Follow by Email

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Roll On: Rick Hansen Wheels Around the World" by Ainslie Manson

One of the best things about book blogging is the "backstage pass" it can create for tapping into an author's motivation. After reading Roll On: Rick Hansen Wheels Around the World, Daughter #2 and I were impressed. Instead of another sports hero story about the agonies of a champion athlete on an epic journey (though there's just the right dose of that in the mix), Roll On introduced us to what can happen when you're on the road to reaching your dream. And what is remembered afterwards, what matters, is not so much about the aches and pains, but the people met along the way. This made us think, and we came to the conclusion we had a few questions for author Ainslie Manson.

Why did you want to do a sequel to Boy in Motion?
This year is the 25th anniversary of Rick's around the world journey in his wheelchair.  To mark this occasion, Rick requested a second book, carrying on where my earlier book, Boy in
Motion left off, and telling the story of his gruelling, marathon journey.

Did you get to meet Rick Hansen? What is he like?
Yes, I've met with him several times. He is kind, charming and incredibly charismatic -- and it would have been almost impossible not to accept the challenge of writing this book for him!

Roll On is special because it's not so much about Rick, as it is about the people he met on his trip.  How did you decide to write the book this way?
It was a challenge to write this book because  Rick wanted it for the same age readers as Boy in Motion.  But by the time he set off on his marathon journey he was 27 years old!  Usually the protagonist in a children's book is a child. So I decided to tell the tale from the point of view of several children he meets along the way, and also from the point of view of Jack, the boy who sees him off in Vancouver and then greets him on his return home two years later. Each child is moved and perhaps even changed by Rick.  And in a few cases Rick is very moved (and helped) by the children. Each of the stories was originally way, way longer but we had to cut, cut, cut!  So though I know their whole stories no one else does!

What is your favourite picture in the book? Why?
I think perhaps my favorite illustration is Rick with Lin on The Great Wall of China.   This was from a photo taken on the Great Wall. I went through hundreds of Rick's pictures and sent many of my favorites like this one to Ron Lightburn, the illustrator.   Rick didn't actually know the name of the little girl chosen to toast him on The Great Wall of China.  I gave her a name and a story!  Rick had written about a few of the children but there was no picture, and in a few others I built a story around one of Rick's photos.  I had fun naming my children, too. The British children are named after my nieces, Holly and Hannah.  And the New Zealanders are named after my two grandsons!

Thank you, Ainslie!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

I've lived a long time, a very long time, 101 years, and I'm still here. I'm done with the doubts and struggles and insecurities of youth. I'm finished with loss and guilt and regret. I'm very old, and nothing is expected of me. Now, provided good health continues, I can do what I want. I can write my memoirs. I can edit my works for a future eBooks. I can even do nothing--what a luxury that is! I have new priorities and a new appreciation of time. I enjoy my family more than ever, and also a sunny day and a comfortable bed. I keep up my interest in books and theatre and people, and when I'm tired, I rest. My former students write to me and visit me. I had many problems and disasters in my life; fortunately, at my age, I don't remember what they were. I'm glad I am 101.

--Bel Kaufman to Robert Sullivan in "Test of Time", p. 82, VOGUE, August 2012

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reality reading (with a royal flair)

September 30, 2012

Apart from a five-bedroom Georgian home in Surrey (England), a volunteer career in church bell ringing/flower arranging and an easily inflenced parrot named Darcy, Constance Harding has one great gift: the ability to see things as they aren’t.

A husband who neglects her, an incompetent housekeeper whose knickers tend to nest in said-husband’s study, a bell-ringing buddy with a mysterious crush on a very married woman, a son with a secret that Mummy definitely doesn’t want to hear… oh, it’s just so much easier, and funnier to rise above it all. What Constance does see is that there’s nothing wrong with a little well-meant meddling on behalf of those she loves best--until it starts backfire without the back-up of reality.

A Surrey State of Affairs has one eye-opener after another in store for Ceri Radford’s dotty heroine. And Constance, when the chips are down, has a bit more backbone than even she could predict.

There’s no escaping reality for Elizabeth II. In Richard Brassey’s The Queen, a young Elizabeth tries to have tea incognito at the YWCA in Tottenham Court Road. When told she’d have to carry her own teapot to the table, the princess was quickly recognized—so much for a quiet outing and the blissful freedom of an afternoon’s anonymity.

