Monday, December 31, 2018

Island War by Patricia Reilly Giff

Island War opens in 1941. Europe is at war with Nazi Germany while Japan is preparing to attack the United States as well as several Asian countries.

In a small town in Connecticut, Isabel (Izzy) is busy packing her suitcase to travel to an island off the coast of Alaska. However, her mother, a bird watcher, isn't keen to go despite the fact that Izzy's father had made the plans and gotten their tickets. A little over two months ago, Izzy's father was killed in a car accident. Now Izzy is keen for a change of scene, to go to the island, to watch the birds and for the snow and the wind. Her Gram convinces Izzy's mother to travel to the island that Izzy's father spent so much time on.

Fourteen-year-old Matt loves rowing out on Long Island Sound. One day Matt learns from his father that the two of them will be travelling to an island that is part of the Aleutians, an island chain off the coast of Alaska. Matt's father feels they need some time together, but Matt doesn't want to go. He's not close to his father who is always away and who always seems annoyed when he comes home.

Izzy and Matt first run into one another on the boat taking them to the island. Izzy, running around on deck, trips over Matt who is sitting against the railing. Izzy recognizes Matt as a boy from school who is a few grades ahead of her. But their interaction is not friendly.

On the island, Izzy and her mother live in a wooden cottage with three rooms. Izzy and her mother are welcomed by the women on the island. Izzy makes friends with a girl named Maria. Remembering her father's stories about a cave where he could watch kittiwakes and cormorants, Izzy asks Maria if she knows where the cave might be located. Maria tells her there are many caves on the island. Instead she's more interested in whether Izzy brought books with her. But unknown to Maria, Izzy finds reading difficult.

Izzy finds herself attending a school with only five students including Matt. Their teacher Mrs. Weio tells them about the legends associated with the island. However, outside of school the students are more interested in the threat of war coming to the islands which belong to the United States. Japan lies only a thousand miles to the southwest.

Meanwhile Matt is preoccupied with thoughts about home. An older boy, Michael shows Matt a baidarka, a single person kayak with a sea lion skin stretched across the frame. Matt's first try in the kayak is scary as he struggles to learn how to use it and overturns. However Matt soon masters the kayak, travelling along the coast and also how to right himself.

But one day Matt's father tells him he cannot go out in the kayak. Japan has bombed Hawaii and sunk half the American fleet. The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Izzy and the other islanders learn that America has declared war on Japan. While Mrs. Weio believes they will all be evacuated before war comes to their island, others are not so sure.

Winter passes in to the spring of 1942. One day an unknown ship appears on the horizon. Some believe it might the American navy but after church, Izzy and others discover that Japanese soldiers have arrived on the island. The soldiers force everyone into the church while they go through the village looting and damaging the homes. Eventually Izzy and her mother along with the other residents are allowed back into their damaged homes.

The next morning Matt, his father and the other men are ordered to fish while everyone else remains in the village. Every day the men bring home fish which is divided up. The Japanese soldiers also string a wire fence around the village homes, making them prisoners.

In September, Matt figures out a way to get past the wire fence and get to his kayak hidden in a little cover. Each night he goes out to the cove and paddles his kayak. It is Maria, who is recovering from scarlet fever who clues Izzy into what Matt is doing. Watching one night, Izzy sees him and tries to follow but is caught by a guard.

Then later in the week, Matt's father reveals that he knows about Matt's nightly trips to the kayak but also that he has learned that they are to be taken to a prison camp on the Japanese mainland either that night or in the morning. Matt's father wants him to leave tonight for his kayak and that he will meet him later on with a two man kayak that he has hidden in the back of the shed. He also tells Matt that he really does love him and that he is proud of his resourcefulness.

However things do not go as planned. Matt leaves for the hidden kayak as planned but Izzy also manages to get out of the camp. On Thor Hill she sees a line of people boarding a ship, one of whom looks like Matt's father. Izzy loses her glasses but makes it back to the village only to discover that her mother and everyone else in the village have left. Her mother's note tells her she has been taken to Japan. Matt too discovers the villagers gone. Each at first believe they are alone until they discover they are the only ones left on the island and must work together if they are to survive the coming winter.


