Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Secret History of Us by Jessi Kirby

Olivia (Liv) Jordan struggles to awaken after being kept sedated for eight days. Her parents reveal that she's been in a car accident, that her car was hit by another driver and sent plunging over the Carson Bridge into the Bay. She has been medicated the past eight days so she could heal. She learns she has four broken ribs and has had a breathing tube so that her lungs could heal. Olivia tries to remember what happened but isn't able to bring forth any memories.

After her parents leave, Liv manages to get out of bed and reads some of the cards accompanying the many bouquets of flowers she's received. One if from Dana Whitmore of KBSY Action News that mentions having spoken with Matt and Walker and expressing interest in interviewing the three of them together. Olivia has no idea who Matt or Walker are.

The next morning Olivia is visited by her friend Paige whom she remembers as being much younger looking. She also meets Matt who she learns is her boyfriend. Matt whose arm is in a sling, was also involved in the accident. He apologizes for not being able to get her out of the car and tells her he loves her. But Liv can only tell Matt and Paige that she doesn't know him.

After telling her mom about not knowing Matt, Dr. Tate is called. He does extensive tests and based on the questions asked, he tells Liv and her parents that she "is experiencing post-traumatic retrograde amnesia", which could be due to the lack of oxygen her brain experienced or the blow to the head when she was pulled into the boat. Liv doesn't remember anything after the summer before her freshman year. Memories about school, volleyball, birthdays, dances, summers spent working at the marina and dating Matt are gone. Dr. Tate tells them this could be permanent or some or all of her memories may return over time. He recommends Liv be discharged so she can return to her routine and her life.

But returning to her routine proves difficult for Liv. At home she makes a series of "discoveries" about her life; she was intimate with Matt, her room looks nothing like she remembers because it was redecorated two years earlier, she has worked the past three summers with her brother Sam at the Fuel Depot taking food orders and delivering food to boats. Dinner reveals that Liv became vegetarian.

Liv encounters reluctance from both Sam and her parents when she questions them about who pulled her from the submerged car. They are vague about Walker James, telling her only that he lives on one of the old boats at the marina and that he saw her car go off the bridge, took a fishing boat to help and pulled her out of the car. It was Walker who did CPR. When Liv expresses the desire to meet and thank him, her father deflects her, telling Liv she needs to work on recovering. She learns a video of her rescue exists and was shown on the news. Upset that her parents withheld this information, Liv goes to her bedroom. There she immediately searches the video, watching it multiple times, hoping to feel something. What she does feel is the desire to at least thank Walker James and maybe to get to know this mysterious person.

The next day, while left alone at home, Liv begins by looking through family albums. Sure enough she  has no memories of the beginning of grade nine. She finds pictures of her friends Paige and Jules, and then Jules seems to vanish from her life and Matt appears. Walker James is also in her freshman year but then never appears again. Liv is determined to recapture her memories and believes that stepping back into her life will accomplish that. But as Liv discovers, no matter how hard we try, we can never go back, only forward.


Jessi Kirby has written another appealing novel, this time focusing on a girl attempting to recover her the life she can't remember. After her car accident, Olivia can't remember anything after the start of grade nine. She doesn't even recognize herself in the mirror. "The girl in the mirror blinks when I blink. She brings her hand to her face when I do. She even shakes her head at the same time I do. But I don't know this girl in the mirror. I don't know her at all." 

The missing four years of her life are devastating to Olivia. "I'm missing the pieces that make up the picture in the middle. The pieces of who I am now. Today I learned that I'm eighteen years old, but the last birthday I can remember celebrating is my fourteenth."

When she returns home, Olivia tries to behave like she remembers her past, like she normally would but nothing feels normal to her. Her first dinner is especially difficult because her not remembering she is vegetarian unsettles everyone. "I watch everyone carefully, trying to make sure I don't do anything I usually wouldn't do, or eat anything I no longer eat. I'm relieved when no one corrects the generous scoop of guacamole I put over the veggie crumbles to make them edible."

At first Olivia tries desperately to remember her past and to slip into her normal routine. The first morning at home when she admits she hasn't remembered anything, Olivia tells her mother, " 'Nothing that I don't already remember from before,' I answer, feeling the failure in my response." Olivia's search through family albums leads her to understand just how much she's lost. "But as I sit here looking over years of my life that I don't remember, it starts to hit me what I've really lost. A photo takes a fraction of a second to snap...What about all the unrecorded moments? All the thoughts and feelings...Things I dreamed of, and secrets I kept. These are the things that make up who we are, and these are the things I'm worried I won't get back." Olivia decides "I'll step right back into my life, like it was before. And when I don't know what it was like, I'll find out." 

To do that she enlists the help of her best friend Paige who fills her in, especially on her relationship with Matt Turner. Although Paige paints them as the perfect couple, Olivia feels nothing. "Being told the story of something is not the same as experiencing it, no matter how touching or detailed it is. And now all I can think is that our perfect love story might already be over if I can't ever remember what happened for myself." But as Olivia seeks out information about her past, she begins to feel increasingly troubled. "I've quickly become used to not knowing things for myself, and to taking everyone else's word for it, but this bothers me. It doesn't feel right, and I want to figure out why."

Olivia soon realizes that her parents and her friends are not telling her the whole truth about her life, that certain things are being left out. This makes her angry and confused. She discovers that Sam, Paige and her parents have left things out, seemingly to protect her.

As Olivia's attempt to restart her relationship with Matt fails, she begins to realize that maybe even her friends didn't know the real her, that she's kept secrets from them. Olivia explains her struggle to her parents who like everyone else want her to be normal. "Everyone wants me to just got back to normal, and I'm trying, I really am, but I don't even know what that is...And people keep trying to tell me what to do, and I know they're trying to help, but what if they don't even know who I was?...What if I was the only one who really knew who I was before? Where does that leave me now that it's all gone?"

Olivia's mother and father both have advice for her which she takes to heart. Her mother tells her, "You're not empty. The things that make up who you are? They're still there. They didn't go away just because you can't remember them. They're in you. So you just need to trust your gut. Really listen for what you think and feel. That's you." Olivia's father encourages her to "go with what seems right to you, not what you think you should be doing because it's what you've been told. You're allowed to change..."  This advice is freeing to Olivia because it feels "like they just somehow gave me permission to be more okay with who I am right now."

This allows Olivia to follow her father's advice of focusing not on the past but on the now. Olivia's journey to recover her life is redirected to begin living her life in the present. Olivia symbolically begins this new journey when she erases all the writings from the past two years off her chalkboard wall in her room. But Olivia really begins it when she uncovers some of the mystery of her past life; that she was involved with Walker James, that they had a relationship and that her relationship with Matt was ending. The proof for her is in her award winning photo essay, titled The Secret History of Us which was submitted by Walker, because she missed the deadline due to her accident, about her working with Walker on restoring his old boat. The photos, taken by Olivia capture the feelings she had with Walker and feel real to her. Because of that, Olivia decides that this is the relationship that has meaning for her now.

The amnesia trope has been done quite a lot in teen fiction and usually leads to the main character uncovering some secret about themselves that none of the other characters know. Readers will therefore, quickly suspect that Olivia has some sort of secret relationship with Walker, the mysterious, brooding guy who saved her, but this doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the novel.

The Secret History of Us is unique in young adult fiction in that it is filled with many positive characters; Olivia's father is a policeman and her parents are supportive and caring, older brother Sam is humorous and sweet, and Paige is a faithful friend who really tries to help Olivia.

Kirby is a master at describing rather than telling. Kirby opens The Secret History of Us by describing the sensations Olivia is experiencing rather than telling us where she is, and it is this entire descriptive chapter that leads the reader to understand she is both in a hospital and struggling to regain consciousness.

It's a voice that's familiar. Warm in a way that makes me want to keep hearing it. Comforting, but I can't place it. I search. Through the water or the fog -- I can't tell which because it's everywhere, all around me.
But I know this voice. I know her.
I grasp at the word, reach for something to pair it with. A name...a face...something, anything, but I come up empty, except for that familiar feeling."

The Secret History of Us is filled with imagery that reflects the sense of loss that Olivia feels and suggests second chances; the  medal of St. Anthony, the patron saint of finding things that are lost,  given to Olivia by Jules and "found" by Walker represents Olivia's struggle to recover her lost past , the slightly broken sand dollar that she finds on the beach - "this thing that's been tossed by the ocean, and broken enough to lose part of itself, but that's still intact, and strong.", the boat whose name is Second Chance which belongs to Walker and suggests their blossoming relationship - interrupted by Olivia's accident will get a second chance.

Fans of contemporary fiction will enjoy The Secret History of Us which is a light read.  As usual Kirby has another gem to her credit. One bone to pick: HarperCollins should take greater care with proofing as there is a typo in the second sentence of the very first chapter.

