Sunday, September 30, 2018

Words On Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton

 Sixteen-year-old  Adam Petrazelli has schizophrenia. He is unusual in that his symptoms appeared when he was young, around the age of eight. Adam sees things that other people do not see, like beautiful, tall, blond Rebecca, or huge bats. Since Adam won't communicate verbally with his therapist, he writes journal entries. He's also on an experimental drug, ToZaPrex. Because of problems at his previous school his mother and stepfather have decided to move him to a private school, St. Agatha's.

On his first day he is assigned a school ambassador, Ian Stone, whom Adam recognizes as a "douche". True to form, as soon as Adam goes to pick up his PE uniform, Ian ditches him. At this point he meets a girl, whose name he soon learns is Maya, who helps him get to his next class. There Adam meets Dwight Olberman  with who he has most of his classes.

Adam is able to get out of religion homework by rewriting "the mysteries of the rosary, the Prayer of St. Augustine, and the Hail, Holy Queen from memory." But this has consequences in that he is signed up for the Academic Team. One day after gym class, Adam hears splashing in the pool and when he goes to investigate, discovers Maya floundering and drowning. He saves her and they soon become friends and then a couple.

Adams entries tell about his abandonment by his father, his mother remarrying a lawyer named Paul, his love of cooking, and is growing relationship with Maya. But soon, the new drug Adam is taking presents health risks, resulting in researchers slowly lowering the dosage and withdrawing him from the study. Adam hasn't told his friend Dwight nor his girlfriend Maya. It isn't until a disastrous situation at prom, that the truth comes out and Adam must confront the reality of life with his secret revealed.


Readers looking for a novel that tackles the topic of schizophrenia in an honest, accurate way without getting bogged down in tropes,won't find it in Words On Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton. Although Walton's character, Adam, a young teen diagnosed with schizophrenia is witty and intelligent, the portrayal of this mental illness is decidedly one dimensional  and the novel unrelenting in its misrepresentations about the Catholic faith.

Although Adam is in therapy he won't talk to his therapist. "I don't always say the things I mean to say when I talk to someone. It's impossible to swallow words after letting them out, so it's better for me not to speak at all if I can help it..." Instead he writes about their sessions afterwards in the form of journal entries. These entries, dated from August 15, 2012 to June 26, 2013, form the story of Adam's life as he struggles with his mental illness.

Adam claims that he is an expert on his condition. At the beginning of the novel he tells readers,  "There really is no clear path for the disease to travel. Some people have visions. Some people hear voices. And some people just get paranoid." To be diagnosed with schizophrenia, specific diagnostic criteria must be fulfilled. According to the current DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5) Manual, two or more of the following symptoms must be present for a significant period of time to merit a diagnosis of schizophrenia: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, grossly disorganized or catatonic behaviour, and negative symptoms (flat effect, avolition, and anhedonia). Yet Adam has only hallucinations (seeing/hearing things that are not really there) and technically doesn't meet the criteria for someone with schizophrenia.

Walton's portrayal of stigma surrounding mental illness is well done. Adam admits that his greatest fear is that "someday I won't be able to watch the parade of hallucinations without doing what they tell me to do because I'm afraid the drug will stop working. And everyone might have a good reason to be afraid of me." This is a fear that anyone with any medical condition requiring medication often has but must be particularly acute for those with a mental health condition.

Adam's worry about losing control is brought to the forefront after the Sandy Hook shooting and a classmate's suggesting that the shooter should have just killed himself. Adam doesn't say anything in response because he fears it will show sympathy for the shooter. "...I was angry because whoever had said it has no idea what it's like to lose control. They don't know what it's like to be haunted by your own mind. They don't understand the mad desire to make the voices stop even if it means doing what they tell you to..."

While this is supposed to be a novel about a rare situation of a teenage boy with schizophrenia and all that entails, the author has gone out of her way to mock Catholics and the Catholic faith. In fact readers may question the author's true motive here - is it to bring about understanding of mental health issues or to bash Catholics. It seems the setting of the story in St. Agatha's, a private Catholic school was chosen so that every possible trope about Catholics, Catholic schools, the sacraments, nuns and the faith could be employed. By his own admission Adam has received all the sacraments, but doesn't regularly attend Mass and doesn't believe in God and isn't a practicing Catholic. So it is puzzling that his mother would send him to a Catholic private school when she herself places little value on her faith and her son isn't practicing.

