Thursday, January 30, 2020

Encounter by Brittany Luby

Encounter tells the story of a meeting between two people from very different worlds long ago. The story begins on a morning in which the "sun rose to light all Creation." Creation includes seagull, mouse, mosquito, crab and other animals as well as two men, Fisher and Sailor.

Fisher awakes on the edge of the forest by the sea to the new day, gets into his canoe and paddles out into the ocean planning to let out his nets. Out on the ocean, Sailor awakes too, with plans to explore this new world. He lowers a boat and rows toward shore. Fisher sees Sailor and wonders if his eyes are playing tricks on him. Sailor realizes this unknown land is not new and empty.

Pulled by the tide, they land together on the beach. They greet one another in their own language but cannot understand what the other is saying. Sailor tries to explain his journey with a picture in the sand. When he becomes hungry, he eats one of his biscuits and offers it to Fisher. But Fisher would "rather chew wood". He in turn offers Sailor sunflower seeds. Sailor spits them out, thinking he "would rather eat pebbles".  But Fisher shows him how to open the seed's shells.

The two go swimming to cool off from the hot summer sun. They see beluga whales in the bay. As night approaches, each must return to their lives, and the two say goodbye, hopeful they can meet again.


Encounter is a story about two people from different lands and cultures meeting for the first time and finding ways to build the beginnings of a friendship. As Luby whose heritage is from the Anishinabeg, explains in her historical note at the back, the story "is based on notes kept by Jacques Cartier, a real French explorer, on his first expedition to what is now known as North America. Cartier anchored his ship in what we now call Gaspe Bay, in 1534. While Mi'gmaq territory included this region, records suggest that they shared fishing grounds with Stadaconans in the sixteenth century. " For Luby, "imagining an open and friendly meeting between a French sailor and a Stadaconan fisher" was the vehicle for showing that people from very different cultures can find common ground.

This message is presented throughout the picture book through the various animals who watch the encounter. Although Fisher notes that he and Sailor do not sound the same, seagull observes that they both cast long shadows. The mosquito likes that they both taste delicious, crab notices that they both "found a shell to suit them" and beluga decides that they both together "make a strong pod". 

Sailor and Fisher's encounter was similar to that of Cartier's initial relationship with the Stadaconan fishers in 1534.It began as a mutually peaceful one. However Cartier took two Stadaconan men with him on the voyage back to France, returning them the following year. This was done against their will and was disrespectful and harmful to the Stadacona and their families. It was this arrogant sort of action that was to colour almost all future contact with Indigenous peoples in North America.

In her Author's Reflection, Luby writes, "By being a hand on Cartier's ship, Sailor helped to build a system that took resources from Indigenous peoples, like Fisher, and delivered them to Europeans." However, Sailor could not really have understood the effects of  his actions nor those of his country at the time. Luby and many others are looking at history through the modern lens of tolerance, openness and with a knowledge Europeans could not have had.  In the 1500's European explorers saw the world as something to be conquered. They had the mindset that their culture was superior. This would not be surprising since Indigenous cultures in North America were not as technologically advanced as Europeans and their cultures were so very different. They either did not recognize the harm they were doing or most likely were not concerned. Today most of us are no different: no matter how open and accepting we are towards another culture, we still hold the belief that whatever culture we live in is better than other cultures. Otherwise we would adopt those traditions and beliefs ourselves but we do not.

This doesn't take away from the wonderful message of Luby's picture book, that we should be open and respectful to cultures different from our own and that we act in ways that do not harm others. Her message is enhanced by the exquisite artwork of Michaela Goade. Rendered in watercolour, pen, ink and gouache, as well as digitally, the vibrant illustrations show the beauty of the land Sailor has "discovered" (and to him it was a discovery because it was something new and previously unknown) and the land that is Fisher's home.

Book Details:

Encounter by Brittany Luby
Toronto: Tundra Books      2019

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan has been working in Mrs. English's milliner's shop as a milliner's assistant for the last two years for a measly fifty cents per day. However, before she can ask for the raise she so desperately needs, Jo is fired by Mrs. English because she's Asian and a "sauce-box" who expresses her opinions about what a client would look best in. Not only that but Mrs. English has spoken with the sixteen other milliners in Atlanta, effectively blacklisting Jo from being hired.

