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Patrick in "A teddy bear's picnic" and other stories by Geoffrey Hayes
Toon Books, 2010

Throughout the course this collection of short stories in graphic novel format, adorable young teddy bear Patrick goes on a picnic with his mother, encounters Big Bear the bully, and struggles with nap time.

First of all, the art is lovely. Hayes fills the pages with soft, colourful illustrations that are full of small details that make the most of the forest setting. The characters' expressions - especially those of Patrick and his mother - are a delight and provide a lot of the humour in the stories.

Hayes also uses a wide variety of graphic novel layouts, from full-page panels to a two-page spread containing 15 panels. While the book's language is at  Level 2 (emerging reader), the complexity of the panel layouts is used wisely and in intuitive ways that guide and instruct the reader. Additionally, the helpful "tips for parents and teachers: how to read comics with kids" page at the back offers insights and suggestions for reading graphic novels with children.

The stories themselves are snapshots of Patrick's life. While the picnic is a special occasion, the activities Patrick partakes in - puddle-splashing, playing with a toy boat, blowing up balloons - are ones that children are familiar with. There is certainly a wholesomeness and whimsy on display here as there are no signs of electronics, but the addition of Big Bear the bully (who Patrick deals with in a healthy manner) keeps it from being too saccharine.

This may sound foolish, but the one thing that distracted me throughout the entirety of the book was Patrick's shirt: it can't be a turtleneck because the sides aren't high on the sides of his neck but the front is up past his chin. Does he have his shirt on backwards? I have no idea. All I know is I had to look twice at some panels to see which way was his front because it honestly looked like his head was turned all the way around. After doing a bit of research, it appears that Patrick has always had a purple shirt that's a bit odd around the neck in all of Hayes' Patrick books, even those from the 1980s. Nonetheless, I found it bizarrely distracting, for nothing if not the perceived discomfort of such attire.

Minor wardrobe issue aside, Patrick in A teddy bear's picnic and other stories is an engaging and timeless introduction to the graphic novel genre for blossoming readers.

**Review copy provided by publisher.

 
 
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Stolen by Lucy Christopher
The Chicken House, 2010

On a trip to Vietnam with her parents, 16-year-old Gemma meets an attractive and vaguely familiar guy in a Bangkok airport cafe. What she thinks is an innocent flirtation quickly turns into a drug-induced blur that ends when she wakes up on a bed in a small room a few days later. It turns out that she's been taken to a remote part of the vast Australian desert and her captor, Ty, intends to keep her there with him forever.

Stolen is written as a letter from Gemma to Ty as she looks back on the beginning and development of their relationship, so as a reader I spent time in Gemma's head as the kidnapping and subsequent events occur but with the buffer of a reflective distance. This distance has an ebb and flow to it and while some events are told almost like a narrative, others are very immediate. To Lucy Christopher's credit, I didn't notice this flux as I was reading and was simply drawn deeply into the story.

What I find remarkable about Stolen is how the author managed to keep tensions high even when not much is happening. True, Gemma makes some dramatic escape attempts, but for the most part she is watching Ty's movements and slowly absorbing the situation she finds herself in. I found myself turning pages quickly to find out what happens next, and small things (like feeding the chickens) took on a lot of significance as a result.

Gemma's emotional journey throughout the book is wonderfully depicted. Her thoughts and feelings are on display and her actions reflect those internal struggles. Her relationship with Ty develops and his motivations and history are slowly revealed, and he is not in any way a cookie-cutter character. Both Gemma and Ty have a lot of dimension and complexity, and the stark and brutal Australian desert setting is a character in its own right.

My one criticism is that the end felt weak to me and almost like a cop-out (I won't spoil it for you though). I discussed this with a friend of mine who had recommended Stolen to me, and she made the considered point that it was the only possible conclusion. I beg to differ, however, and I feel like the book could have ended far more ambiguously. I will say that Gemma's emotional reactions at the end of the book were consistent and realistic, which I greatly appreciated.

While I've read a few books about teen kidnappings, this one has twists and complexities that I had not yet encountered.