Reilly Giff uses an unnamed Aleutian island as the setting for a remarkable survival story set during World War II. Her A Note at the back of her novel, Reilly Giff indicates that her "story is loosely based on the island of Attu, the farthest west in the chain of the Aleutian Islands..." The Aleutians are an island chain stretching some 1900 km into the Pacific Ocean, partly belonging to the United States with some islands also part of Russia.  War came to the Aleuts on June 3, 1942 when two islands, Attu and Kiska were occupied by Japanese troops. They were considered strategically important by both the United States and Japan in the war as they would allow either country a route of attack on enemy territory. The Americans did offer to evacuate the residents of Attu prior to the Japanese invasion, but they refused. They were eventually deported to the a prison camp in Japan.

The occupation of an unknown Aleutian island becomes the backdrop for a story about survival and  working together even with someone you don't like. Izzy and Matt are two young people who find themselves visiting the Aleutians and then thrust into the war. The two main characters, who tell the story in alternating chapters, are a study in contrasts. Izzy had come eagerly to the island with her mother who observes birds, while Matt has come reluctantly with his father who has some unknown job. While Izzy is close to her mother, Matt feels distant from his father who appears critical of his young teenage son.

Initially both Izzy and Matt believe they are alone on the island but soon discover they share the fate of being abandoned with the one person they least like. Their mutual dislike stems from a misunderstanding on the boat coming to the island, when Izzy tripped over Matt's legs.Each believes the other deliberately did something to them.

Izzy, least prepared to survive, is willing to work with Matt but Matt wants nothing to do with her. When he discovers Izzy is also left behind, Matt's first reaction is "You!....In my house! Eating our food. I should have known."  He accuses her of being a thief and then tells her that she has to fend for herself, that he doesn't ever want to see her around his house again.  Matt continues to be mean towards Izzy even when she warns him that there are four enemy soldiers still on the island.

Despite being older than Izzy, Matt is immature. After he's injured, he wonders, "How had this happened to me? Did I feel sorry for myself? I did. And why not." He ungraciously complains about the bandages being pink, not recognizing Izzy's huge sacrifice for him. After all she has done for him, Matt appears to intend to abandon Izzy, only to lose his beloved kayak. Eventually though Matt does realize that he owes a debt to Izzy, "I thought of all she had done these long months. How could I have made it without her?"

Izzy is a resourceful, intelligent character who recognizes that in order to survive she and Matt must work together. Izzy shows herself to be patient and optimistic in the face of adversity. In this regard she is portrayed as the very opposite of Matt. She is motivated by the words of the teacher she never liked back home in Connecticut, "You could do anything, Izzy, if only you set your mind to it." 
Izzy finds Matt mean and self-absorbed. "How could one person think he was so perfect? And he'd gotten most of it wrong anyway." Despite Matt treating Izzy badly, she tells him about a cave that might be safer than staying in the abandoned village and she cares for him when he injures his knee. She is able to sacrifice something that she loves dearly, her pink velvet party dress, to use for bandages for Matt's injured knee.

Ultimately, Matt and Izzy do become friends, apologizing to one another for their mis-interpreting of the other person's actions. It is a friendship forged in adversity that appears to outlast their experiences on the island. Both characters learn about themselves; Izzy that she can achieve what she sets her mind to and that she has an inner strength, Matt that he is very much like the father he struggles to understand.

Island War  with its unique setting, believable characters and many themes, will be enjoyed by younger readers who have an interest in survival fiction.

Book Details:

Island War by Patricia Reilly Giff
New York: Holiday House    2018
203 pp.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak

During World War II, Poland was invaded by the Germans from the west and the Russians from the east, dividing the country in two. After the country was conquered, Polish soldiers were sent either to a German or Russian prison-of-war camp depending on what part of the country they were in.

Two friends, Peter Prendys and Stanislav Lubanski were in the Russian-occupied part of Poland and were sent to work in different Russian factories. They had tried to stick together and promised to try to find one another if they ever became separated.

Two years later when Germany invaded Russia, the Polish soldiers were freed in the hopes they would join the Russians in fighting the Germans. However, although the Polish soldiers  wanted to fight Germany they wanted to also free Poland from both the Germans and the Russians.So many Polish soldiers tried to escape, among them both Peter and Stanislav. They crossed the Russian border into Iran along with hundreds of other Polish prisoners.

Peter and Stanislav found one another and reported to a British army camp. In the camp they met Janusz and Lolek who served the food as well as another Polish soldier named Pavel. After completing a short military training course with the British, the Polish soldiers were put into groups of five. This was perfect for Peter, Stanislav, Janusz, Lolek and Pavel who formed a group that was to be part of a convoy taking equipment to the British camp in Palestine.