Book Details:

The Secret History of Us by Jessi Kirby
New York: HarperCollins Publishers    2017
276 pp.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild

The Treasure Box is a sensitive portrayal of the effects of war through the medium of a picture book. The opening line sets the tone of this story immediately.
"When the enemy bombed the library, everything burned." War wrecks havoc upon the culture of a nation, destroying memory and tradition. But sometimes there are ways to protect and remember that culture.

After the bombing, People catch the charred paper that floats to the ground, all that remains of the books that once populated their library. But one book survives-the book Peter's father has signed out from their library. In an act of war Peter and his father, along with others in their village, are ordered to leave and their homes are burned.

To preserve this favourite book, Peter's father places it into an iron box and carries it as they walk from town to town. But the harsh journey soon takes its toll and Peter's father sickens and dies. Peter promises to keep safe their treasure, the book in the iron box. However, the iron box soon becomes too heavy for Peter to carry so he makes the decision to bury the box beneath a tall linden tree at the edge of the last village. Years later Peter returns to search for the iron box and its precious contents.

This simple yet evocative story captures the effects of war, the plight of refugees, and the loneliness and loss children experience in wartime through the subdued artwork of Freya Blackwood and Margaret Wild's sparse text.  At the beginning of the story, Blackwoods illustrations are in muted browns, greys, blues and ochre representing the devastation of war. Only the precious book, representing the hope of peace and the future, is coloured red. But when Peter returns to the village as an adult, in peacetime, the Blackwood fills her illustrations with the bright colours of orange, red, and greens. Australian illustrator, Blackwood, worked as a special effects artist on the Lord of the Rings movies (she worked on the hobbit's feet) but is also a prize-winning illustrator of children's books. She was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal for distinguished illustration in a children's book for Harry and Hopper published in 2010.

The illustrations for The Treasure Box are rendered in pencil and watercolor and are a mixture of collage and paper cutouts. Blackwood used the text from the foreign editions of The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett and of Once and Then by Morris Gleitzman. This gives a unique look to the story book.

Book Details:

The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press    2013

Thursday, December 7, 2017

It All Comes Down To This by Karen English

It All Comes Down To This is a story set in the summer of 1965 in Los Angeles. Sophia LaBranche is a twelve-year-old black girl who lives with her older sister Lily and her father who is a lawyer and her mother who is the director of an art gallery. Their family moved to Montego Drive in the spring. Sophie's family were the first colored family on their block; they were ignored by everyone. But a week after they moved in, Jennifer Abbott knocked on the LaBranche's door, asking to meet Sophie. Despite the fact that Jennifer is a white girl, she and Sophie discovered that they had a lot in common; they both skipped a grade and would soon be thirteen going into grade nine, they loved the Beatles, and they loved to read.

However Sophie begins to discover that life is uncertain for a person of color in their new neighbourhood, something her family's new housekeeper reminds her. Sophie's sister, Lily decides she will apply to work at Marcia Stevens, a boutique store, despite Sophie's skepticism because she's never seen any colored people working at the store. Lily tells her they don't actually know if they won't hired colored.

Sophie tells Lily her own experience a few days prior. Her new friend Jennifer wanted to to swimming at the Baker family's pool. The Bakers are a white family with three girls; Marcy, Deidre, and Jilly. However, when Jennifer and Sophie arrive at the Baker's, Jennifer is told she may swim, but Sophie cannot. Although Sophie encourages Jennifer to stay and swim, she refuses. Instead Jennifer tells the Baker girls they are prejudiced and she and Sophie leave.

As the summer progresses Sophie's life becomes more and more complicated. One afternoon while exploring her father's study, she finds a suspicious letter from an unknown woman, Paula Morrisy. She doesn't read the unopened letter but suspects that her father might be involved with another woman. This is confirmed later while out with Jennifer and her mother, Sophie sees her father in a small coffee shop with another woman, holding hands. Sophie is convinced this woman is Paula.

Sophie and Jennifer discover that the community center will be hosting a play called That Talk. Sophie is determined to win the part of Olivia, while Jennifer wants the part of the villian, Julie. They get copies of the script and begin studying their lines for the audition later in the summer.

Meanwhile, Sophie's older sister becomes involved with Nathan Baylor, Mrs. Baylor's son, against the wishes of her mother who believes she is just "toying" with him. However Lily disregards her mother's warning and begins to date Nathan.

Then Sophie's summer is shattered when her mother walks out on her father. This is precipitated by her father's mistress calling their home and her mother discovering a credit card charge for a motel room. Sophie's mother tells her and Lily she is going to stay with Aunt Rose in Elsinore.

Sophie must cope with the stress of her parents marriage crisis, her sister's difficult relationship with Nathan, racial prejudice from her neighbours and community and the rebellion in Watts. It is a summer that forever changes Sophie's perception of her identity.


It All Comes Down To This is a novel that brilliantly captures the undercurrent of racial tension between blacks and whites in suburban Los Angeles in the mid-1960's. It is a summer where twelve-year-old Sophie LaBranche comes to the realization that the world is a different place for people who are dark-skinned. Her family is the first "colored family" on their block, suggesting that the neighbourhood is undergoing a gradual change, becoming integrated. The fact that they are ignored and not welcomed suggests that people are not happy to see a black family move in.

English sets the tone of what it was like in 1965 Los Angeles to be a young black girl growing up in a predominantly white community by capturing what Sophie calls "a sneaky kind of hate", small, covert incidents of racial prejudice. This happens when Sophie goes to lunch at Sutton's with Jennifer and her mother after shopping. After their meal when Sophie and Jennifer choose a glitter pen from the restaurant's treasure chest, the hostess accuses Sophie of  taking an extra prize. The hostess tells Mrs. Abbott  who questions why her on why she thinks Sophie stole a pen,
" 'Well,' she said with a smile, as if she and Mrs. Abbott were secret friends, 'You know how they are. They'll steal at the drop of a pin.' " This makes Mrs. Abbott furious.

Sophie discovers an old Jet magazine from 1955 and reads about the horrific murder of Emmett Till by two white men in Mississippi. Sophie is completely overwhelmed by what she reads and attempts to understand this senseless crime. " We didn't live in Mississippi but hate was under the surface everywhere. Wasn't it? Even if it was a sneaky kind of hate. It made people look at me and automatically think they were superior. It made them think I was a thief or maybe I'd do something to their swimming pool."

In Los Angeles in the 1960's it was very common for black men to be pulled over by the police and questioned and patted down. This happens to Lily's boyfriend Nathan in an incident that is both scary and humiliating for him, Lily and Sophie. After checking his identification, patting  him down, handcuffing him and forcing him to sit on the curb, the officer questions Lily, "Just what are you doing with that nigger?" and who Sophie is. They are allowed to leave when Lily who is light-skinned tells the officer Sophie is her sister and that Nathan is NOT a nigger.

Sophie experiences more discrimination when she pays a visit to the community center and finds herself accused of stealing someone's wallet - a wallet that has been missing for some time. Sophie wishes that her friend Jennifer was with her because as a white person she could vouch for Sophie. An unsettling realization begins to dawn on Sophie: "Something really unsettling crossed my mind, then. What if I had to go through this for the rest of my lie? Always, people looking at me -- with suspicion." Sophie recounts to Nathan what happened at the community center and expresses her worry that the woman who accused her of stealing will likely be one of the judges for the auditions. "...she's going to think I'm a thief and not let them pick me." Nathan encourages her to audition anyway. "Always just do things like that anyway."

When the audition goes as Sophie feared - she is never considered a serious candidate - she is discouraged but Mrs. Baylor encourages her to persevere,  "You gonna have to develop a thick skin and don't let nothin' stop you. YOu keep on pushing and you keep on tryin' and you'll get what you workin' for." In a chapter titled It All Comes Down To This, Sophie realizes all her hard work, memorizing ALL the parts of the play, doesn't matter, because only the colour of her skin mattered.

The turning point of the novel is the Watts Rebellion which begins when a young black motorist, Marquette Frye is pulled over by a white police officer for driving while intoxicated. The growing number of spectators in the predominantly black neighbourhood believe that this is yet another incident of racial prejudice and they begin to fight and scuffle with police. Years of frustration over inadequate city services, poor housing conditions and racism boil over.

This incident, the tumultuous relationship between Lily and Nathan, the arrest of Nathan by the police, her parents' marriage crisis and the pain Sophie experiences over her only friend Jennifer becoming friends with Linda Cruz whose family is prejudiced towards blacks, leads Sophie to realize she is "going to go through a rough lonely patch."