 
 
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The adventures of Sir Gawain the True (The Knights' Tales, book 3) by Gerald Morris, illustrations by Aaron Renier
Houghton Mifflin, 2011

As a member of King Arthur's court, Sir Gawain is expected to be courteous and honourable. Unfortunately, despite his faultless record in tournaments, Sir Gawain has not quite been living up to expectations. When the mysterious Green Knight shows up at court during Christmas celebrations, Sir Gawain finds himself avowed to him and must keep his word despite the fact that it appears to mean certain death.

This is the third book in Gerald Morris' The knights' tales series, although it is the first one that I have had the pleasure to read. Based on the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The adventures of Sir Gawain the True makes the tale easily understandable to young students, which is not a characteristic of the original if I recall my university English courses correctly. The core of the classic story is kept - the Green Knight's challenge, the woman with her sash, the magic - and the addition of modern humor and charming illustrations certainly accentuate its entertainment value.

I got a kick out of King Arthur as portrayed by Morris: he is determined to have his knights behave honourably and is very patient with them, but is occasionally exasperated. His reactions to his knights' lack of courtesy were often humourous, and his acknowledgments of improvement act as subtle cues to the reader that appropriate behaviour was displayed. After all, adventure aside, many Arthurian tales have morals and lessons within them and this version is no different. However, I didn't feel bonked over the head with a moral, and certainly Sir Gawain wasn't perfect from the beginning but manifested thoughtful and gradual change throughout the story.

The tale itself is a lot of fun, with dwarves, reclusive lords, and jousting all coming into play. Morris' descriptions of period vocabulary, such as damsel and vow, are provided in the text in such a way that they provide information, history, and humour without really bringing the reader out of the story. As a fan of both language and history, I certainly appreciated his incorporation of both into the narrative.

I am hesitant to discuss Aaron Renier's illustrations very much because I read an electronic galley on a Kindle and some of the drawings were split into two, which certainly detracted from my enjoyment of them. However, I did like what I saw despite the fact that Renier drew the knights and King Arthur as older than I envisioned them in my head, which took me aback a bit. That is my only critique (which should be taken with a grain of salt as ages and appearances were never discussed in the text) as the style and content of the illustrations were delightful.

Morris managed to pack a legendary tale into a little over 100 pages which in itself takes great skill, to say nothing of the humour and charm of the text and illustrations. Although I've not read the previous two installments of this series, I will be seeking them out and looking forward to get my hands on them as well as any future books in The knights' tales series.

**Electronic galley provided by publisher via netGalley.

 
 
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Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Vintage Canada, 2010 (c2005)

Kathy H. grew up at Hailsham, a rural English boarding school with a twist: the students are all clones destined to be organ and tissue donors, except they don't know it yet. Kathy tells her story, as well as those of her schooltime friends Ruth and Tommy, as an adult looking back at their time at Hailsham and their lives afterward.

Just below the title on the softcover copy of this book that I borrowed from a friend, a quote from TIME announces, "the best novel of the decade." I thought I was in for a treat and I was, but best novel of the decade? That's a bit much.

I believe it was the structure of Kathy's storytelling that irked me most. She would dangle an event in front of the reader like a carrot so that the event reached almost mythic proportions. Except, when it came time for her to tell what actually happened, it didn't seem such a big deal or even terribly out-of-character for whoever was involved. Especially in Part One, it seemed as if every chapter ended with a version of, "...I found out though over the next several days" (p. 48). Sometimes it wasn't addressed until many pages later (the story flips back and forth in time quite a bit), and even when it was discussed immediately the event in question was rarely a monumental occurrence. Perhaps the relationships between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy - with all their subtleties - are what make people rave about this novel, but frankly this narrative structure annoyed me since I kept waiting for things to happen that were worthy of repeated build-up. For me, it got to the point of being an irritating gimmick.

Hands down, I found Tommy to be the most interesting and genuine character. His struggles as an adolescent and the future ramifications of those struggles were interesting to watch, and it is where I appreciated the subtleties in storytelling the most. Kathy struck me as being quite milquetoast: she put up with a lot of crap from Ruth over the years, was often afraid to ruffle any feathers despite her better judgment, and generally felt guilty when she did make waves of any sort. She was more expressive as she got older, but she was still careful. Ruth's manipulation of most of those around her for her own benefit grew tiresome, although she eventually redeems herself and realizes her folly when it's almost too late.