Nevertheless, when Mrs. Bell arrives to have a special Chinese knot embellishment placed on her hat, Jo is made to make the embellishments. Unbeknownst to the Bells, Jo and Old Gin live beneath the Bell's house in what used to be cellar to hide runaway slaves. A listening tube, disguised as a vent allowed those in the basement to hear what was happening in the upstairs.

While Mrs. Bell and Mrs. English are haggling over the price of Jo's work, Miss Melissa Lee Saltworth and Miss Linette Culpepper, whom Jo has nicknamed Salt  and Pepper arrive. The daughters of "merchant aristocrats", Miss Saltworth is being courted by Mr. Quackenbush, the son of a financier who lost his fortune backing Confederate dollars"

That night Jo listens as the Bells discuss the dire circumstances of their newspaper The Focus. It has lost readers after the Bell's son Nathan published an editorial against segregating Atlanta's streetcars. They need two thousand new subscribers by April or they will be forced to close and move to New York. This means Jo and Old Gin will likely lose their home too. The Nathan, the Bell's son questions what their newspaper is lacking and his mother states that it is an advice column. Their competitor, The Trumpeter has Advice from Aunt Edna and Mrs. Bell believes that an "agony aunt" column would help greatly.

The next morning, Jo attempts to find work but is unsuccessful. That night she decides that she will be the Bell's "Aunt Edna", writing an advice column for women, anonymously in order to help the Bell's newspaper obtain more subscriptions. Jo writes a letter to Nathan offering her services and sends along her first column which advises women to boldly ask a man to the Payne's eight-furlong race to be held in March in support of the Society for the Betterment of Women. She takes the pseudonym, Miss Sweetie, " temper the more provocative nature of the articles..." she will be writing.

While looking for another pair of gloves after losing one when she ran into Nathan Bell and his dog Bear, Jo discovers a man's navy suit, wool coat and shoes. Old Gin returns home and tells Jo that Mrs. Payne will see her about a job as a weekday maid for her daughter Caroline. However Jo is not happy about this because Caroline was always nasty to her when she was younger. She spent her childhood at the Paynes first as a playmate to Caroline and later on working for them as a maid until she was suddenly let go over two years ago. Jo reluctantly agrees, hoping that finishing school has taken the nasty edge off of Caroline.

At the Payne's home Jo settles in as Caroline's maid, working during the week, maintaining Caroline's quarters, her wardrobe and accompanying her when she goes out. Caroline however has no intention of having Jo follow her everywhere. On their first outing on horseback, Caroline tricks Jo sending her to look for a dropped handkerchief, which allows Caroline to secretly meet her lover, Mr. Quackenbach. Mr. Q as Jo calls him happens to be Melissa Saltworth's beau. Afterwards, Caroline threatens to have Jo fired if she reveals her secret but Jo counters with the threat to reveal her dalliance to Miss Saltworth. Her request is to be treated better by Caroline.

Upon returning to the Payne estate, Jo is disturbed to find Old Gin with Billy Riggs, a man with a nasty reputation as a "fixer". Old Gin tells her that one of the Chinese owed Billy's father money and warns her to stay away from him. Old Gin begins spending most of his days and nights at the Paynes helping Jed Crycks train the new Arabian stallion Merritt brought back to the estate.

At home, Jo discovers a partially made red silk garment which leads her to believe that Old Gin is working on finding her a husband. Meanwhile her Miss Sweetie column has become very popular, leading Mrs. Payne to buy extra copies of The Focus for her women's group, the Atlanta Belles. Jo decides to hand deliver her next column to the Bells. When she puts on the wool coat to run her errand,  she discovers a note addressed to "Shang" and signed with the letter "e" in the pocket.  Jo questions Old Gin about the letter and learns that Shang owed Billy's father a great deal of money. However he refuses to tell her anymore. This mystery and the inconsistencies in Old Gin's story leads Jo to wonder if Shang might be her father. As Jo works to unravel the mystery of her past, Miss Sweetie's fame grows and the hunt is on to discover who is behind the provocative column that is having unexpected social repercussions across Atlanta! Eventually Jo uncovers the identity of her  parents, Old Gin's connection to the debt to Billy and devises a plan to wipe out the debt.


