Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Rhinos In Nebraska by Alison Pearce Stevens

Twelve million years ago, in ancient Nebraska, short, round hippos, elephants, three-toed horses, many types of camels and oreodonts roamed the grasslands. But a thousand miles away, unknown to these animals, a supervolcano erupted, spewing rock and ash into the sky. Over the next days and weeks, the ash carried downwind of the eruption continued to fall steadily.

The animals on the ancient Nebraska savanna soon found themselves breathing in the ash as they grazed and walked.Smaller animals such as turtles and birds quickly succumbed as the ash suffocated them. Larger animals like the horses, camels and hippos took much longer to die. We know all this because of the most extraordinary record contained in the Ashfall Fossil Beds.

The Ashfall Fossil Beds were first discovered in 1953, although the area was known for the bones found in a specific spot by farmers for years. That spot was called Bone Hill and it was believed that this was where cattle went to die. That's because any bones found, unlike most fossil bones were not mineralized. Farmers thought that meant they were recent.

Donald Peterson and his father James were hired by a farmer to plant rye in fields near Bone Hill. At the base of Bone Hill, Donald and James discovered the skull of an animal eroding out of the cliff face. They decided to contact University of Nebraska State Museum about their discovery and this led paleontologists Lloyd Tanner and Henry Reider to visit the site. They were able to identify the skull as that of a rhinoceras, which once roamed the Great Plains of North America! Although Tanner and Reider made field notes and noted the location of the skull, which they took back to the museum, their notes were eventually lost.

It wouldn't be until 1971 that geologists Mike and Jane Voorhies, who were mapping the area, would discover the jawbone of a baby rhino within the ten foot thick layer of volcanic ash. It was known that rhinoceras roamed what is now Nebraska over thirty million years ago. However, fossils were a rare find.When he returned the next day to remove the fossil, he discovered the entire skull and saw a vertebrae as well.  Jane did not return to the area because it was covered in poison ivy. (They eventually named it Poison Ivy Quarry.) It would be another six years before Mike returned to Poison Ivy Quarry, this time with a small team of paleontologists to help him. They would uncover the complete skeleton of the baby rhino and more skeletons. Over the next few weeks they would remove the skeletons of a dozen rhinos and three horses, taking them to the museum.With the help of John Boellstorff, who worked for the Nebraska Geological Survey, the ash was dated at approximately 10.5 million years, plus or minus 1.5 million years. At this time they did not know the source of the volcanic ash.

The following year, Mike Voorhies again returned with a bulldozer to remove the rock and soil topping the ash layer. Over the next four months, they uncovered fifty-eight rhinos. So began the remarkable discoveries that led Voorhies and other scientists to piece together the catastrophic events that led to what became known as the Ashfall Fossil Beds.


Scientist, Alison Pearce Stevens weaves together the fascinating events that paleontologists believe occurred at a watering hole almost 10 million years ago, after the eruption of a supervolcano. Stevens, who has a Ph.D in ecology, evolution and animal behaviour begins the story with the discovery of rhino bones and then goes on to describe the work of Mike Voorhies as he and other paleontologists, students and interns worked to excavate the Ashfall Fossil Beds.

Along the way, Stevens provides her young readers with information about many different aspects of the research. For example she explains how scientists dated the volcanic ash, how evidence from the skeletal remains of the animals indicated they suffered from Marie's disease and what that suggested about how they may have died.

Paleobotanists were able to use seeds in the ash to determine what the environment was like at the time of the eruption. Evidence from diatoms, tiny plant-like algae that form glass shells, helped paleobiologists determine that the water hole filled during the rainy season and dried up when the rains stopped. The distribution of types of animals who died at the water hole helped scientists determine that grazers like rhinos were more affected by the ash than browsers like deer. Michael Perkins, a geologist at the University of Utah had studied ash beds from Utah and many surrounding states. Mike Voorhies asked Perkins to try to determine where the volcano that produced the ash beds in Nebraska was located. 

Stevens shows her readers the many facets of paleontological and geological research and how geologists can piece together an event based on the information fossils, rocks and other features provide. The explanations are simple and easy to understand. There are the black and white illustrations by Matt Huynh as well as some black and white photographs of the Ashfall beds excavated over the years and housed in a special building constructed to protect them.

Budding geologists and those interested in earth history will enjoy this well written, engaging and informative book about a unique event in North American natural history. Stevens has included a Glossary, Author's Note and an Index at the back of the book.

Further information may be found at 

Rhino Resource Center's copy of Mike Voorhies 1978 paper, A Miocene Rhinoceros Herd Buried in Volcanic Ash.

Alison Pearce Stevens article from Science New for Students, Rhinos, Camels and Bone-Crushing Dogs Once Roamed Nebraska. 

Book Details:

Rhinos In Nebraska by Alison Pearce Stevens
New York: Henry Holt and Company        2021
135 pp.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Amina's Song by Hena Khan

Amina Khokar is in the final days of her visit to Lahore, Pakistan with her older brother, Mustafa and  mother. Amina and her family decided to visit Pakistan after Thaya Jaan became ill earlier in the year. Amina is at the Anarkali Bazaar hoping to purchase some gifts for her friends back home in Greendale, Wisconsin. After her cousin Zohra bargains with the shopkeepers for various items, Amina and Mustafa travel by rickshaw to Wazir Khan Mosque where they meet Mama and Amina's uncle Thaya Jaan. Being in the mosque which was built by the Emperor Shah Jahan reminds Amina of her mosque back home and how it had to be shut down for six months after it was vandalized. Thaya Jaan tells Amina's family that people who do bad things are not often evil but misguided.

At her uncles home, in the evening, Amina and Zohra sit on the rooftop terrace. Amina invites Zohra and her brother Ahmed to visit during the winter but Zohra isn't keen to do so, because she feels she won't be welcome there.

When it is time to leave, Thaya Jaan makes Amina promise to show Americans "the beauty of Pakistan".  

As Amina struggles to acclimatize to life at home, she feels her friends aren't much interested in her experiences in Pakistan.

Determined to show her friends and classmates that Pakistan is more than what they hear on the news, Amina decides to focus on Malala Yousafzai. But when her first presentation leaves the wrong impression, Amina struggles to figure out how she can show the beauty of the Pakistan she loves so much.


Amina's Song is the sequel to Khan's first novel, Amina's Voice. It picks up where the first novel left off with Amina and her family visiting family in Lahore, Pakistan. Amina experiences internal conflict as she becomes more comfortable with life in Pakistan learning to appreciate the city of Lahore and her Pakistani rootse. At the same time, Amina feels lost.

In Pakistan with her relatives, Amina struggles to fit in. "It becomes obvious that I don't quite fit in with my relatives, although the same blood runs through my veins. I don't share their language, their sense of humor, or their memories. When someone busts out with an expression, or a line of poetry, and everyone chimes in with a laugh or comment, I can't help but feel like an impostor, or a shapeshifter who appears to be a regular Pakistani girl on the outside but doesn't know how to act like one."

Amina wants to stay longer in Pakistan and learn Urdu. Her feelings are further conflicted when her cousin, Zohra refuses to visit America because she's "not wanted", leaving Amina hurt.  "She's talking about my country, the one that's a part of me and made me who I am." She reminds Zohra that there is good and bad everywhere. 

Back in America, this internal conflict continues but in a different way; Amina feels that her friends do not appreciate her culture and show little interest in what she experienced over the summer.

As a way to keep her promise to Thaya Jaan, Amina decides to focus on Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai for her class's Living Wax Museum assignment. However, after her first presentation on Malala, leaves her classmates believing that girls in Pakistan have no rights, Amina is embarrassed. Her brother Mustafa points out that people know only what they hear about a country and he reminds Amina how she was afraid to visit Pakistan.

Khan thus sets the stage for the main character to inform her young American readers about some of the contributions Pakistani women have made to their country, demonstrating that Pakistan is more than what they might hear on the news or read on the internet. As well, Amina's Baba explains that each country has its own challenges. "Every culture has shameful parts of its history and groups of people who do things that are wrong. Pakistan is no better or worse."

Khan also portrays some of the struggles an American-born child of immigrants might face, growing up in a culture with very different values. For example, Amina's mother is strict about the clothing her daughter wears to school, not allowing Amina nor her brother to wear clothing that is ripped or has holes. Amina has to convince her mother to buy her a dress for the school dance, refusing to wear the salwar kameez her mother prefers. And when she brings her new friend Nico - a boy,  home, Amina's mother shocks her by asking what his intentions are.

Overall, Amina's Song offers satisfying and positive conclusion to the story of Amina. It follows the typical formula for books about immigrant families, with the main character experiencing conflict over their identity as they struggle to navigate two cultures which usually have opposing values. Amina is a thoughtful, well drawn character who is able to see the good in both her American and Pakistani cultures, thus setting a positive tone at a time when newcomers are viewed with fear.

Book Details:

Amina's Song by Hena Khan
New York: Salaam Reads (An imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Div.)    2021
280 pp.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day

Edie Green's father is American and her mother is Native American. She knows her father has roots in Germany, England and Wales but she really doesn't know anything about her mother's family because her mother was adopted. But one summer day, while looking for her mom's Popsicle molds, Edie makes an unusual discovery.

