Launching the February Giveaway!

This isn’t a real post, just a reminder of my giveaway for the beginning of February (that’s now!). Here’s a reminder of the rules:

a) I will, if you email me at give you a book of your choice: either The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, or Howl’s Moving Castle.

b) You will choose! One book per person, please. Just email me and say, “Please send me the following book, at this address!” I will send it to you.

c) This offer is ONLY FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY! February 1-February 7. That’s it. Email me during that time and I will send you a book.

d) Worldwide. No exceptions. I don’t believe in setting barriers to books. Bridges, not walls.

e) Yes, you in the back? You ask me: Why? Because I love Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones and it hurts my heart that I keep running into people who haven’t read them, that’s why. Yes, it may be a slightly bold and stupid giveaway, but my blog readership is small, the books are good (and inexpensive), and I don’t anticipate overrunning my book budget. Also, giving books to people makes me happy. So feel free to share this widely, because I am The Book Evangelist and I share The Gospels of Aiken and Wynne Jones.

To sum up: Please don’t be shy! Email me at and get a free Joan Aiken or Diana Wynne Jones book! I will be buying the books locally and shipping via USPS. Happy reading, and happy February!


More about those old books! (+giveaway)

When I last wrote to you, it was about a few old books. It has recently come to my attention that many well-educated, bookish people I know have not Heard the Good Word of Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones. I don’t judge (much) because although I knew of Diana Wynne Jones growing up, I hadn’t read Howl’s Moving Castle until very recently myself. Frankly, I innocently asked Terri at my local book shop whether it was really worth reading and she nearly keeled over backward when she realized I hadn’t yet read it.

And now I feel evangelical myself, so when I was talking to a family friend (hi, there!) who hadn’t read either Aiken or Wynne Jones and– oh my God, I was texting with him and had to delete several texts because they either read: “WHAT NO YOU’RE A PRINCETONIAN HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE” or “LET ME IN I’M OUTSIDE YOUR APARTMENT WITH MY COPIES READ THEM NOW.” So I thought it would be better to write up a useful post and help people figure out whether they want to read them (OF COURSE YOU DO) and if so where to start. To that end, read to the end and you’ll see my bit about a giveaway. Because apparently I’m a Book Evangelist.



Let’s start with Joan Aiken. First of all, are you sure you’ve never read any Joan Aiken? She’s written a lot of short stories, for starters. I grew up with A Necklace of Raindrops, now sadly out of print, for example, which I still consider to be among the finest examples of the short story ever written. They, like Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom, combine a deep knowledge of the fairy and folk tale with a remarkable level of originality. Think of Ruskin, The King of the Golden River, and you’re not too far off. (If you decide to hunt it down, make sure you get a copy with Jan Pieńkowski’s glorious illustrations. And, yes, I only mentioned that here after I found a copy for myself.)

Moving on to her novels, the same level of originality rooted in tradition is at play. For example, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase features an evil governess whose ploy to overtake her employers’ estate must be thwarted; Black Hearts in Battersea features children with mysterious pasts who must find their families. And yet– everything is fresh and new, and I think it comes down to two particular skills: a) Her characters: Aiken absolutely mastered the art of creating warm, believable, flawed-yet-lovable characters whose stories you want to read; b) Her prose: Without ever wasting a word (these books are short!), Aiken writes description which brings streets and islands and boats and hot air balloons vividly to life. This same skillset keeps you turning pages because you know the place and you’re familiar with the characters, so you want to know what happens next.

Word of warning: I was heartbroken by the end of Battersea, for many reasons. THERE ARE MORE BOOKS! They’re just out of print. Terri tells me they’re wonderful, too, and I believe her.

So, Diana Wynne Jones. As I said in my earlier post, Diana Wynne Jones writes very much in the same tradition as Joan Aiken. Indeed, they were both English, born only a decade apart. Diana Wynne Jones, too, plays with fairy tales and folklore. She too is strikingly original in her treatment thereof.

Where they differ is voice. They wouldn’t be original if they shared the same voice, now, would they? (Boy, do I love to state the obvious!) Both write character-drive, beautifully composed page-turners. Both have warmth, humanity, wisdom, and humour. But there’s something sepia toned about Joan Aiken, and jewel toned about Diana Wynne Jones. That, of course, doesn’t make one jot of sense to anyone who hasn’t read the books, and perhaps only makes sense to me, ever. (Read the books and find out!)

But take Howl’s Moving Castle, for example: The colours and fabrics and sensory experience of the book just explodes off the page. Silks and flowers and the chink of gold coins respectively run softly through your fingers, tickle your nose, and clink richly in your ears. The characters meet you powerfully and really, to borrow a phrase from an editor of my acquaintance, “make you sit up and take notice.” Even mousy Sophie, before her transformation, is vivid.

