Posted in Intermediate, Non-Fiction, picture books

Picture Book Nonfiction in May: Spirit Bears and Teddy Bears

A Voice for the Spirit Bears: How One Boy Inspired Millions to Save a Rare Animal, by Carmen Oliver/Illustrated by Katy Dockrill, (May 2019, Kids Can Press/CitizenKid), $18.99, ISBN: 978-1-77138-979-2

Ages 7-10

Simon Jackson doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids as a child; he was bullied over his stutter, and found himself most at home in the woods, exploring, photographing, and learning about wildlife. As a teen, he found himself fascinated by a rare subspecies of black bear called a Spirit Bear and became an advocate and activist for the bears when their habitats were threatened with deforestation. Jackson founded the Spirit Bear Coalition, met Dr. Jane Goodall, and hiked the Great Bear Rainforest, always using his activism to educate others and advocate for the Spirit Bears. A Voice for Spirit Bears tells Jackson’s story, and shows kids that one is never too young to advocate for change. The book is an inspiring call to action for young activists (suggest a letter-writing exercise for a cause they believe in!). I would have liked to see a little more on the indigenous T’simshian people, for whom the Spirit Bear is sacred, but all in all, A Voice for Spirit Bears is a good biography on a young activist, with lovely, muted artwork. There are discussions to be had on overcoming obstacles, environmentalism and conservation, and activism, and would be a good STEM read-aloud. Check out the downloadable educator guide for discussion questions and an activity.

The Spirit Bear Coalition concluded its mission in 2014, after 20 years of advocacy. Their website is still active and offers education and information.


Teddy: The Remarkable Tale of a President, a Cartoonist, a Toymaker and a Bear, by James Sage/Illustrated by Lisk Feng, (May 2019, Kids Can Press), $18.99, ISBN: 9781771387958

Ages 6-10

Teddy brings together the story of the teddy bear in three parts. First, we have the legend: President Theodore Roosevelt refused to kill a “scruffy, no-account cub” while hunting. This story spread, and the Washington Post ran a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman, entitled, “Drawing the Line in Mississippi“, which led to husband-and-wife toymakers Morris and Rose Michtom creating a bear doll to honor “the President’s big warm heart”. They received permission from President Roosevelt to feature “Teddy’s Bears” in their shop, and an iconic toy was born. The book tracks the evolution of the teddy bear from those first bears, stuffed with wood shavings and with sewed on buttons for eyes, through today and notes how the teddy bear endures. It’s a happy, warm story, and the digital illustrations lend a realistic yet warmly colored feel to the tale. An author’s note mentions the differing versions of the Teddy Roosevelt story. It’s a cute book to have in your nonfiction collections, and would make a nice display with the Caldecott Medal-winning Finding Winnie.

For readers interested in learning more about Clifford Berryman’s political cartoons, the National Archives has a wonderful Clifford Berryman collection, which includes a great piece featuring Berryman drawing a bear, while a black bear stands next to him. The Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University has an interesting blog entry on the origin of the teddy bear, and a link to Berryman’s artwork in their digital library.

Posted in Middle School, Non-Fiction, Tween Reads, Women's History, Young Adult/New Adult

House of Dreams looks at a classic author’s life

House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery, by Liz Rosenberg/Illustrated by Julie Morstad, (June 2018, Candlewick Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9780763660574

Recommended for readers 10+

This illustrated biography of Maud Montgomery, the author of the Anne of Green Gables series, is a must-have for middle school and up biography readers. Her mother died when she was a toddler; her father left her in the care of her grandparents, and Maud grew up wanting more: passionate love and affection; education; a career as an author. She dealt with anxiety and depression throughout her life, and married for security rather than love. Drawing on correspondence and her unpublished journals, Liz Rosenberg draws a picture of a woman who led an often difficult life and who struggled against her circumstances to create one of the most memorable literary characters of all time.