The Downstairs Girl is a novel with a strange plot. Set in 1890 Atlanta, Georgia, The Downstairs Girl incorporates the themes of racial tension, women's rights, class and identity. The novel, while historical fiction, is also part mystery and a coming of age story. Despite these many themes the wit of main character Jo Kuan, a seventeen-year-old who is half Chinese, half Caucasian makes this novel an enjoyable and intriguing read.

In 1890 Atlanta, racial discrimination is common towards black citizens. The Reconstruction Era in the southern United States is over and the southern states are back to governing themselves. Although black men were given the right to vote by the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1870, many obstacles were enacted to limit this right in many states. At this time women were also unable to vote, but were beginning to agitate for greater involvement in society and for more rights. Women were beginning to see themselves as having a greater role in society and in the political process. Somehow Lee manages to incorporate bits of all these themes into her story, through her varied cast of characters.

For example there is Jo, who is of Chinese heritage, a talented milliner-in-training who is fired and blacklisted simply for being Chinese. There is also Old Gin, who turns out to be Jo's grandfather, who works at the Payne estate as a groom for years. There is Robby Withers, a black man who is a delivery man at Buxbaum's simply. But as Jo notes, "We all must abide by the rules, but some of us must follow more than others. Robby can be a deliveryman but not a clerk. Mrs. English would never have promoted me to milliner, just as Mr. Payne will never promote Old Gin to head groom. Like Sweet Potato and her twisted let, we have been born with a defect -- the defect of not being white. Only, unlike in Sweet Potato's case, there is no correcting it. There is only correcting the vision of those who view it as a defect, though not even a war and Reconstruction have been able to do that."

The character of Caroline Payne represents the privileged white class and the Southern gentry, but she is also used to portray the social restrictions placed on women. Caroline is a mean, thoughtless girl who is wealthy, lives in comfort and can go wherever she wants. However, her freedom is an illusion because her path is life is mostly determined by social convention. She is expected to marry a wealthy man. Despite the opening of the debutante season, Jo notes that Caroline doesn't want to marry and she begins to understand that Caroline's situation is just as constraining if not more so than her own.   "Caroline's scowling visage appears in my mind. With her wealth, every door is open for her. But maybe what she wants is not for doors to open, but for the walls to come down. When one grows up with walls, it is difficult to dream of a world beyond. Who knows what Caroline - what any of us -- could accomplish without the constant pressure to get married?" It is these observations that lead Jo to encourage her father to involve Caroline more in the family printing business which she appears to have an aptitude for.

One of the many plotlines in the novel involves Jo's search into her past. All she knows at the beginning of the novel is that she was abandoned by her father and that she was left in the care of Old Gin. However, there are soon hints that not all is as it seems. "Wondering about my parents is a strange kind of agony, an itch that I can't help scratching until it causes pain." The revelation of the identity of her parents is devastating to Jo but she decides to show her mother that she won't be bound by the chains of shame but will live life on her own terms. Jo is determined, resourceful and forthright, with dreams of becoming more than what society tells her she can be. She represents the struggle for both women's and civil rights.

The Downstairs Girl is recommended for older readers because of some sexual innuendo as well as a scene involving male nudity in a house of prostitution. Those familiar with Lee's writing will find The Downstairs Girl similar in tone to her other novels with their unique settings

Book Details:

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons Ltd.     2019
374 pp.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species by Sabina Radeva

Up until the mid 19th century, it was generally believed that all life on earth was created within the last few thousands of years,  at the same time and had generally remained unchanged. However some scientists began to consider that animals may have changed over time to their present form.

Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who enjoyed observing the natural world. During a voyage around the world aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin began to form ideas about life on Earth based on his observations which he accurately recorded.

After twenty years of writing and researching, Darwin published those ideas in 1859 in a book titled, On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection. He defined species as "groups of living things that look alike and can have babies together." Members of a species might have "variations" such as different colouring but overall they resemble each other. A perfect example are pigeons which Darwin believe descended from the rock pigeon but now have many variations.