Not that Joan Aiken lacks colour! This is not to the detriment of my beloved childhood hero. No. But where Joan Aiken privileges the warmth of her characters, Diana Wynne Jones features their spiciness. Joan Aiken has flawed characters, to be sure, and ones we dearly love, but Diana Wynne Jones has very few flawless characters. The sensory richness that comes with Howl’s Moving Castle is what I recall most powerfully about the story; the humanity of Simon and Dido is what lives with me after Battersea.

Now, I hope I’ve inspired you to try out a few of these books, so I have a limited time offer for you and your friends. I want to give you a book to read!


a) I will, if you email me at give you a book of your choice: either The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, or Howl’s Moving Castle.

b) You will choose! One book per person, please. Just email me and say, “Please send me the following book, at this address!” I will send it to you.

c) This offer is ONLY FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF FEBRUARY! February 1-February 7. That’s it. Email me during that time and I will send you a book.

d) Worldwide. No exceptions. I don’t believe in setting barriers to books. Bridges, not walls.

e) Yes, you in the back? You ask me: Why? Because I love Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones and it hurts my heart that I keep running into people who haven’t read them, that’s why. Yes, it may be a slightly bold and stupid giveaway, but my blog readership is small, the books are good (and inexpensive), and I don’t anticipate overrunning my book budget. Also, giving books to people makes me happy. So feel free to share this widely, because I am The Book Evangelist and I share The Gospels of Aiken and Wynne Jones.

Some Old Books

Dear fellow readers, I’m positively swamped. Just… swamped. But my head is full of books I want to share with you! So I’m going to put down a sentence about some oldies but goodies you can explore until I’m back. (I hasten to add: Things are GOOD busy. I’m getting writing done! Just… past-every-deadline busy.) These are books I’ve noticed a lot of Americans haven’t read, even among really deep, good readers, and they all fall into the “have you got a treat in store for you!” set of books.

These two come sort of as a set. They’re in the same world by Joan Aiken, who is one of my all-time favourite authors. We’ll talk more about her another day. While they’re loosely connected, they each can stand alone, and they’re short beauties. The prose is beautiful, but they’re very character-driven with powerful, lovable protagonists. You can read each of them in a day, or an evening, and I urge you, if you haven’t already, to do so.

Howl's Moving Castle.jpg

Diana Wynne Jones writes in the same tradition, I feel, as Joan Aiken. Her stories are deeply imbued with tradition, history, and folklore and fairy tales, but entirely, beautifully, richly original. Her protagonists are flawed, human, and lovable (I dare you to try not to love Sophie), and her prose wastes nary a word. Again, like Joan Aiken, she’s an author to learn from. I like to read good authors before I start writing, just to get the word-blood pumping, and Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones are good authors for that.

Wishing for Tomorrow.jpg

This one is a little more recent than Howl or the Joan Aiken novels, but it’s written in response to a true oldie but goodie: A Little Princess. Hilary McKay is an author to trust, so I trusted her and read this even though I’d never have read it if written by anyone else. After all, I thought suspiciously, what else is there to be done with A Little Princess now that the story is over? Who can finish it, truly? But then I thought the fatal question: “What happens next, after all…?” And, well, I read it. Well. What happens next is funny, poignant, and strangely beautiful. It’s a page-turner, because the side characters of A Little Princess come to the forefront here (Ermengarde, Lavinia, even the Miss Minchins become more lifelike), and you do want to know… what happens next to them? Note: Hilary McKay is too smart to try to write Frances Hodgson Burnett’s sequel. No, she writes her own, and it’s very safe to read it.

So there are a few books for you to enjoy until I can return to reading and writing about new releases! I have got my eye on more than a few I’m excited about– there’s a new Segio Ruzzier coming in March— but until now these old ones are probably new to more than a few of you, and they’re wonderfully well worth reading. In the meantime, talk to me in the comments or by email (! What are you reading?


Hi, folks!

So, today’s post is a little unusual, and I’ll explain why.

(Don’t let this distract you from the review; scroll down a bit to read about the book– it’s a good one– if you want to skip the blog blatherings…)

You see, I pride myself on only ever reviewing books I find and love on my own or with the help of friends. I gladly take recommendations from any and all sources, but I don’t accept payment or recompense in any form for my reviews. This little blog is just me and my books, and that’s it!

But, I sometimes am asked, what if an author, editor, or publisher approaches you? That sometimes happens, and I treat it like any other recommendation: sure, sometimes they send me the book, and then I read it. Then I treat it like any other book: if I don’t like it, I keep quiet. And then there’s all the degrees of stuff that have to happen before I write about it. I have a ton of great books I’ve never told you about, you know, because if I tried to tell you about every good book then I’d have no time for anything else. And I’m supposed to be writing a dissertation, too. So, perforce, my selections are somewhat arbitrary– but only somewhat.

If a book is good but I have nothing I think I can add, analytically, then I probably won’t write about it. If I love it but don’t have time, I won’t write about it. But often, if I love it and have something to say about it and have time to write about it (increasingly short supply these days)– and if I feel the COMPULSION to write about it– why, then I’ll tell you about it.