With only a few hundred words to work with, Brassey charmingly illustrates a balance of big facts (in 2015 Queen Elizabeth will be the Commonwealth’s longest reigning monarch) with personal details (do not touch the corgis!) making The Queen easy for all ages to relate to and a fine tribute in this Jubilee year.

In 2008, reality for the new King of Otuam--a town of 7,000 in Ghana--was a kingdom with no running water, pot-holed roads, limited education for many children, a crumbling palace, no doctor and no public funds to do anything about any of it. A council of ineffective (at best) and corrupt (more the case) advisors were not going to make it easy for King Peggy. But their hopes that as an ex-pat living in Washington, D.C. Peggielene Bartels might turn a blind eye to their dark dealings were quickly dashed when their new ruler decided enough was enough.

With determination and true belief in the potential of her people, King Peggy achieves a royal turnaround in Otuam and creates a shining example of what is possible when one steps up, way up, to the throne.

Monday, August 06, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

"Most things in life start small, and get bigger," funeral director and educator Todd Van Beck once said. "Except grief. Grief starts big." And if you don't deal with it, it stays that way. 

The further one travels along The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the clearer it becomes just how big a grief can be. So big, in fact that it will take something utterly momentous to bring it down to size.

If one were to place bets on the chances that a retiree who never walks further than the car could cross the length of England, by foot, in a pair of deck shoes, one would probably not place all ones chips on Harold Fry. And yet from the moment he passes the first postbox on his way north to the bedside of a long-lost and loyal friend, there's nothing we want more for this gentle, thoughtful man than that he succeed--and buy a good pair of walking boots along the way. One of these he does.

What starts as "unlikely" because Harold is so pitifully ill-prepared, becomes even more impossible as the weight of his world bears down on him. But never underestimate what putting one foot in front of the other can do. It's the way books get written, and great stories are made.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Little Rat Rides

Is there anything worse for a reader than finishing the last book in a beloved series? We wouldn't mind so much, if only more books for young readers showed the same care and attention to words and pictures that Monika Bang-Campbell and Molly Bang do together in Little Rat.

After all the big sighs, Daughter Number Two still had a few questions about our new favourite furry heroine. So, with a little help, she posed them in an email to the author herself. Here is what we heard back. 

Why did Pee Wee chase the cat?
Pee Wee does NOT chase cats, he is scared of cats. All horses are scared of sudden movements they don't understand, because they are "prey" animals - in other words, they don't chase after other animals to eat them but instead are eaten by creatures like wolves and coyotes and jaguars and lions and bears and . . .

So they are scared by things we feel are very safe, like a running little cat or an umbrella suddenly opening  up.

Was Pee Wee a real horse?

Pee Wee was indeed a real horse, but he was a brown horse with white socks and a black mane. He was a retired barrel racer, so he was originally very swift, but when I rode him, he was old and slow and fat, but he was also still big. The horse in the book was named Salty, and he looked exactly like that: a big palomino Belgian.

Why are there real photos in the book?

The photos were real pictures of my Dad on his horse (who really was named Starduster) when my Dad was young and rode Starduster in the 4th of July parade in Manchester, New Hampshire. But he didn't have the head of a rat. The other real picture is of me, riding a horse named Happy in a show at the Barnstable County Fair many years ago But I did not have a rat head either.

Will we do another Little Rat book? How does Little Rat Dances Irish sound? Maybe. I don't know. I doubt it will be about Irish dancing, but I never can tell.

Why is Little Rat a rat, and not, say, an armadillo?

I made the books about a little rat because I like rats a lot and had a white rat as a pet when I was little. Her name was Sophie Rat, and she was cuddly and gentle. I've never had a personal relationship with an armadillo.

Maybe one of the reasons the series works so well is that it taps into some very real experiences in the childhood of its very real author. This makes the words authentic, and the scary, discouraging and frustrating parts of learning something new ring true. The bumps and the bruises, and the ups and downs are all there, but so is the heart, soul and happiness that comes from doing something difficult, whether its riding, making music, setting sail or even... learning to read.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Tale of Two Nazanins

June 21, 2012

Never underestimate the power of a pageant promise. Especially when the world is watching.

If you ask Wikipedia the meaning of the name “Nazanin” you will find it cited as a common Persian female first name, meaning “lovely”, “beautiful” and the like. And below this definition are listed, by way of example, three Nazanins: Nazanin Boniadi, an actress and spokesperson for Amnesty International, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a human rights activist and Miss World Canada in 2003 and Nazanin Mahabad Fatehi a 17 year-old girl sentenced to death for stabbing a man in self-defense. It is the latter two Nazanins who form, in alternating chapters, The Tale of Two Nazanins by Nazanin Afshin-Jam and Susan McLellan.