While searching the attic for the molds with her best friends Amelia and Serenity, they discover a box containing the photograph of a young woman who looks remarkably like Edie. The eyes, nose and the shape of her cheeks are similar and like Edie she has a gap between her two front teeth. A letter dated December 14, 1973 is signed Love, Edith. Serenity asks Edie if she knows anything about her mom's family. Edie doesn't other than that her mother was adopted. She wonders who the woman in the picture is and why her parents haven't told her anything about this person who looks so much like her.While Amelia believes Edie should keep her discovery of the box a secret, Serenity thinks she should be honest with her mom.

At dinner, Edie asks her parents how they came to name her Edith since it's such an old fashioned name. But her parents don't really provide Edie with a satisfying answer and she believes they are lying to her. The next morning Edie secretly takes the box from the attic to her room, hiding it in her art chest.

After getting her braces, Edie, Amelia and Serenity begin looking through the box. They find private journals, handwritten letters, head shots of Edith and post cards. Serenity notes that all Edith's letters were sent to an address in Indianola, Washington. They also find her full name, Edith Anne Graham. A journal entry mentions Sacheen Littlefeather who rejected an Academy Award on behalf of Marlon Brando. From that entry the girls learn that Edith was inspired to travel to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film industry. 

Amelia tells Edie that she wants to use Edith Graham as the inspiration for their film project at school. However, this doesn't seem right to Edie, since she doesn't really know who this person is.

A few nights later, Edie and her parents visit her Uncle Phil's home for his birthday party. When Edie is upset and rude towards her parents, Uncle Phil sits down with her outside to talk. Edie tells him about discovering the box and the journal entry she's read. She tells her uncle that she just wants to know who Edith Graham was and why she's named after her. He encourages Edie to talk to her mom about Edith Graham and when she presses him,  is firm in telling her that it's not his story to tell.

After a breakup with her friend Amelia, and after reading more of Edith's letters, Edie discovers part of the truth and decides to confront her parents. This pushes her mother to finally tell her story to Edie, revealing the painful truth about her past and in doing so, allows Edie to embrace her heritage.


I Can Make This Promise is a story about adoption, identity and the meaning of family but at its heart is the story of a young Native American girl's journey to uncover her mother's past and her own heritage. In her Author's Note at the back, Christine Day indicates that she has drawn from her own life experience and her own family's history in crafting this engaging and timely novel. Day, like her main character, Edie Green, is the daughter of a Native American adoptee. A member of the Upper Skagit tribe, Day has incorporated many historical events and people into her novel, which makes the story realistic. This also makes I Can Make This Promise a good starting point for readers to research the Native American tribal nations of the Pacific Northwest, as well common practice of forced adoption of Native American children into white families. 

Day's treatment of the painful practice of forced adoption of Nation American children in the United States is told with sensitivity, through the character of Edie's mom as she explains how she came to be adopted. As the author mentions in her note at the back, "The goal of these coerced adoptions was to assimilate Native people into American society at the expense of tribal nations. Almost all adoptees experienced the loss of their cultures, their identities, and the complex relationships that build the foundations of Native societies." As Edie's mother explains to her, "Between the 1940's and 1970's, about one-third of Native children were separated from their families. Until Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978."

The revelation of her mother's past and her own heritage, not only strengthen Edie's relationship with her mother, but also creates in her a desire to learn more about her Native American roots. In Edie, Day has crafted a resilient, determined young girl who finally learns to trust the adults in her life and who learns to value the virtue of honesty. She also learns what makes a good friendship, like the one she has with Serenity who tells her to trust her parents, and that "Parents can be weird....They make mistakes. But they're not trying to hurt you, Edie."

Young readers will be drawn to I Can Make This Promise by the colourful cover and the high interest story, with such a relevant theme involving the Indigenous peoples of North America. This is an excellent debut novel from a promising Native American author.

Book Details:

I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day
New York: HarperCollins     2019
266 pp.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Crossing The Farak River by Michelle Aung Thin

Fourteen-year-old Hasina lives in the fictional village of Teknadaung in Rakhine state located in Burma, now called Myanmar. The village is divided into two sections by the Farak River; one side is Muslim, the other is Buddhist. Hasina lives in Eight Quarters District which is the Rohingya part of Teknadaung, with her mother Nurzamal, her father, Ibrahim, and her six-year-old brother Araf, her grandmother Dadi Asmah, as well as her Aunt Rukiah and her cousin, Ghadiya.

One day while outside, they see helicopters fly over their madrassa which is run by Aunt Rukiah. Terrified they all run inside except for Hasina who watches them stunned before she finally runs into the building. No one seems to know who the helicopters belong to.

Four years ago, during the Arakanese War, in Rakhine State everything changed. Many Rohingya in the south were forced to flee during the violence, to Thailand, Malaysia and Australia. Hasina's Aunt Rukiah and Ghadiya are refugees from the south, having fled north to Teknadaung leaving behind Uncle Rashid. Although her Aunt Rukiah grew up in the house Hasina and her family live in, she is now considered a foreigner to the district and illegal, requiring a special passport to travel.

The violence also touched the north part of Rakhine State where Hasina and her family live. Electricity, water and gas were turned off and schools were closed.  Hasina was forced to leave the government Basic Education School which Dadi Asmah paid for. Now she attends her aunt's school.

After things settle down, Nurzamal sends Hasina to take lunch to her father who has a stall in the bazaar. But because she's a refugee without a passport, Ghadiya must stay at home.

In the bazaar, Araf heads to the television located at the front of the bazaar where the Araknese stalls. There a crowd of people are watching as the announcer, speaking in Myanmar (Burmese) calls Muslims, "Chittagonian Bengali Muslims", instead of Rohingya. For Hasina, this is upsetting because it implies that the Rohingya are foreigners from Bangladesh who do not belong in Myanmar. The announcer also refers to them as terrorists. When Araf tells the people in Rohingya about the helicopter, a kindly Arakanese man changes the channel. They head to the back of the bazaar where the Rohingya stalls are.

There she meets Isak, also once a student at the government school. Forced out of school, he works in the Brothers & Sons Puppet Stall. At her father's stall, Hasina, Araf and their father sit down to eat but are interrupted when the teashop owner, U Ko Yin visits.He warns that soldiers will come to Teknadaung. After he leaves, Hasina questions her father about what is happening. He tells her, "Hasina, Sit Tat fight for a single nation. The Arakanese Army fight for an Arakanese nation. ARSA fight for a Rohingya Muslim nation. But there are other Muslims. Where do they fit in? ...If there are over one hundred and thirty-five ethnic groups in Myanmar, and many religions, then what happens if we all fight one another? Surely you can see that we are weaker separately than we are together?"

Over the next weeks, more helicopters fly overhead and police begin to patrol the streets of Teknadaung and walk through the bazaar.Nurzamal forbids Hasina from walking along the main road, and her father's stall is losing money as are all the Rohingya businesses. On the television in the bazaar, Buddhist extremists demonstrate, calling the Rohingya intruders. Eventually Aunt Rukiah closes the school. Police in blue uniforms flood into Teknadaung, confiscating anything that looks like a weapon.

And then one night, Hasina, Araf and Ghadiya are awoken and told to run and keep running. Hasina decides to take them into the forest and hide, to wait for her father and mother and grandmother to find them. As they flee, they see men with torches setting fire to buildings. After three days in the forest, Hasina, Araf and Ghadiya watch as the soldiers trucks leave Teknadaung. When they return to their village, they find their homes in ruin, burned and destroyed. Her father's stall in the bazaar and all the other Rohingya stalls are also destroyed. Even worse, Hasina is unable to locate her parents or her aunt and uncle.

With just her frail, elderly grandmother, Araf, her cousin Ghadiya and her friend Isak, Hasina begins to forge a new life. But they face starvation, the loss of their family's lands, the struggle to locate their family who fled the Myanmar soldiers as well as the dangers of human traffickers.


Crossing The Farak River explores the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, formerly Burma through the fictional story of a fourteen year old Rohingya girl, Hasina.  The Rohingya are an ethnic minority group, who live in Myanmar. Most Rohingya, who have lived for centuries in Burma/Myanmar, are Muslim. However, Myanmar which is predominantly Buddhist, does not recognize the Rohingya as one of the country's large number of minority groups. They have been denied citizenship since 1982 and therefore are considered stateless. Most of the Rohingya live in the western state of Rakhine.

The British occupation and rule of Burma from 1824 to 1948 set the stage for what is happening today (as in so many other countries that were part of the British Empire). Britain also administered India and the area which today is known as Bangladesh. During this time, a significant influx of workers into Burma from India and Bangladesh occurred. The people already living in Burma were not supportive of this influx of people with a very different culture. When Burma gained its independence from Britain in 1948, the Union Citizenship Act passed by the Burmese government defined which ethnic groups were considered citizens. The Rohingya were not included but could apply for identity cards if their families had lived in Burma for at least two generations.

In 1962 a military coup brought new rules to Burma. Everyone was required to obtain national identity cards but the Rohingya were given foreign identity cards. In 1982, under General Ne Win, the situation changed again, when the Rohingya were made stateless by not being considered citizens of Burma. The only way to obtain even the most basic of citizenship was for a Rohingya to prove they had lived in Burma prior to 1948. Few had such papers. 