That hasn’t happened before with a book I’ve been sent by the author, though– until today. She’s an author I happen to really like, so I was already intrigued, and she sent me her book, and I loved it a lot, and think I have what to say about it– and it gave me an opening to explain to you up here a bit about my policy on being sent books! So, yay, here we go– and now you know.

In sum: Feel free to contact me about sending me a book, I’d love to see it, but be aware that I’ll treat it like any other recommendation I may get. Don’t take it personally, and if I don’t review it– don’t assume that I didn’t like it. I may well have liked it a lot! I just was busy, didn’t have time, or didn’t have anything I felt that I personally could add in my review.

But today’s book? I loved it, I really want to tell you about it, and, gloriously, I have half an hour to start writing a post right now, with another hour later in the day to probably finish it! HURRAH!

Our book? Itch! by Anita Sanchez, illustrated by Gilbert Ford.


You probably remember Anita Sanchez from the blog before. As I said, she’s an author I like a lot, and you’ve seen me write about her book with Charlesbridge, Karl, Get Out of the Garden! several thousand times before.

Itch! does something I love: it shows me another side of an author I already enjoy. I read and re-read Karl!, so I know she can do biography beautifully. I know she can write an advanced picture book which speaks to many levels of children, too. But I did not know that Anita could write an informative, intriguing, delightfully tactile-seeming advanced picture book/MG book about everything that makes you itch. But now I do!

I’m going to admit up-front that if it hadn’t been coming from Anita Sanchez, whose prose I knew I liked, I may have skipped this book. I don’t like itchiness, I’m squicked out by lots of insects, and my daughter’s in kindergarten so I’ve had enough of lice for a lifetime– believe me! But this book goes to show that stepping out of your comfort zone can be an excellent thing: I didn’t want to be provoked to scratch my head as I read, but my hands were so busy turning the pages that I barely scratched at all.

(There, Anita, is a blurb for you: “Deborah Furchtgott writes: ‘My hands were so busy turning the pages that I barely scratched at all!'” People, you can be sure that they don’t send me books for the blurbs…)

While it’s an evocative book, and, yes, you may feel an uncomfortable tickle as you read about tarantula setae, I assure you that it’s worth it to learn about the triple-decker sandwich that goes to make our skin, and the anesthetic properties of mosquito saliva. Who knew, right? Apparently, Anita Sanchez.

A word about the illustrations: my primary anxiety in receiving this book was that the illustrations would revolt me. As I said above, I don’t love insects, and I’m not into being grossed out or made uncomfortable for the hell of it. I have a pretty low threshold for being irritated by by insect illustrations, but I also really don’t like “cartoony” science illustrations; I like them to represent reality. (You know I love Charlesbridge, and my love of accuracy probably comes from my healthy respect for their rigorously researched books.) Gilbert Ford hits this balance perfectly. On the one hand, the illustrations of insects are pretty darned cute. I actually smiled at the mosquito, and I’m a Maritimer, so that’s the first time in my life I can say that. On the other hand, the science diagrams, such as the skin sandwich I mentioned above, are clear, well-organized, and the relevant bits are not at all cartoony (the skin sandwich is posed beside a pickle, yes, but the skin itself is a good representation of what we’re looking for). There are no distractions from getting nice, accurate information– while at the same time the illustrations aren’t too gross, and are amusing to the eye. (If you’re looking for gross… you may see things differently. Other reviewers have praised it for its grossness. Flip through the book, your mileage may vary!)

To me, this was a real learning experience– not just to figure out exactly why it’s been so difficult to get and keep lice out of my daughter’s classroom (Kindergarten parents: Read this book!), but also to learn that I can still broaden my mind into areas I may have expected to make me uncomfortable. I think this is a great introduction to entomology, botany, natural history in general, and the more hands-on medical sciences, and will help both parents and children avert some anxieties about what insects are, how they behave, and why they behave as they do. I highly recommend it for kids aged about 7 or 8 and up. Amazon says 7-10. I personally think you could go a fair bit higher in that range– 12- to 14-year-olds would love it, too, I’m positive.

And this is why it’s great to hear from authors directly sometimes! I don’t know anyone who knows me who would have handed me this book, but clearly that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy it or learn from it. I had a wonderful time reading it, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with the Changeling when she grows older. Or maybe I’ll show her the section on lice now, so she understands what’s happening in her class! Knowledge, after all, is power.

Wakestone Hall

Folks, a miracle occurred this Channukah– after some months of limited reading time I did, in fact, read a book I bought! (I say this quietly so that the other books teetering on my bedside table don’t get jealous.) OK, when you get a book mailed to you from Australia, you actually do feel an obligation to spend a little quality time with it. I was looking after a dog for a bit, so Claire and I hung out for a few hours while she snored and I read Wakestone Hall.