It’s not always an easy read. Reading about Maud’s struggle against greedy publishers and her own gold-digging son can be rage-inducing, as is her fight to continue her education against the grandfather who refused to help her. Her callous uncle left Maud and her widowed grandmother to live in horrible conditions, waiting for his own mother to die so he could inherit her home, left to him by his father. But we also read about Maud’s devotion to her Prince Edward Island home, her lifelong love of writing, and her success at being able to sustain an income by writing.

L.M. Montgomery was a complex, conflicted woman and her struggles with mental health and financial independence make her more real, more three-dimensional, to readers who will understand and be inspired.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Night Garden puts a little spark of magic into WWII-era Canada

The Night Garden, by Polly Horvath, (Sept. 2017, Farrar, Straus & Giroux), $16.99, ISBN: 9780374304522

Recommended for readers 9-13

Franny Whitekraft lives with her adoptive parents, Sina and Old Tom, on Vancouver Island while World War II rages overseas. They live a pretty quiet life until their neighbor, Crying Alice, shows up – crying – and asks to leave her three children with them while she goes to stop her mechanic husband, Fixing Bob – stationed at a military base – from doing something dumb. Zebediah, one of the children, knows what it is, but he’s not talking, and he’s not sharing the letters he gets from their father with his brother and sister, Wilfred and Winifred. Things take a sharp turn when Fixing Bob puts his plan into action, and The Night Garden seems to be everyone’s only hope in making things right. Can a garden really grant wishes? Franny and her friends are about to find out.

The Night Garden didn’t really come together for me. There are several plotlines that kind of wander in and out of the book, like Sina’s witnessing a UFO. Narrated in the first person by Franny, there’s humor throughout the novel, but overall, the story took a little too long to get there and meandering plots may keep some readers from fully committing to the book. I enjoyed the sense of humor that kept the book moving, and the characters, on their own, were a fun bunch that I enjoyed my time with. An additional purchase for collections where you have devoted magical realism readers.

Polly Horvath is the Newbery Honor and National Book Award winning-author of Everything on a Waffle. Her author website offers more information about her books, awards, and news.


Posted in Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Two teenagers take to the Canadian trails to work out their problems in Gone Wild

gone-wildGone Wild, by Jodi Lundgren (Sept. 2016, Lorimer), $27.99, ISBN: 9781459409897

Recommended for ages 14 and up

This is another selection from Canadian publisher James Lorimer & Company’s line for reluctant and struggling readers. The publisher’s ability to find and champion interesting, relevant realistic fiction that speaks to teens and the issues facing them these days is huge, and Lorimer has managed to find authors that provide diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, and situations that will speak to teens.

Told in alternating third-person narratives, Gone Wild is the story of two teens who head to a wilderness park on Vancouver Island to work out the problems they each have going on. Seth is a teen who was bullied by his half-brother until he went to foster care; he was adopted, but his parents have split, leaving him open to verbal abuse by his mother and psychological bullying by his mother’s boyfriend. Fed up with it all, he storms out and finds himself on the trail.

Brooke’s a high school with a control freak mother, who never lets her feel like she measures up to Brooke’s older sister. When Brooke thinks she may be pregnant, she grabs her gear – she loves outdoor sports and hiking – and heads for the trail, to clear her head and work things out.

Eventually, the two teens meet and work together to get through the wilderness, to figure out the directions their lives are going, and to find the strength to take control back for themselves.

This was a good, quick read. The characters were well-developed and faced some big topics: life-changing topics. We’re dealing with teenage pregnancy, abuse, and adoption, for starters, so more conservative readers may shy away from this book. For teens who are living with their own struggles, though, the idea of finding a way to clear your head and walk it out may be soothing, a real help. You don’t have to find a hiking trail; urban kids can find a quiet place in a park, or work it out on the basketball court or track, for instance; it’s the idea of finding a constructive way to work through life and the curveballs it throws at us.

