Emmy heads off to school where she has little in common with her entitled class mates, finds the school work extremely challenging, and misses her mom. Emmy makes fast friends with extremely nuanced and interesting characters. There are challenging puzzles and mysteries, secret doorways and malevolent societies, unsettling accidents, criminal happenings and sneaking around ancient, spooky buildings.
There is nothing supernatural in this first book, but kids who enjoyed Harry Potter will love this story and, I imagine, the rest of the series. I – for one – look forward to book two, which will be featured in our Spring Bestseller List.

Juvenile Fiction Hardcover pr2697805

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