Wakestone Hall.jpg

So I am now in a position to tell you that Judith Rossell brings this series to a strong, courageous finish. I love you too much to tell you too much more about the ending– it is, as the title page proclaims, an “intrigue,” so it really would spoil things if I gave away the ending, but I want to tell you a bit about what to expect, and why it’s worth paying the shipping costs from Australia. (Well, apart from the fact that the shipping is incredibly efficient, the book is beautifully produced, and if you’ve read the first two volumes then you know you can trust Judith Rossell to deliver a fine story.)

First of all, let’s chat about characters. I love characters who grow and develop and unfold in unexpected ways. Judith Rossell does this, but she does so with care, never letting the development happen too violently or leaving you blinking your eyes and wondering where the hell that outburst came from. Stella is brave and resourceful– but we know that as of Withering-by-Sea, so watching her courage develop is not unanticipated; her skills, as they grow, are just that– skills being exercised– not wonky changes that leave us wondering where the original Stella went.

I’m harping on about this because I think it’s a very tenuous line, drawing a believable character who nevertheless grows and changes. Not that a character has to grow to be believable and readable, either. Consider Dickens: his caricatures are quite as fascinating as his more “realistic” characters. Uriah Heep, for example, is as memorable or more so than, for example, Emily, or even David himself. Well, Wakestone Hall abounds in delicious characters who are crystallized in their own literary form: wait until you meet the Garnets, or Miss Mangan! They are (alas) unredeemable, but you don’t want them to be; they are as they are.

Judith Rossell is skillful enough to handle both styles of character, and these characters interact in a world both familiar and strange, old-fashioned yet startlingly original, magical but eerily realistic. As the reader, you get to know the characters and the world, and the plot is simply a byproduct of what must necessarily occur as these characters move through their world. Stella is not a girl who would let a cat cry outside her window without seeking to comfort it. Ottilie may be small, but her courage is big– of course she would seek help when– enh, I won’t say more. You’ll find out.

What I hope I’m conveying here is the organic, natural evolution of Stella’s character and her story. Yes, this is genre fiction, not “realist” fiction (whatever that may be– a debate for another day), but it unfolds as realistically and logically as Dickens or Tolstoy. Or as any other great children’s book– The Incorrigibles or Penderwicks or Cassons, or many other novels. Why not? The rules of the Stella Montgomery universe are there, and the author obeys them; isn’t that exactly what an author should do, magic or not?

I’ll sum up (I’m writing briefly today both to keep myself from spoiling the plot and because I need to bike home!): Judith Rossell has written one of the most compelling and believable fantasy narratives I’ve read lately. And I’ve read many good ones– so many that I feel a Fantasy Post coming on. This trilogy is exceptional, well worth ordering the final installment from Australia. The characters will live with you, the world and its environment are eerie and just a little too close to our reality to be entirely comfortable, and the plot will keep you turning the pages. Read them all, in order, and really– this note is directed to my husband– DO NOT skip ahead!

And if you do read them, please tell me what you think! Happy reading.

Baby Book Guide

I have two things for you all today.



First, a note on Help? Help!— remember that from a little over a week ago? Well, guess what arrived from Australia today? Yes, in less time than it’s taken letters from my Changeling to reach my parents in Canada, Wakestone Hall by Judith Rossell (a beautiful book, matte and jacketless with lovely texture, paper, and type) has reached me from Australia! Thank you, Boomerang Books, for saving me the cost of a ticket to Australia to pick it up myself! I am terribly excited to read it, which is awful because I won’t have time until next Shabbat.


Second, on Friday night we had a lovely couple over, very good friends of ours, and one of them said, and I paraphrase, “I have a lot of colleagues expecting babies, and I don’t know what books to get them.” I very nearly knocked over the table in my enthusiasm to respond. (Hey, sorry about that– I know I don’t shut up once you get me started on baby books…) He asked me to email him with links after Shabbat, and I was about to, when I realized that all those links might as well go here, too. So here’s a short list of some of my favourite baby presents, roughly arranged from young board books to more enduring hardcover picture books. Shall we begin?


Peek-a-Who by Nina Laden is a cute little board book for young babies, or even for toddlers to share with baby siblings. It features surprising cut-outs from one page to the next, funny rhymes, bold colours, and surprisingly lovely and nuanced art. Check out those textured leaves on the cover and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.


Peek-a-booThe wonderful Ahlberg team, Janet and Allan, created this book, Peepo! in the UK, Peek-A-Boo! in the USA. Like Peek-a-Who? it’s aimed young, with lots of tiny surprises, repetition, and rhyme. Peek-A-Boo!, however, is geared towards realistic family time and the Ahlberg art is nothing short of phenomenal. Parents will be enthralled, and babies entertained. A perfect combo.

Each Peach Pear Plum Each Peach Pear Plum, also from the Ahlbergs, we’ve discussed before, so I link you to my post there. This is a touch “older” than the Peek-A-Who?/Peek-A-Boo! duo, and the fairy tale tie-ins are bound to make it of lasting interest both to the parent and the baby.