Adam's cynical, derisive voice is especially strident when describing anything Catholic. Holy Communion is "You know, where they hand out pieces of Jesus made of stale wafers." Adam states he doesn't " like the idea of some old guy shoving food in my mouth." or sharing a wineglass with someone with a cold sore (very few churches offer Holy Communion under both species.)  Sister Catherine who teaches Adam religious theory is often described in derogatory terms, "...Sister Catherine's mouth was twisted in a maniacal grin..." Some of his worst remarks are saved for the Knights of Columbus who are "...old men with papery skin and knobby knees" with a "creep factor". Adam's mother doesn't like them because "'s they way they protect family values, but only families that like like theirs. I think it's also the way they like to quote Leviticus." - a reference to the Catholic church's teaching against same sex marriage. No one is forcing Adam's mother to stay in the Catholic church - if she doesn't believe in its teachings she is free to leave.

The author brings in the Sandy Hook shootings in which twenty children and six adults were shot to death by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. Lanza had the same first name as the novel's main character but was not schizophrenic - a fact never clarified in the novel. He had been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, depression, anxiety and OCD. Walton uses the shootings to bring up the discussion around mental illness and mass murder.

But here again Walton has Adam inexplicably attack the Catholic faith. The school board head, Ian Stone's father has a meeting with Adam's parents which upsets Adam greatly. Apparently the school board has objected to the secrecy surrounding Adam, a student they did not have to admit. Adam views this with his typical derogatory cynicism, "I knew they'd want to have a board meeting, perhaps a public inquisition to keep things Catholic." So the entire situation seems unreasonable and ridiculous. Adam who in the first one hundred plus pages has ridiculed almost every aspect of Catholicism complains "This conflicts with the church's actual teachings though, which is highly inconvenient for them. The Bible teaches tolerance. I doubt that that Jesus would have encouraged people to 'out' me as a schizo."

Walton's attack on Catholicism reaches a new low when Adam and Maya have sex in a school closet, after having just rehearsed the "Stations of the Cross" (really a passion play) Adam still in his costume as Jesus Christ and Maya who portrays Mary Magdalene.

Walton had the chance to demonstrate how faith can help people to cope with mental illness. A study done by University of Missouri researchers found that "better mental health is associated with increased spirituality." Adam as a Catholic could have received significant emotional support by having a good spiritual director in the form of a regular confessor. Instead Adam and his family see their church as unsupportive and intolerant.

Words On Bathroom Walls could have been a great book that explored the issues surrounding mental illness, especially schizophrenia which many people misunderstand and are therefore fearful. While there are some excellent passages, such as Adam's thoughts on what it feels like to lose control, most of this novel is unrelentingly anti-Catholic and deeply offensive. I can't imagine the same novel being written set in a Muslim school as it likely would have been refused publication.

The premise of Words On Bathroom Walls is to ask for tolerance, understanding and acceptance for people with mental health issues especially those who have a serious illness like schizophrenia. Ironically this novel does not encourage that same tolerance, understanding and acceptance to those who are Catholic.

For those who are experiencing mental health issues please know that your Catholic church loves and cares for you. Most Catholic high schools recognize the struggles of young people today and have social workers and youth workers as well as other resources available. Many Catholic school boards have specific policies on mental health and work to foster a climate of respect, love, compassion and concern for those dealing with mental illness. Bullying of those with mental health issues is not tolerated.

National Catholic Partnership on Disability

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops statement on the Newtown tragedy.

There are several renewed teaching orders of sisters in the United States and Canada including but not limited to the Dominican Sisters of Our Lady Mother of the Eucharist and the Sisters of Our Lady Immaculate.   As evidenced by their websites, these orders a young, vibrant and faithful to Catholic teaching.

Book Details:

Words On Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton
New York: RandomHouse Children's Books     2017
pp. 288

Friday, September 21, 2018

Missing Mike by Shari Green

Eleven-year-old Cara Donovan's world is turned upside down when her family is forced to flee from raging wildfires and her beloved rust-coloured mutt, Mike goes missing in the chaos.

Cara's town of Pine Grove in British Columbia has been on evacuation alert for days. Cara's mother has her and older sister Sloane pack keepsakes into plastic bins just in case they need to leave quickly.Cara packs her overnight bag with a change of clothes and a few special treasures.

Then one day a police officer shows up at their door. They must evacuate immediately. Cara was in the backyard with her dog, Mike but when she goes to retrieve him, he is no where to be found.Cara is forced into the family, leaving her beloved dog behind. The drive out of Pine Grove is harrowing and slow, with sparks flying across the road, smoke billowing and deer rushing to safety.

Cara is devastated at the loss of her dog Mike. She got him two years earlier at the animal shelter in  Braeburn. While her parents were interested in the cute fluffy goldendoodle puppies, Cara was drawn to Mike, a
with one eye
and a tattered ear?"

