The Canada Reads shortlist is out! I started reading from the longlist already, and I am sad that this one didn’t make the cut. I’ve never read a book from the point of view of a Muslim teenage girl before, and I think this Young Adult debut novel written by a Toronto based teacher, was very much in line with the Canada Reads 2018 theme: One Book to Open Your Eyes. It seems to me that we could use more stories from and for Muslim women living in Canada.
The voice in this girl-power story features Janna Yusuf dealing with her parents divorce, trying to fit in at school where a lot of people don’t understand her religion, and navigating adolescence in the best way she can. A boy at school who she’s been crushing on likes her back, but Janna knows her family will not approve, and another who is well respected in the Muslim community, assaults her at a friend’s party…who are the saints, misfits and monsters? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
The importance of this novel is capturing authenticity and nuance in Muslim life and getting away from unhelpful stereotypes. Ali has done a great job of giving the average Canadian teen some tools for understanding the diversity in our society. I loved this remark from a Goodreads review, Softlykaz wrote: “Seeing yourself represented in a book when you live in a world that sometimes puts you in a box and being able to identify with the MC is the equivalent of walking in the cold and then suddenly the sun hits your face and it’s like a warm hug you didn’t ask for but it happened.”
Parisian teenager Lou has an IQ of 160, OCD tendencies, and a mother who has suffered from depression for years. But Lou is about to change her life–and that of her parents–all because of a school project about homeless teens. While doing research, Lou meets No (short for Nolwenn), a teenage girl living on the streets. As their friendship grows, Lou bravely asks her parents if No can live with them, and is astonished when they agree. No’s presence forces Lou’s family to come to terms with a secret tragedy. But can this shaky, newfound family continue to live together when No’s own past comes back to haunt her?
Translated from French, this young adult novel grew on me. It’s definitely a ‘cross-over’ novel, appealing to adults as well as teens. Though it has a bit of a slow start, it has beautiful and important themes about homelessness, adolescence, friendship, and motherlessness. There are only a few characters but that spareness is what makes it great. Most striking is the juxtaposition between the simplicity of the language and the depth of ideas in the novel. There would be a lot to discuss if a book club read this together. It would be a great book for high schools to use in French class (No et Moi)…easy and engaging for teens to read, but well written and academic enough.
The effects of Lou’s kindness and bravery in inviting No to come and stay is remarkable and has far reaching effects on her family. Along with classmate Lucas, Lou tries to help No build a life away from the streets. However, No’s emotional scars run deep and she pushes Lou’s friendship and trust to the limits. Without revealing the ending, I feel I want to say that I found it sad that No never realized what a huge impact she had on all of the members of Lou’s family, by coming to stay with them. Isn’t it often the case that those who reach out to help are the ones who end up being blessed?
(Queen’s Thief series #1) First in the series, this multiple award winning young adult fantasy novel has an interesting premise and a tongue in cheek quality that tickled my funny bone. Gen is a thief who has actually been stolen himself from prison and embarks with his captors on a quest. They need him to steal a treasure from another land and he has no choice but to comply, although this plucky hero makes it abundantly clear that he has no intention of complying easily and has some tricks up his own sleeve–there is more to Gen than meets the eye, so keep an eye out for clues and double meanings. Along the way of the journey, stories are told which set the scene of this fantasy world that will continue in sequels, the next being The Queen of Attolia, which many reviewers have said is far better than this first instalment. There are three more after that: The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, and Thick as Thieves.
To be honest, the beginning of the book felt as slow and plodding as the journey of the quest itself (and perhaps that is the point), but the pace picked up in the middle when the big theft gets underway. There are some good twists and turns and though I’m not a big fantasy fan, it is definitely one of those ‘cross-over’ young adult novels that appeals to adults as well as to teens.
Every spring the CBC has a Children’s Book Panel that recommends books for children’s summer reading. I pay attention to these suggestions because they are usually very good ones. Here are a few that were highlights for me on this year’s list. The first two are for young children, the second two are for Young Adults.
It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee (Age 5 – 8)
Very funny rhyming picture book with an enterprising dog as the main character. The family underestimates the abilities of this impressive pup who works hard at all kinds of projects. Continually dismissed, “It’s only Stanley,” the Wimbledon family in the end is ‘over the moon’ about Stanley’s final and greatest achievement. A very funny picture book about a beagle who keeps waking up his family with his noisy midnight exploits.
The Mosquito Brothers by Griffin Ondaatje (Age 7 – 9)
In this quirky coming-of-age story, the main characters are a family of mosquitos…all 400 of them! Dinnn always seems to be lonely and left behind. He makes the best of it and adapts as best he can to his situation, bravely facing the many challenges that a mosquito faces in a lifetime. Who knew? Filled with fun facts and humorous fancy, this young child’s chapter book would be a great read aloud since adults will love it too. Heartwarming themes about overcoming fear, being true to yourself, and finding your own unique wings are sure to please. And you may think twice next time you swat!
We are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen
(Age 12 and up)
Susin Nielsen got her start feeding the cast and crew on the popular television series Degrassi. They hated her food, but they saw a spark in her writing. Neilsen went on to be a successful and prolific Canadian TV series writer. Nielsen knows her genre. This young adult novel is pitch perfect, funny, and endearing. It handles tough issues like grief and loss, blended families, bullying, and LGBTQ in a sensitive and constructive way. “Thirteen-year-old Stewart is academically brilliant but socially clueless. Fourteen-year-old Ashley is the undisputed “It” girl in her class, but her grades stink. Their worlds are about to collide when Stewart and his dad move in with Ashley and her mom. Stewart is trying to be 89.9 percent happy about it, but Ashley is 110 percent horrified. She already has to hide the real reason her dad moved out; “Spewart” could further threaten her position at the top of the social ladder.
The Dogs by Allan Stratton (Age 12 and up)
This is one I haven’t read yet, but I suspect it will be a dark psychological thriller that will be one of those Young Adult cross-over types that keeps adults turning pages as well as kids. I think it deserves its own post after I’ve read it.
Winner of the Carnegie Medal, in the UK this book is titled ‘A Gathering Light’. Publishers in UK always give books a different cover (which I love to compare with the US cover) and sometimes, as in this case, even a different title. Same book in every other regard.
‘A Northern Light’ is based on a true story from the Adirondack Mountains where a body of a young woman was pulled from the waters of Big Moose Lake in 1906. The boat she’d been in with her male companion was capsized so it appeared to be an accident, but the other body was never found. The mystery of that night ended up being one of the most sensational murder trials in New York’s history.
Donnelly’s fictional account features Mattie, a young girl working at the tourist hotel on the shores of Big Moose Lake. She is given a package of letters by a young woman guest who is obviously distraught. The instructions are to burn the letters, but Mattie never gets a chance until the body of the woman is recovered from the lake. What do those letters contain? Should she be true to the woman’s instructions now or are there clues in the letters that might explain what happened?
There is much more in the story than the murder mystery on the lake. Mattie is growing up in hard times on the farm and is torn between her desire to go to college and her sense of responsibility to stay home and help the family, or even have one of her own. Though not as epic, I found the book similar to The Invention of Wings in style and tone. It’s an engaging and well written novel that was a pleasure to read.
Though classified as a Young Adult novel, Donnelly handles many very adult topics deftly and creatively and is a book that anyone would enjoy. It’s definitely one of those YA cross-over gems. I do love finding those!
Jennifer Donnelly Website