My parents sent me a copy of A Bright and Steady Flame, a new memoir by Luanne Armstrong. It’s a beautiful story, if harrowing at times. Personally, I loved the book most for its descriptions of life along Kootenay Lake in the 1970s.
While Luanne was struggling as a single mom and emerging writer near the southern end of the lake, my parents were chasing bears off our property about 40 minutes north, in Crawford Bay. And though she was an adult while I was a child, we apparently shared quite a few experiences: geodesic domes, carob chips, trailers, and random books scrounged from unusual sources.
My dad used to bring home cardboard boxes of books from Jual Auction. Opening one was like cracking a chest from the bottom of the sea. It could be full of sand or it could be full of treasure.
Even if you’re not from the Kootenays, A Bright and Steady Flame is a wonderful read. It’s the story of a woman struggling to find her artistic identity amidst poverty and social change, and the story of a friendship which endured it all.
I made it to 76 books in 2018, a mere 74 less than my fourteen-year-old daughter. A few of my favourites…
In the nonfiction category, I loved YourHeart is the Size of Your Fist, by Martina Scholtens. She’s a North Vancouver doctor who worked for ten years in a clinic serving newcomers to Canada. The book was empathetic, poignant, and a window into lives completely different from my own – everything I want from a work of creative nonfiction.
In the world of children’s literature, my two favourites were polar opposites. I loved The Agony of Bun O’Keefe, by Heather T. Smith, which basically rips your heart out, shreds it up a little, and hands it back to you changed forever. And I loved Clara Voyant, by Rachelle Delaney, which is goofy and sweet and leaves you bubbling over with hope for the world.
A few weeks ago, my 14-year-old daughter said, “my generation is the most depressed one, because all the other generations until now have at least had hope.” Of course I reassured her that there was still hope for the world. “When humanity gets its act in order, things can change quickly,” I told her.
I read yesterday’s UN warning that we have twelve years to reverse climate change or face catastrophe, and that’s really quick. It doesn’t seem as if government leaders can change their socks that quickly, let alone change humanity.
Last night, we watched an episode of The Good Place. I won’t spoil the show here in case you haven’t watched it (you really should), but let’s just say an immortal being was asked to confront the reality of death, after which he had an existential crisis and curled up in a catatonic state. He had to find a way to live without ignoring reality, but without focussing on it exclusively. It’s hard not to curl up in a catatonic state when reading about climate change.
In a couple weeks I’m speaking on a children’s literature panel at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference, and one of the questions on my preparation list is: “What’s the difference between middle-grade and young-adult fiction?” In middle-grade fiction, we’re still sheltering readers from some of the atrocities of the world. When you reach high school, though, you’re confronted with the whole stinking mess — in fiction and in reality.
THE GOOD PLACE — “What We Owe To Each Other” Episode 105 — Pictured: (l-r) Kristen Bell as Eleanor, Ted Danson as Michael — (Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC)
We’d better get our act in order within the next decade, so I won’t have lied to my daughter about hope. And I find a spot of brightness in this quote from former NASA scientist James Hansen: “1.5C gives young people and the next generation a fighting chance of getting back to the Holocene or close to it.”
I find a bright spot, too, in the sight of my daughter curled up this morning with an emotionally difficult book (Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Viviana Mazza), still brushing her teeth and eager to face the day. James Hansen said 1.5°C gives young people a “fighting change” and that’s all they’ll need, really. They’re pretty amazing.
(Meanwhile, my son is practicing the accent of the Swedish chef, because at 11 he hasn’t had to face any existential crises yet.)
As I re-read what I’ve written here, I realize the key words are both “hope” and “fighting.” They’re sort of mutually dependant, aren’t they?
The following is my 13-year-old daughter’s review of Rachelle Delaney‘s Clara Voyant. I’ve read it, too, and Silence is right. It’s brilliant! But I’ll let her tell you…
Hey all! Silence here! Just finished reading Rachelle Delaney’s newest masterpiece, Clara Voyant. One of my favourites so far this year!
The story follows Clara, a sixth-grader who’s just moved to a new school. Far away from her beloved grandmother, Clara is sceptical about her new neighbourhood from the moment she arrives. With a marketplace full of future-seers and mystics, it’s right up her mother’s alley, but far from her own interests. Arriving at her new school, though, Clara is hopeful, especially after joining the newspaper. She’s excited to become a journalist. Things don’t go as planned, however, and rather than breaking news, Clara ends up with… the horoscopes? Her mother is delighted, her best friend insists it will be great, but Clara knows it will be awful. Then, things get worse. Because what happens when Clara’s horoscopes start to come true?