Peter and his group drove tents, cots, oil and artillery parts through the miles of sandy desert in their truck. One afternoon, fed up with the heat, Stanislav stopped to rest. Just as they were about to take a nap, Peter spotted a very young boy coming towards them, dragging a sack. Despite Lolek's fear that this might be a trap, Stanislav gave the little boy a chunk of break. It was at this point that the men noticed the sack moving. To their amazement, from the sack crawled a bear cub. The soldiers were delighted and immediately taken with the little furry cub, who did not appear to be doing well. The soldiers offer the boy money and a tin of corned beef for the small bear. After rigging an empty vodka bottle, they get the bear to drink milk and christen him Voytek which mean "smiling warrior".

Sergeant Kowalski questions the Polish soldiers about the bear and although he was initially skeptical about keeping the animal, he soon fell in love with the little cub telling  the men that the commanding officer in Palestine will have to decide.

Voytek with his Polish friends.
When they arrive in Palestine, the C.O. sends for the five Polish soldiers and their bear. Expecting the C.O. to make them give up Voytek, they add vodka to his milk to the cub quiet. Instead, Voytek bites the C.O. and repeatedly misbehaves. To their surprise, the C.O. is impressed with Voytek's spiritedness and has the bear cub added to the list  of new soldiers as Private Voytek!

It was decided that since Peter was the one who cuddled Voytek, had fed him milk and protected him, and was really Voytek's new mother, the bear cub should sleep in his tent. Peter put a blanket in a washtub for Voytek's bed but the cub insisted on sleeping in Peter's bed. Even when he outgrew the but and Peter made a wooden box, Voytek preferred curling up next to his new mother, Peter.

In the camp Voytek won over the cook. He had a harder time with Kaska, a troublsome monkey who drove everyone crazy and who enjoyed tormenting Voytek. Kaska was often seen riding on the back of a dog named Stalin. To protect Voytek, Kaska was sent to the other side of the camp but this didn't help much. Peter decided Voytek needed a playmate so they brought Dottie, a Dalmatian pup belonging to a British soldier into the mix. And so began Voytek's amazing adventures with a group of Polish soldiers as they traveled through Palestine, Egypt and onto Italy.


Bibi Dumon Tak has taken the real life adventures of a Iranian brown bear who served as a mascot and helper to Polish soldiers during World War II and written an engaging and decidedly humorous account that young readers will thoroughly enjoy.

Voytek, the "soldier bear" is portrayed as a lovable bear who manages to endear himself to the soldiers despite his many misadventures. He steals all the water for the soldiers' shower and he loves to drink beer. Voytek loves peaches so much he breaks into the cook tent before Christmas, stealing an entire can of peaches, bringing down the tent and waking the entire camp in the process. Yet despite this, soldiers and commanding officers alike find themselves taken with the furry animal.

Anything Peter does, Voytek copies. Peter smokes cigarettes but Voytek "didn't actually smoke the cigarettes. He ate them all up, the whole cigarettes but only if they were lit. And if the cigarette wasn't lit he's ask someone for a light before shoving it into his mouth."  This is all done with subtle humour that makes the story so enjoyable. For example, Voytek is such a favourite on the Batory, a boat transporting the" Polish soldiers to Italy, that Peter must watch him. "Everyone was happy to give up a cigarette for him or a bottle of beer. Peter had to keep a close eye on Voytek, because otherwise the bear might become a chain-smoker or a drunkard, or even worse: both."

Through her characters, Tak portrays the influence of Voytek on the Polish soldiers who take him in as a bear cub. Voytek helps the Polish soldiers cope with the long years away from their homeland, the threat of facing action at the front and missing their families. For example, when Peter's thoughts turned dark in the middle of the night, he is comforted by the presence of Voytek lying next to him. When the Polish soldiers are challenged about taking Voytek and their menagerie of dogs, a monkey, a pig and a parrot that says "Nazis go home." onto the boat to Italy,  Peter feels he needs to explain how the animals are necessary to the men because they " cheered them all up and even comforted them at times."  When Lolek lashes out at Stanislav for treating the death of soldiers so lightly, Voytek knows he is upset and comes to sleep in his tent that night to comfort the distraught soldier who saw two men blown up by a shell. Voytek offers a distraction to soldiers and civilians alike when he climbs a crane and begins doing acrobatics.

