Dasha’s Year Without Her Mom: A Review

A Year Without Mom

Dasha Tolstikova

Groundwood Books, 2015

The Story: Dasha is twelve years old, and lives in Moscow with her mom and her grandparents. Dasha’s mother gets into graduate school in America, which results in Dasha being left behind in Russia with her grandparents for a year. The graphic novel follows the highs and lows of Dasha’s year without her mom, in which she largely takes care of herself and must learn to live with the constant sadness of being separated from her mother.

What Wallace and I Think: This is illustrator Tolstikova’s first book, and is a memoir of a year in Tolstikova’s childhood. The graphic novel does not follow a standard narrative structure, but instead reads somewhat like Dasha’s journal detailing the significant incidents that happened the year her mother was away. There is a child-like quality to the style of Tolstikova’s illustrations, which lends to the feel that it is twelve-year-old Dasha describing this year to the reader.

I found the character of Dasha extremely appealing. She is strong in her sadness, self-reliant, and creative. Apart from her mother leaving, there are several events which are emotionally taxing for Dasha: she develops her first crush on an older boy who is already dating an impossibly sophisticated and cool girl (she wears black nail polish AND smokes in the school hallways! How is Dasha supposed to compete with that?!); she is ignored by her two best friends due to their jealousy over Dasha being placed in an advanced math class; she decides to apply to a better school, and undertakes the application process (studying for the exams, taking the exams, developing her extracurricular resume) without any help from her grandparents (indeed she doesn’t even think to tell her grandparents what she is undertaking); and she must navigate a visit from her absentee father. Dasha traverses these landmines largely all on her own, not because there is no one to help her, but because she is so self-reliant she doesn’t think to ask for help (both her strength and weakness). She is a strong character, and though there are blacked out pages with the words “Dark Days,” and sometimes Dasha only has the energy and strength to hide in her bed, she is never defeated and shows her strength in being able to continue on in the midst of sadness.

Dasha’s family is equally as engaging, and presents strong female characters. I found it inspiring to have a mother character who follows her dreams. Though Dasha is sad to be separated from her mother for a year, she does not begrudge her mom’s attempt to pursue her passions. Likewise, her mother does all she can to stay present in Dasha’s life when away, and after her year away, decides she cannot be separated from her daughter any longer and takes Dasha back to American with her. Dasha’s grandmother is another interesting character: she’s a writer who takes Dasha to writers’ retreats; she has cool journalist, writer, artist and intellectual friends that live all over the world; and she encourages Dasha’s creativity by putting her in art classes. When Dasha finally opens up to her grandmother about her impossible first-love, her grandmother does not belittle her feelings (by saying something like, oh it’s just puppy love, you’ll get over it) but takes Dasha’s experience seriously and offers comfort.

Though this book is marketed as young adult, I think the graphic novel would be enjoyed by readers in elementary school as well. The graphic novel is beautiful and offers a narrative style and story that is refreshing so that, like so many good children’s and YA books, I believe it could be read and enjoyed by a vast age range.

Reading with wallace Logo Transparent 600px

What to do With an Idea?

What Do You Do with an Idea?

By Kobi Yamada (author) and Mae Besom (illustrator)

The Story: A little boy has an idea, but he has no clue what to do with it. Should he share it? Pretend it isn’t there? Whatever he does the idea will not go away, so the little boy gives the idea the attention and nurturing it demands and the idea grows, and grows, and grows until . . . it changes the world. The moral of the story: what do you do with an idea? You change the world.

What Wallace and I Think: This picturebook gave me goosebumps. The message that children’s ideas matter and have the potential to make a difference is powerful. The lesson that ideas must have work put into them if they are going to have the potential to make an impact is an important one for all of us. It is only through cultivating ideas that they can be born and turned into something real. For ideas to change the world, you need to develop and work on them first. These two lessons make this book one that needs to be read to children so they know their ideas matter, and that their ideas need to be cultivated.