Despite everything, Sophie begins to discover an inner strength. Angry that the television coverage by white people is placing the blame on the black citizens of Watts, that assumptions are made about her by people like Jilly and Deidre Baker, Sophie begins to stand up for herself and in doing so, realizes that she can take care of herself. And things do begin to work out for her; she meets a new girl, Charlotte who is thirteen and like Sophie, new to their school, her father returns home, and Nathan and Lily seem to have worked out some kind of compromise. She learns from Lily's experience with Nathan that "You can't force something to happen. If it's meant to happen,

In what could have been a harsh and heavy subject for a middle grade novel, English is gentle in her portrayal, never getting too dark, yet offering her young readers the opportunity to think a bit deeper on the events she portrays. Besides the characteristic racism Sophie experiences and the Watts Rebellion, there are other aspects to explore. For example, English touches on the colorism that existed within the black community. Sophie's mother doesn't like Lily dating Nathan, because he is dark skinned. Lily is furious because Nathan is attending Berkeley and is a responsible, hard-working person. Sophie recognizes that they have their own prejudice within the black community against darker skinned people. She attempts to explain this to her friend Jennifer. "I didn't want to tell Jennifer the other reason. It felt shameful and embarrassing -- something white people wouldn't understand. But I blurted it out anyway. 'He's dark skinned.' ...It's hard to explain.' It was the kind of thing nobody talked about openly. It felt like I was letting her in on a secret. 'See light-skinned colored people almost always marry light-skinned colored people on purpose. So they'll have light-skinned kids.' "

It All Comes Down To This
is a touching story about one girl's struggle to understand the world around her and her place in it. It is historical fiction that provides some background to those interested in the American Civil Rights movement. English drew from her own personal experiences to pen this engaging story.

For more information on the Watts Rebellion of 1965, check out the Civil Rights Digital Library website.

Book Details:

It All Comes Down To This by Karen English
New York: Clarion Books 2017
355 pp.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became The World's Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating

This beautiful picture book tells the story of a young girl named Eugenie Clark who was so fascinated by sharks and that she devoted her life to learning more about them. Eugenie was born in 1922 at a time when a career in science was not considered a reasonable choice for a lady. Eugenie's love affair with sharks began with a trip to the Battery Park Aquarium one Saturday afternoon.

Life was challenging for the young Eugenie. Her father died when she was only two years old. Because she was of Japanese-American heritage; her father was American, her mother Japanese, Eugenie sometimes experienced bullying and racism. However, Eugenie used these difficult experiences to forge a determined spirit that was to help her in her studies in the male dominated science disciplines.

Eugenie Clark
Fascinated by the underwater world of the oceans, Eugenie continued to visit the aquarium every weekend, to learn as much as she could about the fish she saw in the tanks. When Eugenie informed her parents that she wanted to become an explorer like William Beebe, a famous naturalist and marine biologist, her parents suggested she consider working for someone like Beebe as a secretary.

Undaunted, Eugenie attended Hunter College where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Zoology. Eugenie was able to undertake post graduate studies at New York University after being refused entry to Columbia. The department head refused her application fearing she would leave her research to raise a family. Dr. CharlesBreder Jr., a renowned ichthyologist guided Eugenie's research at New York University. In 1950, Eugenie earned her Ph.D for her research on platies and swordtails.

Not only was Eugenie determined but she showed courage too. On her first dive when she was a research assistant at Scripps Institute of Oceanography Eugenie used a helmet and face mask. During the dive,  a diving hose ruptured. Unable to breathe, Eugenie removed the helmet and surfaced. Despite this frightening experience, Eugenie did a second dive shortly after and many more. In fact, diving became a part of her work as a scientist and when scuba gear was invented, Eugenie used it for her dives.

Eugenie helped to found the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Placida, Florida in 1955. It moved several times; to Siesta Key and Sarasota. In 1967, it was renamed the Mote Marine Laboratory.

Eugenie became interested in studying sharks after receiving a request from a cancer researcher to capture sharks for a study. With the construction of a live shark pen, Eugenie had access to sharks and surprisingly she was able to train them to push a button for food. This countered the belief at the time that sharks were mindless monsters of the ocean, intent on seeking out food only. Eventually Eugenie became more and more interested in sharks, studying them in the wild, and advocating for their protection.

Eventually Eugenie joined the faculty at the University of Maryland and became a full professor in 1973. Eugenie made several interesting discoveries in her research. She discovered a that a type of flatfish named the Red Sea Moses sole secretes a substance that repels sharks. On a dive into caves in Mexico to investigate sharks who lay motionless, Eugenie theorized that they do so to shed parasites. Eugenie and her team also discovered that whale sharks live birth to live young. 

Jess Keating and Marta Alvarez Miguens have crafted a delightful picture book that tells Eugenie's life story. Miguens colourful illustrations, done using Adobe Photoshop capture in an imaginative way, Eugenie Clark's intense interest in life in the oceans. There is a section at the back, titled Shark Bites that offers unusual facts about sharks and a colourful time line of Eugenie's life, highlighting her major accomplishments. In her Author's Note, Keating indicates that she wanted to tell Eugenie Clark's story because of her determination to follow her childhood dream of becoming a scientist. Eugenie did not let anyone or anything deter her.

Book Details:

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became The World's Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating

Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky   2017

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

You Bring The Distant Near follows three generations of women from an Indian-American family who immigrated from England to America. The novel explores the challenges they face and is told from various points of view over the years beginning in 1965 until 2006. To aid her readers, Perkins has included a small family tree at the front of the novel. The novel follows Ranee Das who is mother to Tara (Starry) and Sonia (Sunny) Das and grandmother to their daughters, Anna (Anu)Sen and Chantal (Shanti) Johnson respectively.

The novel opens in 1965 with Sonia participating in a swimming race at the British Club in Ghana. They are the only dark-skinned people at the club. Sonia, in the lead, loses the race when Ranee pulls her prematurely from the water. The novel is then divided into three parts.

Part I Strangers skips ahead to 1973 and the Das family is enroute from London, England to New York.  Tara, lighter skinned, loves to pretend she's various famous people, her latest being Twiggy. Once in America, she decides instead to channel Marcia from the Brady Bunch. Sonia, who is darker, younger is the academic. They are met in New York by Baba who takes them to their apartment in Flushing, a part of Queens. Sonia's mother questions the safety of the area when she notices most of the people are black. The Das family settle in, with Ranee making her daughters "American" clothes to help them fit in.

The first day of school, Ranee accompanies her children dressed in a green sari and golden bangles on each arm. The girls are tested, and Sonia is placed in the gifted class in grade nine, while Tara is enrolled in grade eleven. Tara immerses herself in school, Sonia finds solace in her diary and starts an Equal Rights Club at school. However Ranee struggles to be happy and fights often with Baba. Sonia's entries about her mother's treatment of Baba lead to change and to Ranee and Baba moving to a new house in Ridgeford, New Jersey. There Tara enrolls in theatre and Sonia is placed in advanced math, physics, English and French.

Part II Travelers sees the Das family struggle to cope with the death of Baba who is killed in an hit and run accident. This part of the story focuses on the journeys the two daughters undertake. Although pressured to return to Kolkata, Ranee decides to stay in the house Baba bought for her. Sonia meets Lou Johnson, a football player nicknamed "Black Lightning". The two of them fall in love during a trip to Paris after winning an essay contest. Lou helps Sonia come to terms with her Baba's death by bringing her into a Catholic church in Paris where she discovers God and inner healing. Tara travels to Bangladesh to scatter her father's ashes in the Ganges. To help her is Amit Sen, the boy whose marriage proposals she has twice turned down. After scattering her father's ashes, Tara travels to her family's ancestral home which was a jute farm that they lost to Muslims after the Partition. There Tara makes her peace with what happened, giving the family gifts. She agrees to marry Amit. Sonia becomes estranged from her mother after eloping with Lou. Even the fact that she is expecting her first child does not move Ranee to reconcile.

Part II Settlers tells the story of Ranee's grandchildren, Chantal Johnson and Anna Sen. Chantal lives in Harlem with her parents, Sonia who is a freelance journalist and Lou who is a sculptor. Her cousin Anna lives mostly in Mumbai with her parents, her mother Tara is a Bollywood actress while her father Amit is a banker. They have a penthouse in Manhattan. Chantal's Grandma Rose (Lou's mother) and her Didu do not get along and when Chantal becomes upset over their fighting they decide to make peace. Anna is sent to Carver Independent School where Chantal attends. Anna finds school  very different from what she's used to but she enjoys her life at Carver -except for the locker room and its lack of privacy. With the help of Chantal and some new friends, Anna remakes the locker room. Chantal's life is marked by her relationship with a rich, white boy named Martin Larsen in her senior year. Chantal doesn't believe they  have a future because Martin's family is so wealthy and they seem to care more for things than people. But Martin proves Chantal wrong when she wrecks his Porsche.