In 1989, the country's name was changed to Myanmar and in 1990, free multi-party elections were held. The National League for Democracy (NLD)won the election but the military junta refused to acknowledge the results. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD won the national elections and she assumed the role of  State Counsellor of Myanmar. By this time the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya was international news. 

By this time, the Rohingya had been fleeing Rakhine for decades. In the 1970's they lost the right to freely travel throughout the country, to access health care and higher education.  In 2016, actions against the Rohingya increased dramatically. Rohingya experienced beatings, unlawful arrest and the burning of their villages: the Myanmar government was accused of carrying out ethnic cleansing in Rakhine. The reports by the Rohingya of rape, murder and the destruction of  hundreds of Rohingya villages had been corroborated by satellite evidence, witness reports and the discovery of mass graves.

Michelle Aung Thin provides young readers with what appears to be a very realistic portrayal of life in a Rohingya village in Crossing The Farak River. This is done through the main character, Hasina whose family, like most other Rohingya are struggling to live a life as normal as possible but who have experienced violence and discrimination. Hasina, her family, and her relatives have already experienced the loss of certain civil rights, such as Hasina's right to attend government schools. The government has simply made the schools so expensive that the Rohingya can no longer afford to attend them. This injustice has greatly affected Hasina who loves math and wants to learn. Her father has experienced discrimination in his business with his stall being placed at the back of the bazaar. Her mother, Nurzamal has changed from a happy, carefree woman into someone "obsessed with doing things the right way." Her Uncle Rashid and Aunt Rukiah and cousin Ghadiya are refugees from the southern part of Rakhine, witnessing horrors that they cannot speak about. Their family is separated with Rashid living in Bangladesh.

Crossing The Farak River also portrays the effects of long-term discrimination can have on an ethnic group. Hasina notes that "...Among the Rohingya, it is only the old people who have been to university." Each successive generation of Rohingya is less educated. Hasina, unlike her grandmother Dadi Asmah has little chance to attend university in Sittwe. 

Aung Thin's story conveys the humanity of the Rohingya people, showing them to be like everyone else, with dreams and the desire to have their own land and to belong. Hasina is a strong, courageous, resourceful young girl who is determined to protect her brother Araf. She risks her life to save both her brother and another boy from being trafficked as slave labour. Readers cannot help but feel deep empathy for Hasina and the injustice of her situation.

Crossing The Farak River whose title refers to the river in Hasina's fictional town, Teknadaung that divides the Buddhist and Muslim Rohingya areas is a well written and evocative novel that will offer young readers a starting point to learning more about the Rohingya, Myanmar and how intolerance can lead to the most inhuman actions.

Book Details:

Crossing the Farak River by Michelle Aung Thin
Toronto: Annick Press      2020
216 pp.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Girl Who Loved Giraffes by Kathy Stinson

Anne Innis's love of giraffes began with a trip to her local zoo when she was a young girl. Anne was the daughter of Harold Innis who was a professor and Mary Quayle Innis who was a writer. The giraffes so intrigued Anne that she wanted to know all about these unusual animals.

Since she loved reading about animals, Anne set out to find books about giraffes but there weren't any. However in an encyclopedia, Anne learned that giraffes live only in the grasslands and woods of Africa. She was determined to go to Africa to study them. That meant working hard and saving.

Anne saved her allowance and eventually got a summer job. She studied biology at university and earned a gold medal and prize money. Soon she had enough to travel to Africa. All she needed was a place to stay. Anne wrote to thirteen African wildlife organizations and universities outlining her plans. She was rejected by all of them. Undaunted, Anne wrote another letter, this time signing it A. Innis. This meant that the reader would not know she was a woman. Alexander Matthew wrote back telling Mr. Innis he would be able to stay at his ranch and bunk with the cowhands!

Anne set out on her journey to Africa, travelling by train at Toronto to Montreal where she boarded a ship that took her to London. While in England she wrote to Alexander Matthew signing it Anne Innis. Then she boarded a ship to South Africa. Once in South Africa, Anne still had a thousand miles to travel to the Matthew ranch so she bought herself a car. But before setting out she received a letter from Mr. Matthew explaining that he believed she was a man and that she could not stay at his ranch. But after a letter pleading to be allowed to stay, Matthew relented, offering Anne his daughter's old bedroom. After a struggle to get to the Matthew ranch, Anne settled in and began her dream of observing giraffes. Her time in South Africa led her to make many interesting and new discoveries about giraffes.

Although she achieved her dream of travelling to Africa to study giraffes, Anne encountered many obstacles as she attempted to obtain a university teaching position. But she was turned down because she was a woman. She co-authored a book, The Giraffe and she continued through the years to work to help students learn now to write and do research. More than fifty years after her adventure in Africa, Anne was invited to a first ever conference on giraffes. And when giraffologists became concerned about the declining numbers of giraffes, Anne returned to Africa to learn what was being done to save these unique animals.


In The Girl Who Loved Giraffes the story of pioneering Canadian giraffologist Anne Innis Dagg is told. Anne's story has been one of extraordinary accomplishments and surprising obscurity and Stinson portrays all of this in this detailed children's picture book.

Anne Christine was born in 1933 in Toronto, Ontario to Harold Innis a political economy professor at the University of Toronto and to author, Mary Quayle. While on holiday with her family in Chicago, in 1936, she visited the Brookfield Zoo. There, as a three-year-old toddler, she was in awe of the giraffes. After attending the Anglican boarding school, Bishop Strachan, Anne went on to earn a B.A. in Biology in 1955. As the top student, earning a gold medal, she hoped to travel to Africa to begin her study of giraffes. To that end, she began writing officials in Tanzania (then called Tanganyika), Kenya and Uganda without any success.

While pursuing a masters in genetics at the University of Toronto, Anne learned about Alexander Matthew whose land was home to giraffes. She was able to obtain an invitation to come and study them. Matthew did not know Anne was a young woman. In 1956, at the age of twenty-three, using only the money she had saved herself, Anne travelled to South Africa. As Stinson relates in her picture book, Anne did reveal her gender to Mr. Matthew and after pleading with him, he allowed her to stay at his farmhouse.

Anne spent the next six months observing and recording giraffes. Since no one prior to Anne had studied giraffes, she became a world expert as she discovered many interesting things about their behaviour and physiology.  

Anne returned to Southern Ontario, working to earn a Ph.D, which she accomplished at the University of Waterloo in 1967, and to become a teaching professor (to research giraffes in the summer) which she was not able to obtain. In 1967, it was almost impossible for women to obtain a teaching position at a university in Ontario. Anne encountered many rejections, not because she wasn't qualified, but because she was a married woman. So she taught part time and raised her family of three children.

Anne's life story is one example of how stereotypes and barriers based on gender have impacted women's professional and personal lives. Although Anne was able to push back against these barriers to some degree it would be decades before things significantly changed. Nevetheless, it was her determination and resourcefulness that got her to South Africa, a country with its apartheid system. 

Author Kathy Stinson was able to meet and get to know Anne Innis Dagg as she researched for her book.Stinson first encountered Anne Innis Dagg and her remarkable work with giraffes at a film screening in Guelph. The film, "The Woman Who Loves Giraffes" was offered at the Bookshelf Cinema and was followed by Anne speaking as a guest panelist. Stinson knew then that she had to tell Anne's story. Accompanying Stinson's informative text are the rich illustrations of Francois Thisdale.

The Girl Who Loved Giraffes is an inspiring story of determination and resourcefulness. Imagine what Anne might have accomplished had she been allowed to continue her research on giraffes. Her story highlights the personal and professional cost of sexism and racism. But the story of Anne Innis Dagg is also an inspiration to young women everywhere to pursue their dreams, no matter what.

Book Details:

The Girl Who Loved Giraffes: And Became The World's First Giraffologist by Kathy Stinson
Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry & Whiteside     2021
56 pp.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Sugar In Milk by Thrity Umrigar

When the young girl first came to America she felt so alone.Her auntie and uncle did all they could to make her feel welcome. They painted her bedroom purple and filled it with books and toys.But the young girl missed her friends and her mother and father and her cats, Kulfi and Baklava. While her auntie and uncle were at work, the young girl was left alone in her room. She longed to make new friends and felt overwhelmed with loneliness. One day while on a walk, Auntie told her a story:

In ancient Persia, there lived a group of people who were forced to leave and seek refuge in another country. They built several boats and sailed to India where they begged to be given shelter. However, the local king refused because he felt that his land was too crowded  and because they looked different and spoke a different language. So the king went to the seashore and ordered the Persian travellers to leave. However, because they did not speak the same language, these newcomers did not understand. To show them what he meant he ordered his servant to bring him an empty glass and milk. The king filled the glass to the brim with milk. This was his way of telling them that his kingdom was filled with people and that there was no room for the newcomers. 

The Persian travellers were tired and hungry and disappointed to be turned away. But their leader, who was very wise, had a plan. And that plan involved a teaspoon of sugar.

The wise Persian leader mixed the sugar into the milk without spilling a single drop of milk. His message to the king was that they would live in peace and sweeten the live of the people of India.

The king understood, and joyfully welcomed the Persians. And they kept their promise.

