The Secret of Grim Hill by Linda DeMeulemeester
Lobster Press, 2007

Cat and her younger sister, Sookie, have just moved to a new town with their mother, and Cat is not enjoying Darkmont High at all. Soccer-playing Cat soon finds out about soccer scholarships to the nearby private Grimoire school that are earned by the winning team of a Halloween match. Despite continually hearing from Sookie and their neighbour, Jasper, that something just isn't right about Grimoire, Cat goes ahead with her daily team practices until the bizarre events of an early Halloween party change her priorities.

I was spurred to read The Secret of Grim Hill by a new student who wondered if the library had the sequels because he enjoyed this book so much. He reads a lot and very quickly, so I thought if he liked it then it must be pretty good. Happily, it is.

Cat is a realistic tween protagonist: she is easily annoyed by her younger sister, very aware of her school's social hierarchy and endeavours to climb it, fulfills her household responsibilities despite wishing she didn't have to, and is quintessentially likable. When push comes to shove, Cat's priorities are in order (soccer and family at the top with homework dead last). Sookie is as much or even more compelling as a precocious, Monopoly-loving little girl who is generally as seemingly as annoyed with Cat as Cat is with her.

The atmosphere of Grim Hill is generally light with escalating indications to the reader that something dark is afoot. DeMeulemeester's incorporation and explanations of Celtic mythology and traditions are seamlessly done, and the tension builds to a peak that is exhilarating and urgent but not full-on scary. I look forward to reading one or more of the sequels (loaned from another school library for the student mentioned earlier) to see if the Celtic theme is maintained or if other mythologies are incorporated into the series.

Overall, a solid beginning to a middle-grade fantasy series.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox, illustrated by Julie Vivas
Kane Miller, 1984

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge is four years old and lives next door to an "old people's home," where he has numerous friends. He overhears that his best friend Miss Nancy lost her memory, but Wilfrid doesn't know what memory is. When he asks all his friends at the home about it, he gets a variety of answers that he interprets in his own way to help Miss Nancy.

What a truly lovely book. It contains what I consider to be the essential components of a wonderful picture book: a deceptively simple story, concisely told and relatable, with gorgeous illustrations. Mem Fox and Julie Vivas certainly deliver that here, and the collaboration is such that the sum of the writing and illustrations is greater than the two parts. Every word is absolutely necessary, and each illustration is luminous and expressive.

In my experience, there are not many picture books that address intergenerational friendships. In fact, this is the only one I've come across in which the relationships depicted are purely friendships and the child is not related to any of the elderly characters. It is refreshing and wonderful and I hope there are more like it that I simply haven't found yet.

You and me together: Moms, Dads, and kids around the world by Barbara Kerley
National Geographic Society, 2005

With spare, rhythmic text and gorgeous photographs from all around the world, You and me together looks at the common experiences shared by parents and children regardless of culture, language, nationality, or religion.

This is an absolutely gorgeous book. The photos all have a parent with one or more children partaking in activities described by the text, from playing with a ball to riding ponies to just having a chat. Each photo in the book (including the cover image) has a brief caption at the back explaining where the photograph was taken and something interesting about the subjects or event depicted in the image. Although North America is the continent depicted most often in the book, the images cover all continents (except Antarctica). Although one spread in particular that shows a young Karen girl gazing at her guitar-playing mother with an expression of absolute adoration just about undoes me, You and me together is chock full of lovely everyday moments between children and their parents.

Most of the children depicted in the images  fall within the 4- to 8-year-old  age group, which is likely the target child audience. An outstanding book to demonstrate for young children the similarities and differences between cultures.

Chalk by Bill Thomson
Marshall Cavendish, 2010

On a rainy day, three children go to the park to play. When they find a bag full of sidewalk chalk and start drawing on the asphalt, they discover that whatever they draw becomes real. A sun dissipates the rain, a swarm of butterflies flies all around, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex fast becomes more terrifying than anticipated.

Wordless books are some of my favourite picture books, and Chalk is no exception. Without words, illustrations become paramount and Bill Thomson makes his acrylic and colored pencil drawings look almost like photographs: the reflections are bright and the different textures (skin, plastic, fabric) are realistic. The children's facial expressions when they discover the power of the chalk are wonderful, with one girl appearing almost crazily delighted and the boy looking very mischievous (guess who draws the carnivorous dinosaur?). I particularly loved the spread where monarch butterflies were magically taking flight from the asphalt.

Thomson uses perspective to his great advantage as well, by showing one of the frightened children fleeing up a playground ladder from below to accentuate her wide-eyed, wide-mouthed terror at being chased by a T. Rex. The perspectives he used created tension themselves, such as when the reader is in the covered slide with two of the children looking out at the dinosaur's menacing teeth, and the scene involving the demise of the T. Rex is masterfully done.

I hope Bill Thomson makes more like Chalk, as it's remarkable.

Lessons from a dead girl by Jo Knowles
Candlewick, 2007

Beautiful, popular Leah takes awkward Laine under her wing when they are in fifth grade and declares them to be friends forever. Laine is confused by the attention but happily goes along with it.  Laine even goes along with Leah's insistence that they secretly "practice" for marriage together, although Laine becomes increasingly confused by what it means about her relationship with Leah. While the girls grow apart as they enter high school, Leah maintains a powerful hold over Laine until a public confrontation results in tragedy.

Knowles tackles the topic of sexual abuse between children head-on, and she does it with a remarkably delicate touch while pulling no punches. Laine's confusion and desperation to keep Leah happy, as well as the tension between Laine and Leah in the years after their "practice" ends, are well-rendered. Although there are certainly scenes that are uncomfortable as a reader, nothing is graphically presented and the narrative focuses primarily on the emotions of the characters, especially Laine as the novel is from her point of view.

Leah and Laine are three-dimensional characters with specific and evident motivations, and their respective evolutions as they grow into teenagers are unsurprising but nonetheless poignant. Although I know very little about this topic, it would appear that the author did a good deal of research to create such believable characters, and this novel was an emotional and educational introduction to the subject and will not soon be forgotten.

Amelia Earhart: this broad ocean, written by Sarah Stewart Taylor and James Sturm, illustrated by Ben Towle
Hyperion Books, 2010

Amelia Earhart departed on her historic 1928 voyage across the Atlantic from the small Newfoundland port town of Trepassey. After several days of false starts due to weather and other complications, Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. This graphic novel tells Earhart's story - and her influence - through the eyes of Grace, a curious young girl of Trepassey.

The framing of this story works very well: Grace is intent on being a reporter (even among the real newspaper reporters sent to Trepassey from around North America) which reflects Amelia Earhart's determination to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, and I found myself wanting to see them both succeed. In fact, I was hoping that Grace and Earhart shared a second characteristic and that they were both real historical figures. Alas, there is no indication in the supporting information that Grace was a real person.

This broad ocean has a distinctive visual style with the use of only black, white, and a light turquoise colour in the illustrations. The drawings are simple in both their lack of colours and the lines used, but movement is well indicated. I am not sure if it was intentional, but Grace and Earhart bear a  striking physical resemblance to one another with freckles and short, fly-away hair (truly, they have the same haircut except that Grace's is a touch longer), which undoubtedly contributed to my impression that Grace is the reflection of a young Earhart.

Despite some fictionalization in this graphic novel, there is quite a bit of supplementary information to the main text of the book for those who are curious to know more. Over four pages of discussion about individual illustrated panels found in the book are at the back, as well as a bibliography and selected reading list. The introduction by Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, is a personal testament to Earhart's impact in her own life and achievements.

Ultimately, this is a great introduction to Amelia Earhart's life and influence in a format that is popular with young students.