There's no doubt that Voytek considers himself a part of the Polish unit. This is demonstrated when the Polish Corps moves to Italy. After arriving, the men from the 22 Company of the 2nd Polish Corps line up to unload heavy ammunition- artillery shells. Voytek too lines up with Stanislav and Peter to help move the shells one at a time along the line, not even stopping when a colonel attempts to intervene.

In her Afterward, Tak fills in her readers on what happened to Voytek in the postwar years. Animals have been in mankind's wars for centuries whether it was Hannibal and his elephants in the Punic War, horses in World War I or soldier dogs in Afghanistan. Tak writes about Voytek's contribution to the Polish Corps. "During World War II, Voytek gave the 120 soldiers in his company the courage to go out every day and help to liberate Europe. Not only did he make it easier for the soldiers of the transport compay to feel brave and to keep up their courage, but everyone who saw him forgot the misery around them for a moment, whether it was a high-ranking colonel or a ten-year-old Italian boy. He was a friend and a mascot who made the war easier to bear."

Soldier Bear is a funny, endearing account of a much-loved animal who helped a small group of soldiers cope with the horrors of war. Black and white  pictures at the very back allow readers to see Voytek as well as Kaska and Kubus.

Photo credit:

Book Details:

Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Books For Young Readers  2008
145 pp.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World's Coral Reefs by Kate Messner

The Brilliant Deep details Ken Nedimyer's efforts to restore and rebuild the world's ailing coral reefs. Nedimyer was a fish enthusiast who caught and sold tropical fish to aquariums. He spent much time scuba diving on the coral reefs of the Florida Keys.  In the 1970s  Nedimyer remembers extensive reefs in the Florida keys rich with elkhorn coral that grew to the surface of the water and as far as the eye could see. But when the Keys began to undergo development which meant more people, more boats and lots of raw sewage. The effect of this human encroachment was to gradually destroy the beautiful coral reefs of the Keys. Dredging, disease such as White Band Disease which destroyed the elkhorn and staghorn corals that form the structure of the reefs and a warming climate all contributed to the lost of coral reefs.

In the 1990's Nedimyer noticed that staghorn coral had begun to grow on his live rock farm. He could keep this coral which was protected by state law because it grew on his rock. Nedimyer had a remarkable plan. Instead of selling cuttings of the coral to aquariums he decided to start a nursery of staghorn coral with the idea of planting the coral on the dying reef. With the help of his then thirteen-year-old daughter, Nedimyer developed a staghorn "nursery". By 2003 Nedimyer was able to plant six corals on Molasses Reef.

To facilitate the work of helping to restore and rehabilitate coral reefs, Nedimyer formed Coral Reef Restoration Foundation in 2007. The organization's goal is restore diversity to coral reefs. Staghorn and elkhorn corals are grown on tree like structures in the ocean and then planted onto various locations to help the reef rejuvenate. You can learn more about the Coral Reef Restoration Foundation from their detailed website.

In The Brilliant Deep, Messner introduces Ken Nedimyer to her readers by explaining that his interest in the world around him was encouraged by the exciting events happening when he was growing up. He watched the beginnings of the space race that saw Alan Shepard and John Glenn become the first Americans to travel into space. Nedimyer like many young people in the 1960's watched the adventures of  the French ocean explorer, Jacques Cousteau, broadcast on television. Ken's love of the ocean grew and he spent many hours scuba diving in the Florida Keys. It was Ken's observations of the changes in the coral reefs and his discovery of how they might be helped that is the focus of Messner's picture book geared for children in Grades 1 to 5.

Her message is that it only takes one idea to change things and one person to make a difference; in this case that one person was Ken Nedimyer. He could have sold his growing staghorn corals to public and private aquariums but he saw a much bigger possibility for his discovery - to help rehabilitate the reefs he loved so much.

Accompanying Messner's text are the colourful illustrations of award-winning artist, Matthew Forsythe. At the back, Messner includes a section on Coral Reef Vocabulary, and information for readers who might want to explore this topic further.

Messner's picture book is sure to inform and stimulate young readers into thinking more about our oceans and how we can help heal the damage done to them by man and by changes in climate.