Perhaps due to the particular doom inevitable for the main characters, relationships they engaged in always had a certain distance to them. Kathy certainly never had what I would call a passionate relationship - friend or lover - and the relationships she describes between other characters also appeared to be reserved. I don't recall any mention of Kathy's childhood prior to Hailsham, and as a scientifically created child the existence of parental figures is highly unlikely, so the somewhat distant guardians at Hailsham were really the only adult influences in the lives of the students and even they were spooked and sometimes repulsed by their wards. The emotions one would expect from young adults were evident, but muffled in a way, which made it difficult for me to connect to the characters, emotionally demonstrative Tommy being the notable exception.

I certainly appreciate the mystery and the darkness of Never let me go. The relationships' ebbs and flows over time were poignant and realistic and its underlying question of what it means to be truly human is thoughtfully presented and never glaring. Despite my qualms with the storytelling methods (and the hyperbolic statement on the cover), Ishiguro presents a haunting visualization of the future of Western culture that provides much to contemplate.

 
 
Although I'm not quite this intense about it, I definitely appreciate the sentiment!
 
 
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Hereville: how Mirka got her sword by Barry Deutsch
Amulet Books, 2010

Mirka wants to be a dragonslayer, but that profession doesn't exactly jive with her Orthodox Jewish upbringing. One day on her way to school, Mirka comes across a spectacular building with a woman floating in the front yard. When she tells her sisters and brother, they don't believe her so she finds the building again and picks a giant grape. Although the grape doesn't bite her, the giant pig who now follows her around might! How can she possibly get rid of it?

This graphic novel is a whole lot of fun, and I really appreciated how her religion and lifestyle played a large yet not oppressive role. Mirka's Yiddish sayings are defined at the bottom of the page, her family's beliefs are shown and explained clearly, and the conflict between her dream to be a dragonslayer and her family's beliefs was made evident. In fact, the tagline on the cover of the book really captures the sentiment throughout: "Yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl." What's not to love about that?

The drawings themselves are line drawings with black ink, greys, and apart from the night-time scenes in grey-blues, the only colours are beige and an orange shade. I enjoyed Deutsch's style, which is fairly simple but with lots of expression and movement. There is a wide variety of panel layouts throughout, but they would be easy to follow and understand for even those who are new to graphic novels. I particularly adored how he drew the troll, and appreciated the back matter in which Deutsch showed how many iterations of the troll he went through before deciding on the final design.

Hereville should hold great appeal for upper elementary or middle grade students who like fantasy, or fans of graphic novels with strong female protagonists like Rapunzel's Revenge.

 
 
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Little Panda by Renata Liwska
Houghton Mifflin, 2008

One day, a little panda is talking to his grandfather when his grandfather tells him the story of a small panda who encounters a tiger one day while he is napping in his favourite tree.

This is a cute little story, and the illustrations reflect that cuteness with the animals round and softly drawn. Even the tiger - the villain of the piece - is adorable, which made me wonder if the tiger was even supposed to be full grown. Ultimately it doesn't matter but I thought the tiger might be even a bit scary rather than cute. That said, this is a book for the very young so perhaps a scary tiger wouldn't have been the wisest decision.

A sweet story with a couple of humourous twists at the end.

 
 
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A long way gone: memoirs of a boy soldier by Ishmael Beah
Douglas & McIntyre, 2007

Ishmael Beah was 12 when a rebel army invaded his village in Sierra Leone. He spent many months running and trying to stay ahead of the rebels who were ruthlessly destroying and killing everything in their path. Since many of the rebel soldiers were young boys, Ishmael and his companions were met with fear almost everywhere they went, and as a result had to survive on their own for months on end.

Less than a year after leaving his village on the run, Ishmael was picked up by the government army and pressed into service. Learning to eat an entire meal in under a minute was perhaps the least violent skill he learned at the camp, and fighting battles and invading villages under the influence of drugs soon became a way of life. A long way gone is a terrible, moving, and ultimately heartwarming tale of one boy's life as a child running from the rebels and fighting them in battle and, later, being rehabilitated.