Anna becomes overwhelmingly distraught when Ranee decides to become an American citizen after the 9/11 attacks. However, Ranee decides to remake herself entirely as a modern "American" woman much to the distress of her family and in particular Anna. She decides to attend Lou and Sonia's Catholic church where she finds friendship and community. The novel ends with Ranee living in an apartment on her own and setting up a meeting with her kind young neighbour, Darnell who is black and who is looking for an old-fashioned girl!


You Bring The Distant Near is a multi-generational story which deals with the themes of identity and prejudice as a Bengali family crosses from one culture into another. The focus shifts over time from new immigrants Rajeev and Ranee Das and their daughters Tara and Sonia to their first generation Indian-American granddaughters Anna Sen and Chantal Johnson and returns full circle to Ranee Das, the matriarch of the family. Each character struggles to understand their place within their own families and the world at large. Perkins has stated that the novel is about crossing borders, both geographical borders and the borders of life, from childhood to adult, from culture to culture - and the challenges that entails.

Ranee Das, mother of Tara and Sonia is a Bengali woman who was married at age eighteen in an arranged marriage. When she arrives in America she bears a prejudice against people with dark skin, even though her younger daughter, Sonia is dark skinned. Sonia is well aware of her mother's prejudice against dark skin, something she experiences on the flight to New York. "She...then swivels to take stock of my appearance. I brace myself. Sure enough, that familiar twitch of displeasure passes across her face. It's gone in a moment, but after years of rejecting her Light and Lively skin-bleaching cream, I know what makes her wince. The darkness of my skin." When they arrive in Flushing, New York Ranee sees the many black children and immediately considers their neighbourhood to be dangerous. She refuses to let the girls go anywhere alone and is eager to move from Flushing telling the girls, "I've seen how those Negro boys look at you girls." Sonia objects insisting there is no caste system in America but Ranee tells her,  " 'All people are not treated equally,...It's like that everywhere in the world. In India, people assume that if you have dark skin, you're from a lower caste. Here, it's the same..."

Sonia's elopement with her black boyfriend Lou seems to cement Ranee's prejudice and it isn't until the birth of Tara's daughter, Anna that Ranee finally relents. Ranee's feelings about dark skinned people change - she loves Lou and Sonia's daughter Chantal, who is dark skinned. And by the end of the novel, Ranee is good friends with a young, caring, black man named Darnell who is her neighbour in Flushing, New York. In fact, Ranee acts to set up Darnell with her granddaughter Anna.

Ranee's identity crisis comes well after she's settled in America. She's still not an American citizen when the 9/11 attacks happen but this tragedy motivates her to become one. Up until this point, Ranee has worn a white sari, the clothing of a Bengali widow and has always stated ,"I'll die and Indian." After the citizenship ceremony, Ranee westernizes her clothing, cuts and dyes her hair, learns to drive, attends a baseball game and even asks Chantal to have a slumber party. She joins the Catholic church that Sonia attends, finding that this makes her feel American because she finally experiences a sense of community. Ranee's family worries but she finally explains to them that the attack changed her and that the city began to feel like her home. "It came nearer to my heart, not so distant."

Both Tara and Sonia struggle to find their identity in America. Tara's strategy is to change her identity completely and model herself after famous stars. In London she took on the persona of famous model Twiggy; in New York she attempts to remake herself into Marcia Brady from the Brady Bunch. These identities help her hide her Bengali identity and allow her to fit in. Eventually she drops the personas permanently but Tara's struggle with her identity continues into adulthood. Tara's mother and an unrelated "Auntie" attempt to arrange her marriage to another Bengali, Amit Sen. Tara refuses Amit's proposals twice because "Then Amit and I would become a Bengali couple in an arranged marriage, playing the same roles as our parents and grandparents and Das and Sen family ancestors have for generations."Amit flees to Bangladesh and later invites Tara to visit so she can fulfil her promise to spread her father's ashes in the Ganges River. In Bangladesh Tara realizes that she's spent her youth repudiating her Bengali heritage, never wearing saris (which she now finds quite beautiful), quitting harmonium lessons and Rabindra Sangreet lessons. But after seeing her father's ancestral home, Tara finally comes to terms with her Bengali heritage and this frees her to acknowledge her love for Amit and to accept his marriage proposal.

Sonia's struggle with her identity as an Indian American is tied up in the women's rights movement of the 1970's. Sonia's activism likely began when she was pulled from the pool in 1965 so she wouldn't beat the white children in the swim race. Sonia views her Bengali heritage as patriarchal and considers her Ma's keeping of the Bengali restrictions for widows as being caught in a "patriarchal prison." Sonia is happy for her mother to become American but she also wants her to retain her identity as a Bengali too.

Perhaps the weakest part of Perkins story is that of Chantal and Anna. Chantal seems to be the most settled of all the characters regarding her identity but she judges him on the basis of his family's wealth and their perceived focus on material things rather than people. His love of his Porsche is a "symbol of how my family cares about art and love and justice, while his family cares about...rich people stuff." But when Martin takes the fall for the damage Chantal does to his car, Chantal realizes he does care first about people rather than things. In contrast Anna, who has grown up mostly in Mumbai believes they should preserve their Bengali heritage. She prides herself on truly knowing what being Bengali/Hindu means and this makes her very upset when Ranee undergoes her transformation. It is Uncle Lou who helps her come to terms with everything.
 " 'None of us have to be 100 percent American,' says Uncle Lou. 'What does that mean, anyway? Hyphens, for better or worse, are everywhere now. And the good old U.S.A makes space for lots of identities.'
Maybe he's right. Maybe 'being American' means you still have room in your heart for other things. Old things. Good things."

You Bring The Distant Near, takes it's title from a line from a poem, Thou Hast Made Me Known about welcoming those who are strangers or foreigners. It was penned by famous Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore who won the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Perkins captures the complex family dynamics, the care and love each member of the Das family have for one another, and the struggle to retain their culture and beliefs while attempting to understand and adopt those of their new country. The result is a story with characters and situations that seem realistic and interesting, a story that sheds light on the immigrant experience, one repeated generation after generation in America.

Book Details:

You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux       2017
303 pp.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark

Rear Admiral Dr.Grace Murray Hopper was born in 1906 in New York City. Grace was the oldest of three children, having a younger brother and sister. Her childhood was filled with typical activities of this time period; she loved needlepoint, playing the piano and reading. Her summers were spent with cousins at a family cottage in New Hampshire. Grace loved to take things apart and one famously remembered incident is her taking apart an alarm clock. When Grace was unable to reassemble the clock she set about taking the others apart until she learned to reassemble the first clock!

Her parents believed that Grace and her sister should have the same quality of education as her brother. To that end, Grace attended Graham School and Schoonmakers School in New York City. Grace eventually entered Vassar College in 1924 after she managed to pass her Latin exam. She graduated in 1928 with a B.A. in mathematics and physics. In 1930, Grace received a Masters degree in mathematics. In 1930, Grace also married Vincent Foster Hopper, whose surname she adopted. She began teaching at Vassar College in 1931, while she worked towards a Ph.D which she earned in 1934, a rare accomplishment for a woman at that time.

When World War II broke out, Grace joined the United States Naval Reserve in 1943. Because of her mathematical background, Grace was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project Harvard. It was at Harvard, in their Cruft's Laboratories that Grace worked on the Mark I computer and later the Mark II and Mark III. A moth caused the Mark II computer to short circuit, an incident that gave rise to the phrase "computer bug".

Grace Hopper  posing with a manual of COBOL and the Mark computer.
Grace envisioned computers having a much wider application and eventually becoming available to both business and the public. To that end she worked to develop a number of computer languages. She developed FLOW-MATIC a programming language that used English phrases instead of mathematical notation. This eventually led to the development of COBOL, a computer programming language used primarily in business and finance.

Grace Hopper had a long and successful career both as a programmer, academic professor and continued to be active in the Navy. Grace received many awards during her lifetime including the first computer science Man of the Year by the Data Processing Management Association in 1969. Grace correctly predicted that one day computers would be small enough to fit on the top of a desk.

In Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, Wallmark captures Grace's "Dare and Do" attitude that marked her life. Grace was determined to live a full life and let nothing hold her back. The colorful illustrations by Katy Wu accent Watermark's story of Grace's remarkable life. Readers see Grace enjoying a plane ride with a barnstormer doing loop-the-loops, teaching students about volume, troubleshooting computer "bugs" and brainstorming a new computer language. Peppered throughout the book are quotes from Grace Hopper. The back of the picture book contains further details: a time line of Grace's life, a Selected Bibliography, Additional Reading About Other Women In Stem, and a feature about Grace's many awards. Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code is a must-have for libraries and those interested in women who have made important contributions to science.