Book Details:

The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World's Coral Reefs by Kate Messner
San Francisco: Chronicle Books     2018

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Evolution of Claire by Tess Sharpe

Claire Dearing has just finished her freshman year of college and is packing up her room to return home for the summer. Claire wants "a bigger life. One far from here. One that's never boring. One that's always a challenge. One where I fix problems and always have the answer." Her older sister Karen picks her up and on the long drive home reveals that their parents are struggling in their marriage, but trying counselling. They discuss Claire's plans for the summer. She has applied to six internships, four at law firms and one internship with a judge. But the one she really wants is with the Masrani Corporation, run by Simon Masrani who is continuing the work of Dr. Hammond on dinosaurs. Masrani has expanded Dr. Hammond's work of creating the world's first dinosaur park, Jurassic Park. The park never opened.

Masrani's internship program, Bright Minds, is looking for "the best and brightest" in the country. He is planning to open a park where people can experience the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar.

However, Claire learns from Karen that she did in fact receive an offer of an internship at Bright Minds.Although her mother has reservations, Claire is determined to do something risky and different.

On her flight to connect up with the other interns, Claire meets Justin, a business major. As it turns out they discover that they are both Bright Minds interns. Clair and Justin also meet some of the  other twelve interns including Eric and Tanya whom Claire suspects are siblings, Wyatt whose father works on the island and Ronnie a girl who plans on attending West Point in the fall. While waiting for the ferry,  that will take them to Isla Nublar, Jessica assistant to Beverly Jamison tells them a bit about the park. They learn it will open next year with eight species of dinosaurs including a herd of Triceratops and Brachiosaurs.On the ferry Claire realizes there are also many others traveling with them who are not interns but are vets, trainers, scientists and other specialists.

Claire's roommate is Tanya Skye, while Tanya's brother,  Eric's roommate is Wyatt. Their lodgings are on the fourth floor of the park's luxury hotel. In the morning Mr. Masrani welcomes the interns, tellign them they are integral to the opening of the park in  nine months. New species are continuing to arrive from their secondary location, Isla Sorna but he also warns them that some carnivorous dinosaurs such as T. Rex and Dilophosaurus are restricted. As the monorail is not yet completed, the interns are taken on a drive through the park to Gyrosphere Valley where they see the herd of Triceratops.

At lunch, Claire dines with Simon Masrani who is intrigued by Claire, her life goals and her vision of the future. After lunch, they visit the command center and then the labs in the basement. Dr. Wu who worked with Dr. Hammond on the original Jurassic Park, has continued to refine the technique that extracts dinosaur DNA. During their visit, Claire overhears a conversation between Simon Masrani and Dr. Wu in which Wu references an earlier group of interns.She later asks Justin if he caught Wu's remark but he hasn't.

Wyatt tell them that there are rumours about "phantom interns", a previous group of interns from an earlier program renamed after the incident. Wyatt explains that "They're called phantom interns because all evidence of the program disappeared..." This was done because something terrible happened and was covered up. According to Wyatt, some of the Brachiosaurses were brought over from Isla Sorna to Isla Nublar and interns were brought in to help the dinosaurs acclimatize to their new surroundings. A few months into the process, a severe storm knocked out the island's electrical grid forcing the evacuation of the park and the island. In the process, a female intern was left behind.

That night, while alone in her room writing up her journal, Clair makes a startling discovery: a notebook, its spine cracked and its pages yellowed, tucked inside the box spring of her bed. It appears to be someone's journal. Over the next two weeks, Claire and the interns spend time with the trainers and vets, learning about the dinosaurs. At first everything seems quite normal but gradually Claire begins to suspect that not everything is as it seems. With Justin's help she begins to try to solve a past mystery only to stumble onto a plan to steal the park's technology, one that will have deadly consequences for one of the interns.


Fans of the recent Jurassic World movies will enjoy reading Sharpe's novel which is set during Claire Dearing's young adult years and explores how she came to be involved in the development of  the new Jurassic Park on Isla Nublar.

Sharpe takes time to develop Claire as a character, who at the beginning of the novel seems to be the quintessential modern teenager, deeply concerned with animal rights, determined to be a trailblazer for women. Sharpe crafts her as an ambitious young woman who wants a life that's very different from her older sister Karen. While Karen has returned home after college, gotten an job, married and had a child, Claire doesn't feel that inclination. Although she sees herself as someone who follows the rules, she admits that "...there's another side of me, the reckless side, that's all about wonder and discovery, that wants something else." Claire wants " be the kind of woman who could make laws and enact the kind of sweeping change that was needed."  And indeed, Sharpe grows her character throughout the novel. Claire becomes more assertive as an intern. At first she dismisses Wyatt's story about a missing intern, even showing surprisingly little curiosity about a journal she finds just after Wyatt's allegations. But when she begins to suspect that Masrani and the park administration are covering up something she doggedly pursues the trail of evidence.