A long way gone opens masterfully, with a brief anecdote about Ishmael Beah's U.S. high school classmates thinking it was cool how he had seen "people running around with guns and shooting each other." I've heard a similar sentiment expressed many times in the libraries I work in, especially from boys who are the same age as Beah was when he was running and fighting for his life. It is a testament to Beah that he could smile at his classmates' ignorance.

In fact, the whole book is a testament to Beah, although he does not glorify himself nor try to make himself appear any different from other boy soldiers: as a squad leader in the army, he commanded other boys and performed horrific acts himself and was certainly an active participant. He seems to attribute his rehabilitation as much to luck as anything else, and describes his painful recovery in frank terms. He objectively describes his fear, frustration, annoyance, anger, and joy throughout.

While the book is not gratuitously violent, there are definitely some graphic descriptions of village invasions, battles, and merciless revenge. It is my view that it is as tastefully done as was possible and I was always aware that for every horror described in the book, Beah likely experienced hundreds more.

Yes, this is a bleak book, but it is also a tale of the possibility of recovery for children who have lived through horrors that many of us cannot even imagine.

 
 
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The Middle Passage: White Ships | Black Cargoby Tom Feelings
Dial Books, 1995

Twenty years in the making, The Middle Passage wordlessly depicts the horrifying journey across the Atlantic that millions of African captives were forced to take during the slave trade.

I was first introduced to The Middle Passage during a young adult literature class I took during the course of my MLIS, and it hasn't left my mind since. Not an easy book to procure, I luckily found a copy on a used book website and purchased it for the high school library I manage, and I view it as a highly prized part of the collection.

The Middle Passage is not an easy book to experience. I say 'experience' because while wordless, it is immensely powerful and often difficult to view. In fact, the horror that Feelings portrays throughout dozens of black and white paintings cannot possibly be put into words. Scenes of violence, abuse, rape, murder, and death abound, yet while Feelings' artistry reveals enough to make clear what is happening in the paintings, the images are not graphic in the sense that some violence in films and books are graphic. What is shown is enough to clearly indicate what is happening and the blanks are easily, uncomfortably, filled in.

There is a lot to absorb in The Middle Passage. The white men who abduct the African captives are so pale as to be ghostly. Scenes of the ship's hold, with hundreds of shackled men, women, and children crammed into tiny spaces where many fall ill and perish, are unimaginable. The spirit of the slaves emerges strongly, with rage and mutinous intentions made clear.

It is difficult to adequately describe The Middle Passage. It is a book that proves that not only is a picture worth a thousand words, but worth more than words can say.

 
 
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Red sings from treetops: a year in colors by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
Houghton Mifflin, 2009

As a rule, I am not a lover of poetry. The only book of poetry I remember enjoying as a child is Shel Silverstein's Where the sidewalk ends due to its wit, creativity, and occasional weirdness, which fails to explain why I attempted to slog through Sir Walter Scott's epic The Lady of the Lake a few years later. In between, my grade 9 English teacher's apparent obsession with The cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service drove me batty - there is something about the rhythm and rhyme that I didn't like - and I haven't read that blasted poem since. The thing is, if there were poetry books like Red sings from treetops when I was young, I would probably not be so averse to the genre.

Sidman essentially weaves a tale of the colours of the seasons in a narrative told in verse. There is a sequential nature to the poems as later poems tie back to earlier ones: poems about white all describe it as a sound, and poems about green follow its prevalence throughout the seasons. This flow of the poems ties in nicely with the flow of the seasons and as a group as well as individually, the poems are lovely. There is no set rhyming scheme, length, or rhythm, so the poems vary but none are more than 10-12 lines.

Zagarenski's illustrations are stunning. They are a combination of mixed media paintings on wood and computer illustration, and are magical. All the people and animals who make their way through the seasons wear crowns, even the snowman. I find it difficult to describe Zagarenski's style here, as she combines patterns and textures and pasted newsprint in a way I have never seen before. It certainly lends an air of fantasy to the poems, and I am curious if she uses the same techniques in other books.

Lovely to read and beautiful to look at.