The man at the animal shelter raved about Mike's sweet nature and so they took him home.  Once in the city they arrive at the evacuation center. Because Cara's family rescued a cat on their way out of Pine Grove they are taken to the gym where found animals are taken. Immediately Cara questions a woman if she's seen a rust-coloured dog with one eye, despite the fact that it's unlikely Mike is at the shelter. After registering, Cara's family is slated to stay with a host family, Jasmeet Bains and her husband Bill. The Bains have two children, two boys who are away at camp and a foster child, thirteen-year-old Jewel.

Jewel is very sympathetic to Cara's feelings of loss over Mike. Cara believes that she has abandoned Mike, but Jewel tells her
"No," she says,
"he got lost.
It makes a big difference what words you use
to tell something."

Jewel helps Cara to cope by making posters to put up for Mike. She finds a website for pets lost due to the wildfire and posts Mike's picture online. At the evacuation center, Cara and Jewel put up a poster of Mike.

As the wildfire advances and consumes parts of Pine Grove, Cara becomes increasingly distraught about Mike. She imagines terrible scenarios and eventually makes some poor choices that endanger herself and Jewel. As Cara struggles to keep faith and be hopeful, she wonders, will she ever see her beloved Mike again?


Missing Mike is a timely novel that explores the meaning of family, the resilience of the human spirit and the importance of community in times of disaster.Green uses wonderfully descriptive free verse captures the danger Cara and her family experience as they travel to safety with the flames raging around them.

"It's dark as night
--black smoke so thick
I can barely see the car ahead of us.
Wind hurls glowing embers
across the road
orange sparks fly
like hailstones made of fire.
Sweat beads on my forehead."

The wildfire forms the backdrop for the story of an eleven-year-old girl who has inadvertently left behind the one thing most precious to her, her beloved dog Mike. Mike isn't a cute little puppy but a dog who has had a rough past as evidenced by his torn ear and missing eye. Despite his fear of coyotes which leads Cara's family to believe that he was once attacked by them, Mike has stood his ground against one to protect Cara. He is special to Cara.

While Cara and her family stay with a host family, the Bains, Cara begins to considers what defines home. When Cara first leaves Pine Grove, she is pre-occupied with the loss of her dog Mike. She doesn't worry too much about her home, after all it will still be there after the fire she thinks. While working on a crossword puzzle, Jewel asks Cara for a 5 letter word for "home" and reveals that she "lived in a car once and it was home." Jewel explains to a shocked Cara that although she's lived in many houses after the car, the car was home because she was with her mom. However, now Jewel feels it isn't necessary for her to have her mother with her for a place to be called home. Instead being safe and wanted make the Bains' house "home". Cara wonders if it possible to have a home without family.

Later on at the shelter, Cara meets her music teacher Miss Francesca Passerini who
"lives in a house surrounded
by overgrown gardens
chock full of flowering plants
and an unusual number
of bird feeders."
In other words, Miss Francesca has a beautiful home which contains her music and her beloved piano which she might lose to the wildfire. But she tells Cara that it doesn't matter because she still has her music inside her. Cara realizes that  "music is Miss Francesca's word for home."

Cara and her older sister Sloane meet a young single father, Wesley who has a little daughter named Angeline.When Cara questions him about if he loses his home, Wesley tells her
"But you know what?" he says softly. "This girl
has my heart.
As long as I've got her
I'm home."
For Wesley being with his daughter is all that matters and that is "home". Remembering this, Cara wonders if having family is what really matters and is what defines home.

When they learn that their house has been destroyed by the wildfires Cara wonders,where they will go and where they will belong if they have no home, no place that's theirs. If a house with it's rooms "where a family lived, shared celebrations and sadness, big moments and boring days" is nothing but a pile of bricks is home? Cara wonders if
"...there's something that remains
through it all
like if Wesley has Angeline
Miss Francesca still hears music
in her heart
Heather is with her relatives
and Jewel is safe
and wanted."

Thinking back on her and Jewel's struggle with the crossword puzzle to find that elusive word for home, Cara realizes that home means something different for every one.
"Turns out
home isn't always with family
but often it is.
It isn't always a place
but sometimes it is.
It isn't always within your grasp
but when you find it
you know to
hold on."

For Cara home is love, friendship and loyalty - something she has with her family and Mike (who she finds waiting at their burned out home). Cara realizes she hasn't lost her "home" at all, instead she's discovered what home really is for her. It is the not only her family but the bond she has with her beloved dog, Mike.

In light of the many wildfires in the past few years, especially in British Columbia, Alberta and northern Ontario, Green's book is very timely. Missing Mike will help young readers understand just how devastating disasters like wildfires can be for those who experience them. Cara and her family lose everything except what they were able to pack before evacuating and at one point Cara wishes she had packed certain special momentos. Maintaining an attitude of hope throughout their ordeal was a struggle for Cara and her family. The novel also portrays how the efforts of the local community at large helped make this challenging time more bearable for Cara and her family.