The Evolution of Claire is somewhat formulaic, true to the story lines in the previous Jurassic Park movies: visitors, in this case young student interns arrive at the park, are awestruck by the beautiful, majestic dinosaurs, meanwhile there is an undercurrent of something suspicious happening at the park, a deadly carnivorous dinosaur is inadvertently let loose, and mayhem and death follow. The book's heroine survives, only to become employed by the park. The events that lead up to the novel's terrifying climax are common to the movies; these prehistoric creatures are deadly and just can't be contained.

Sharpe foreshadows Claire's deadly encounter with the raptor in the novel's climax. For example, Claire's sister Karen insists that she purchase bear spray, something Claire is reluctant to do. "You and Mom both have a totally wrong idea of what's going to be going on during my internship." she tells her sister.  But it is Claire who is unprepared for what she will face on the island.

The science isn't always spot on but after all, this is science fiction. For example, when Claire and her fellow interns visit Dr. Wu's lab, the scientists are in the middle of extracting dinosaur DNA from a mosquito's body - by hand. Mosquito's are tiny fragile insects and the level of accuracy required to extract, by hand using a needle is so great, it's unlikely this would be done manually. Instead, it would be done with highly specialized, computerized equipment.

This novel will appeal to those readers who enjoy the Jurassic Park movies and want to read more about Claire Dearing in the most recent novel. It might be interesting to read the backstory to Owen Grady, the velociraptor trainer and the other principal character in the movie.

Book Details:

The Evolution of Claire by Tess Sharpe
New York:  Random House Children's Books     2018
390 pp.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith

Ebb and Flow by Canadian writer Heather Smith is about the struggles two young boys encounter when unexpected events happen in their lives.

Eleven-year-old Jett Campbell has been sent to spend the summer with his Grandma Jo (Joanna) on the island after his year on the mainland doesn't go so well. Grandma Jo or cotton-candy granny as Jett refers to her, is somewhat eccentric with cotton-candy blue hair and a lime green car. His grandma loves to collect sea glass, bits of glass from broken bottles that have been rounded due to the ocean.

The previous year, Jett's father, Douglas Campbell was jailed for killing a father and his three children while driving drunk on New Year's Eve. The fallout from this results in Jett being sent to the mainland, to a new school for the year. But what was supposed to be a new beginning for Jett, turns out to be anything but.

While staying with Grandma Jo it soon becomes apparent that Jett is angry about events that have happened over the past year. He acts out in a destructive way at his grandmother's house. While playing Monopoly, a game he hates, he throws the board on the floor in anger. When his grandma takes him to visit a very poor neighbour, Nelly who has no teeth and smells bad, he steals her glass paperweight. When they are going to paint his room purple, Jett deliberately drops Grandma Jo's treasured glass fish full of sea glass.

In an effort to help Jett move on from what happened over the past year Grandma Jo begins by having Jett make some superficial changes like dyeing his hair blue and painting his room purple. Their time by the ocean, Grandma Jo's care of Nelly who is poor, and the stories they tell one another allow Jett to think back on what happened.

In flashbacks, Jett reveals the events of the year that was supposed to be a fresh start for him and his mother. Jett falls in with a tough bad boy named Michael (Junior) Dawson. He becomes friends with Junior who is mean and a bully, because Jett knows that having a father in jail will seem cool to a boy like Junior.  As Jett hangs around Junior he becomes involved in doing more things that are wrong such as swearing, skipping school, ordering pizzas in a teachers name, and stealing money at a classmate's birthday party.

Then Jett learns Junior's terrible secret: his mother abandoned him due to Jett's violent father whom he now lives with in a shed at the back of his Aunt Cora's home. Aunt Cora's brother and Junior's Uncle Alf lives with her. Alf has a developmental disability and is a child in a forty-year-old man's body. While Jett is kind to Alf, Junior makes fun of him, calling him Uncle Retard. Unlike Junior, Jett grows to like Alf, as they go to the library to read books. Jett find "learning with Alf was fun." But when Junior learns something about Alf that could possibly give him the means to runaway from his abusive father, he draws Jett into a plan that leads to serious repercussions for both himself and Jett.