You can read more about Grace Hopper at the Vassar College website.

Book Details:

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark
New York: Sterling Children's Book                      2017

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Under A War Torn Sky by L.M. Elliot

Henry Forester, just nineteen years old is a co-pilot of a Eighth Air Force bomber crew stationed in Britain. Today's mission will be Henry's fifteenth but he's nervous. Because the average number of missions pilots survive is fifteen. In order to complete a tour of duty, every airman must fly twenty-five missions.

Henry's pilot is Dan MacNamara, a twenty-five year old married father from Chicago. Today's mission will be his twenty-first and he needs only four more missions to complete his tour.

At the morning briefing at Group Ops, Henry and Dan along with Billy White another co-pilot and the other fliers learn that they will have a long flight across the English Channel to the Belgian coast, down to France, along the northern edge of Switzerland, to southern Germany where their target is a ball bearing factory. Ball bearings are essential to the German war machine.

Dan and Henry go through their preflight checklist for the B-24 Liberator named Out of the Blue, carrying five hundred pound bombs and almost three thousand gallons of fuel. Their plane forms part of a six plane squadron that is part of a four squadron diamond formation. They meet up with other bomb groups over Great Yarmouth on the coast and then continue to fly towards Europe.  As they approach the continent, they encounter flak from the anti-aircraft batteries that line the European coast and then the planes of the Luftwaffe, Focke-Wulf 190s.

Billy White's plane, Battling Queen is shot out of they sky and soon Dan and Henry find themselves under attack. They are forced to bail after their number three engine is destroyed. Henry saves Dan's life by pulling him out of the plane, only to watch in horror as Dan is killed by a Messerschmitt pilot who strafs him as he parachutes to the ground. Henry quickly finds himself under attack and although his parachute is ripped, he manages to survive the hard landing with an injured ankle.

Henry limps through snow and forest towards Neuf-Brisach when he encounters an older man riding a bicycle. His confusion leads to a comical attempt to speak French but this moves the man to decide to help him. He informs Henry that he is in the Alsace region, a French province which was annexed by Germany four years earlier. The man, a teacher before the war took all his pupils, takes Henry to the abandoned schoolhouse to hide him. He believes Henry's foot is broken and that he will need the care of a doctor in a hospital. Eventually arrangements are made to transport Henry to a hospital. With the help of another man, Henry is hidden in a long flat-bottomed boat, "heavily loaded with red and white cabbages." The plan is to travel down the Grand Canal d'Alsace to Basel, a city on the border with Switzerland. In Basel, the teacher has a cousin who has promised to help.
A B-24 bomber.

However, when they reach Basel, the boat is searched by Swiss soldiers who narrowly miss bayoneting Henry, hidden in a crawl space beneath the crates of cabbages. Unfortunately the teacher's cousin refuses to help them, so Henry, fortified with a swig of brandy and delirious from the pain and infection, is left by a church where he is discoverd by Red Cross nurses and taken to a hospital.

Henry wakes in hospital to find that his ankle has been drained of the infection and the bone set. After surgery, Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador, Samuel Watson meets with Henry to tell him that the neutrality of Switzerland's government cannot be ensured. Because Henry just showed up at the door of the hospital, he is not yet classified as a prisoner of war. This means he can wear civilian clothes during his transport to Adelboden, an internment camp for Americans and therefore may have a chance of slipping away. He can then attempt to cross through Switzerland and into France, making his way across the Pyrenees into Spain and then to Portugal where he can take a boat back to England. Henry agrees to this and so begins a remarkable and dangerous journey that will change Henry forever.


Under A War Torn Sky is a thrilling, action-packed novel about an American pilot who is shot down over France in World War II and attempts to make his way through war-torn Europe and back to Britain. This novel by Laura Malone Elliot is an exemplary work of historical fiction that accurately presents the circumstances the French Resistance operated under and portrays what many Allied pilots endured after being shot down by the Nazis. Elliot based her novel on the experiences of her father, also a B-24 pilot who was shot down and survived behind German lines in France for several months.

The hero of the novel is Second Lieutenant Henry Wiley Forester, a mere 19 years old at the time he is shot out of the sky by a Messerschmitt. Henry agrees to a plan to make his way through war-torn Europe in an attempt to return to Britain to continue fighting. He agrees to try to escape for two reasons; to impress his harsh father Clayton who has a low opinion of Henry and also because he doesn't want to be considered a coward.  In this way Elliot sets up her main character as the archetypal hero who undertakes a journey that is both dangerous and life-changing.

Henry's physical journey is harsh enough, walking on a barely healed ankle, not knowing where his journey will take him next, enduring hunger and cold, shunted from one place to the next, at risk constantly of being captured and interrogated by the Germans. Along the way he is helped by the most unlikely of people, all doing their part to resist the Nazis. Henry travels from Alscae to Thun, Switzerland, to Montreux, onto Geneva to Annecy and then to Grenoble. He spends time with a family near Vassieux-en-Vercours where he befriends a young boy named Pierre. Henry is taken to a maquis camp in Col de la Bataille (the maquis were French resistance fighters living in the forests and mountains of France during WW II). Eventually Henry falls into the hands of the Nazis when he and a group of pilots are betrayed by a Basque member of the French resistance as they travel through the Pyrenees. Henry finds himself taken to Toulouse where he is tortured for information. While on his way to Lyon for further interrogation, he manages to escape. After spending some time with another maquis group, Henry is eventually recaptured by the retreating German army and but is set free by an elderly German soldier. He is able to make his way to the American troops and after a period of time returns to his beloved home in Virginia.

Throughout Henry's journey he also experiences an internal journey of self-discovery. When he is first downed in France, Henry often recalls the harsh words and actions of his father Clayton who was determined to make Henry into a tough man. Henry joined the Air Corps to prove himself to his father, "to seem worthy of his respect even if he couldn't win his father's love." But his father indicates to Henry that he considers his enlisting a waste. When he is shot down, Henry is determined to survive if only to prove to Clayton that he's strong enough to do so. Henry doesn't understand why his father has been so harsh and unforgiving.

Nevertheless it is often the words of Clayton that Henry has heard throughout his childhood which ultimately change Henry into a man of action. For example, when he's overcome by fear as he approaches the checkpoint in Grenoble, Henry remembers his father's words, "Don't be a coward boy. Only cowards hesitate."  and he races through the checkpoint as he's ordered to do.  Later on when he is attacked by a member of the Resistance to determine if he is English or German, Henry staggers to his feet, prepared to fight, urged on by the voice of his father who often beat him. "Get up, boy, or they'll kick you while you're down." And when he is being taken to Lyon to be tortured further in the hopes that he will betray Madame Gaullioux, it is Clayton's voice that urges him to act to save himself. "Grab the gun, boy!" and "Shoot him boy, shoot him."

By the end of his journey, Henry has now become a man of action. While helping the maquis, Henry saves the lives of several maquisards in a desperate moment. "Henry no longer needed his father's voice to prod him in life-and-death circumstances. He picked up the grenade. It was heavy, cold, scaly. It felt like a thing of death. Henry pulled the pin, stood up, and hurled it."

Through his experiences in war, Henry comes to understand why Clayton has been so harsh. Although his father's strength of will brought Henry's family through the Depression, Henry can see how it might be hard "to shed a tough attitude or a wary distrust of people once the bad times were over." However, Henry is determined that these terrible experiences will not harden him.  He comes to understand that Clayton's harshness towards him was a sign of his love for his son. "What am I going to do with you, boy? Love's got responsibilities. Things you gotta do even if you don't want to.That's the kind of love a real man is capable of."

Henry experiences intense internal conflict because he's been forced to do things that he considers wrong, such as stealing food and clothing and even murder. After murdering his German interrogator and his driver, Henry is filled with horror. Dropping bombs from a plane meant he never saw the people he killed. This is very different. "Henry reached into the stream to wash himself clean of blood. It was everywhere -- his hands, his hair, his clothes, his soul. How would he ever be clean of all that blood? He had killed two men -- not from the anonymity of the sky -- but face to face, with his own hands. Besides that, he'd wanted to kill them, was glad that he killed them so taht he could live. He'd had murder in his heart. He couldn't wash that out. Henry knew that he was changed forever, and not for the better." Henry can reconcile his killing the German soldier but not the chauffeur.

However, Henry uses this experience to save Claudette from a similar situation. Filled with grief, rage and hate over what has happened to her family and her country at the hands of the Nazis, Claudette is determined to murder a young sixteen year old collaborator. Henry intervenes, asking her to consider what she's doing. "Think of Andrea, Claudette. Don't dishonor him with this. He died for France's freedom, not for this. And if you kill her, you're as bad as the Nazis. The one thing I've learned from all this hate and death is that when the war is over, it has to be over. If it's not, we'll just have another bloodbath in a few years. Don't do this Claudette. You're better than the Nazis. I know you are."