The illustrator personifies the “idea” by illustrating it as an egg, which is a fantastic visual metaphor! The little egg follows the boy until he finally gets the attention he needs to grow. The egg grows larger and larger until it “cracks,” resulting in an illustration of colorful new city. Similarly, the egg/idea is the first thing to have color in the book; the little boy and the surrounding world is all pencil gray. As the egg/idea is nurtured the color slowly spreads until it finally explodes in the last page with a saturated, colorful city. Mae Besom’s illustrations are meaningful and beautiful, and add power to the message.

This book could be read to a varying age range from as young as toddlers. Though the metaphor may be out of the grasp of some young children, the illustrations would hold their attention. It could be used in classrooms to spark discussion, or be used to generally give someone/yourself encouragement.

So do you have an idea? Go and DO something with it, and maybe you’ll change the world!

Huggers Wanted: Review of Simona Ciraolo’s Hug Me

Hug Me

Simona Ciraolo

Flying Eye Books 2014

The Story: Felipe the cactus wants a hug, but his family isn’t the touchy-feely types. Felipe sets off to find a friend, but being a cactus, it seems impossible to find someone who wants to get close. After hurting a balloon and bringing shame onto his family, Felipe gives up his search for a friend and lives alone. Until, one day, he finds someone as lonely as himself, the perfect friend who doesn’t mind Felipe’s prickles! And Felipe gets the hug he’s always wanted.

What Wallace and I Think: This picturebook is hilarious for children and the adults reading to them. If you love clever word play as much as I do, the humour starts with the paratext as the book opens with labelled portraits of Felipe’s family which include: Aunt Obessa, Bigbrotherus Pricklearum, Cuginus Cleistocactus. There’s the hilarious punchline when Felipe is growing closer and closer with his potential balloon friend, which relies on the drama of turning the next page to find an angry cacti family member holding a newspaper with the front page reading “Cacti House Scandal. Cactus Attack. Balloon in Hospital” (npg).

The crayon heavy art is fun and in a kid-like style, making it appealing to young readers. There is little text, so the colorful images do the heavy lifting when telling the story, making it ideal for very young readers.

My only complaint is that the metaphor of the cactus wanting a hug falls apart for me. From the back cover, it seems like the book addresses what it is like to not get the love and attention you need from your family. But then Felipe continues to be rejected because he is a cactus. So then could this be a larger comment on prejudice? On assuming someone is one way because of their family?! Or am I being too much of an English Major, and it’s really just about a walking and talking cactus. You decide.

Metaphor aside, this is a fun, colorful, feel-good book little ones will love to have read to them by their favorite hugger.

Good Grief!: Review of Bug in a Vacuum

Bug in a Vacuum by Mélanie Watt

Tundra Books 2015

The Story: A wee little fly and a dog’s favorite stuffed toy get sucked into a vacuum, causing both the fly and dog to experience the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, despair, anger, and acceptance.

What Wallace and I Think: Grief and the stages one goes through to cope with it is such a unique and interesting topic for a picturebook. I especially appreciate that Watt explores two types of grief within the text. For the dog, whose favorite toy has been sucked in the vacuum, it is grief over losing a loved one (and no, the dog does not get his toy back, which teaches a valuable lesson about loss). For the bug, who suddenly finds himself stuck in a vacuum, it is grief that comes from an expected and uncontrollable change (so your child might relate to this in terms of having to move, change schools, start a new school/daycare ect). What is particularly nice is that Watt deals with this heavy subject matter with humour. The picturebook is not a downer, nor does it trivialize the bug and dog’s grief. It strikes a perfect balance of respecting the characters’ emotions with humour. It is a book you can come back to with your child, or yourself J, when a sudden change or loss has occurred to help give voice to difficult emotions. Plus there is a happy ending, leaving the reading on a positive note.