Ebb and Flow is a story about a young boy coming to terms with his actions and transitioning from destructive anger to forgiveness and healing with the help of his beloved grandmother.

When Jett arrives at his Grandma Jo's home, his feelings are all bundled up inside of him. He truly believes he is a bad, unredeemable person. With plenty of time on his hands, his thoughts go back to the events of the past year, that spiralled out of control. He remembers at first being kind to Alf, Junior's older cousin who has a disability. Jett describes himself as a person who cared about others when he first arrived on the mainland:
"That was a long time ago,
when I was a good person,
when people with no teeth
made me sad."

He remembers when he first changed, hanging around Junior, and becoming like him. Jett believes these changes are permanent.
"...once you kill your old self
and bury it deep underground
it'll never come back,
no matter how hard you dig."

Jett's destructive behaviour continues at his grandma's home until he breaks down and cries after destroying her glass fish with the sea glass. Here, Smith uses grandma to tell young readers how adversity builds character, and can mold a person into something stronger and beautiful. Grandma Jo explains to Jett what sea glass is, pieces of broken bottles that have been scoured and rounded.
"It got quite a bashing,
that little piece of glass
It spent years
caught in the ocean waves.
It was tossed around
and beaten down,
until finally
it washed up on shore.
Now look at it --
what was once a piece
of broken glass
is now something better --
it's a gem."
The lesson here is that Jett, after all his troubles, can become something better, rising above what happened in the past year.

While Jett believes he's bad and doesn't deserve to be liked, his grandmother tells him about some of the mistakes she has made and how she regrets those mistakes. Her lesson is that Jett needs to forgive himself.

Jett's perception of himself and what happened during the past year changes over the course of the summer. He begins to accept responsibility for his actions, and begins the process of forgiving himself and making amends. Jett and his grandma tell one another a series of "stories" which are really anecdotes about their lives. In his first story, Jett tells his grandma,
"Junior made Jett
do lots of bad things."

But in his second story, Jett's perspective is much changed:
"Once upon a time,
there was a kid named Jett
who blamed a lot of bad stuff
on another kid name Junior.
But everything that happened
wasn't just Junior's fault.
Jett kind of liked being bad."
Jett explains that when he was mean to other kids, it made him feel good, "like he was winning at something." Except when he was mean to Alf.

His third story sees Jett finally tell his Grandma Jo how he came to help Junior try to steal Alf's money. He tells what happened exactly as it went down, how he felt caught between two friends, the gentle Alf whom he didn't want to steal from and the manipulative Junior who had to deal with his physically abusive father.

Grandma Jo's stories emphasize each have their own moral. She tells Jett about making a choice when she was twelve to buy something for herself instead of helping out her own grandmother who then died suddenly leaving her with bitter regret. Jett is sympathetic, telling her that "Everyone makes mistakes, grandma." It is precisely this lesson that Grandma Jo want's Jett to learn. Once he accepts this, Jett can begin to forgive himself.

In forgiving himself, Jett is able to forgive his father and visit him in the penitentiary. He is also able to contact Aunt Cora and admit his mistake, tell Alf he is sorry in his own way, and to remind Cora that Junior is not all bad. Jett's message to Aunt Cora is that Junior might have acted differently if she had been kinder. "All she had to do was pick him up, but she stepped on him instead." Jett also returns Nelly's paperweight. Making things right, allows Jett a fresh start for junior high.

Ebb and Flow is a deeply touching story that explores the themes of betrayal, forgiveness, and friendship. Smith's characters are realistic, with both good and bad qualities.Grandma Jo is Jett's safe refuge where he is allowed to face the realities of his actions over the past year. She gently helps him come to terms with what happened, to grieve and then to accept and move on. Jett is realistically crafted, with the good qualities of kindness and the ability to accept others as they are, but sometimes lacking the courage to do the right thing - not uncommon at all for an eleven-year-old boy. Junior perhaps elicits the most compassion, abandoned by his mother, abused by his father, and neglected by the one adult who could have offered him refuge. Smith offers her young readers hope when we learn that he is now living with an aunt.

Heather Smith is a Canadian author, originally from Newfoundland but now currently residing in Waterloo, Ontario. Although Heather admits she and words did not get along well in the beginning there is absolutely no evidence of that strained relationship in Ebb and Flow.

Book Details:

Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith
Toronto: Kids Can Press      2018
227 pp.