“Nazanin” is a fitting, perhaps even prophetic, name for a Canadian beauty queen with a close and loving family and a host of freedoms and possibilities before her. But “Nazanin” is a woefully ironic choice for an impoverished, Khurdish–Iranian girl who suffers most of her young life from neglect and brutality. While one advances in her education and rises on the world stage, the other struggles to go to school, care for her siblings and survive abuse at home, and menace in her surroundings. In such circumstances, it’s no wonder that trouble finds Fatehi, but the severity of her punishment, and the judgment against her is dictated by the fate of being female in a society that regards a woman’s life as half the value of a man’s.

This is no fairy tale for either Nazanin, but there are some victories noted in the book’s final pages. In Afshin-Jam’s fight to save Fatehi from the death sentence, some advances are made in youth justice in Iran, though for every step forward come two back, it would seem.

In any beauty pageant, vows are made to save the world.  But the old adage is true: pretty is as pretty does. The lengths Afshin-Jam goes to answer one desperate plea are a testament to the sincerity of her promise. A beauty queen’s reign is only a year, but in giving up the crown to its ultimate successor, many a former monarch has embarked upon a life dedicated to making the world a better place. Of these, Afshin-Jam is a shining example. Her cause is not for the faint of heart, and neither is her Tale, which only makes it that much more worthwhile to read, and to learn from.

Like the characters in Helen Simonsen's outstanding first novel, sometimes you have to leave your senses to come to them. I rashly abandoned the 14-day loan to linger over a copy of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand from the library, and am unrepentent. This, and Middlemarch, are the best books I have read all year. I lived in Middlemarch for summer vacation; Pettigrew was with me for the Christmas holidays. For everyone who loves England, a cure-all cup of tea, and believes simple happy endings are as possible as people are complicated.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

"I felt a keen sense of responsibility to only use material that I felt was illuminating, but not damaging. As my father always said, be honest, but be kind."

--Kari Herbert, author of Polar Wives

Sunday, April 15, 2012

North and South meets A Visit from the Goon Squad

Kindly step aside, Mr. Darcy, for Mr. John Thornton of Middleton.

Sorry, John Who?

If Jane Austen's Darcy marks the measure of romantic hero, Elizabeth Gaskell’s John Thornton may well be his superior: a self-made, socially-conscious business leader with a mind for higher learning and a true, unwavering heart. His lower profile is a little ironic, since Gaskell orginally wrote him into a serial for Charles Dicken's Household Words. But perhaps Darcy is just a little less complex and easier to adore—nobly-born and not caught up in the mess of tensions between working class men, and those who employed them, that is Thornton’s reality in 1855.

“Master” was the word in Gaskell’s day, and is Thornton’s role as a cotton mill owner in the city of Middleton--Gaskell’s fictional interpretation of Manchester at the time.  The romantic tension between Thornton and Miss Margaret Hale, newly arrived in Middleton from the bucolic South, keeps pace with all the social upheaval of its era.

Gaskell’s belief in the need for empathy and communication, across vast social chasms, was not only ahead of her own time, it still seems to elude us today--where resolving union/management conflicts retain all the stubbornness and entrenchment of struggles staged more than 150 years ago. Sadly, it may be that in having Thornton humbly sit down for meals with his workers, Gaskell unwittingly politicized and relegated him to forever shadow Darcy as the ultimate romantic hero, which is unfortunate, given that as North and South proceeds Thornton’s virtues and thoughtfulness only grow.

As for Margaret… her world is a complicated one. From a severing of ties with the Church, that leads her father, Vicar Hale, to impose exile on himself and his family from the pastoral tranquility of England’s South to the industrial North, to the rise of union power and worker’s rights, the splinters in society are rife and pricking when Miss Hale and Mr. Thornton first meet.

Constrained by society and confused by the true nature of Mr. Thornton’s character, Margaret busies herself doing what the daughter of a former vicar would naturally do: befriending a working family in Milton. Though proud and conflicted, Margaret’s dawning humility and kindness make her a heroine worthy of her sweet and happy ending.