Variations can occur through domestication, from specialized breeding programs. For example, farmers can breed cows who make more milk. In the natural world, variation also occurs. Darwin had visited the Galapagos Islands and noted that finches on the island had variations in the shape of their beaks, allowing them to eat specific kinds of fruit. For example, some finches had large beaks for cracking open large seeds, while others had long and sharp beaks to eat only cactus flowers.

Although animals and plants can often easily reproduce and have numerous offspring, it is difficult to survive in the wild. Those best adapted are the ones who succeed. Many adaptations help a species survive and over time small adaptations add up leading to new species better adapted to a new environment.

Darwin did not know how life began on Earth but he believed, based on his observations, that life on our planet is constantly adapting and changing. He called this process "natural selection" which "makes living things better adapted to where they live. Once animals with more useful traits appear, they will compete and replace those that are less adapted."  Darwin also believed that all living things were interconnected in a vast tree of life.

His theory, unique and earth-shattering in the 19th century, also led scientists to ask even more questions? If this process was happening, where was the fossil evidence for the transitional forms as adaptations led to more significant changes? Darwin felt that this could be explained by the fact that the creation of fossils is a difficult process requiring a perfect set of conditions. Animals must be covered quickly by sediment when they die in order to be preserved and even then the soft parts of animals are rarely fossilized. The conditions for fossils to be preserved must be ideal.

Natural selection also works on instinct, or how animals inherently behave. Darwin also believed that migration, that is a species moving from one area to a new area, also plays a role in change. Darwin also noted that embryos, the very first stages of new life, all show common features suggesting a common beginning. The process of evolution continues today as all life on earth adapts to the constantly changing world.


Author Sabina Radeva presents a picture-book adaptation of Charles Darwin's famous work, On The Origin of Species. Radeva who has an M.Sc. in Molecular Biology from the Max Planck Institute, was intrigued by an illustrated copy of On The Origin of Species. However, she realized that most people would never read it because of the dense text. Having switched careers and now working as a graphic designer, Radeva was still interested in combining her science background with her talent as an illustrator. She felt that children could better understand the concepts in Darwin['s theory through the use of pictures.

The author admits to leaving out "some information from Darwin's original text because the concepts were too difficult for young readers." but this works to the benefit of the topic of the book. Overall this picture book gives a good summary of Darwin's big idea, that life on Earth is constantly adapting and that this is through a process named natural selection. Radeva presents the basic parts of Darwin's theory, explaining how he came to develop it through his observations. And therein lies the lesson of the book: Radeva believes that from Darwin's story, "...children can learn the power of observation and recognize how curiosity about the natural world can lead to incredible discoveries." In an era where attention is focused almost entirely on the virtual world, Radeva's book, and Darwin's story are reminders that the natural world is full of discoveries waiting to be made.

Radeva avoids most of the controversy surrounding the theory of evolution but does explain some misconceptions surrounding evolution in a separate section at the back of the book. Appropriately titled Misconceptions, she explains what evolution is and is not. In the Appendix, Radeva explains DNA and genes, inheritance, variations and mutations, natural selection, epigenetics ( relatively new field of study in which lifestyle and life events have an effect on gene expression) and comparative embryology. There is also a Glossary and a Recommended Reading section.

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species is a good starting point for young readers (Grades 1 to 6) to explore evolution and natural selection. To learn more about Charles Darwin and his amazing voyage, young readers are directed to One Beetle Too Many: the Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky.

Book Details:

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species by Sabina Radeva
New York: Crown Books for Young Readers     2019

Friday, January 10, 2020

When We Became Humans: Our Incredible Evolutionary Journey by Michael Bright

When We Became Humans traces what scientists be current theory of the evolutionary journey of humans from primates in this book for younger readers. Michael Bright begins by defining a number of terms that readers will encounter in book: hominins, hominids, mammals, primates and halplorhines as well as explaining the nomenclature for assigning names in biology.

From there readers will begin their journey with the earliest known primate fossils from approximately 65 million years ago. These fossils tell us that
Moving on to the Age of Apes, readers learn about the theory that the ability to see colour may have evolved with the eating of fruit.