When Auntie was done her story, the young girl's outlook had changed. She began to smile at people on the street and in return they smiled back. It wasn't long before she began to feel less lonely and more like America was her new home.


Sugar In Milk retells an ancient Persian legend in the Parsis, descendants of the followers of Zoroaster were allowed to settle in India.

Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that was founded in the 6th century B.C. The descendants of Zoroastrian Iranian immigrants are known as Parsis.

Iran was conquered by Arab Muslims in 651 A.D. At first they tolerated the Zoroastrian religion but this began to change in the 7th and 8th centuries when various limits were placed on the faith. this resulted in many Zoroastrian's fleeing to the Gujarat region of India. There the local ruler, Jadhav Rana, concerned that his area might become overwhelmed, presented a cup of milk filled to the brim, to the Parsi priest. The message was that there was no room in his country for these newcomers. Undaunted, the Parsi priest put sugar into the milk, indicating that his people could sweeten the country while not displacing those already there. Jadhav Rana agreed to allow the Parsi exiles to settle in the area with certain conditions. They had to wear the local dress, respect his people's culture and learn the local language.

In Sugar in Milk, the lesson Auntie is attempting to explain to the young girl is that she has something to offer to America and that her presence in her new country is like the sugar in the milk: it will sweeten the culture, adding something to it. Accompanying the story are the exquisite digital illustrations which capture the Persian element of the legend. Many of the illustrations, created by illustrator Khoa Le, who lives in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam incorporate images of the peacock or peacock feathers, a prominent motif in Persian art.

Sugar In Milk is a beautiful picture book based on an interesting Persian legend with captivating illustrations that teaches the important lessons of acceptance and understanding.

Book Details:

Sugar In Milk by Thrity Umrigar
New York: Running Press Kids     2020

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna

It is April 17, 1975 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge have seized the city, after five years of fighting the American-backed Khmer Republic.While most cheered the victory believing that it was necessary to free themselves from American imperialism, they were not certain about the future.

Khim attempts to leave Phnom Penh Hospital with some medical supplies but he is stopped by soldiers.He tells them that his wife is about to give birth and that he needs to get home.When one of the Khmer Rouge soldiers sees that he's a doctor he tells Khim to go quickly. When his superior returns, he tells him he was not a spy. The leave to being forcing people to leave the city.

Uncle Key stops by to see Vanny and Kongcha and their son Samay. While Key believes that the end of the war means equality and prosperity, Kongcha isn't so certain. He doesn't trust the communists. But Key believes the Khmer Rouge will prove they can govern Cambodia. Kongcha is worried about Vuthy who has come to their home with his family. Vuthy was a lieutenant in the Republican army and is hiding his weapons and uniform in the back yard.

After Key leaves, their neighbour Mey shows up looking for her husband and daughter. The Khmer Rouge have forced them out of their home, her husband beaten when he tried to reason with them. There was an explosion and then Mey lost track of her family. 

Meanwhile Kongcha's daughter Lina comes downstairs and tells her father Kongcha and her mother Vanny that the Houys next door are leaving. Kongcha tells her they will wait until Khim returns but will start packing. Khim tells his family that things are becoming dangerous. So Kongcha and Vanny along with Reth, Phara, Sokha, Koliane, Khim and Lina, along with Lina's parents, Vuthy and Durmay and her brothers and her sister Chenda and her husband Mori and their son, all leave Phnom Penh. As they drive out, they see everyone else leaving as well, and that stores are being looted.Reth sees his math professor who tells him that the Khmer Rouge's claim that the city will be bombed by the Americans is not true, that instead the Khmer Rouge intend to relocate every one and want to reform society. 

They travel across the Bassac River to Ta Prom. There Khim is recognized by a man whose son he delivered. The man offers them a place to stay. That night Lina gives birth to a baby boy they name Chan. Thankfully Lina and Khim manage to meet up with her parents.Khim and Sokha return to Phnom Penh and learn that the Khmer Rouge is asking all senior officials including doctors, managers and engineers to  return to the city. Everyone else must return to their home villages to return to tilling the soil. While in the city, Khim and Sokha witness the Khmer Rouge murdering people.

That night Khim suggests they travel to Battambang where his parents live rather than return to the Phnom Penh. They decide to take apart the cars keeping the wheels and the gas. They cross the Mekong River in three boats, arriving at Rakakong. They stay in the pagoda where there are many soldiers wearing black uniforms, the Khmer Rouge. There they are ordered to report to the pagoda office.They are told they must write everything about themselves. The next morning they are ordered by the Khmer Rouge soldiers to get into boats that will take them to Kompong Cham. However, before they get into the boats, a man intervenes, telling the soldiers that they are his family. When Kongcha asks the man why he would do this for them, he identifies himself as Rong who worked at the ice factory. Rong tells them that he intervened because every morning the soldiers leave with a boatload of people who are all former bureaucrats and intellectuals. There are rumours that the boat stops in the middle of the Tonle Sap Lake and returns empty. His nephew saw the boat being cleaned of blood stains.

Khim and his family cross the river and begin their journey to Battambang. On the other side they craft a cart with the car wheels and pull the two carts along the road. They also train their children to lie about what their parents did prior to the Khmer Rouge taking over. By mid-August 1975 Khim's family had reached the river near the town of Kompong Thom. Kongcha meets a former employee named Song who is now a member of the Khmer Rouge but he doesn't know whether or not he can be trusted.They also meet Khim's Uncle Vithya. When Khim tells him they are travelling to Battambang, Vithya tells him they will never be allowed into the village. Instead the Khmer Rouge are rounding up people to send them into the countryside. Kongcha tells Khim and Lina to stay with Vithya, which they do.They meet Ming Vy, Vithya's daughter Nary, Dany and Phalla and their cousins Bo and Thy. 

Bo tells Vithya they also want to go to Battambang and he has a plan. It involves sneaking through the checkpoint between 2 and 4am. However, the plan fails when several other family members don't wake them and Kongcha, Vanny, Khim, Lina, Vithya and his family are left behind. Vithya tries to present a fake permit but the Khmer Rouge do not accept it because it is not stamped.They are arrested and Khim and Vithya's families are sent to a village to be "re-educated according to the principles of Angkar." Song who is assigned to help relocate those not from the countryside, takes them to his village of Roneam. 

It will be several years of terror, starvation, hard labour and indoctrination before the Khmer Rouge are defeated and Khim and his family have the chance to escape and reclaim their lives.


Year of the Rabbit tells the story of one family's experiences under the Khmer Rouge as they imposed communist rule throughout Cambodia. The country had been a colony of France, finally achieving independence in 1953. At that time Cambodia was led by King Norodom Sihanouk. Although Cambodia was neutral in the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong's use of Cambodia as a haven for its soldiers and its supply lines, led the United States to bomb the country from 1965 to 1973. In 1970 a coup d'etat by Lon Nol, removed Sihanouk and led to the start of the Cambodian Civil War. Eventually the Khmer Rouge, initially supported by Sihanouk in the early part of the war, would win, overthrowing Nol and take control of the country in 1975. Under their leader, Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge established a totalitarian regime: the cities were evacuated and the population forced into the countryside to work on farms. Ethnic minorities, intellectuals and former government officials as well as anyone who opposed the Khmer Rouge, were mass murdered. It is estimated almost two million people were killed. Eventually the Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese who invaded the country in 1978. Elections held in 1981 did not provide stability as the government was not recognized internationally.  In 1991, a peace agreement resulted in Sihanouk heading up a coalition government.

There is no doubt that Tian Veasna's family's story is an important one that must be told, but using the graphic novel format may not have been the most effective means to do so. The story is complex with many characters and it was difficult at times to determine the identity of the different family members in some of the comic panels, as the story unfolds. However, the family tree at the front of the novel helps immensely as do the maps showing their journey and the pages explaining some of the Khmer propaganda, the structure of the Khmer government, and events such as the Vietnamese invasion.

Year of the Rabbit captures the terror of life under the Khmer Rouge. Veasna portrays many situations in which the Khmer Rouge brutalized their own people including Khim and Lina's family members. After fleeing Phnom Penh, Khim and Sokha witness a Khmer Rouge firing squad executing people. On their way to Battambang, Khim and his family enter a village where everyone has been murdered.  When they are relocated to the village of Roneam, the Khmer Rouge single out anyone with an education or who worked for the government. These people are then taken away to be murdered. Living conditions in the rural villages are terrible, with little food and hard labour in the fields. The prisons are even worse, where inmates are chained together and soil themselves. Lina's father, Kongcha dies in a prison where these conditions overwhelm him. No one knows for sure who they can trust and people denounce one another. Vithya denounces someone but when the man successfully proves he is mistaken, Vithya is thrown into a pit to be eaten alive by crocodiles. 

Despite the horrors, the account is filled with many small miracles Khim and Lina's family experience. For example, when they are at the pagoda a man who once worked for Khim intervenes, claiming Khim and his family are relatives. The Khmer Rouge relent and do not force the family into boats that would have taken them into the lake to be murdered. And ultimately, when the Khmer Rouge are deposed, Khim and Lina and many surviving family members are able to leave Cambodia and start new lives in other countries, although their experiences haunt them.