This was a super awesome book, and I highly recommend it for anyone aged 8-12 looking for a fun read with a great main character. 5 stars!!!
Waiting in the optometrist’s office with my son, I picked up a Reader’s Digest.
Drama In Real Life: Buried Alive by a Blizzard!
As a kid, I read whatever I could get my hands on. That included trashy romances, dragon adventures from the school library, my grandfather’s Time-Life series about aliens, my other grandfather’s James Herriot Yorkshire vet collection, my parent’s school leftovers, boxes of randomness that my dad brought home from auctions, and the entire rack of kids-with-rare-illnesses books at the public library.
But sitting in the optometrist’s office and holding this Reader’s Digest in my hands, I realized these were what I read most. They came home from the grocery store with the milk and eggs and were just as much a staple in our house.
There’s probably a direct connection between Drama in Real Life stories and this:
It seems I’m all about the drama, even decades later.
The following is my 13-year-old daughter’s rave review of Jennifer Niven‘s All the Bright Places:
When Theodore Finch, a teen struggling with bipolar disorder, meets Violet, a girl who blames herself for her sister’s death, on a rooftop, they’re both thinking the same thing. For Finch, it’s love at first sight, and not only does he coax Violet down, he also portrays her as the heroine of the story, claiming she rescued him.
Violet is grateful, but doesn’t really want anything more to do with social outcast Finch. Then, through work on a project that takes them all over their town, Violet and Finch come to find what Finch always knew to be true… they are perfect for each other. But with Finch sinking deeper into his condition, and Violet still going over everything she could have done to save her sister, is their love enough to save them?
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is sad and beautiful, heartwarming and heartbreaking. A wonderful book for 13+.
I couldn’t put it down! As befits a book about a runner, the story is non-stop action. It begins with a flood in Harry’s original hometown of St. Boniface, Manitoba, follows him to the baseball, soccer, and track fields of North Vancouver, and ends with a sprint for gold in Jamaica. The book also has a wonderful foreword about Norma’s personal connection to Harry Jerome and back matter about the interviews and research she conducted before writing the story.
I loved it, from start to finish (line). Even better, my son has agreed to read it. Usually, he restricts himself to reading and rereading Rick Riordan titles, so this is a major concession for him.
Norma, congratulations on a wonderful book and on a well-deserved BC Book Prize nomination!
My daughter’s been home sick for the last two days, so she’s been reading up a storm. She’s come out with some pithy comments along the way, including:
About John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: “Why would you write a romantic novel, and give your character a completely romantic name like Augustus, and then have people call him Gus? Gus is NOT romantic at all.”
About parents: “Writers have to be really creative to get rid of parents. Either they kill them, or they make the main characters sixteen or seventeen and super independent. In this book I’m reading [Since You’ve Been Gone, by Morgan Matson], the parents are screenwriters and they get really into new projects and then only leave the living room every forty-eight hours to see if their kids are alive.”
About embossed covers: “I love textured books. I wish they were a person, so I could marry them.”
And that’s the word from the sickbed. You’re welcome.
I spent the last week on a whirlwind tour of the Fraser Valley, thanks to the Fraser Valley Regional Library, Reading Link Challenge, and a lot of gracious and highly organized teachers and librarians. (If anyone at the United Nations is reading this, you should immediately hire Rachel Burke. She’ll get those humanitarian aid deliveries organized faster than you can say “Read, Learn, Play.”)
(Thank you to Maple Ridge librarian Sally Gwyn for the photo!)
With my books in tow, I went to Maple Ridge, Chilliwack, Langley, Yarrow, Hope, Mission, Port Coquitlam, and Delta. I presented to groups of 30 and groups of 150. I told strange scientist tales from DNA Detective and underwear-outside-clothes stories from 50 Underwear Questions.
I collected lots of favourite moments from along the way, like when one small boy stayed behind to say very shyly “you’re funny and I like books.” Or when kids at Coquihalla Elementary in Hope kept saying “Hi, Ms. Deb,” to the visiting librarian in their hallway, and it turned out she’s known them all since their days at toddler story hour. I think the happiest kids to see me were those from Maple Ridge Environmental School, who spend tons of their time outdoors. It was torrentially raining that day, and my presentation is 100 percent monsoon-free.
Thank you to all the libraries and schools that so kindly hosted me, and all the students who perfected their dramatic death scenes and their explosion sound effects. I had an amazing time!