Henry's ideas about war also undergo a transformation. When Henry embarks on his journey he has no idea what the war is like on the ground. He never sees the effects of the bombs on the civilian population. But he soon discovers that even bombing a munition plant can have unexpected victims such as little Pierre's father. Henry questions "the strategy of dropping bombs on a country they were trying to liberate" after he tells Pierre that he his a bomber pilot and Pierre is troubled. Henry wonders if his father has been killed by those bombs dropped on the munitions plants the French are forced to work in.

Henry also entered the war with a certain opinion of his role in it. "Henry and his pilot friends had always seen themselves as the saviors of France. He was ashamed of their arrogance." But his experiences with the Resistance make him realize that the people who are part of the French Resistance are the ones who are risking everything.

Under A War Torn Sky really captures the face of the French Resistance from the wealthy widow, to the old school teacher and the teenage guide whose family had sent him to live with strangers and who loves Louis Armstrong. Elliot brilliantly captures the heroics of the French resistance as they fight the Nazis against great odds and often paying a terrible price for their actions. Madame "Gaulloise" a wealthy widow whose son was captured at the Aisne River when Hitler invaded, hides not only Henry but Jews in her rooms. She is eventually captured and taken to Lyon where Klaus Barbie is working to have her executed. Henry is taken in by Pierre's family in Vercors. He realizes that Pierre's mother is not "just a sympathetic mother, taking pity on a lost American boy. She was fighting the war as actively here as he had fought it from the skies. Only her battle seemed scarier, somehow. At least he had a crew with him. She did her part so alone. Secrecy was everything. And if she made a mistake, the price was her son. At least Henry had never had to worry about his actions endangering Ma or Patsy." Pierre's family is denounced and the Nazis murder Pierre's grandfather, arrest his mother who is interrogated and then sent to Ravensbruck. Pierre, alone now is sent to live with the monks. Claudette who helps Henry after he escapes from the Nazis is connected to a maquis group that includes her lover Andre. She sees him murdered when the group is attacked by the Germans.

The sacrifice all these people made on Henry's behalf is not lost on him nor is the terrible reality of war. "...Pierre and his mother, Madame, the teenage guide, the old school teacher -- their faces whirled through his head. He'd never known the potential finality of a good-bye before now. Even when he's held his trembling mother, as he left for England, Henry had been completely convinced that he'd be back, that they'd be eating many a Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner together talking about his adventures. These people - these people who'd risked their lives to save him - he'd never see them again. He felt it in his bones, like an awful ache."

As with the archetypal hero, Henry returns home, his coming unannounced, to the joy of those who wait for him. In Henry Forester, Elliot has crafted an honest, intelligent character whose war experiences do not harden him, but make him more compassionate and understanding. Henry is a realistic character for the time period, drawing strength from his memories of his beloved mother Lilly, hope for a future with the girl he loves - Patsy and his belief in God whom he prays to frequently.

Under A War Torn Sky is a must read for fans of historical fiction. A map of Henry's flight plan and of his journey through Europe would have greatly enhanced this novel. Elliot offers readers a significant and interesting Afterword in which she explains more about the French Resistance and how they were vitally important to the success of D-Day, when the Allied troops finally were able to land on the beaches of Normandy and begin the effort to free Europe.

Book Details:

Under A War Torn Sky by L.M. Elliot
New York: Hyperion Paperbacks for Children       2001
284 pp.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee

Halfway Normal is a novel that explores the struggles a young girl encounters reintegrating back into life outside a hospital after her cancer treatment.

Twelve year old Norah Levy underwent two years of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia and is now well enough to return to school. During her illness she was tutored by Ayesha,  a young woman who also survived cancer. This has led to Norah being ahead by a grade in math and science.

Norah's parents divorced when she was nine-years-old and she now lives with her Dad who is a sports journalist and his new girlfriend Nicole, just outside of New York City. Her mom resides in California where she teaches biology at a college but she is on leave, staying with her friend Lisa.

Norah received her treatment at Phipps-Davison, a famous cancer hospital. Now in remission, Norah is determined to return to school. Her pediatric social worker, Raina Novak warns her it will not be easy.

But returning to school proves far more difficult than Norah ever imagined. First there are all the rules her parents have imposed: no after-school activities, no sleepovers, no school bus, no school lunch and avoiding the bathroom at all cost. Norah immediately notices that no one, not her classmates nor the teachers use the dreaded "cancer" word. Because her hair is short, she is sometimes mistaken for a boy which greatly upsets her. Then there is the attitude of her fellow students to contend with. Norah is considered by some students as "The Girl Who." had cancer. Other students don't like the special treatment Norah receives and believes she wants attention. Norah is also struggling to deal with the fact that many of her best friends did not visit her in the hospital. This includes her close friend Silas Blackhurst.

On her first day, Norah meets Griffin Kirkley, a grade eight student new to Aaron Burr. Norah finds Griffin with his spiky reddish hair, cute. They immediately discover a mutual love of  mythical beasts and Greek myths. However, Norah decides not to tell Griffin about being ill with cancer because she doesn't want him to treat her like her grade seven friends. Griffin is impressed with Norah's artwork and asks her to draw a griffin on his bass guitar. Because of Griffin's interest in the Afterschool program, Norah also decides she wants to be involved and be a part of the Art Club.

In English, Norah reveals that her favourite Greek myth is the one of Persephone who is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld. Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Demeter discovers where Persephone has been taken and threatens to let everything on earth die if Zeus does not return her to the world above. Hermes is sent by Zeus and convinces Hades to release Persephone. Unfortunately, Persephone has eaten some pomegranate seeds, which are food of the dead. This meant she must return to the underworld. However, Zeus arranges for Persephone to spend half a year in the underworld with Hades and the rest of the year with Demeter. She impresses their English teacher, Ms. Farrell with her knowledge of Greek myths.

Norah struggles in her relationships at school, confronting Silas, confusing her best friend Harper and she begins acting out. She stays for the Afterschool program, disobeying her parents, she skips class to eat lunch with Griffin during grade eight lunch so he won't know she's a grade seven student, and she gets her ears pierced without her parents permission. But when a bake sale for breast cancer deeply upsets Norah, she is forced to face her internal conflict and figure out a way to tell her friends what she's feeling and return to school.


Halfway Normal portrays the journey of twelve-year-old Norah Levy as she re-integrates into life after two years of battling cancer. The novel's main theme is that of empathy and resilience. Norah is eager to attend school but Raina Novak, her pediatric social worker attempts to prepare her for the experience. She warns Norah that it will be challenging. "Don't expect your friendships to be just like they were two years ago. You've been through something very big here, yes, but your friends have been through their own situations, which are big to them. And you haven't been a part of that world." In other words, she's telling Norah that her friends will likely not understand her experience in the same way that Norah will not realize how they have changed over the past two years.

This is initial expressed in the friendship between Norah and Silas Blackhurst, Norah's best friend before she became ill.  Norah and Silas spent their time together before her illness, riding their bikes "patrolling the neighborhood for evil elves." But when Norah returns to school she discovers that Silas has changed; he's interested in girls and he likes Kylie Shen. Norah is baffled by this interest. "...I knew that Kylie was exactly the sort of girl boys crush on. My problem was that I couldn't see Silas being one of those boys. He'd never liked girls before. He'd never even noticed that I was a girl." Norah is angry with Silas because he never came to visit her in the hospital. Although Norah wants to resume her friendship with Silas, it becomes apparent that they have both changed significantly.

Norah views every action of her classmates and teachers as being coloured by their knowledge she had cancer. Addison Ventura  makes a heart sign and Norah believes it "... had to be a cancer reference, because why would Addison heart me?" When Ms. Farrell approaches her in class, smiling, Norah thinks, "As soon as I saw that smile, I knew she knew everything...Probably all the teachers knew. Even the office ladies and the janitors." 

Norah is preoccupied with people knowing about her having cancer and she's unprepared for the variety of reactions she experiences from both her classmates and teachers. Some of her friends are interested and want to know about her illness. While Kylie Shen doesn't want to hear "all the gory details", Harrison Warner wants to know the names of the medications so he can look them up later. Ms. Castro won't say the word "cancer" and encourages her to make use of the elevator instead of the stairs. Norah finds this all very off-putting.

Others feel Norah is using her illness as a means to get attention. Norah's teachers are willing to offer her special consideration; Mr. O'Brien the social studies teacher, offers Norah extra time to complete assignments while Mr. Ludlow the PE teacher tells her she can sit out whenever she wants. Addison believes Norah enjoys this attention and at one point in front of their classmates, Addison claims that Norah is like the human weaver Arachne of Greek mythology, because she likes the attention.