Year of the Rabbit is a novel that needs to be read by young readers. Besides a story of survival, resiliency and courage, it holds lessons in tolerance, acceptance and warns future generations what can happen when we stop striving to live in peace with each other and when we see differences as reasons to hate.

Readers may want to learn more about Cambodia and the Pol Pot regime: 

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

The World FactBook 

Yale University's Genocide Studies Program: Cambodian Genocide

Book Details:

Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna
Drawn & Quarterly     2020
376 pp.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Girl With A Mind For Math by Julia Finley Mosca

When Raye Montague was only seven years old, her grandfather took her to see her first ship. This ship was a submarine and it astounded Raye. 

She was told engineers built the ship but that she didn't need to know about that. The meaning was clear, that as a girl it wasn't something she needed to ever be involved in. However, Raye decided that she wanted to build ships and therefore needed to be an engineer.  Her mother encouraged her, telling her not to let people tell dissuade her, just because she is a girl, because she's black or because she did not graduate from a good high school. Segregated schools like the one Raye would attend often offered a lower quality of education than schools attended by white students.

So, gifted in math, Raye read plenty of books and taught herself. But when it came to applying to college, she was told that engineering was not taught to black students!

So Raye enrolled in a business program, graduating with honours.  Eventually she got a job typing where submarines were built. In her job at the Navy, Raye paid close attention, watching the engineers as they worked, learning what they did. She also took computer classes at night.

When the entire staff came down with the flu, Raye not only did her job but theirs as well. Her boss was stunned. Despite this, he continued to treat her badly. Then the president of the United States ordered a submarine to be built quickly, so Raye used a computer program to design a ship in just over eighteen hours!Unbelievably, Raye was not invited when the ship was launched. Only white men could attend.

It would take many years for Raye to achieve the recognition she deserved but it did come eventually. Eventually she became the first woman to lead ship design. Other honours soon followed.


The Girl With A Mind is a story about perseverance, determination and the courage to follow one's dreams. Raye Montague was born in Little Rock, Arkansas to Rayford and Flossie Jordan on January 21, 1935. It was during World War II that her grandfather took her to see a captured German submarine that was on exhibition. Intrigued by the submarine, Raye asked a man at the exhibition what a person needed to know in order to make such a machine. He told her that engineers build ships but that she didn't need to worry about learning such things. The implication of course was that as a young black girl she would never grow up to be an engineer. But Raye's mother had already prepared her daughter for the many obstacles she would face in life, telling her she was black, a female and went to a poor school.

Raye graduated from Merrill High School in Pine Bluff in 1952 and went on to earn a Bachelor's Degree in Business from the Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College in 1956. At this time, African Americans could not earn an engineering degree from colleges in Arkansas. Raye, now twenty-one-years old, began working as a typist a the David Taylor Model Basin. She then moved to Naval Ship Engineering Center where she was a digital computer systems operator. Raye had taken computer courses at night as a way to continue learning and upgrading her skills. When she was required to work night shifts, Raye bought a car and taught herself to drive. There was no public transit at night. 

In 1971, Raye became the first person to design a naval ship using a computer. This happened during the Vietnam War and the request was made by then President Richard Nixon. Normally it would take at least two years to draft the plans for a new ship, but using a computer, Raye accomplished this in just over eighteen hours. This amazing accomplishment earned her the Navy's third highest award, the Meritorious Civilian Service award in 1972.

Raye had a distinguished career in the Navy: she was the Navy's first female program manager and was also a program manager of information systems improvement. She was also recognized by the engineering profession when she was awarded the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Achievement Award in 1978, the first woman to do so. She also finally achieved what she so desperately wanted years ago as an aspiring seven year old, her professional engineer credentials in both the United States and Canada!

Like many other African American women scientists, engineers and mathematicians, Raye Montague's achievements went unnoticed for decades. Raye's success was achieved through hard work, determination, and the courage to excel despite facing many obstacles. The Girl With A Mind For Math especially highlights these qualities that Raye Montague had. The message Raye has for young readers is not to give in, to take a chance and never quit working towards what you really want!

Author Julia Finley Mosca was able to speak at length with Raye and was given access to some personal photographs. Raye passed away on October 10, 2018 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Mosca has crafted a simple retelling of Raye Montague's life, using rhyming verse. The accompanying artwork by illustrator Daniel Rieley help to flesh out Raye's remarkable story.

Included in the back matter is a section based on the author's conversations with Raye, titled Facts and Tidbits from the Author's Chat with Raye!, a timeline of her life and achievements and a detailed biography, About Raye Montague. 

The Girl With A Mind For Math is an inspiring story that encourages girls from all walks of life to dream big.

Book Details:

The Girl With A Mind For Math: The Story of Raye Montague by Julia Finley Mosca
Seattle, WA: The Innovation Press     2018

Monday, August 23, 2021

White Bird by R.J. Palacio

White Bird picks up the story of Julian Albans from Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Julian was the boy who bullied Auggie Pullman.Julian reaches out to his grandmere who lives in France to help him with a school assignment. Julian is attending a new school, Beecher High. He tells Grandmere that he still feels badly about how he treated Auggie over his facial deformity. His grandmere tells him that it is what we do after learning from our mistakes that matters most. Julian tells her that he wants to write his essay for school about her life. Grandmere is initially reluctant but then agrees to tell him the whole story even though it will be very difficult.

Grandmere's story begins with her life in the 1930's in France. At that time her name was Sara Blum and she lived in the village of Aubervilliers-aux-Bois in the Margeride mountains with her father Max, a renowned surgeon and her mother Rose, a math teacher and one of the first women to earn an advanced degree in mathematics. Her early life was idyllic, living in a comfortable home with beautiful furniture, pretty clothes and many toys. In the spring, Sara and her parents would picnic on the edge of the ancient forest called the Mernuit which surrounded their village. At this time the forest floor was covered with bright blue and violet bluebells, making it a magical place.

In June 1940, France surrendered to Nazi Germany, dividing the country into two zones, the Occupied zone and the Free Zone.Aubervilliers-aux-Bois was located in the Free Zone. This meant that life went on mostly the same for Sara; she was able to ride her scooter to school, walk to the market with friends and go to the cinema. But soon the Vichy government began to pass laws restricting what French Jews could do. They were banned from certain public places, they had Juif or Jew, stamped on their identity cards and soon an anti-Jewish propaganda campaign began, blaming Jews for the troubles in France. 

In the summer of 1942, Jews in the Occupied Zone were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothing. The Vel' d'Hiv roundup also took place in July. This was the mass arrest of 13,000 foreign Jews who were sent to a stadium in Paris. They were placed on trains and deported to the east, to concentration camps.

Sara found her school, the Ecole Lafayette to be a haven. In the spring of 1943, one day during math class, Sara was found daydreaming and sketching in her book. Although Mademoiselle Petitjean was kind, Sara fled the class when the bell rang, leaving behind her sketchbook. It was fortunately retrieved by her seatmate, a boy called Tourteau which means crab. This was not his real name but an unkind nickname given by his classmates because he used crutches after a bout of polio left his legs too weak to walk.  People said he had contracted polio from his father who worked in the sewers.

When Tourteau returns Sara's book she thanks him, but doesn't intervene when another classmate, Vincent pushes him to the ground. Vincent is very handsome and many of the girls have a crush on him. But when he makes an anti-Semitic remark to Sara after praising her drawing, she feels humiliated and angry. Her friends, Marianne and Sophie try to comfort Sara, telling her that his father works for the Nazis, but she now knows life has changed.

When Sara tells her parents what happened, they argue over leaving France. While her father wants to leave, her mother believes that things will improve. That night Papa asks Sara to promise to continue wearing her winter boots even though it is April. Although Sara promises, the next morning she takes them off and wears her pretty red shoes to school. 

That day in school, during math class, Pastor Luc enters Mademoiselle Petitjean's class. Mademoiselle asks Sara and Ruth to come with her. She tells them that there has been a round up of the Jews in Aubervilliers-aux-Bois and that the Nazis are on their way to the school to take the Jewish children. A maquisard will take them and the other Jewish students to hide in the forest. Sara has no coat so Mademoiselle offers her scarf.  When the maquisard started running toward the woods with the twelve Jewish students, Sara did not follow. Instead she runs back into the school and hides in the bell tower. Sara doesn't want to ruin her beautiful red shoes.

When the Nazis arrive, Pastor Luc almost succeeds in convincing them that none of the Jewish students have shown up for school. But just when they are about to leave, Vincent yells to the Nazis that they have fled into the woods.  With the new snow, the soldiers are able to easily follow the tracks of the children and the maquisard whose name is Antoine. The Nazis execute Antoine and take the children away in the truck despite Pastor Luc and Mademoiselle's attempts to convince them to let the children go. Mademoiselle decides to accompany the children. Only Ruth survived the ordeal; they were taken to the camp at Beaune-la-Rolande and then forced to march in the snow to Pithiviers. The younger children could not keep up so Mademoiselle stayed with them. They were never heard from again.

Still hidden in the bell tower, Sara watches as the two gendarmes search for the three children who are missing from the roundup. Suddenly Tourteau appears in the tower, and tells Sara to follow him. He leads her out of the school, through the sewers to his home in Dannevilliers, fifteen kilometers from her own town. There he takes her to a dilapidated barn across from his home. When Sara tries to thank him, he asks her to call him by his real name, Julien Beaumier.