Next up, from Charlesbridge, a lovely series called Baby Loves Science! written by Ruth Spiro and illustrated by Irene Chan. I have a lot of scientists and engineers, etc., in my life, and many of them have children. These meticulously researched and fact-checked board books are perfect for them. The series includes books on everything from quarks to green energy, and taught me what an algorithm is. I’m not making that up.

Here Babies There BabiesHere Babies, There Babies by Nancy Cohen and illustrated by Carmen Mok is still my go-to book especially for families expecting a second baby, since I think it’s perfect for explaining babyhood to toddlers and young kids. I love the art, the diversity, the realism, and the whole general feel of the book. And I particularly love that the rhythm and rhyme invite adding new verses with your kid!

Let’s move on from board books to a few great picture books, shall we?

Child's Garden of VersesA Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson is a classic, perfect expression of childhood and all of its nuances and beauty, from playing quietly while sick to journeying to the haunting Land of Nod while sleeping to digging holes in the sand at the seashore. This edition, from Chronicle Books, is as visually reassuring and lovely as the verses are. I still remember reading these with my mother, and I hope that the Changeling will always remember reading them with me. I have purchased many, many copies of this book for friends of mine, and I don’t expect that to change.


BlueBlue by Laura Vaccaro Seeger is a fairly new picture book, but I’ve already given it to several friends and am trying to figure out an excuse to own a copy of my own. It is extremely simple: just a few words accompanying lush illustrations. The bright, bold art will capture a small child’s imagination, while the limited text will be comprehensible at even a very young age.

Night TrainNight Train, Night Train by Robert Burleigh and Wendell Minor is another very new “young” picture book, perfect for that transition from baby to toddlerhood, or for bridging that gap. Like Blue, the text is limited and lyrical, and the beautiful art will entice both the children and the parents.

JamberryJamberry by Bruce Degen is yet another lyrical, rhyming book perfect for very young children. I recently heard from a family member with a new baby that she was loving reading it to her two-month-old baby, which makes total sense to me. The bouncing rhythm is just perfect for getting smiles out of that very young age, even before the baby can understand the funny text and illustrations, which will come before long, making this an enduring classic.

All right, that’s probably enough to start with, don’t you think? Let me know if you have other great ideas in the comments or by email!

Holiday Gifts

Hi, folks!

This is one of my favourite times of year: I love buying books, in case you couldn’t tell, and I particularly enjoy giving people books which seem like the perfect match for them. Like Penelope Lumley in The Mysterious Howling, I believe that there’s always a book for every person and every occasion; you just have to find the right one. Thus, when the holidays roll around, I get the particular pleasure of going into a book shop and buying ALL THE BOOKS for my friends and relatives.

But what do I buy? In particular, what do I buy for children? This year I’m going to tell you about some of the best books I’ve been getting for the kids on my Chanukkah or Christmas lists. Some of these will be books you’ve seen on here before, some will be new, but all come highly, highly recommended. By me, that is. If, you know, you care about my opinion, which is what you find at this here blog. Also, a warning: This list is long. I’ll try to go from youngest to oldest, though, and mark age groups so that you don’t have to read all the way through if you don’t want to.

One little note: I’m going to be linking to Amazon here, at least sometimes, for your convenience (they have a lot of info) and mine (one easy place to search). Please, please, please consider buying from your local bookstore, however: they are irreplaceable, and the joy and security of flipping through a book before buying it cannot be overestimated. OK, that’s my little pitch.

Each Peach Pear Plum

For the babies of my acquaintance (and right now there are so many babies!!!), I continue to give them my very favourite early books: the Ahlbergs’ Each Peach Pear Plum and Peek-a-Boo. You’ve all seen Each Peach Pear Plum a long time ago, so I won’t go into it much here, but I will say that both of these books are entertaining to parent and child. There is so much to see and unpack in the illustrations, the rhymes and rhythms are so perfectly balanced, and the stories and characters are developed to such an incredible extent that even the most cynical parent and most distracted child will be engaged.

Here Babies There Babies


For one notch older, maybe early toddlerhood, I’ll link you to Here Babies, There Babies. I give this book out a lot, both to babies/toddlers and to little ones anticipating a new arrival in the family. I think it’s great for teaching kids about their place in a world full of other kids just like them, and the diversity of the text is subtly matched by the diversity in the illustrations, which I also love.


For, say, three- or four-year-olds this year I want to recommend one that I recently reviewed here: Night Train, Night Train and a beautiful new alphabet book which I have yet to review, Animalphabet by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Sharon King-Chai.

Night Train
Night Train, Night Train
is stunningly beautiful (parents will admire the art as much as the children will) but is also a great train book, and have you ever noticed how fascinated three- or four-year-olds are by vehicles of all kinds? I’m so excited to hear how the kids of my acquaintance respond to this beautiful book.




