Celebrating Diversity Part 1

February is Black History Month in Canada, but here in Vancouver the Lunar New Year is also a big deal. Then at the end of the month we have Pink Shirt Day. So for the next month I will be highlighting books that help us celebrate diversity in all it's many colours and nuances.

I adore Up Home by Shauntay Grant and Susan Tooke. It is one of those picture books where the dance between the words and the illustrations just makes you sigh with contentment. It is the memories of the author growing up in Preston, Nova Scotia.

While not set in Canada, all Mary Hoffman's Grace books are inspiring. Grace is a role model for both girls and boys.
They celebrate the freedom to be who you are.

The Freedom of Jenny by Julie Burtinshaw, is the story of a girl who started life out as a slave in Missouri. Her father managed to buy the family's freedom. They traveled first to California and eventually ended up on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia.

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine reveals part of the history of the integration of black students into white schools during what is known as the "Lost Year" in Little Rock, Arkansas. It is a story about the power of friendship, finding your voice, and working hard to make the world a better place.

Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor

This book is a bit of a sleeper. To be honest, after reading it for a bit, it wasn't difficult to put down. Still it was good enough to go back to. I'm not sure when it grabbed me, but it did, and I stayed up late into the night finishing it. 

It turned out to be a sweet slow book; one that gently reminds us of all that is important in being human. 

What I liked best were the cast of diverse characters. Our knowledge of them is mediated through the eyes of Raine, a 12 year old girl spending the summer with her mother, Molly, at an artists retreat called Sparrow Road. She misses her Grandfather Mac dearly, and to make matters worse, Molly is keeping a deep secret from her.

Like Raine, the reader is drawn to the openess and warmth of Lillian, Josie, and Diego. Others like Viktor and Eleanor seem cold and prickly with a unique tenderness that is revealed eventually. 

Sparrow Road was once an orphanage and Raine soon finds herself wondering about and contemplating the lives of the numerous children who once lived there. She becomes especially caught up in the life of one boy, Lyman. When her mother's secret is eventually revealed, Raine recognizes how much she has in common with the missing children.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

It is fitting that I completed Breadcrumbs on a frozen, fog shrouded January morning. Outside my window roads are paved in ice and crows flit through the dense air like foreboding omens.

It is exquisitely written.

Hunkered down under my eiderdown midst the luxury of central heating, I suffer the icy sharpness of winter's knife along with Hazel, the heroine of this tale.

What is this book about? 
It is about living inside stories; the ones that surround us, the ones of our own making, and the inseparableness of them.

It's the story of the Snow Queen retold. It reference Narnia, Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time and Philip Pullman's Dark Materials series.

It's about a girl making her way through a land of stories in search of a boy who has lost himself.

It's how that boy lost himself and why the girl goes after him.

Like all good literature, deep and abiding truths lurk beneath the surface of the words.

Hazel has already lost much before this quest begins. Her parents separated and her father appears to have abandoned her. She has had to transfer into a new school that just doesn't 'get' her.

It's about the pain of trying to find normal. Fitting in at this school is about emptying herself of everything that makes her her. It is the cruelest kind of institution, a place where meaningless paperwork masks as learning and well-meaning individuals excel at making things worse.

Those dark woods where Hazel dares go to rescue Jack are familiar to me not just because of my knowledge of the story book characters she meets there. That dark territory reminds me of our own landscape of story. Our reality is embedded with institutions that teach us we don't fit, and a marketplace that then sells us magic potions promising to assuage our fears, fill up our hollow spaces and and satisfy our deepest desires.

What makes Hazel unique is that she is tempted by these promises but manages to forge on in spite of their lure. What is it that enables her to continue on her quest? I leave that for you to figure out.

For all kinds of reasons, this book won’t leave me alone, even when I think I am done with it. 

The Path Of Names by Ari Goelman

Well this was a delightful surprise.

Ari is a parent at Dickens. He brought this uncorrected proof in last week. I worried that I wouldn’t like it and then what would I say?

There was nothing to worry about.

I started reading Friday evening after I got home from work. I read it through supper. I didn't stop (except to do the dishes) until it was done. It is an exciting, gripping read.

Dahlia is a 13-year-old magic and math geek. Getting along with kids her age is a challenge. She is forced to go to Jewish summer camp in exchange for being able to go to magic camp later on. Her brother, Tom, has gone for years but something peculiar and frightening happened to Dahlia last time she visited him there, a feeling like being hit by lightening. She hasn’t been back since.

There is cause for her apprehension. At camp Dahlia ends up seeing ghosts and finds herself caught up in a seventy two year old murder mystery.

In the beginning I was  confused a by some aspects of Jewish Orthodoxy, but it certainly didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the story. In fact, I was fascinated and want to learn more.  Just where did historical reality transform into magical realism; dragging me willingly along for the ride? 

 I love the characters - especially how Dahlia grows and becomes more confident as the story progresses. I loved how she and Tom connected. I loved that it was scary, but not so scary that I didn’t want to read it. I loved the mystery, how the tension and suspense grew. I found the ending to be completely satisfying. 

I can't wait to get a final copy for the library! Alas, that won't be til May or June.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

"One cannot justify war 
unless each side
Flaunts its own 
Blind conviction" (page 25)

I am so thankful to be a reader. 

For a few hours, I live someone else' life. When the experience is over, I return to myself transformed.


Upon first glance you might think Inside Out and Back Again will be an easy read. It's written in free verse and there are few words on a page. 

You would be wrong. 

I'm warning you, 
those sparse words 
pack a wallop. 
A word here
a phrase there
brings you to your knees.
Gasping for air
you close the book 
and let the full import sink in.

It is the story of Kim Há and her family in the year following the end of the Vietnam war. They flee Saigon and end up in a small town in Alabama. Narrated by Kim Há, this book sent me on an emotional roller coaster. Fear, anger, confusion and grief infuse the text. 
I dare you to read it and not cry.

All stories shift our worldview, but some of them let us know they have done it.

Inside Out and Back Again is one of them.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

What I loved about this book:

I was absolutely hooked in the first few lines.

The characters are authentic. Their interactions felt real. The different ways in which they reacted to their circumstances are completely and harrowingly plausible.

It is beautifully written. It's a jumble of past and present narrative interspersed with fantasies. At the same time as it is a story about loss and hope, it’s also full of humor. All this screams out at you from in the first paragraph.

The plot is complex with two story lines intersecting disastrously. In the first, Cullen Witter’s younger brother, Gabriel, disappeared from their small Arkansas town. The town has become obsessed with an extinct species of woodpecker that may have been sighted in the area. It seems like people care more about this than Gabriel's disappearance. In the second plot, Benton Sage heads off to Africa to become a missionary and fails. I understood that these two stories were going to come together – I just didn’t expect them to merge so horrifically.

What I hated about this book:

I am left bewildered and frustrated. I still have no idea if Gabriel survives and really comes back.

This is partly because of how the story is narrated. It is written, at least in part, by Cullen, who refers to a Dr. Webb, inferring that these events happened in the past. On top of this, Cullen’s fantasies are so integral to the story that it is often difficult to differentiate between them and reality.

I want a happy ending.

But I am left uncertain.

Is Gabriel’s return real or merely another of Cullen’s mirages?