As Julien and his family work to keep Sara safe, she lives each day with the fear that she might be discovered and taken away to a camp. Although she learns the fate of her mother, Sara doesn't know what has happened to her father, her friends or her teacher until much later. As the days pass, and Sara and Julien's friendship blossoms, the danger of being discovered only increases. Little do they realize just how much danger Julien is in.


White Bird builds on the story told in Palacio's first novel, Wonder and in the short stories from Auggie and Me. In this new story, told in graphic novel format, Julian Albans reaches out to his grandmere Sara, to learn about what happened to her during World War II, as part of a school assignment. Her life story offers him some important lessons for his own journey.

Julian was the class bully and treated Auggie terribly. Now he's ashamed of how he acted. However, Grandmere reminds Julian that it what we do after we have learned from our mistakes that is the most important thing. Our mistakes do not define us. Julian's grandmere wasn't too harsh on her grandson because she recognized that youth often make mistakes and don't always understand the significance of events when they are young. For example, in her story, Sara is more concerned about her beautiful red shoes. As a result, she disobeys her father and doesn't wear her winter boots to school. Then again she disobeys the adults at her school and runs off to hide instead of following the maquisard into the woods. When she witnesses the murder of the maquisard in the schoolyard, suddenly Sara's red shoes seem very unimportant.

One lesson Grandmere has for Julian is to encourage him to be someone who has a light inside him, rather than a person attracted to the darkness. Grandmere tells Julian how she questioned her father about why the Nazis hate Jews. Her father explains that he believes "...that all people have a light that shines inside of them. This light allows us to see into other people's hearts, to see the beauty there. The love. The sadness. The humanity. Some people though have lost this light. They have darkness inside them, so that is all they see in others: darkness. No beauty. No love. Why do they hate us? Because they cannot see our light. Nor can they extinguish it. As long as we shire our light, we win. That is why they hate us. Because they will never take our light from us."

At the end of her story, Julian tries to understand how the Holocaust could have happened. His grandmere tells him, "Evil is only stopped when good people finally come together to put an end to it. There must be the will." She encourages Julian to act, "If you see injustice, you will fight it. You will speak out." At the end of her story, Grandmere tells Julian, "...It always takes courage to be kind." Kindness can become a light and offer hope.

White Bird is a work of historical fiction that was both written and illustrated by Palacio. The graphic novel is divided into three parts as well as a Prologue and an Epilogue, separated by a black blank page, each with a thought-provoking quote. The illustrations, created digitally are exquisitely coloured, especially the panels showcasing the bluebells in the Mernuit forest.The title of the novel is taken from the motif of the white bird symbolizing freedom, that is found throughout the novel.

Palacio, in her Glossary writes that White Bird  "... was not based on any one person's story, but was influenced by the many inspiring stories I've read over the years about children who went into hiding during the Holocaust and the ordinary citizens who helped them." Stories like White Bird are important not only because they help others learn about and from the Holocaust, but to also because they inspire readers to work towards creating a world free of discrimination and prejudice. 

The graphic novel format is the perfect vehicle to do just this, to engage and inform young readers about such important topics like the Holocaust, bullying and prejudice in a way that is not overwhelming. Using this format has allowed author/illlustrator Palacio to highlight both acts of cruelty and acts of courage and kindness.

White Bird is a fitting addition to the Wonder story.

Book Details:

White Bird by R.J. Palacio
New York:  Alfred A. Knopf     2019
220 pp.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

My Indian by Mi'sel Joe and Sheila O'Neill

My Indian is a historical fiction account of Sylvester Joe, a Mi'kmaq guide who accompanied William Epps Cormack, a Canadian Scottish explorer who journeyed across the interior of Newfoundland in 1822. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Cormack's journey had three aims, one of them to establish contact with the Beothuk, an reclusive First Nations people who had fled north to avoid the Europeans.

The story is told in two parts; Suliewey's Tale and Sylvester's Tale. Suliewey's Tale begins with his birth and his naming, Suliewey because his black hair had a streak of silver like that of his grandfather. He was given the name of Sylvester later, when he was baptized by the Catholic missionaries.

When Sylvester was young, he was taken everywhere by his parents in a cradleboard made for him by his grandfather. He watched the hunting of the qalipu, helped them to clean the hides so they could be used to make clothing. His grandmother taught him about the plants to be used as medicines. When Suliewey was growing up everyone worked together in the village. People ate together, prayed, sang and laughed together. They gave thanks to the animals and plants for what they supplied to keep their people alive."All young Mi'kmaw people were taught the language of the land. They were given the landmarks to recognize, so that when they were out by themselves, they would know what to look for. Wayfinding was taught by using the stars...Suliewey learned from the land, even as he grew up on it." 

 One night Suliewey awoke to hear his grandfather speaking to someone in a different language. When Suliewey questioned Grandfather about this he was told they must go to the Pmaqtin, the Sacred Mountain to seek answers from the Wuklatmu'jk, or little people. On their way to the mountain they came across tracks of the Beothuk, the people from the north who seems also be headed in the same direction. One night by the fire, Grandfather tells Suliewey his story. When he was a boy out with his family gathering berries, Grandfather wandered away from them. After resting at a stream, he awoke to find a large man covered in red ochre staring at him. This man carried Grandfather away to his own people, the Red Indians. He was then taken to their main campsite, a journey of many weeks away from his home. 

Eventually Grandfather adapted to the ways of his new tribe, befriending a Beothuk woman who helped him to pray and learning their language. Two years after his capture, when Grandfather was eight years old, he managed to run away. He encountered two Mi'kmaw men near a lake. Because he was covered in red ochre, they thought he was a Beothuk, but he spoke to them in Mi'kmaq and told them his story. Eventually he was reunited with his grandfather and grandmother, and parents. Grandfather tells Suliewey that the man who came to talk to him was the son of the man that had captured him so long ago.He told Grandfather that they are going to the Sacred Mountain to pray and that they are very afraid of the white men and what they are doing to the Beothuk.The white men are shooting the Beothuk.Now Grandfather is careful because he does not want to lead the white men to the Beothuk.

When Suliewey was sixteen, he journeyed from Miawpukek to Nujio'qonikllek also called St. George's Bay by the Europeans. After staying overnight with others from Miawpukek, Suliewey stowed away on a schooner that was travelling to U'nama'kik (Cape Breton Island). At U'nama'kik Suliewey walked to a village called Membertou. He travelled around Nova Scotia where he learned more about his own people and also went trapping with several Mi'kmaw Elders.Eventually Suliewey returned home, telling his village about his travels that also included trips to Mikl'n, a French island off the Newfoundland coast, a stay on Pass Island as well as stays near Gaultois Island and Roti Bay.

Suliewey spent the winter trapping furs with his grandfather and then in the spring took his furs to Hermitage. IT was here that Suliewey learned that a white man named Cormack in St. John's was looking for a Mi'kmaw guide to lead him across Newfoundland in search of the Beothuk people. Back in his village, Suliewey discussed this with his grandfather and the other Elders. Suliewey's grandfather tells him that if he decides to act as a guide, he cannot take him to where the Beothuk people live as he will be responsible for their deaths.

Suliewey travels to St. John's where he eventually meets up with Cormack. William Cormack, after announcing that Suliewey is "my Indian" informs him that he intends to take him on a one hundred and fifty mile walk to test his fidelity. This both puzzles and offends Suliewey but he agrees to do the walk. The two make the journey from Holyrood to Placentia in July and then prepare for the larger journey across Newfoundland in search of the Beothuk. But the time spent with Cormack has only made Suliewey more determined to ensure Cormack never comes near the Beothuk.


My Indian is a fascinating account of a real historical event that occurred in 1822. Told by Mi'sel Joe and Sheila O'Neill from the perspective of Sylvester Joe, My Indian reclaims the story from European authors. The title is a reference to Cormack's way of addressing Sylvester Joe whom he considered to be "My Indian". In the novel, Sylvester frequently returns the favour by referring to Cormack as " nei'n Aqalasie'w" or "My White Man". Cormack's use of the phrase "My Indian" was insulting to Sylvester, as no one owns another person.

The first part of the novel tells of Suliewey's life before he meets William Cormack, while the second part, titled Sylvester's Tale tells about their journey across Taqamkuk. This journey was undertaken by Cormack to make contact with the Beothuk. The Beothuk were Algonkian speaking hunter-gatherers who began to avoid contact with the Europeans when they settled in Newfoundland in 1600's. As more Europeans settled in  Newfoundland, the Beothuk became increasingly isolated and it became more difficult to access their traditional fishing and hunting grounds. This led them into conflict with the Europeans and they were often murdered in retaliation.By the beginning of the 1800's there was only a small population of Beothuk remaining and the last Beothuk, Shanawdithit died in St. John's, Newfoundland in 1829.

In reclaiming the story of Suliewey and his journey with William Cormack, Mi'sel Joe is able to portray the differences between Indigenous and European cultures and their way of thinking about the land and their relationship to other peoples.This is best highlighted in Sulieway's explanation to Cormack about how the Mi'kmaq view the land everything in it. In response to Cormack's question about whether or not his people have a Bible, Suliewey tells him they are walking on his Bible. 