Animalphabet is another visually stunning book. It’s a lift-the-flap book taken to the next level, with exquisite die-cut flaps with little peek-a-boo holes and visual jokes as you go from ant to zebra! I have absolutely no reason to own a copy of this book. None. And I’m determined that the copies I’ve purchased are all going to children of the right age to enjoy them and learn from them. And yet I know it’s going to be a wrench, I love the art so much.


For story picture books for kids one notch up from preschool, I’m going to present a few options for you to consider as you think about the kid in question’s tastes.

For the serious-minded or artistic child in your acquaintance, think about The Dam or Town Is by the Sea, which I tend to think of in the same breath, honestly. Both are exquisite, both deal obliquely with deep social or ecological issues– which never really disrupt the text or illustration, and yet somehow inform the atmosphere in a gentle, mournful sort of way. The Changeling loves both of these books, even though she’s far too young to understand the real implications of the story. Both are so beautiful in the pairing between text and art that I get a little choked up reading them.



Shelter is another book we’ve talked about fairly often, and, in fact, I love it so much that we even did a giveaway over here– and I still love it just as deeply. It’s beautiful, meaningful, gently opens the door to all kinds of great conversations about generosity and kindness… but it’s never, ever preachy. I think it’s a perfect book for the holidays: times of giving and deep reflection. And did I mention that it’s beautiful?


Captain's Log Snowbound

Captain’s Log: Snowbound by Erin Dionne, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbler is a great choice for a kid with a taste for adventure and a great sense of humour! Besides, if you live in a snowy region, as I do, you just know that you’re going to need a good, funny story to read on a snowy day– and who better to think about as a blizzard whirls by your window than Ernest Shackleton Jr.?

Lights Camera Alice


Lights! Camera! Alice! is another recent masterpiece. Written by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by Simona Ciraolo, it is a good book for anyone with an interest in film, the role of women in the arts, or just a good story with wonderful characters. And the amazing thing is that it’s all true! Full to the brim with interesting facts, high drama, and adventure, this is one of the most gripping picture books I’ve read in 2018.

Next, I want to talk about the three best early reader series I’ve encountered since my daughter started to read.

First up are Catwings by Ursula Le Guin, illustrated by S. D. Schindler and The Cobble Street Cousins by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin. I’ve written about both before, right here, so I’ll be brief.

Catwings is a beautiful series, poignant to the core; you follow the winged cats as they look for people they can trust and homes they can call their own. The Cobble Street Cousins, by contrast, are homey and domestic to the core; the cousins already have family and home and love in spades, but the series revels in that domesticity. What both series have in common is an eye for detail and perfect pacing for little readers. These are probably my five-year-old’s favourite books to read solo, and yet if she asks me to read them with her, I find them as delightful and thoughtful as she does.


The next series I want to tell you about is new to the blog, but the author is not. Do you remember the Casson family books I wrote about here? Well, Hilary McKay has books for younger readers, too, so please consider welcoming Lulu into your life! Lulu is spunky, warm, and quick. Most of all, though, she’s an animal-lover, and if you have any animal-lovers in your life, they will relate to Lulu. Lulu rescues a duck egg, Lulu saves a dog, Lulu finds a good home for a cat and her two kittens– what doesn’t Lulu do for an animal? And all the way along, she finds herself in comical yet completely logical adventures. (I admit, the Changeling hasn’t read all of these yet… but I have…)

As for middle grade novels, here are three series and one stand-alone novel covering a variety of genres, but all with great heart, adventure, and brilliant characters.

Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland

I have to begin with the Fairyland series from Catherynne M. Valente. (You’re not surprised? That only proves that you know me by now.) September is one of the most powerful heroines I’ve encountered in MG fiction, the narrator is tricksy and vivid, and the range of side characters is second to none. They’ve peeled open my heart, made me laugh, made me cry– and always made me think. I need more people to read these so that I can have more people to talk to about them.



The Left-Handed Fate
 by Kate Milford is a book I want to make more of a fuss about than I have to date. I stumbled across it (erm, hunting a book down is the same as stumbling across it… right?) on John Scalzi’s blog and was instantly hooked. As soon as I got my hands on it, I opened it and fell in love. Readers of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series will delight in the historical aspect of this novel, readers of fantasy and/or detective novels with love the dramatic tension of the plot, and readers in general will love the relationships between the characters and clear, beautiful writing.

Finally, here are two series I always think of in the same breath:

Two family-based MG series: Hilary McKay’s Casson family novels, and Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick family novels. The key to both series is that neither takes itself too seriously, but they both take their characters very seriously. That is to say, the characters’ lives, their concerns, their loves and heartbreaks– all of these are handled with gentleness and generosity, but the narrators never lose their senses of humour. From Rose Casson learning to love reading to Batty Penderwick recovering from her deep grief, neither series makes light of its characters’ challenges, but both let you know that it will be all right.