Overall, Missing Mike is a well written, touching short novel in free verse by Canadian author Sheri Green. Younger readers who love dogs and animal stories in general will enjoy Missing Mike.

Book Details:

Missing Mike by Shari Green
Toronto: Pajama Press     2018
245 pp.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Da Vinci's Tiger by L.M. Elliott

It is January, 1475. Sixteen-year-old Ginevra de' Benci Niccolini is seated in the front row with her friend Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci at a joust being held in the Piazza di Santa Croce."The Medici had organized this joust to celebrate Florence's new diplomatic alliance with Venice and Milan." Simonetta, "the publicly celebrated Platonic love" of Guiliano Medici, the younger brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent, has been honoured as the joust's "Queen of Beauty". Prior to the joust there had been a parade through Florence to Santa Croce, led by Guiliano, nine trumpeteers and two men-at-arms carrying pennants of the Medici coat of arms. Guiliano himself carried an enormous banner with Simonetta depicted as Pallas, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. Considering all of this makes Ginevra jealous of Simonetta's appeal, but her friend informs her that the new Venetian ambassador, Bernardo Bembo has shown an interest in her.

After having unseated one opponent already, Guiliano's next opponent in the joust is Signor Morelli. When it appears the two combatants are tied, Signor Morelli graciously concedes the round, and offers his exquisitely painted banner of a reclining nymph to the Queen of Beauty. Ginevra believes the banner to be better than the one Botticelli painted for Guiliano. Simonetta tells Ginevra that Maestro Verrocchio painted the banner with the help of one of his apprentices named Leonardo from Vinci.

The rounds continue until well into the evening. Guiliano's opponent is Renato de Pazzi who enters the lists on a large black horse belonging to Guiliano's godfather who refused the horse to his godson. Simonetta explains the political power play that exists in Florence, how the Pazzi who are nobles continually attempt to undermine the powerful influence of the Medici. The challenge is made "a la guerre", meaning "Unhorsing a rider would be the aim and the only honorable way to win." The joust between Pazzi and Medici is violent but Guiliano unseats Renato and is declared the champion of the joust.

As she is leaving, Ginevra is introduced to the Venetian ambassador, Bernardo Bembo by Lorenzo de Medici. Lorenzo tells Ginevra that Bembo is interested in meeting citizens of Florence who love poetry. Lorenzo invites Ginevra to a dinner at his honour and to share one of her poems at the function. Ginevra's Uncle Bartolomoeo accepts the invitation on her and her husband Luigi Niccolini's behalf.

The next morning Ginevra greets Luigi and briefly discusses the joust with her husband. He is a member of the cloth merchant guild, the Arte di Calimala and Ginevra's scarlet soft wool cape with its gold border and her dress "embroidered with intricate flower blossoms of red and emerald threads" Although Ginevra and Luigi have consummated their marriage she sleeps alone. Ginevra's marriage to Luigi Niccolini had been arranged on the previous January, against her will. Ginevra's father died in 1468, after which her Uncle Bartolomoeo had sent her away to Le Murate's convent school. She left the convent permanently her uncle was now head of the family and in exchange for a position on one of Venice's eight priori, Ginevra was sold in marriage to the Niccolini family.

Ginevra does receive an invitation to the Medici dinner which is held in early March. When she and Luigi attend the function , the meet Verrocchio and his former apprentice Leonardo da Vinci. The latter believes Ginevra would make a "excellent subject". At the Medici dinner, Ginevra is enthralled by the naked bronze statue of David, the courtyard centerpiece done by Donatello. A discussion with Bernardo Bembo makes Ginevra blush. Bernardo's advances become more prominent and more transparent leading Ginevra to inner conflict.

As Ginevra is drawn further into the world of Florence's cultural elite, she finds herself drawn into a Platonic relationship with Bernardo Bembo. It is a relationship that pulls her into the Medici circle and into Florence's rich artisan culture, leading to a portrait that immortalizes her for posterity.


Elliott has crafted an impressive fictional account of the life of sixteen-year-old Ginevra de' Benci's life and the painting of her portrait by Renaissance master, Leonardo da Vinci. Set in the High Renaissance, the mid-15th century in Florence, Italy, Elliott weaves a masterful story that incorporates many details of life during this era including cultural and religious practices, political intrigue in the Italian city states, and detailed descriptions of a working art studio. Elliott undertook significant research so that she could give her readers an encompassing view of life in the city-state of Florence in 1475.