Although most people are well meaning, Norah misinterprets everyone's actions and words. When Ms. Farrell praises Norah about her knowledge of Greek myths and refers to her as their "expert mythologist" to Norah "it sounded like 'expert oncologist'. Which I knew wasn't what she meant, obviously. But all gushy praise sounded suspiciously cancer-related." In Ms. Farrell's English class she believes their first assignment is an attempt to get her "cancer story" and so she produces a composition that receives a low mark. Later on when getting her ears pierced with Aria Maldonado, Norah misinterprets Mrs. Maldonado's offer to pay for her ear piercing and the green dragon earrings as a "cancer consolation prize."

Norah's desire to be free of been known as "cancer girl" leads her to be dishonest with her new friend, Griffin.  Norah avoids telling him that she's been away from school for two years because of cancer. Instead she tells Griffin, she is not new to the school but "More like recycled, actually."  The thought that the grade eight students might know her story is horrifying to Norah. "I was more afraid that once the eighth graders discovered 'my whole story', I'd turn into Cancer Girl for them, just the way I was Cancer Girl for the seventh grade. And if that happened, maybe Griffin would change the way he treated me." Her best friend Harper calls Norah out on her dishonesty toward Griffin, but Norah is not ready to accept this. Instead she doubles down and feels that Harper doesn't understand her situation.

It is an English assignment, to write a five-minute speech from the point of view of mythic character, that helps Norah sort out and explain her complicated feelings about her struggle with cancer. But only after Norah experiences an emotional crisis at the breast cancer bake sale being held by her classmates. Norah balks at the unintended hypocrisy of her classmates like Kylie who wouldn't allow Norah to talk about her cancer but who pins a pink ribbon on her sweater, an others who eat pink-frosted cupcakes but never acknowledge her situation.

Norah feels she can't convey to her friends and classmates what she's experienced. "I couldn't pretend I'd never been sick, because that's who I was. The Girl Who; but I couldn't explain what that meant, because to do it I'd have to speak Martian. So it was like I was trapped halfway between two worlds --Sick and Not Sick- and didn't completely belong in either one." Her tutor, Ayesha explains to Norah that she can only keep moving forward and that she must find a way to help people understand and to give them a chance to understand. Ayesha suggests that maybe Norah doesn't want people to understand. "Because maybe you like that a little bit, feeling that nobody gets what you've been through..." This leads Norah to acknowledge that she feels angry and that she needs to work harder at moving forward in her life.

The result is that Norah acts to move forward. She talks to Griffin about why she never told him about her cancer and eventually apologizes. When Ms. Farrell offers her support after Norah returns to school, Norah thanks her even though she still feels like her teacher wants a cancer story. She doesn't get angry this time when Ms. Farrell asks her to dig deeper into the Persephone myth and eventually comes up with a brilliant interpretation of the myth as it applies to her life.

Halfway Normal succeeds in capturing the complicated emotional life of a young cancer survivor. The dominant theme in the novel is the struggle we all face to share and understand each other's pain - an important life skill. Dee explains to young readers the difference between sympathy and empathy in a English lesson with Ms. Farrell. Norah is unable to empathize with her classmates, believing it is they who need to understand her. In English class she tells Ms. Farrell that she doesn't believe "empathy is always possible...Because sometimes the other person's experience is so weird that you can't put yourself in their shoes. I mean, you may think you can, but you really can't." Similarly her classmates are struggling to understand what Norah has experienced.

Dee creates a rather unlikable character in Norah Levy, putting the reader in a similar situation to that of the characters in the novel; readers experience little sympathy or empathy for her. But as Norah works to express what she's feeling and ultimately succeeds, the reader develops empathy for Norah.

Halfway Normal is populated with very modern characters; her mother, father and his girlfriend end up in a sort of accepting, working, blended family for the benefit of Norah while Ayesha is the token gay character.

Although Barbara Dee's son has had cancer, Dee states that the story in Halfway Normal is not about her son's illness, nor is it based on her family's experience. She mentions that she undertook considerable research for the novel and that is evident in the writing. Halfway Normal is a sensitive, caring exploration of cancer and its toll on a young person but its important message is that of moving forward and of the importance of empathy and resilience.

Book Details:

Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee
Toronto: Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division    2017
243 pp.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Of Numbers and Stars by D. Anne Love

Of Numbers and Stars is a picture book about a famous Greek mathematician who lived over 1500 years ago in Alexandra, Greece. Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a professor of mathematics at the University of Alexandria. Alexandria was considered the center of learning at this time and Theon chose a different path for his daughter. At a time when Greek women were schooled in the arts of the domestic home, she was allowed to study and eventually became an academic at the university. She became a highly respected thinker who delved into science, philosophy and mathematics. 

Hypatia's death is a source of great controversy today. Many books, including unfortunately the Author's Note at the back of Of Numbers and Stars, claim that, St. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, urged a mob to attack and murder Hypatia. Unfortunately, many historical events are often interpreted with a very anti-Catholic bias.

It is important to understand the political and social environment which existed in the 5th century in Alexandria. Alexandria was the center of learning at this time, with many important thinkers and a library at the University of Alexandria that was renowned throughout the known world for its large collection of books. At the time of Hypatia's death, Alexandria was a city embroiled in violence between the pagan, Jewish and Christian populations. The Jewish population in 430 A.D. Alexandria was very militant against Christians. The Jews in Alexandria had burned down Christian churches and were determined to persecute Christians and force them out of Egypt. Hypatia, along with the pagan population of Alexandria, sided with the Jews.  St.Cyril, bishop of Alexandria at this time was responsible for ensuring the safety and viability of the Christian church in Egypt.To that end, St. Cyril ordered the burning of the Jewish synagogues in an attempt to halt Jewish aggression. While today this would be considered a crime, in St. Cyril's time such actions were considered necessary to protect the Christian population.

Historical sources, specifically from Socrates, whose writings are considered reliable, indicate that Cyril did not instigate nor participate in the murder of Hypatia. Instead, Socrates states that Hypatia was murdered by a lector (reader) of the Christian church named Peter who led a mob to attack her. Socrates Scholasticus in his book, The Life of Hypatia writes, "Some of them, therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church.

Of Numbers and Stars does not delve into this controversy but instead focuses on imagining Hypatia's early life and her work as a philosopher and mathematician. Sadly there are few primary sources to draw on regarding Hypatia's life but author D. Anne Love weaves a story to inspire young girls.  Love begins her story with a colourful map, locating Alexandria in relation to Egypt and the Mediterranean.  Fleshing out the text are the illustrations of Pam Paparone, rendered in acrylics. The artwork has a decidely classical look which meshes nicely with the story.

Book Details:

Of Numbers and Stars: The Story of Hypatia by D. Anne Love
New York: Holiday House       2006

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Bang by Barry Lyga

Fourteen-year-old Sebastian Cody accidentally shot and killed his baby sister, Lola when he was four years old. In an effort to cope with her death all memory of her has been banished from their home by his mother; there are no photographs, no baby album, no physical reminders such as blankets or toys. "She's been extinguished. She's been erased." Sebastian has been told it was an accident, that happened on a Tuesday in June,that he pointed his father's .357 Magnum at his sister as she sat in her bouncy chair.

Ten years later, in June with the school year closing, Sebastian sneaks out of his room at night and bikes to an old, abandoned mobile home. It is here that Sebastian plans to fire another bullet.

 Sebastian's mom hides her grief well but according to Sebastian, "there is always a veil between her mirth and the world..." Dr. Kennedy who is their therapist, believes that Sebastian's mother is the one who is best dealing with what happened years ago. Unfortunately, every time either Sebastian or his mom want to talk about what happened, the other is not willing to talk.

 Sebastian's best friend is Evan Danforth, whose family is very wealthy. Sebastian and Evan have spent every past summer together, but this summer Evan is attending to Young Leaders Camp. This summer his mom wants Sebastian to be productive, to get a job. But because Sebastian believes this summer will be his last, he's not willing to act on  his mother's suggestion.

What Sebastian doesn't count on however, is meeting the new girl who just moved in across the street. When he crashes his bike outside her house Sebastian meets Aneesa Fahim who will be attending the same high school in the fall.  A second bike crash the next day in her driveway, gets Sebastian an invite into Aneesa's home so she can clean the bad scrapes on his knees. He also meets Aneesa's father who is kind and shows interest in Sebastian.