Because this is a book aimed at reluctant and struggling readers, the text gets to the point quickly and is matter-of-fact in its discussion. All readers will appreciate the candor that Jodi Lundgren uses to tell her story.

A good addition to realistic fiction collections, especially where grittier subjects find readers.

Posted in Early Reader, Graphic Novels, Intermediate, Non-Fiction, Non-Fiction, Non-Fiction

A touching portrait of a Canadian strongman: The Great Antonio

antonio_1The Great Antonio, by Elise Gravel (Oct. 2016, TOON Books), $12.95, ISBN: 978-1-943145-08-9

Recommended for ages 6-8

Antonio Barichievich was a bear of a man: he weighed as much as a horse, once wrestled a bear, pulled passenger buses full of people, and could eat 25 roast chickens and a dozen donuts in one sitting. He was also a beloved figure: an immigrant from Eastern Europe who loved his adopted country of Canada and its people. He was a wrestler and a strongman; he was a kind and gentle soul who twirled kids around on his gigantic braids, who lived simply, and could often be found in his neighborhood donut shop.

Even if you’re not familiar with The Great Antonio – I wasn’t, before this – this is a sweet tribute to a beloved public figure. The book is accessible to anyone, because it’s a story about a larger-than-life person who did larger-than-life things. Add bright and bold illustration to a story about a man that some people thought of in Paul Bunyan-type terms, even joking that he may have been from another planet – and you have a modern tall tale for a new audience.

A note from the author/illustrator at the end of the book explains her interest in Antonio. She “illustrates a little “About Me”, showing readers things she likes, like fart jokes, grumpy unidentified things, and strong and funny girl characters, which assures that I should probably become BFFs with her, because I like those things too, and my kids and the kids in my library know it. This will make life so much easier when I booktalk this book (and try to find more of her illustrated books in the US).

Check out Elsie Gravel’s website for more of her artwork and books. The Great Antonio‘s page on TOON Books will also have a link to an educator’s guide closer to pub date, so keep it bookmarked. The Great Antonio is a Level 2 TOON Book, so it’s appropriate for readers in grades 1-2 (but you can read it to younger – my 4 year old loved seeing Antonio swing kids from his braids and wrestle a bear). If your kids’ school uses Guided Reading, the book is appropriate for levels G-K, and it’s a Lexile BR-240.

As a biography, it’s pretty niche, at least here in the U.S., but as a story about a person who touched lives and made headlines, it’s a great read.  I love the art and the story, so I’ll see how this one does in my collection, especially with some booktalking/storytimes.





Posted in Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

Crack Coach looks at the cult of personality and addiction

crack coachCrack Coach, by Steven Sandor (Sept. 2015, Lorimer), $14.95, ISBN: 9781459409804

Recommended for ages 12+

Bob Jones is a beloved high school football coach who just won the election for Toronto mayor. He seems to be one of those guys that can do no wrong – but some people would say otherwise. He’s always got an excuse for his bad behavior. When he refuses to meet with the GLBT alliance or address crucial issues facing the city, he claims it’s because his priority is to coach the high school football team. And the kids on his team, particularly Maurice and Vijay, see that the coach not plays favorites and makes some uncomfortably racist remarks while trying to be the “cool old white guy”. He punishes his team by putting them through abusive practices and says it’s for their own good. But when word starts to leak out about the mayor’s public drunkenness, added to suspicious video and pictures surfacing that highlight a possible drug abuse problem, Maurice and Vijay know that they have to mobilize the team and take control back from the coach.

Crack Coach is another hi-lo reader from Lorimer. I’ve become a big fan of this line; the authors are knowledgeable about their subjects (Crack Coach author Steven Sandor is a soccer broadcaster and sportswriter for an online Canadian soccer magazine) and the topics are timely and interesting. They never talk down to their audiences, relying on smart, direct writing and captivating subject matter to draw their readers in.