All of the characters in the novel were real people who lived at the time Ginevra's portrait was painted except for Sancha, her maid. The basic details of Ginevra's life are incorporated into the story: She was born into a family of Florentine notaries who were connected to the wealthy and powerful Medici family and educated at Le Murate, a convent run by Abbess Scolastica Rondinelli and patronized by Ginevra's family. Ginevra was known in Florence as a poet. In 1474, she was married to  Luigi de Bernardo Niccolini, a widower and wool merchant, who was much older than Ginevra  The marriage was likely arranged by Ginevra's Uncle Bartolomeo who may have known Niccolini.

Many aspects of life in the High Renaissance are portrayed in Da Vinci's Tiger.  In the fifteenth century, Italy was comprised of a series of city states. The main republics were Florence, Milan, Genoa, Pisa and Venice. Unfortunately these city states were often at war with each other and at various times with the Pope. Eventually a peace was negotiated between Venice, Florence, Milan, Naples and the Papal States (areas controlled by the pope).

Painting of 15th century Florence
This period of peace and its recovery from the devastation wrought by the Black Death allowed Florence to flourish as a center of business and trade. It soon became the cradle of the Renaissance, a movement that saw the rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman art and a focus on understanding the natural world through direct observation. Florence  gradually came under the influence and control of the Medici family whose bank, became increasingly important. They were the leading family in Florence, their influence beginning with Cosimo di Giovanni de' Medici who was involved in negotiating peace with Milan. His grandson, Lorenzo (the Magnificent) de' Medici received a humanist education and became a significant patron of the arts. Great families like the Medicis began to build beautiful estates, forgoing the austere homes of the Middle Ages. They began to build churches, convents, hospitals and held special feasts and entertainment. In Da Vinci's Tiger, the importance of the Medici family is explained by Ginevra, who states that they exerted their influence in subtle ways, through the patronage of the arts and festivals, "granting favors and loans", brokering "advantageous marriages and business partnerships." Lorenzo Medici was seen as especially as a patron of literature, inviting "artists, writers, and scholars to his country villas at Fiesole and Careggi to listen to music and poetry read aloud. They discussed the nature of man's supreme good, his summum bonum, as explored within classical texts. He also sponsored a Platonic Academy within the city, led by the great philosopher Marsilio Ficino..."

In Da Vinci's Tiger, Elliott portrays the sumptuous pageantry and the ongoing political intrigue and rivalries that marked life in 15th century Florence. For example, in June 1475, Ginevra like most other Florentines attends the Festival of John the Baptist. Elliott describes it for her readers through the eyes of Ginevra. "Florence had nearly a hundred public holidays during the year, but St. John's Feast was its grandest -- a two-day extravaganza celebrating both our material successes and our earnest piety." The festival begins with a "government-ordered mostra -- a lavish display of the city's riches as homage to the blessings out patron saint bestowed upon us...Festooning their shops with colorful banners, merchants put out their best merchandise --gold cloth, silver plates, painted panels, tapestry, jewelry, carved wood, embroidered leather...Florence's clergy donned elaborately embroidered vestments and processed through the streets with Florence's holy relics -- a thorn of the Holy Crown, a nail of the cross, a finger bone of John the Baptist. Following them came the city's secular dignitaries dressed as angels and biblical figures, with musicians of all sorts playing and singing."  On the morning of the second day of the festival "The city's guildsmen circled the Duomo cathedral to approach the ancient, octagonal Baptistery and its gates of paradise -- huge bronze doors decorated with scenes of St. John's life. Carrying painted candles, they slowly marched under blue canopies painted with stars and lilies that were stretched across the streets to replicate the night sky."  The palio, the horse race that caps the festival is a vibrant, heart-pounding event that Ginevra finds thrilling. "Now I could see the leading horses, legs flying, dirt churned up and sprayed, jockeys hunched and clinging to handfuls of mane. They had little hope now of steering their mounts, frenzied by the competition, frantic at the mass of humanity and their guttural shouts of encouragement.""

But there are also troubling aspects to life in Florence. For example the tamburi, "locked wooden boxes placed near major churches by the Ufficiali di Notte, the Officers of the Night. In those boxes, Florentines could denounce their neighbors for vice by leaving secret accusations of crimes against decency that brought arrest and trial in front of a tribunal of old men." Early in the novel, Ginevra and her maid Sancha witness Leonardo da Vinci attempting to break into a tamburi. It is a foreshadowing of an accusation made against him later on in the novel.

A significant portion of the novel revolves around Ginevra's relationship with a young Leonardo da Vinci. Elliott provides readers with much detail involving Leonardo, his physical appearance, his thoughts, his relationship with master Andrea del Verrocchio as well as his artistic endeavours in this early period. In her detailed Afterword, Elliott writes that "Much of Leonardo's dialogue comes from his own writings..." The reader learns much about Leonardo through the character himself as his friendship with Ginevra develops and he tells her about himself.

Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate son of Ser Piero, a notary in the village of Vinci and Caterina, a peasant girl who worked for the family. Leonardo lived with his mother when he was very young but eventually went to live with his father and grandfather. He spent much of his time with his tutor and uncle, Francesco who instilled in him  a curiosity about the natural world. At age fifteen, he was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio of Florence. Leonardo was a polymath, having substantial gifts in many areas of science, art, architecture, music and engineering.  His paintings, sculptures, and many scientific discoveries continue to amaze today.

Ginevra de Benci by Leonardo da Vinci
The novel highlights the significant contributions Leonardo was beginning to make in the art world. While Verrocchio and Leonardo were adept at using egg tempera to paint, Elliott, through the character of Ginevra states, "But Leonardo was one of the first in Florence to attempt using the oils preferred by the northern painters in Flanders. Oil paints did provide subtler, more varied, and translucent tones but were difficult to mix evenly and to spread with the brush."

His portrait of Ginevra marked an innovative change in how portraits were painted, in that her portrait was painted in the three quarter pose.Elliott suggests in her novel that this was the (unlikely and feminist) idea of Ginevra who saw this as "the chance to make men listen -- and see -- what women had in their hearts and minds."  Ginevra wanted a "larger metaphor" for herself. In the novel she states, "My eyes would gaze unblinking to allow people to look into them and wonder about me. I, a mountain tiger, like the one that showed no fear when hunted, whose fierce dignity prompted imaginings about her soul and her courage -- a creature with her own past and own story."  However, it was Leonardo's decision to paint her in this way, to show her as a real person.

Da Vinci's Tiger deals with some mature themes including the attempted seduction of Ginevra by her Platonic love, Ambassador Bernardo Bembo. The concept of platonic love is explored throughout this novel. During the Renaissance, the renewed interest in Greek and Roman thought led to the practice of choosing a platonic love. This questionable practice, is explained by Ginevra as such, "According to Ficino's Neoplatonic philosophy, if a man could keep his ardor for a woman to a Platonic friendship -- in a look-but-do-not-touch idolization -- and only contemplate her physical loveliness as being naifestation of her virituous spirit and absolute beauty, then his soul was purified. His love would, in essence, replicate the selfless love of Christ for us and bring the man closer to God." As Scolastica warned, Ginevra discovers this is often not what happens. Instead such relationships were often used to hide sinful behaviours and sometimes  led to the birth of illegitimate children.

Elliott also incorporates Leonardo's arrest for sodomy after someone denounces him and three other men. The accusations are serious because as Sancha indicates,the punishment can be severe especially for homosexual men. At dinner, Luigi tells Ginevra that he obtained Leonardo's freedom as a favour to the Medici family. But he also intimates indirectly to Ginevra that he too is a homosexual, thus explaining his lack of romantic interest in her. Whether Luigi Niccolini's homosexuality is fact or fiction is not addressed in Elliott's Afterword.

There are plenty of interesting historical aspects to investigate in this novel and Elliott has done a good job portraying the era and giving readers a sense of the genius of Leonardo da Vinci and the background behind the painting of one of his more famous works. Ellitott's characterization of Ginevra de Benci Niccolini is inspiring and realistic, that of a young woman of conviction, strength, intelligence and compassion, who wrote poetry and inspired one of the most famous artists of all time. One only needs to gaze at her portrait to see that Leonardo da Vinci succeeded in portraying  her as a real person, whose "motions of the mind" can be entertained simply by the pose portrayed.

Book Details:

Da Vinci's Tiger by L.M. Elliott
New York: Katherine Tegen Books      2015
287 pp.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

In The Island at the End of Everything, twelve-year-old Amihan lives on Culion with her mother Nanay who has leprosy and was one of the first to arrive on the island. Amihan was born not long after. One day Sister Clara comes to their home to tell them that there will be a meeting in the church. Amihan, Nanay, their neighbours Capuno who also has leprosy and his brother Bondoc who has come to the island to live with him, also attend. After prayers and a sermon by Father Fernan, a stranger, Mr. Zamora is introduced. He is from Manila and he tells them that there are new changes. Despite the fact that the nuns and Father Fernan have preached abstinence so that married couples do not have children, Mr. Zamora notes that they are "breeding" as he crudely describes it. Mr. Zamora tells the people of Culion that to help these children, the island will be segregated with lepers restricted to areas labeled "Leproso", while those who are clean will live in areas marked "Sano".

When Zamora refuses to answer Nanay's question about the fate of families, she removes the cloth covering her disfigured face and confronts him. Nanay wants to know what will happen to her daughter who is clean despite living with "her demonstrably dirty mother, for all her life." Zamora states that they are "introducing the segregation to save the innocents." who will be sent to the neighbouring island of Coron. Sister Margaritte and the others are stunned at this. Zamora tells her they will be sent to an orphanage. When Sister Margaritte reminds him that the children have parents, Zamora tells her they would be living in what will become the largest leper colony in the world if they stay. He reveals that both Father Fernan and Dr. Tomas have agreed to this plan.