So! That’s as short a list as I could manage to help you with your holiday shopping! Did I miss anything fabulous? Let us know in the comments!

Help? Help!

Dear readers, this was going to be a sad story, a plea for your help– but don’t worry, it is now a happy story. See these two books?


Do you remember when I wrote briefly about Withering-by-Sea and Wormwood Mire by the very talented Judith Rossell? It was a while back, right over here (scroll down that post).

The third and final book in the series, Wakestone Hall, has just come out in Australia– and won’t be published in the USA!!! I know, I know. You just gasped a little, didn’t you? I’m furiously angry on the author’s behalf, and was positively in throes of agony (“WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?”) on my own account.

I roved all over the internet looking for a way to get this book. Even wouldn’t deliver to me, at any price. I checked out every option I could (seriously, even the Book Depository wouldn’t ship it to me???)– nothing came up. I asked at my local shop and they agreed that the best and cheapest option was for me to fly to Australia and get it myself, but I don’t have time for that until after I’ve finished my dissertation and I don’t want to wait that long to find out how Stella’s story ends.

So. There I was, miserable, heartbroken, when an angel came to the rescue. Her name: Judith Rossell! I had written to her of my despair and inability to find a store which would ship her book to the USA, and she replied very kindly (she’s a lovely person) directing me right here: Boomerang Books!

As she shared with me, I now share with you: If you, too, have been on tenterhooks waiting for the rest of Stella’s story, and if you, too, were heartbroken to find that it’s not coming to the USA– this is how you can get the last book! And I promise you that I’ll do my part; as soon as I’ve received and read the book, I’ll tell you my thoughts. Watch this space!

Two Books

I tend to get my books in chunks, here and there, as they come in to the shops I frequent. That means that my blogging here tends to go in fits and starts for a few reasons: a) blogging comes and goes as my work dictates; b) it also comes and goes as my book acquisition dictates. Today I have two books for you both because I got them at the same time and because, once I read them together, I saw a link between them: they share a madcap, frenetic energy– an impulse towards adventure which I hope you’ll all enjoy.

Let’s start with Captain’s Log: Snowbound, by Erin Dionne, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler.

Captain's Log Snowbound.jpg

The story of how this book came into being is almost as great as the book itself: During the legendary snowstorms of 2015, author Erin Dionne entertained herself by writing on Facebook of her life as a marooned captain sequestered with her two mutinous children. Charlesbridge editor extraordinaire, Karen Boss, spotted these posts and the two of them made a book happen!

And, heading into another winter, am I ever glad they did. Right now, the Changeling is at the stage where she’s looking forward to snow. But I’m a seasoned explorer of the ice and snow (that is, I grew up in the Canadian Maritimes and I know winter) and I fully expect to see that excitement turn to misery mid-February, which is when I’ll pull out this book and turn the winter blues into warm chuckles.

I don’t want to undersell this book by saying it’s just a funny book about being cooped up indoors during a harsh winter. That’s all true, and parents and children can both relate to the feelings involved in an upset schedule and gloomy weather. On that account alone, this book is a winner.

But there’s more going on or I wouldn’t be writing about it here: Erin Dionne invokes the great name of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his ship Endurance. We’ve talked about Shackleton before: Shackleton’s JourneyWell, in this book, the young protagonist (our Captain) has a presentation to give on Ernest Shackleton and is wildly excited to do so… until the storm hits…

Soon, the young Captain is embroiled in adventure after adventure as the scallywag (the Captain’s younger sibling) causes trouble, the Captain’s belongings start to go missing, and the supply of hardtack begins to dwindle. Mutiny rears its ugly head and morale is low– until the sun comes out, the snowstorm abates, and a Captain with a renewed store of experience (and endurance!) prepares once more to deliver a presentation on the thrilling life of Shackleton.

The double layers to the story, interweaving bits about Shackleton’s life and adventures with the Captain’s, is a brilliant touch. It takes a funny story and gives it added depth and flavour, and gives motivation to the Captain’s zeal for adventure. The earnest Captain is always looking for the next opportunity to do the right thing, take the necessary next step, while the reader, looking on, sees madcap energy boiling all around him. The contrast between the honorable Sir Ernest Shackleton, our protagonist’s hero, and the craziness of being trapped indoors for several days running is consistently, and hilariously, in the reader’s mind.

Let me put it this way: if you’re a parent in a soon-to-be-snowy area, you definitely need this book. Get yourself a store of hardtack, grog, and this book, and feel smug about the impending snow.

Lights Camera Alice.jpg

Our next adventure is far, far removed from Antarctica– let’s journey to France, instead, where at the dawning of the age of film we meet Alice Guy-Blaché. In Lights! Camera! Alice!, author Mara Rockliff and illustrator Simona Ciraolo introduce us to one of the first filmmakers, period, and the very first woman filmmaker.