Questions such as How Do We Know Who Our Ancestors Were?, Why Walk Upright? are asked. Bright also touches on the use of DNA analysis in archeological exploration.

The skeleton of Lucy, a female from the hominin species Australopithecus afarensis (which was discovered in 1974) is over three million years old. It is possible that Lucy was one of our ancestors. The story then moves from Lucy to Homo habilis, "handy man" who lives during the Pleistocene (about 1 to 2 million years ago).  The use of fire and of more sophisticated stone tools to hunt and butcher food occurred soon after, around 1 million years ago.  Homo erectus, "upright man" was the hominin who is considered to have made great evolutionary strides. Homo erectus had a much larger brain and is considered to be intelligent and "more human like than any who had gone before."  Their bodies were considered to have proportions similar to that of modern humans.

The section on Neanderthals, a hominin who lived between 430,000 and 250,000 years ago, but who is not believed to be our direct ancestor, explores how they might have looked, the type of tools they used, what they ate, where they lived and what eventually happened to them. This then takes the reader to modern humans, Homo sapiens who appeared some 300,000 years ago. Homo sapiens are believed to have evolved out of Africa and then traveled throughout the world to  Western Asia, Europe, Australia, and eventually to the Americas.

From this point on, Bright focuses on modern humans, detailing the skills prehistoric humans developed to help them survive and thrive. These skills include becoming proficient hunters, developing glue, inventing the wheel, developing agriculture and permanent settlements, domestication of animals and the development of trade. As civilization developed, art, monuments, religious rituals and the written word were developed. How human evolution continues is an interesting and unexplored question.


When We Became Humans offers younger readers a good overview of how archeologists believe humans evolved over millions of years. It presents, in very simple format, the series of fossilized skeletal remains of hominins that have been discovered and insight they provide to archeologists. Bright not only describes these hominins and how they may have looked but also portrays how scientists believe they may have lived, and how their surroundings pushed them to adapt and learn new skills. For example he mentions how early hominins lived in warm climates but as they developed and began moving northward from Africa into Europe, the colder climate led them to learn how to build more advanced shelters.

When We Became Humans also portrays the difficulty that scientists have encountered in unravelling the puzzle of our ancestry. For example,  the hominin species, Homo heidelbergensis is believed by some scientists to be our most recent ancestor, but others believe that H. heielbergensis is the ancestor of the Neanderthals, while still others believe they are not a separate species at all. As Bright states, "The human story is so complex that nobody is sure who is right."

Many interesting facts and details are incorporated into the text. For example, details about how wolves were domesticated to become the dogs that ancient hunters used, or how "All modern Asian rice varieties can trace their origin back to the Pearl River Valley in China about 13,500 year ago." are just two examples of the many interesting and very relevant facts woven into the story of human evolution.

Bright helps his young readers understand how archeology draws from many other sciences to understand the past. For example he briefly explains how fossils are made, and how scientists use the rocks they are found in to date fossils. This helps archeologists understand new discoveries in relation to previous ones.

Readers learn that modern archeology utilizes modern technology such as CT scans and DNA analysis. The use of these tools provides scientists with information they might never have uncovered. "In a cave in Belgium, for example, there were no fossil skull fragments or other parts of a skeleton present, yet scientists were able to find minute amounts of DNA in the sediment of the cave floor -- probably from blood, pee, or poop -- revealing that ancient humans had once lived there."

Hannah Bailey's muted artwork illustrates many of the concepts Bright presents without detracting from the text. A chart of the Human Family Tree and a map showing the migration route of humans and our ancestors out of Africa close out the story. As Bright states, " The epic story of humans has been long and complex. The family tree is not a neat straight line from one ancestor to the next, but one of many branches and frequent dead ends." He notes that our recent chapter out of Africa, "features a cast of characters that constantly change as new discoveries are made." Those interested in human history and who wonder about how we came to be, are sure to find When We Became Human an engaging read.

Readers looking for more information on human evolution are directed to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History website.

Book Details:

When We Became Humans: Our Incredible Evolutionary Journey by Michael Bright
Lake Forest, CA: Quarto Publishing     2019
64 pp.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Boy Who Grew A Forest by Sophia Gholz

A young boy lived on a large river island with his family and other families. He began to notice that with each rainy season more and more of his island home was lost to the rising river. His tree covered island was gradually being replaced by empty sandbars where nothing could live. Sometimes he saw animals trapped on the sandbars.