Everyone on Culion must undergo a medical inspection; those children under the age of eighteen who do not have leprosy will "enter the care of the Director of Health...and will be transported to the CORON ORPHANAGE." As expected Nanay is found to have leprosy but Ami is designated as "clean" meaning she will have to leave her mother and go to Coron. Nanay is devastated.

Bondoc along with his brother Capuno who has leprosy, Nanay and Ami go with Sister Margaritte to present a petition to Mr. Zamora requesting that the children of those parents with leprosy be allowed to stay in the areas marked "Sano" on Culion. However Mr. Zamora cruelly rejects the petition telling them, "We want to end this disease. And do you know how we kill a disease? We stop"

In their remaining time together, Ami and Nanay do many things together; plant a vegetable garden, and spend several days visiting their favourite beach, catching shrimp and crabs. One day they see a boat arrive filled with over one hundred "Touched" - that is people with leprosy. When Ami goes to help the boat moor, Nanay becomes frantic believing she is trying to get leprosy so she can stay on Culion.

Then Ami learns that the next day she along with the other "clean" children will be leaving Culion for the island of Curon with Mr. Zamora.She tells Nanay that she will return and that she will write her. Nanay tells Ami a story which turns out to be about herself and Ami's father. Nanay loved a boy who loved her too. They wanted to be married but were too young and he was too sick. They lived together in a house with a blue roof and red gumamella flowers climbing the walls. However, Nanay's family found her and took her back home. However, she soon contracted leprosy and she was sent to Culion. There she discovered that she was pregnant and when the baby was born she named it Amihan after the winds that bring the monsoon rains.

The next morning Ami and Nanay are told by Sister Margeritte that instead of leaving from the nearby port, Ami and the other children will ride in a cart with Mr. Zamora to the "Sano" port. Along with her is Kidlat, a little five-year-old boy and several girls from school. Mr. Zamora who studies butterflies, brings along five brown boxes with air holes in the tops, and a glass case filled with chrysalises which he angrily protects.

The long ride to the Sano port is punctuated by a catastrophe in which Mr. Zamora loses a box of his butterflies when the horse is startled. After the crossing to Coron, Ami and the others arrive at the orphanage to settle in. Will Ami ever see her beloved Nanay again? However when Mr. Zamora becomes increasingly hostile and paranoid, resulting in a serious accident and the threat to send Ami and her new friend Mari away, Ami knows she must find a way back to see her desperately ill Nanay.


The Island at the End of Everything is a fictional account of a young girl's experience living in the leper colony on Culion Island in the Philippines in 1906. Culion Island is part of the Calamian archipelago in the province of Palawan. The island came under American jurisdiction in 1898 when the Spanish sold the Philippines to the Americans. The island was seen as an ideal location for a leper colony, the purpose of which was to eradicate the disease rather than simply help those with leprosy. Leprosy afflicted almost four thousand people on the Philippine Islands in the early twentieth century. With over a thousand new cases each year, it was a serious public health concern. Culion Island was formally established as a leprosarium in 1902 as segregation of leprosy patients became public health policy in the Philippines under American occupation. In 1906, the first patients from Cebu Island arrived via Coast Guard boats and soon patients from other islands were brought to Culion. Many Filipinos were resistant to the segregation as it meant separating family members in a culture that was strongly family oriented. Culion was staffed by the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres as well as a Jesuit priest and Dr. Charles de Mey who was the colony's physician.

The author bases her story on the historical fact but incorporates fictional characters to create a story. The story is divided into three segments, a prologue written in second person present tense which introduces the reader to the unique setting of this novel - a beautiful green island that became the world's largest leper colony, the main body of the story written in first person present tense and the epilogue in which the reader meets Ami thirty years later, written in third person past tense suggesting that she has been telling Sol her story all along.

While all the characters in this short novel are fictional, Millwood Hargrave has stated that Nanay is based off of her own mother. The Island at the End of Everything has richly developed characters; Ami in a caring compassionate young girl who devotedly cares for her sick mother. Despite her mother's disfigured face with it's missing nose, Ami sees her humanity. She is so determined to be with her mother when she becomes desperately ill that she undertakes a remarkable journey that almost costs her her own life. Ami demonstrates how strong the bond can be between mother and daughter. Then there are Sisters Margaritte and Teresa who are courageous and kind, attempting to protect the children from an uncaring bureaucrat who has a distorted view of illness.