Alice Guy-Blaché, they teach us, was, first and foremost, a storyteller. She started out life in comfort with a loving family and a great store of books. Disaster struck, her beloved father died, and Alice had to go to work. She learned to type and went to work at a camera company– where she was introduced to a new type of camera, and to moving pictures. Her mind was filled with the potential of these new cameras, and soon she was combining her love of narrative with her work, demonstrating the capabilities of the cameras with moving stories. Soon her films took off: she wasn’t just selling the cameras, she was selling the stories! She made film after film… until she fell in love with a young cameraman and they headed off to America. In America, she was stunned to find that movie-making was far behind what she had known in France, but, nevertheless, she got to work and carried on doing what she did: making films, telling stories. Sadly, once again fate took a turn: both her business and her husband left her for Hollywood, and she was left to return to France with her children. There, once again, she turned to storytelling– this time in the form of her own memoirs.

It’s a breathtaking story, and fills a very necessary hole in our understanding of how history works. This isn’t just the history of cinema or women’s history: it is our history, in a global sense, and Alice Guy-Blaché has been left out of it. It’s outrageous to think that so many of us grew up on film as The Story of Edison, when, in point of fact, Alice was the teller of so many tales, and in such a dramatic fashion, before he entered the scene. How has she been forgotten? Indeed, how was she neglected in her own day?

I was going to answer those questions, but I think we all know the answers already, so I’ll leave it unspoken.

The point is: Alice Guy-Blaché was a truly remarkable, innovative, unstoppable innovator and filmmaker. She was one great adventure after the next, she had boundless energy, and a remarkable spirit of endurance (to bring us back to Shackleton). As my own daughter begins to explore the world of storytelling (no, seriously, she wrote a very cute little storybook!) it thrills me to think that she has someone so brilliant and feisty, so accomplished and innovative, so full of madcap energy, behind her. If we stand on the shoulders of giants, Alice Guy-Blaché can lift the next generation to the stars.

So there you have it: two wonderful, utterly different stories. We have fiction and nonfiction, yes, but we also have two zany, adventurous, energetic tales which bring us, I think, closer to where we need to be as humans. They teach us persistence, innovation, and endurance, and they never, ever let us lose our sense of humour.

Night Train, Night Train

Dear fellow readers, it’s been a while since I settled down for a chat with you all about just a beautiful picture book. I’ve missed that! So let’s rectify that situation, shall we?

Night Train.jpg

Meet Night Train, Night Train by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor. It’s quite a new book, just published in October by the ever-fabulous Charlesbridge. It has been a while since I have met with such a visually stunning book and I am eager to share it with you.

This is quite a young picture book, geared towards toddlers and up (the Charlesbridge website says ages 2-5, and I defer to their expertise), but that doesn’t make it any less sophisticated, particularly to the adult eye.

The book itself is a nostalgia trip: it’s set, as the illustrator’s note in the back explains, in the 30’s or 40’s, with a small child riding a Dreyfuss Hudson locomotive. The child, accompanied by a teddy bear, rides the train through the night, all in black and white and shades of grey, occasionally punctuated by a gleam of colour. (Long-time readers of the blog will recollect exactly how much I love a muted grey-black-white palette punctuated by the occasional bright splash of colour: The Tea Party in the Woods and First Snow spring to mind.) As the train and the child dash along through the night they witness, among other sights, a “big blue window like an eye,” and as the night progresses and the child is lulled to sleep, “Eyelids flutter. Nod. Lean back. RattleRumble. Down the track.” Finally, as the child sleeps, the light and colour gradually increase until, with morning, the train pulls into the station, and the child and teddy step out at their destination in a bright world of colour.

As I emphasized above, the gradual transition from dark, greyscale night, whisking through splashes of colour, and on into a world of soft yet brilliant colours will captivate any child’s eye and be appealing to every adult reading with them.

But the strength of the book isn’t only visual; it’s aural, as well. Just as the illustrations are muted yet brilliant, the words are quiet yet potent. I want to say that it’s “poetic,” but I don’t want to be misunderstood. The book isn’t exactly a unified, narrative poem; it’s not even a Jamberry. But rhythm, rhyme, and plain old sound effects mark it strongly and attract the tongue and the ear as much as the not-quite-black-and-white pictures attract the eye. Together, sound and sight make this book an absolute treat, and I want to bring back the word I used above to emphasize the point: this book is sophisticated. Instead of carving away everything of essence about trains to make it “childlike,” this book takes the child audience seriously and carries the reader right into the essence of the train ride. It’s like Freight Train (a childhood favourite of mine) at an art show.

Simply put, I adore this book. It’s fresh, new, original– and yet it’s a total nostalgia trip for a world I never knew yet somehow remember through its pages. It’s a joy to read: exquisite to the eye and a dream for the ear.

The copy I bought today is earmarked for someone else, and I’m so sad about that that I just know what’s going to happen… and I bet so do you. Freight Train has earned itself a companion on the bookshelf!