The boy told the village about what he saw and how the homes for the animals were being destroyed. The villagers told him that the way to save the animals was to give them new homes. To help him, they gave him twenty bamboo saplings.

He went to a large sandbar, too sandy for leafy trees to grow and planted all the saplings. Every day he faithfully watered the saplings, an exhausting task for a young boy. But soon the bamboo saplings grew into a bamboo thicket. To enrich the soil he brought in cow manure, earthworms and other living things to help the soil. The boy brought in new seeds from neighbouring villages and planted them. As the years passed and the boy grew up, a wonderful transformation occurred on the once empty sandbar.

A forest covering forty acres, filled with water buffalo, rhinoceros, gibbons, elephants, snakes and birds had grown on the once barren sandbar. When problems occurred such as the appearance of dangerous tigers in the forest, the boy who had now grown into a man found a solution. That amazing boy was Jadav Payeng.


The Boy Who Grew A Forest tells the true story of Jadav Payeng. Jadav was born into the Mising tribe in Assam, India. In 1979, Jadav saw many snakes stranded on a large sandbar on Majuli Island which is located on the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India. The snakes were dying as there was no where for them to nest.

Every year during the monsoon rains the Brahmaputra River floods, resulting in severe erosion of its banks and Majuli Island, the largest river island in the world. The erosion which continues today, is so serious that scientists believe the island will disappear entirely unless action is taken .

Majuli Island, Assam India
In 1980, the Golaghat District forestry division began planting trees on two hundred hectares at Aruna Chapori. Jadav Peyand was part of this project. In 1983, when it was decided to terminate the project, Jadav decided to stay on, caring for those trees already planted and continued to plant more.

The result of his efforts is a forest named Molai, after Jadav Peyang that is now home to many varieties of trees including valcol, arjun, cotton trees, moj, silk trees as well as bamboo. The forest has attracted a variety of wildlife including Indian rhinoceros', Bengal tigers, deer, rabbits, monkeys and many different types of birds. The government of India first learned of Jadav's forest in 2008 when a small herd of elephants they were looking for, were discovered to have wandered into the area. The elephants have returned every year, staying for about six months to give birth to their young. Today Jadav, his wife Binita and their three children live in the forest. Jadav believes it is possible to save Majuli Island by the extensive planting of coconut trees. These trees would halt erosion and also provide some economic return for the over one hundred thousand people who live on the island. It would also direct them away from illegal and harmful activities like poaching.

The Boy Who Grew A Forest, tells Jadav's story in a straightforward manner capturing his determination and commitment to the reforestation of a small part of Majuli Island. Gholz's retelling is a bit misleading in that Jadav was not a young boy when he began planting trees (as shown in the picture book), but in fact a teenager of sixteen. Nevertheless, Gholz's portrayal highlights his determination to rehabilitate the Majuli Island ecosystem and and demonstrates that all of us have our own part to play in keeping our planet healthy.

Rejuvenation of the area was not without its own problems. The trees were in danger of being exploited by men who wanted to cut them down. The rhinoceros and tigers were in danger from poachers. Each problem was met head on  by Jadav and resolved; people who came to cut the trees were turned away, poachers captured by government officials.

Accompanying Gholz's text are the rich earthy illustrations of Kayla Harren in golden yellows, browns and greens, emphasizing the natural beauty of the Molai forest and its wildlife.

The Boy Who Grew A Forest is a natural fit as a debut picture book for Sophia Gholz whose father was a forest ecologist.It highlights the idea that everyone of us has a part to play in keeping our planet healthy. Children interested in the natural world will find Jadav's story encouraging and fascinating. They might find a short documentary made about Jadav Payeng, titled Forest Man to be interesting viewing. This documentary was made by Jitu Kalita, a wildlife photographer who discovered Molai forest and Jadav while scouting out new areas to film.

Majuli Island Map credit: 

Book Details:

The Boy Who Grew A Forest by Sophis Gholz
Ann Arbor, MI: Sleeping Bear Press     2019