In contrast to these characters is Mr. Zamora. It is the character of Mr. Zamora, the government's representative in charge of the orphanage on Curon who drives the plot. Zamora is a lepidopterists, someone who studies butterflies. His room is filled with numerous mounted butterflies "lined up like school children, or an army, in neat rows." Zamora refuses the parents (of Untouched children) petition to allow their children to remain on Culion. He believes what the government is doing is a kindness to the Untouched children, "giving them a clean life." He compares it to what he does with the butterflies, "Take these butterflies, he says gesturing at the walls. 'They have never known disease, or danger. I even give them a clean death -- is that not a kindness? They are beautiful. Clean. Untouched by the world." Never once does Zamora consider how the government's actions nor his treatment of the lepers and their families on Culion might affect them. Instead Zamora views the children who do not have leprosy like his butterflies, to be preserved at all cost.

Yet despite his cruel treatment of Ami and her friends Kidlat and Mari, she forgives him, recognizing that his fear was a part of his sickness. Ami is able, years later to see the good in Zamora - she admits his first book on butterflies is exceptional. But she tells Sol, "By all accounts he lived in a prison of his own making by the end. His sickness got worse and worse -- it was punishment enough, I think." Ami believes "He did not have a life even a quarter as good as mine has already been."

The Island at the End of Everything is a poignant exploration of the themes of forgiveness, the meaning of family and friendship, purity and how society views those with serious illnesses such as leprosy. Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a London-born, poet, playwright and novelist whose poetic prose allows younger readers to explore worlds very different from their own.

Book Details:

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
New York: Alfred A. Knopf       2018
243 pp.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Long Armed Ludy and the First Women's Olympics by Jean L. S. Patrick

Lucille Ellerby Godbold or Ludy as she was called, was one of America's first Olympic champions. Ludy was born in Marion County on May 31, 1900. She was part of a large family that included seven children. Her family moved to Estill in Hampton County, South Carolina.

While attending Winthrop College, Ludy set records in the shot put, the discus throw and the triple jump. The college sent her onto Mamaroneck, New York where the qualifying meet for the U.S. track and field team was being held. This team which included Ludy, went on to compete in the First International Track Meet for Women - also known as the Women's Olympic Games in 1922 in Paris, France. Unhappy with the number of women's events in the Olympic Games, the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale under the direction of Alice Milliat decided to organize their own Women's Olympics, called the 1922 Women's World Games. Athletes from five nations participated including Ludy Godbold.

At the Women's Games, Ludy won gold in the shot put with a throw of twenty meters and twenty-two centimeters. She also won gold in the triple jump, called the hop-step-jump. Ludy won silver in the basketball throw and was third in the javelin. She placed fourth in both the 300 meter dash and the 1000 meter run. Ludy was an international star!

Ludy graduated from Winthrop College with a degree in physical education in 1922 and was appointed athletic director of a private women's college, Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina. She went on to teach physical education at Columbia for fifty-eight years. Ludy was the first woman inducted into the South Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1961. In 1971, Columbia College named its new physical education center after her. She passed away in 1981.

Ludy Godbold
Jean L.S. Patrick presents Ludy's amazing accomplishments in an enjoyable and descriptive manner. The text captures the sensations and emotions of the most significant events in Ludy's life. Patrick describes Ludy as "six feet tall and skinnier than a pine tree." When Ludy's coach encourages her to try the shot put, Bartlett writes,
"Ludy scooped up the heavy iron ball and placed it between her fingers. She bent her knees, pushed her long arm upward, and released! The ball soared across the sky.
Her heart boomed. Her long arm tingled. She loved the explosion of power."

At the Women's Olympics, after an amazing throw by France's world-record holder, Violette Gourand-Morris, Barlett describes Ludy's nerves as "Ludy's long arms wobbled like French custard. How could she beat that throw?" 

The wonderfully expressive text is accompanied by Adam Gustavson's colourful
illustrations. Gustavson effectively portrays Ludy's unusual physical appearance - she was tall and lanky. The book's full page illustrations were done in oil paint while gouache on waterpaper was used for the spot illustrations.

Patrick has obviously done considerable research using primary sources and it shows in the information this picture book presents to readers. She has included a section at the back on More About Ludy, The Women's Olympics and also has an Author's Note and a Selected Bibliography. Patrick writes that "...Ludy didn't become fully alive to me until I traveled to South Carolina to research her story. With awe, I read Ludy's diary, paged through her scrapbook, and saw her small, precious medals. Every item brimmed with emotion and determination." Patrick has more than succeeded in bringing that "emotion and determination" to the pages of Long-Armed Ludy for young and older readers alike.

Book Details:

Long-Armed Ludy and the First Women's Olympics by Jean L.S. Patrick
Watertown, MA:  Charlesbridge         2017

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