Sebastian and Aneesa's friendship blossoms throughout July. A week after Evan leaves for camp, Sebastian receives an invitation to the Fahim's Fourth of July cookout. He decides to attend and after the barbecue is over, he and Aneesa spend time talking while her parents go to the fireworks. Sebastian tells Aneesa about his ability to make great pizza and she insists that some day he make her one. Throughout July, Aneesa and Sebastian are inseparable, with Sebastian showing her around Brookdale. One of the places he takes her is to the old trailer where he plans to someday kill himself, although he does not tell Aneesa this. At this point Sebastian is beginning to wonder if there might be a chance he doesn't have to kill himself. Afterwards they return to Sebastian's house where Aneesa encourages him to make her his famous pizza. Sebastian's pizza is a success and this leads her to suggest that he should seriously consider selling his pizza. And to that end Aneesa hits on the idea that Sebastian should create his own channel on YouTube to market his pizzas.

At this time Sebastian is given an ultimatum by his mother to get a job for the summer. It is Aneesa who comes to Sebastian's rescue, selling his mother on the idea of Sebastian creating a YouTube channel that features his pizzas. His mother eventually agrees but insists that Sebastian be committed to making this work.

As Sebastian works with Aneesa to develop his YouTube channel, his perspective about his life begins to undergo a radical change. He begins to wonder if maybe he can be happy. Until a series of events pushes Sebastian over the edge.


Bang is a novel about guilt, grief, self-forgiveness and second chances, but mostly about recovering from a mistake so tragic that the consequences can never be undone.  Fourteen-year-old Sebastian Cody is collapsing under the burden of his guilt over an event he supposedly cannot remember. He accidentally shot his baby sister Lola in the head when he was four years old. No one will talk about what happened, his father has left, there is no evidence in his home or his life that Lola ever existed and he notes that "My sister is in the memory hole because I killed her." All trace of her life has been wiped from their family home, not even a photograph of her remains and at the ten year anniversary of her death, "No one said anything. No one every says anything. Nothing online. Nothing in the Sunday edition of the Lowe County Times..." He also notes that even though his sister's room has not been preserved no one has "moved on. We're all still stuck in place."

Sebastian is so burdened by his pain that he is convinced suicide is the only option left. The voice in his head tells him this. Whenever Sebastian asks the voice if it is time, it always says "No. Not yet."  But just before this summer, the voice said, "Almost. Be ready."  However, after meeting a new neighbour, Aneesa Fahim, Sebastian begins be afraid of what the voice will say. As their friendship develops he begins to rethink his plans and wonders how he will say goodbye to her in the future when his time to end his life arrives. Will he have to? "Unless...Is there any chance? Any chance at all that she could overlook my past? A chance I could stay? " This possibility is frightening to Sebastian.

Unexpectedly, Aneesa creates a sense of hope and possibility within Sebastian. He soon finds he doesn't want to ask the voice if it's time yet, because he doesn't want to know. The voice even tells him all the time he's spending with Aneesa, "cranking out pizzas and videos" is just a distraction from his gruesome end. Sebastian questions himself, "What am I doing? With the pizza stuff, with Aneesa? How have I lost sight of what's important, what matters. The plan I've had for years now, the one that was coming, marching relentlessly toward me." Sebastian promises himself he is still going to "do it."

The beginning of school sees Sebastian experience a series of events that push him towards his original plan. First his English class is assigned to write about a significant life event which to Sebastian means writing about the shooting of Lola. Then when Sebastian gets into a fight over a classmate's derogatory remark about Aneesa, comments are posted about his past and the death of Lola online. Sebastian reaches out to Aneesa for comfort only to realize that his feelings for her are not reciprocated.

This sends Sebastian into a full blown crisis. He has a violent outburst towards his English teacher, Ms. Benitez that results in his parents being called and his retired therapist, Dr. Kennedy contacting him. The voice now tells Sebastian that it's time to follow through on his plan. "It makes perfect sense, suicide does. An end to pain, to misunderstanding. An end to my existence as a walking, talking, living, breathing reminder to my mother of what was taken from her."

At this point in the novel, Lyga employs several plot twists to move the story along; information about exactly what Sebastian remembers and the reason the rundown trailer is so important to him are now revealed. Sebastian, unable to cope any longer with his pain confronts both his father and eventually his mother. He tells his father that suicide offers a means to end the pain. His father manages to show Sebastian that suicide is not the answer, telling him, "...But you got a whole life to live....Your job is to live for yourself, Sebastian. You only get one life. You get one...one chance."  He urges Sebastian to talk to his mother. Sebastian confronts his mother telling her he cannot no longer pretend that nothing has happened and that Lola never existed. "Mom, I have to talk about it. I have to, okay? I can't go on like this. I've been --" but he does not reveal that he has been contemplating suicide. Both of these encounters allow Sebastian and his parents to express and acknowledge their pain and to begin the process of healing. As a result, Sebastian comes to believe that time does not heal wounds. Instead, "We heal wounds.  Not time. Us." The  novel concludes on a positive note, with Sebastian beginning to come to terms with what happened ten years ago

Lyga was inspired to write Bang after his wife noted that there were few novels that dealt with situations where children accidentally shot a family member and how that tragedy affected these children. Although Bang tackles the issues of suicide, and to a lesser extent, gun control and prejudice, the central theme is about healing from a mistake that cannot be undone. “This book is about trying to figure out a way to move on after you have made the mistake that had never been reclaimed or fixed. No level of apology, no level of contrition, no level of atonement will ever come close to repairing the damage you’ve caused—how do you move on?The message is that one tragedy does not define a person and that as Sebastian states in his class assignment at the end, "It was an accident, but not the sort that you can apologize for and fix. You cannot repair this mistake; it lives on. So do I." And that significant events often do not change people - "Most of us just go on, the walking wounded, dealing with our lives." In the end, Sebastian refuses to be pigeon-holed as the boy who killed his sister, just as he refuses to accept Aneesa being pigeon-holed as "Muslim girl eats pizza".

Bang is written from a first person point of view and is divided into three sections, "History" which tells the backstory, "The Present" which relates Sebastian's struggle to cope with the aftermath of the events, and "Tomorrow" which lays out his change of perspective as he begins to heal. Some chapters are very short, others reading like free verse. Overall, Bang is a sensitive, well written novel that treats the subject of loss, suicide and self-forgiveness authentically and with compassion.

Book Details:

Bang by Barry Lyga
New York: Little, Brown and Company      2017

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator

Amelia Earhart and the mystery of her tragic attempt to fly around the world still captures the imagination of people everywhere. The Legend of the Lost Aviator presents Amelia's life story beginning with her childhood. Her growing up years were spent in Atchinson, Kansas in her grandparents home. Amelia and her sister, Muriel rode horses, went bike riding, and played tennis and basketball. They also loved to explore the banks of the Missouri River and to pretend to travel all over the world. This latter pastime was to foreshadow Amelia life.

After her beloved grandmother's death, Amelia's family moved frequently, meaning that she attended many different high schools. Her parents eventually separated. Muriel went to college in Toronto, Ontario, while Amelia studied near Philadelphia.

In 1917, with World War I raging, Amelia decide to become a nurses aide and moved to Toronto. Her interest in flying was piqued by a visit to a military air field with her father in 1920. A ride in a plane did exactly the opposite her father was hoping - she

It was unusual for a woman to learn to fly but Amelia managed to take lessons from Neta Snook, a female pilot and instructor. She quickly purchase her first plane, a yellow Kinner Airster, which was a small, very light plane. Although Amelia had several crashes, she remained undaunted.

For a while Amelia settled down to a somewhat normal life, working as a social worker helping immigrant families. But in 1928 Amelia received a phone call that would profoundly change her life and set in motion the events that would lead to tragedy nine years later. George Putnam, a publisher, promoter and Amelia's future husband,invited her to be a part of a flight from Trepassey, Newfoundland to Southampton, England and so become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Although she would not actually fly the plane, Amelia agreed. After this success, Amelia was inspired to not only promote flying as a means of transportation, but to undertake her own daring flights. These flights became longer, set records and became riskier. The last of those flights would be her attempt to fly with Fred Noonan, around the world in 1937. She never completed the flight and exactly what happened to her and Fred remains a mystery to this day.

Canadian award-winning author, Shelley Tanaka has written an engaging account of Amelia Earhart's life and adventures. The Legend of the Lost Aviator is filled with photographs of Amelia, her family and her husband, the planes she flew and of her life promoting flying. Tanaka used Amelia Earhart's own writings as the source for her writing, capturing the determined spirit of Amelia as the world's premier female aviator.  Accompanying Tanaka's well written text are the rich,colourful illustrations of Canadian artist, David Craig. The back of this book contains a list of books, articles and websites for further research.

For more information about Amelia Earhart readers are directed to the Smithsonian Magazine's online website. 

Those who are interested in a picture book devoted to Amelia's flight across the Atlantic should read Robert Burleigh's Night Flight.
Amelia on her aircraft before departing Miami, 1937

Book Details:

Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator
New York: Abrams Books For Young Readers 2008
48 pp.