Helen

Julia Defiant by Catherine Egan

Reading Wuthering Heights was the first time I understood that characters – and, by extension, people – usually believe themselves to be justified and on the “right” side. Also, in the real world and, in excellent novels, most people or characters are neither all good, nor all evil, but make good or evil choices. The theme of choices is often explored effectively in young adult literature, but Julia Defiant - book two in the Witch’s Child series by Canadian, Catherine Egan - explores themes and ideas of good and evil in exceptionally interesting and nuanced ways. This is seen particularly in the heart of the protagonist, Julia, and the fate of the toddler, Theo.

Discussing Julia’s struggles would require detailed world building and plot description, so let’s discuss what happens with Theo. A dark, ancient, powerful magic has been bound to Theo’s life. While Theo lives, the power can’t be taken; but, killing him will release it to his murderer. Julia and Theo’s mother Bianka are unequivocally devoted to keeping Theo safe, while seeking to separate him from this dark magic – and destroy it. This may seem reasonable, but the power in Theo is unstable. Take for instance when a monster that he drew with a stick in the dirt, leapt to life. Theo may have been delighted, but what will his protectors do if he tries to draw a monster with his finger? Theo himself endangers those around him, and, if someone kills Theo and gains the magic - instead of destroying it - the safety of their whole society will be endangered.

This theme is an extension of the greater good theory - when a general advantage can only be gained by harming or losing something (or someone) considered less important. It is usually considered morally just to put oneself at risk for the sake of the whole. It becomes murky when one considers risking or harming someone else, for the sake of society. Equally, is it just to risk society (or more than one person) for the sake of one individual? Although these ideas seem abstract, they are being discussed around the algorithms of self-driving vehicles, for example, as well as in the world’s political policy.

Julia Defiant explores these themes and ideas with intelligence and clarity, making it an outstanding fantasy, together with its intriguing, fast paced plot, and a cast of eclectic, unpredictable, well-drawn and complex characters. It is one of my favourite books written in 2017. As I said in the LBI KIDs Spring 2018 Bestseller List letter, I look forward to reading book three this season - Julia Unbound (pr2026410).

CANADIAN YOUNG ADULT FICTION

Hardcover LBN pr1243694

That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston

Canadian E.K. Johnston’s book Exit, Pursued by a Bear (pr1132712) had a huge impact on me. Apart from many aspects of the book to recommend it, her characterization is outstanding (As a lowly band nerd in high school, anyone who can make me love a popular, cheerleader is a VERY talented writer). That book made me interested in all her work, moving forward and That Inevitable Victorian Thing did not disappoint. It is impressive for many reasons. There is an intersex and LGBTQ character, as well as Indigenous heritage, among the main three protagonists. I also admire Canadians who use Canadian settings, as it almost certainly limits sales in U.S. markets. It’s a sacrifice that supports Canadian teen readers seeing their homes and neighbourhoods in fiction – in this case, mostly Toronto, and Muskoka. Our protagonist – soon to be queen – debuts in Toronto, disguised as someone else. The fact that it’s speculative fiction makes it extremely hard to describe the setting or plot succinctly in any more detail, than that. However, like Johnston’s previous book, the characters are so well drawn that their world, concerns and dreams are compelling and convincing. Central to the book is something I haven’t read dealt with in many books. It actually talks about bisexual characters LIVING as bisexuals. How the logistics of being in love with two romantic partners will work, not just the initial, romance. I’m hopeful we’ll see these characters again.

Recommend this book to anyone who loves the TV series The Crown, YA series like The Selection, and above all, strong, female protagonists, not afraid to bash intruders with cast iron fry pans.

YOUNG ADULT FICTION

Hardcover LBN pr1271037

Ten Cents a Pound by Nhung N. Tran-Davies

In this book a little girl worries about her mother’s hands - scratched and course from picking coffee beans. Her mother replies that she does this work so that the little girl’s hands can hold books instead. The little girl worries about her mother’s sore back, calloused feet, and failing eye sight. In alternating replies the mother dreams about a back pack of school supplies, shoes to walk to a school beyond their village, reading and writing about places far beyond that. All that accomplished pound by pound, ten cents at a time. Eventually the little girl relents that she will leave her mother, but someday she’ll return. With a page count of only 22, and text on alternating pages, every word is precise, each image well crafted. The little girl and her mother speak in first person, which engages the reader very effectively. The earthy browns and greens of their village contrast with colourful and sometimes metamorphic images that burst from the little girl’s books and imagined scenes from her future - butterflies, birds, flowers, a big, white school, etc. The author came to Canada as a refugee, and this book has obvious uses around diversity, helping refugees see themselves in books and helping other Canadian children to understand refugees and migrants. In that context it’s nice that the mother’s love and overcoming illiteracy and poverty, is the catalyst for change, not horrors like war, famine, racial intolerance or catastrophic natural disasters, as is so often sadly the case with refugees and migrants today. Also, Canadian children living in poverty may see themselves in this book, and their mothers’ sacrifices. More widely, the mother’s love and sacrifices make this a fantastic choice for Mother’s Day collections, displays or programming. I just reread this picture book for the fourth or fifth time and it made me cry… again. I don’t mean it brought a tear to my eye. I mean it made me sob, so that I had to blow my nose and wipe my eyes, and recover. This beautiful, moving book will win much acclaim for its poignant message, and gorgeous presentation. I recommend it to your library. Once you read it, perhaps you’ll want a personal copy to give on Mother’s Day. As always, Bravo, Second Story Press!

PICTURE BOOK

Hardcover LBN pr1300365

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