Crack Coach is a dramatic title, I’ll be the first to agree, but it pulls you in, doesn’t it? I loved the book and enjoyed the characters. They’re teens that other teens can relate to, with real-life issues that affect kids’ lives today. If you think the coach’s story sounds familiar, you’re not wrong – the book was influenced by a true story. Talking to teens about the story behind the story will bring a current events aspect to lessons; bring in some newspaper clippings or access them online to teach teens about primary sources and how writers use them as a tool.

Crack Coach is another great Lorimer book, perfect for reluctant and struggling readers and tweens who are ready for some grittier novels. A good add to libraries and classrooms with a struggling reader population.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Uncategorized, Young Adult/New Adult

Hi-Lo Historical Fiction from Lorimer: Mystery in the Frozen Lands

cover62877-medium Mystery in the Frozen Lands, by Martyn Godfrey (2015, Lorimer) $12.95, ISBN: 9781459408425

Recommended for ages 12-16

It’s 1857, and teenager Peter Griffin joins a sea mission to solve a world-famous mystery: what happened to his uncle, Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. Franklin and his crew of 128 men had sailed from England twelve years earlier in search of the Northwest Passage, a sea route through the Arctic between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Mysteriously, the entire Franklin expedition disappeared without a trace. Subsequent expeditions have yet to recover any of the ship’s crew or discover what happened; Peter signs on to be ship’s boy for the latest expedition, hoping to solve the mystery. Mystery in the Frozen Lands is Peter’s fictional journal.

Based on true events and real people, Peter’s fictional first-person account brings this Arctic adventure to new life. His journal details the long, dark days cooped up on the ship, the ever-present dangers lurking in the forbidding, icy landscape, and the sadness that he and his shipmates experience as they come closer to realizing the Franklin and his crew’s ultimate end. The book includes an introductory background on the 2014 discovery of the wreck of Franklin’s HMS Erebus, a timeline of events, and additional resources for readers.

Lorimer’s Hi-Lo Readers are excellent for readers who are ready for deeper material. The books are over 100 pages, but the storytelling is accomplished with direct sentences that maintain a vivid level of description and information. Give this one to your historical fiction fans and watch them tear through it, then show them this Daily Mail article, which identifies through facial reconstruction, a member of the Erebus crew.

Canadian author Martyn Godfrey died in 2000, but lives on through the annual Martyn Godfrey Young Writer’s Award presented by the Young Alberta Book Society, through the Albert Weekly Newspapers Association.

Posted in Non-Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

A Mr. Big Sting Goes Wrong – A True Crime Hi-Lo Reader from Lorimer

mrbig Real Justice: A Police Mr. Big Sting Goes Wrong – The Story of Kyle Unger, by Richard Brignall (2015, Lorimer), $12.95CAD, ISBN: 9781459408623

Recommended for ages 13+

I’ve got some teens at a few of my libraries whose reading levels aren’t always at age level, but giving these kids a younger level book isn’t always the answer. That’s what the term Hi-Lo is all about: high interest, low reading level. Reaching teens by writing deeper texts with complex themes and ideas, using succinct language and shorter sentences is the heart of Hi-Lo. There are some good hi-lo books out there – Saddleback has a good line of short chapter books available, as does Canadian-based Lorimer (distributed in the U.S. through Orca), whose chapter books are longer in length and seem to handle slightly more complex sentence structures and even deeper content.

Real Justice is a true crime series, with A Police Mr. Big Sting Goes Wrong detailing the true crime story surrounding the murder of 16 year-old Brigitte Grenier at a music festival in Manitoba, Canada. Unger, who was 19 at the time of the murder, was charged with her murder despite Grenier’s involvement with another concertgoer that evening. An entrapment sting operation led to his arrest and conviction for a murder he swore he did not commit until his acquittal thanks to DNA evidence 20 years later.

Brignall states his facts as objectively as possible and pulls no punches – the book gets somewhat graphic here – and offers an in-depth study of the case that true crime and nonfiction fans will appreciate. Further resources in the back offer a timeline and more reading for those interested.