There are no John Thornton’s in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. There’s a Benny, a Scotty and a Lou in scenes from their various stages of seedy music industry success. To chase North and South with this grimey group is about as far as anyone might leap from England in 1855 to the near-present. A crash landing of sorts, but Squad is so original and observant it’s not fair to compare. We live somewhere between the two extremes of gallant protagonists and punks past their prime. Heroes we can only dream of, louches we’d rather not know in real life, but will all to eagerly read about, so long as they’re written as well as Gaskell and Egan have done. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Let's be honest here. There are times, when helping a seven-year-old practice her reading, that you just long for the book to be over. It can be a long, slow ordeal with more than a few mix-ups on the way to the last page, and a sigh of relief when you finally arrive at the end.

Not so with Harley, Star Livingstone's tribute to a llama in eastern Massachusetts with a knack for shepherding and a mind of his own. Livingstone's simple sentences and vocabulary knit together a series of episodes in the life of Harley the guard llama--from chasing off coyotes to making friends with a gristley old ram--that has one wishing for a sequel.

If a Grade Two reader takes her time with Harley, it's for good reason, Molly Bang's illustrations of long-lashed Harley, and the gentle sheep he guards are lovely to look at and breath contentment into a story of a once ornery animal who finds his true calling and his rightful place in the farm field.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

There are no Candidos named in Lynne Bowen's historical tribute to the first generations of Italians who helped build Canada. But they are there all the same. In the smelters of Trail, in the dry grasslands of Kamloops, in the burgeoning days of early Vancouver... Whoever Gives Us Bread traces the trails of Italian Canadians and in doing so,  fills in the sketches we have of part of my family's early history in Canada.

"Among the Italians who were offending the sensibilites of middle-class Vancouverites," writes Bowen, "were men from Friuli, a region that had exported over fifty thousand of its people in that one year of 1913." My great grandfather, around about that time, was one of them. Leaving the slow starvation of a country that couldn't afford to feed them, Canada offered opportunity for those willing to get their hands, and their lungs, dirty.

My great grandfather made his first stop in Trail, to work in the smelter. As my father says: "But he didn't like that, he was a horseman, he wanted to be outdoors." He moved on to Kamloops, found work as a city labourman, saved up and brought his wife and children to Canada as soon as he could pay their passage. Although he escaped the debilitating effects of lead absorption common to smelter workers, his life ended tragically, with his abdomen fatally punctured when he fell from his horse onto a fencepost. He left behind seven children all of whom were living examples of the generation raised, as Bowen observes of others in her book, to appreciate their heritage, but also to be "whole heartedly Canadian."

Bowen's clear look back affirms one thing we've always known in our family: no one gave Italians like my great grandfather their bread in Canada. They earned it. Every bite.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

In My Heart by Molly Bang
This is the time of year when I recommend to every working mother I know In My Heart by Molly Bang. It sits on our living room shelf year round, but if one has need for the ultimate Valentine, then this would be it. "Hearts abound" wrote one reviewer, and they are all full to bursting.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

"I have learned to tell a story, without telling a lie."

Author/biographer Michael Holroyd, in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel for Writers and Company

Saturday, January 21, 2012

It must be winter (and raining) if I’m reading memoir. Last year’s great January escape was Keith Richard’s Life and, for a revelry of perfect contrast, the Duchess of Devonshire’s Wait for Me! This year, I spent the dwindling of 2011 reading Debo’s newest book -- All in One Basket, the compilation of two earlier collections of her essays, written over half a century.

Though she can make a gardening book sound enticing to a brown thumb, the Duchess proclaims herself to be not much of a reader. One of her fondest anecdotes of her father is his “review” of Jack London’s White Fang. He read it through and declared himself done with books. So perfect was Fang, in his estimation, that any other book would most certainly fall short.

The Duchess herself famously struggled in a column (revived for readers as part of All in One Basket) to come up with 10 books of recommended reading on Trans Siberian railway adventure. Were her father still of this earth, no doubt he would gladly break his vow to read any of his daughters’ writings—though All in One Basket is so good it would likely stop him once again from any lasting reformation of a future in reading.

And now, before the season of memoir is through, I will finish The Penguin Book of Memoir, edited by Camilla Gibb. “There are places on the planet we belong, and they are not necessarily where we are born,” writes Isabel Huggan in the excerpt from “Belonging” that joins a collection of acclaimed Canadian writers including Sharon Butala, Wayson Choy and Wayne Johnston. Carefully chosen to reflect a range of experiences--from what it’s like growing up the godson of Leonard Cohen to raising a son with an extreme developmental disability--these are often preludes and interludes extracted from greater chronicles—each promising more of a good thing.