As most of you know, I LOVE CANADA. Oh, how I love Canada. (Canadian publishers and libraries looking for employees: hit me up.) The past two years I have spent my annual long vacation in Toronto, attending the Toronto International Film Festival and wishing I lived there. I spend a lot of time waiting in line, which is great reading time, and lots of time in-between movie screenings (I saw 34 movies in 9 days last year…hoping I can get to 40 in 10 days this year!) hanging around Canadian bookstores. In this way, I’ve found some real treasures.
So, in this first YAY, CANADA! blog, I wanted to share some of the amazing middle grade titles I’ve found and really enjoyed, titles that I think will circulate like crazy with American patrons. Upcoming YAY, CANADA blogs will look at young adult titles and take a look at one of the coolest initiatives I’ve ever seen: Indigo Books’ Teen Read Awards. (there are lessons, MANY LESSONS, I think YALSA’s Teen’s Top Ten could learn from Indigo’s initiative, though it’s been sadly suspended this year …)
I hope to regularly review and spotlight Canadian titles and authors (for all ages) and I eagerly solicit suggestions from my Canadian librarian friends and readers! (two blogs and resources worth checking out: the fantastic librarians at CLASY: Canadian Libraries Are Serving Youth and Erin Walker, a Canadian YA librarian who blogs at Erin Explores YA)
I want to start with Prinny. OH, PRINNY. Where to begin with this almost perfect middle grade novel? OK, I’ll just go with the part I liked the best. It’s a novel where a character discovers strength and kinship in literature and, better still, that literature is a contemporary YA novel. Yes, really. I know there’s been some discussion about why don’t more characters in YA books read YA books? It bothers me too. That’s why this story, wherein a YA book helps Prinny find her voice and see herself, felt so true to me. I’ve seen teenagers find themselves in books, the way Prinny does here, cling to them like lifelines, and I know that so has author Jill MacLean. BETTER STILL is the novel that Prinny, a girl from a rural area in Newfoundland, connects to is Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade, a book that is about teenagers struggling with poverty in an urban inner-city. But MacLean knows that when you see yourself in a work of literature the way Prinny sees herself in Wolff’s text, you go beyond things as basic as setting and look and feel deeper. This is great, great stuff! In the course of the narrative, Prinny finds her voice through many avenues, but hearing LaVaughn’s voice is key. This book covers several underrepresented in MG experiences: Prinny and her family are very much part of the working class poor. Prinny is surprised by the existence of Amazon.ca (you can buy books and have them mailed to you?) not because she’s stupid but because the concept of buying books for pleasure is completely foreign to her. There’s also the believable friendship between Prinny and Travis (Travis is the main character in MacLean’s fine novel The Nine Lives of Travis Keating) which is a totally platonic friendship, based on the things they have in common (a love of nature and an interest in animals) and the way they are outsiders at their school. AND there’s Prinny’s strained relationship with her mother, who is well-known in their small town as the town drunk. Yet another outstanding (and utterly believable) element of the story is the way Prinny deals with this, painfully and awkwardly, filled with love and frustration. The way Prinny and her father deal with the situation with her mother, the way their whole family learns to be honest with each other and try – it’s all very true. I think by now it might sound like there’s too much happening in the narrative and it’s busy – but the opposite happens. Everything ties together, everything works together to tell the story of a very real character coming into her own. This is truly splendid book and, along with The Nine Lives of Travis Keating, it’s highly recommended for public and school libraries. Give your patrons a chance to hear Prinny’s voice – I think that she’ll speak to them the way LaVaughn spoke to her.
Next are the two titles I think are probably best known in the USA, Susin Nielsen’s Word Nerd and Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom. These are two of the best middle-grade/tween novels I have EVER read. If you were looking for an example of what a middle grade/tween novel should read like, as a genre example, you couldn’t do better than these two books. If you’re looking for more MG books? Get these. Right now!
Word Nerd is the story of a bullied 12 year old named Ambrose Bukowski. Ambrose’s mother has begun to homeschool him after one incident of bullying too many. Ambrose, in all his awkward glory, befriends the 25 year old son of his landlords, Cosmo. Cosmo, like Ambrose, loves words and loves Scrabble. The two form a Scrabble Club and a friendship … except Cosmo is an ex-con and Ambrose’s mother doesn’t approve. I know, this sounds simplistic. But Cosmo and Ambrose have such a great friendship. Cosmo is a rarity in MG/teen fiction – a young-adult who has made mistakes but is trying to change his life. Ambrose sees that and so do we. It’s a funny, original book with a great protagonist. (in my dreams, this is adapted into a movie with Jesse Eisenberg as Cosmo. I need you to make this happen, Hollywood.) George Clooney is about Violet, whose father has left her, her little sister, and her mother in Vancouver while he heads off to LA with a new wife and kids. Violet is tired of the losers her mom is dating and decides, obviously, the answer is to get George Clooney to marry her mother, so she no longer has to date guys like Dudley Weiner. Like Word Nerd what works here is the mix of very specific humor (both these books are very funny and about kids who are, well, quirky) and an achingly accurate depiction of the struggles of being 12.
Nielsen is also particularly good at writing believable parental figures. This is not to say they are beyond compare or perfect, but they are parents that are trying and sometimes, well, failing. They keep trying though! Ambrose and Violet’s mothers want what’s best for them, but Nielsen understands that figuring out what that is isn’t always easy. I think the parent/kid relationship is even more important in middle grade than YA fic. That’s not to say parents don’t need to be present in the YA narrative, but they take a different role in the middle grade novel. I think the best middle grade novels are the ones that reflect this and manage to write believable parents who are believable adults too. Nielsen does that not just with the parents but with the other adults, like Cosmo in Word Nerd. That adds to the authenticity of tween life, which is the overall hallmark of both of Nielsen’s books. These are great, funny, special middle grade novels. I can’t recommend them enough.
There you have it: four great middle grade novels from Canada … go out and get them, or request your library buy copies, today. More Canadian goodness soon!