"This land is Mother Earth. It provides nourishment to my body, my heart, and my spirit. It provides everything I need to survive on this land. It teaches me to be strong, it teaches me to be respectful, and it teaches me to be humble. This land is not mine or yours. It belongs to all the living creatures; it belongs to all of us. And we are all responsible for this land that we walk on. So you see, this is my Bible." Sulieway's explanation highlights a key Indigenous concept about the land, that it belongs to everyone and that everything on it is shared. The European notion of land ownership was not a part of the Indigenous way of living.

Later on Sulieway also explains to Cormack how his people view others in relation to the land. "You say we have no Bible, and we are looked upon as what you call 'savages'. But your people kill our people for money or to take away our land and food sources. When you block our rivers and take our fish and access to other foods we need, our people get weak; they cannot fight with weak bodies....This land gives us all that we need---clothes to keep us warm, food for our survival, transportation, and shelter from the cold. Most of all, it teaches us how to be humble, have patience, and have much respect for all the good things the Great Spirit has given us." He also tells Cormack, that although he might think them lazy or having no spiritual guidance, they recognize their blessings and give thanks for all they have.

Throughout the story, Suliewey offers Cormack his medicines to help him when he's ailing, but Cormack dismissed them as Indian savagery. When Cormack becomes ill, Suliewey collects the seven medicines needed to help him recover. During their journey, Suliewey rubs bear fat on his feet to protect the skin from injury. Cormack believes this is ridiculous, telling Suliewey "We have well-trained doctors who know all about how to care for people.I have lots of medicines with me to cure anything that may be hurting me. So my Indian...." Cormack tells Suliewey his medicines are "uncivilized". However, later in their journey as Cormack's feet deteriorate, he does finally accept Suliewey's offer to use bear fat on his feet.

There are also numerous examples in the novel about how the Mi'kmaq tried to live in harmony with nature rather than attempting to subdue it or abuse it of all its resources. For example, when they sail past Baccalieu Island in Conception Bay, Suliewey notes that eggers, men who collect seabird eggs would take all of the eggs from a nest without regard for the survival of the birds.This was in stark contrast to the Indigenous approach which was to never take "...more than one or two eggs from each nest, leaving the rest as we have done for hundreds of years, and our food source healthy." In the back of the book, in the Book Club section, it is pointed out that this stripping every nest of all its eggs is likely one of the reasons for the extinction of the Great Auk.

As Suliewey experiences more of how Cormack, and therefore the Europeans view the land, the animals and birds in it, he becomes even more determined to never help Cormack locate the Beothuk. Throughout the journey, Suliewey takes great care to watch for any possible contact and to steer Cormack clear of the Beothuk. He also warns any of his own people not to provide Cormack with help in this regard.

Chief Mi'sel Joe is a distant relative of Sylvester Joe. My Indian is based partly on William Cormack's journal, Narrative of a Journey Across the Island of Newfoundland which was published in 1873. In 1828, Sylvester refused to accompany Cormack to Red Indian Lake (Mekwe'jite'wa'kik) to look for the remains of two Beothuk killed by Europeans. Sylvester was never seen again, while Cormack did journey to Red Indian Lake where he removed the skulls of  two Beothuk, Nonosabasut and Demasduit from their burial hut and took them to Scotland. The skulls were repatriated in 2020 due to the efforts of Chief Joe Mi'sel.

My Indian offers young readers a chance to learn about both the Mi'kmaq and Beothuk people and their culture and to understand how European contact impacted them. The back of the novel contains an Afterword that details about how the Mi'kmaq and Beothuk who lived together harmoniously on the west coast of Newfoundland became separated, as well as details on the repatriation of the Beothuk skulls from Edinburgh, Scotland. Also included is a Glossary of Mi'kmaq to English, photographs and maps, References,  and a section the offers Book Club Questions.

For further reading on the Beothuk:

The Beothuk, an article from Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador

Distribution and Size of the Beothuk Population, Leadership and Communal Activities

Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on William Epps Cormack

Book Details:

My Indian by Mi'sel Joe and Sheila O'Neill
St. John's, Newfoundland: Breakwater Books    2021

Sunday, August 15, 2021

All He Knew by Helen Frost

The story begins in September 1939 with Henry and his Mama on the Greyhound bus to Riverview. Henry is not sure why his sister Molly cried when they left. As they travel on the bus, Henry thinks about the last time he travelled on a bus. He saw a man who tried to get him to blow out candles. When he wouldn't do it, the man got mad and told Henry's mama that he was "unteachable". As a result, Henry has been sent to Riverview Home For The Feebleminded. The bus trip ends with his Mama leaving Henry at Riverview.

Henry's sister Molly remembers when he was born. Molly was five years old. When their neighbour, Mrs. Grayson, came to their home, she had Papa take her for a walk. When Molly and Papa returned home, there was a baby, her brother, Henry. But life changed forever, Christmas Eve 1937 when Henry became very sick with a fever and painful ears. After four days he started to feel better but they soon realized that Henry was not able to hear.

At first Henry would talk to people even though he couldn't hear them speak. He would try to guess what they were saying. At his sixth birthday party in July 1939, a fight and a ruined cake led Henry to decide to only talk at home to his Mama, Papa and Molly.

When it was time for Henry to go to school, the principal suggested a large, expensive hearing aid or that Henry attend a school for deaf children, the State School for the Deaf. Henry's parents couldn't afford the hearing aid so they applied for Henry to attend the special school.

Henry is now at Riverview, along with thirty-three boys, all dressed in gray-green clothes. One boy whom Henry guesses is called Ted, helps him, showing him how to avoid trouble. Ted has one leg shorter than the other and one arm hangs at his side. Soon another boy arrives, a small boy who is scared and whom Henry calls Billy. Henry and Ted help Billy. Henry wonders about "...the fours boys who can't get to the meal place because their wheelchairs won't go down the stairs" or the "...three held tight by blankets that keep them in their beds." or "the two who have to wear those shirts with the two sleeves tied together so the boys can't use their hands?" or "...the four strapped into chairs in the long dark hallways?"

Christmas of 1939 sees Henry alone at Riverview, his family not visiting him. His seventh birthday also passes without a visit from his family in July of 1940. It isn't until March, 1941 that Henry is visited by his Mama and Molly. Mama explains that they've had no extra money to be able to visit him. Henry thinks that they have come to take him home but quickly learns this is not the case. He is taken away, not hearing his sister's promise to visit him again at Christmas.

But war brings changes to Riverview, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. And one of those changes is a conscientious object by the name of Victor Jorgensen. When Victor arrives, he begins advocating for all the boys at Riverview, especially Henry whom he finds to be a sweet-tempered boy who cannot hear. With the help of Molly, Victor is able to bring Henry home and set him on the path to being able to communicate with others and live a fuller life.


All He Knew is based on a real life events that occurred in the author's husband's family in the early 1900's. The novel explores the life experience of  children who because of their disabilities were labelled unteachable and institutionalized in the 1930's and 1940's. Living in an institution in the early 20th century was often a degrading experience due to terrible conditions and poor treatment by staff.

Frost draws from the experiences of her husband's family to portray life inside an institution during the Second World War. Conditions are quite awful as Henry quickly discovers. When he first arrives at Riverview, Henry notices the terrible smell. He along with the other boys wear gray-green clothes. 

Staff are abusive and the boys quickly learn how to avoid certain workers.  There is "Barker Man" "...the one who looks like an angry barking dog and kicks the kids who don't jump up to obey, including Henry when he doesn't see him coming." and "Blanket Man" who jerks Henry's blanket off every morning because he can't hear the whistle to wake up.  When James is returned after running away, Henry notices he's limping, his face is bruised and he's strapped into a chair in the hallway.

Boys can be quickly labelled leading to days or months of abuse.For example, when his friend Ted attempts to protect Billy from being beaten by Barker, he is labelled as violent and from that point on is strapped into a chair all day long. While most boys are strapped down for ten or twenty days, Henry notes that Ted has been strapped down for much more than that. So long, that he has difficulty walking when Victor eventually puts a stop to this practice.

Because they are labelled "unteachable", Henry and the other boys receive no education. His hearing disability is seen as an insurmountable barrier.With the war, conditions deteriorate even more. Some days only one meal is served. There are no snacks or hot drinks. But the war also brings Victor Jorgensen who ultimately helps Henry return home.

Victor is a complete contrast to the other attendants on the ward. Henry notes, "He seems to like us...He doesn't slap us or pull us by our hair, shove us out the door if we're not moving fast enough." Victor sees Henry and Ted as real children, wonders about the individual needs of each child and questions what's being done to some of the children. "Attendants who've been here a while say that Henry's friend is prone to violence and must be restrained at all times. But does that child have to spend his whole life in a chair? He might lash out again, they warn. Victor has his doubts. He decides to wait and see." He ultimately unstraps Ted from his chair.  

In contrast to the degrading conditions at Riverview, Henry is portrayed as a real person who can think and feel and learn. He is shown to be caring and kind, as when he goes after Billy and brings him back to the ward. He is courageous when he speaks up to Victor about Ted being strapped into the chair each day. He is intelligent and resourceful and just a bit cheeky when he devises a way to get Blanket Man to leave him alone. Henry also has a rich inner life which evokes empathy for his situation.

Frost chose to tell her story in free form verse.Victor's narrative is told in sonnet form. The author has included a Notes On Form and Characters at the back, explaining her poems and also detailing more about specific characters in the novel. In her Author's Note, Frost explains the inspiration behind All He Knew. Her husband's mother's brother, Shirley Sowers was labeled unteachable and institutionalized. Maxine Sowers wrote seven poems about her brother Shirley (which Frost includes at the back of the novel) and these poems led to Frost wondering how to capture the experience in a way that would engage young readers. All He Knew accomplishes that very well and in a way that's not overbearing or heavy on detail. The poems allow the reader to think about what it might be like as a child to be taken to an institution and what it was like for families during the war who had no choice but to do this to their child.

Despite the heavy topic, All He Knew ends in an uplifting way with Henry reunited with his family, and the uniting of three families, Henry's, Ted's who is really called Ned, and Victor's who come together for dinner at Henry's home. Henry begins to learn how to communicate using sign language, his old friend Sadie comes by to say hi and there is the hint of a blossoming friendship between Victor and Molly. This is a lovely novel with a sweet protagonist who will capture the hearts of readers of any age.

Book Details:

All He Knew by Helen Frost
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers    2020
254 pp.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler

Three best friends forever linked by a moment in time, experience the horrors of the Holocaust. Leo Grunberg, Max Fischer and Elsa Bauer spend Leo's ninth birthday riding on Vienna's famous Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad. It's 1936 and the three are spending the day at the fairgrounds, afterwards eating sachertorte for Leo's birthday. During the Ferris wheel ride, Leo's papa takes a picture of all three friends in the carriage at the top. When Papa begins chasing and tickling the three, Leo trips over a lady's outstretched foot. Papa makes Leo apologize but the lady tells them in broken German that it is nothing to worry about. They learn that couple, Aileen and Eric Stewart are from England. When the ride ends, Papa is still in conversation with the English couple and he offers to pay for another ride. Leo's father learns that Eric Stewart is a dentist who is now late for his conference talk, so he invites the Stewarts to his home for Leo's birthday dinner.

A few weeks later, Max's father takes the three friends swimming at the Amalienbad. When Leo's father comes to the car to say hello, Mr. Fischer is not friendly. Max met Leo and Elsa when they started Volksschule together a few years ago. At that time, Leo's parents had invited the Fischers for dinner hoping to become friends, but that friendship had never really materialized. Despite Max's father's rudeness towards  Leo's papa, they fun swimming and diving.

After the swim Max overhears his parents talking about Leo's father, "Shows you what they're all like, all of them. Making out they're on thing while underneath, they're another thing completely. Liars, the lot of them. Sneaky, nasty, dirty, rotten -- ..." Max doesn't understand why his father would think this of Leo's father whom everyone loves. When he tells his father he's going out to play with Leo and Elsa, his father becomes angry but is stopped by Max's mother from saying anything more. This leaves Max wondering what is so wrong with Leo and Elsa.

One spring day in 1937, Elsa learns from her father Vati and her mother Mutti that they are leaving Vienna and moving to Czechoslovakia. This stunning development shocks Elsa who cannot understand why it is no longer safe for them to remain in Vienna. At the park that day, a tearful Elsa explains to Max that the country is no longer safe for Jews. But Max refuses to believe that being Jewish is dangerous. This news upsets Max terribly and tries not to cry. Instead, he gives Elsa a kiss as he realizes this will be the last time he sees her. When he returns home, Max tells his father that's he's spent time with Leo and Elsa. His father angrily forbids him from seeing them again, telling Max he's not to spend time with Jews.

In early 1938, Elsa and her family have settled into life in Prague, Czechoslovakia. She misses Max and Leo but Vati is working and Mutti seems happy. Then Vati announces that he is joining the army to fight off the Germans who are invading Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, in Vienna, Mr. Schmidt,  the headmaster at Max and Leo's school, informs the students that mornings will now begin with the "Heil Hitler" greeting. He also tells the students whom he's just named and whom are all Jewish, that they will " treated like the lesser race you are! You will sit separately in lessons and assembly, at the back of the room."  

Max and the other students are told they are not to interact with the Jewish students because they are "dirty and  inferior" and that they must "...pretend they do not even exist". Max doesn't understand because he knows Leo is not dirty however, he instinctively moves away from his friend. This shocks Leo, who finds himself not allowed into class later on. Even worse, on his way home, Leo comes across his father and several other Jewish men being forced to scrub the pavement by Max's father who is now wearing a uniform with the Nazi swastika on his arm. Leo's father tells him to leave when he moves to help his father who is being kicked by Mr. Fischer. When Max arrives home, he learns that they are moving to Munich where is father is to be a senior SS officer. Although reluctant to leave, Max is hopeful that life in a new city will offer him a chance to start over. But what he doesn't know is that he will change in a way he never thought possible.

As the Nazis invade more countries and war consumes Europe, Max becomes increasingly drawn into the life of a young Nazi and taught to hate Jews. His rise through the Hitler Youth sees him sent to Auschwitz where he is forced to make a fateful choice. Meanwhile, Elsa and her family experience the occupation of Czechoslovakia and eventually are sent to the Jewish ghetto. As their rights and property are gradually stripped away, it isn't long before they are sent to Thereseinstadt. Eventually their family is sent to Auschwitz. For Leo and his mother, the chance encounter four years earlier on the Ferris wheel will end up saving their lives. War has separated the three friends but fate will bring two of them together in a tragic way.


When The World Was Ours is historical fiction novel about the Holocaust, told from the perspective of three childhood friends, Leo, Elsa and Max who live in Vienna, Austria as Hitler is in power in Germany. The story is crafted around an experience author Liz Kessler's father Harry Kessler had when he was eight years old. As told in her note at the front of the novel, Kessler's father Harry "had nearly scuffed " the dress of a British woman. As in the novel with Leo's family, this moment led to a day together with the British couple, a thank you letter, and ultimately led to a way to escape the ever-tightening noose of the Holocaust. Elsa's story portrays what might have happened had Kessler's father not escaped while Max's narrative explores " so many ordinary people could have become part of such a brutal, evil, and horrific regime."

In many ways it is Max's story that is the most tragic because it is a story of a young boy who is taught to hate. Kessler chronicles how a young boy, desperate for fatherly attention and affirmation is transformed into a diligent Nazi. Max's childhood had been unhappy with memories of his parents arguing over money. He is visible only to his father when he is criticizing Max. An outcast at school due to his poverty with his different uniform, his friendship with Leo and Elsa becomes a stabilizing factor in his life. In particular, it is Leo's father, a happy, kind man, who helps Max. So when he hears his father blame the Jews for his own problems, and when the headmaster singles out the Jews at school, Max experiences shame and confusion.

When his family moves to Munich, Max becomes part of the Nazi culture. He strives to do what his father advises, "Don't stand out. Don't speak out. Do exactly what your teachers tell you and copy the other boys if you are unsure." Soon Max not only belongs, but he is a leader. When he's told things that make him uncomfortable, he doesn't question or speak out. "When their teachers told them how important it was to rid themselves of the scourge of the Jewish enemy, how the Jews were filthy, inferior, disgusting creatures, Max kept his face as still and impassive as he possibly could. He didn't tell them his old friends were Jewish."

Despite this, Max remembers the happy times with Elsa and Leo, looks at the photograph  that he has kept hidden. "And then the questions would come. Were Leo and Elsa really the enemy? Were they the people he had to hate? Could there be a mistake of some sort?" Life in Munich is good, but when Max hears things about Jews, he isn't convinced they are true. Soon he begins to doubt that Leo and Elsa were Jews.

Max is able to bury deep inside himself, the memories of that wonderful day in Vienna. When he hears things that he knows to be lies, he stops registering that this might be wrong. But when Max looks at the photograph of that wonderful day so long ago in Vienna he realizes what his current life in the Hitler Youth truly is. "In an instant, nothing of his current life was real. He saw it for what it was: a vain, superficial attempt to fit in. To be loved. To be praised by his father, by his leaders, by Hitler. None of it was a fraction as real as his friendships with Leo and Elsa had been. The only two people who had ever really loved him for himself, with no expectations or demands." But when he destroys the photograph and the letters from Leo that his father has hidden, Max shuts his heart against these thoughts. 

Eventually, Max is forced to confront what he has become, when he is taken to kill his first Jew at Auschwitz, where his father now works.That Jew does what Max couldn't do for himself. She reminds him of who he once was and that it is love, not work that sets you free. But can Max accept that as an answer to the conflict he is experiencing or is this merely just another test to prove he's a good Nazi? Does Max have the courage to stand up for what he knows is the truth: that Jews are not the enemy, that hating and murdering your fellow human beings is wrong and doesn't solve any world problems? Does he have the strength to face the truth of what his life has been?

When The World Was Ours is a well written novel that encourages young readers to consider these kinds of questions in a world where social media now entices others to ridicule, cancel, dox and hate others for their different beliefs, attitudes, customs and skin colour. By portraying the transformation of Max, Kessler encourages her readers to consider what leads people to hate and how such hate can be countered, so that events like the Holocaust might never again happen.

Book Details:

When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler
New York: Aladdin   2021
337 pp.