Don Draper approves of this advertisement    

I enjoyed the art in the book immensely. There is very little text, so most of the story is told through images and clever advertisements on household items with jokes hidden in the ads for the adult reading to their little ones, which also gives the whole setting a very 50s-60s Mad Men ad feel (in other words, Don Draper would approve of this book). There is TONS to look at on each page, making this a book that would be ideal for re-readings, and probably one kids will be asking to be read again. With there being so little text, it is one younger kids can “re-read” on their own.The book is longer than your average picturebook. More bang for your buck! But because it’s longer, be aware that the first time reading it may have to extend past one story time. However, when you’ve gone through it once and know the story, I think rereading could go quicker with your child wanting to flip to favorite parts, and maybe focusing on different pages with each reading.

This would be a wonderful addition to anyone’s library. The bug is feisty, the dog is adorable, and the message is important. I’m passionate about destigmatizing mental health issues, and picturebooks like Watt’s is a step towards doing so. This could be read to children as young as toddlers, and could be an interesting teaching tool in classrooms with elementary age children.

And of course Wallace likes anything that features a dog, so he gives it five paws.

Review of Drama

Drama

Raina Telgemeier

index

The Story:

Write from back cover: “Callie loves theater. And while she would totally try out for her middle school’s production of Moon over Mississippi, she can’t really sing. Instead she’s the set designer for the drama department’s stage crew, and this year she’s determined to create a set worthy of Broadway on a middle-school budget. But how can she, when he doesn’t know much about carpentry, ticket sales are down, and the crew members are having trouble working together? Not to mention the onstage AND offstage drama that occurs once the actors are chosen. And when two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier!”

What Wallace and I think: I am already a fan of Raina Telgemeier from reading her graphic novels Smile and Sisters. Drama is the first of Telgemeier’s work that I’ve read that isn’t directly autobiographical, so it was automatically different. I loved the fictional character Callie, who has purple hair (which no one points out as being weird=awesome), is creative, innovative, driven, and a dreamer. I also appreciated that most of the action centers on the stage crew, not the actors, giving what I felt to be a different perspective from the normative story about school plays. Yes, there was some focus on actors being pre-Madonnas, but the focus was Callie and her crew mates putting the show together, which often involves long hours, lots of hard work and patience.

There are some love triangles, secret crushes, and unrequited love/crushes, but this is not the focal point of the graphic novel, which I LOVED. Callie does want a boyfriend, she has crushes on the wrong boys (well wrong for her, boys), yet the story does not end with her finding “Mr Right.” Instead the happy ending comes from Callie pulling off the set design, and receiving a promotion for next year’s production. I found the happy ending not being facilitated by a boy refreshing, and made me like Callie and Telgemeier even more. If anything, more emphasis is placed on making good friends, and being good to those friends, then being able to find a romantic partner.

Like the past graphic novels I’ve read, I absolutely love Telgemeier’s comic style. Gurihiru Scholastic/Graphix has done the coloring for all the novels I’ve read, this one included, and the color is vibrant and rich. Often with mass produced graphic novels the coloring can be pixelated (think of old Archie comics), so I LOVE that Drama’s color is free of pixilation and extremely saturated.

Though the novel takes place in a middle school, and involves some romance (the most heated things get are a quick kiss on a park bench), it is a tame graphic novel that could be read by older elementary aged children. There is also a diversity of characters (gay, straight, black, white, Asian) which could additionally make this a great book to be read in the classroom if you are looking ways to give voice to a more diverse groups of people. And if you like Drama, I would high recommend checking out the rest of Telgemeier’s work.

Review: I Want My Hat Back

I Want My Hat Back

Jon Klassen (2011)

11233988

The Story: A bear has lost his hat and he wants it back, so he very politely asks all the forest animals: “Have you seen my hat?” to which they all answer “No.” When all hope seems lost, the bear has a startling revelation, he HAS seen his hat, and he’s going to get it back!

What Wallace and I Think: This simple story’s humour, largely about taking people at their word, is found between the text and image. It is the gap which lets children in on the joke before the bear, putting them in an attractive place of power in the reading. Children will know who has the bear’s hat long before he does, placing them into the action of the book. When the bear asks “Have you seen my hat?” he can be addressing the children outside the book as well as the animals inside of it. I believe it is the book’s invitation to readers to take part that makes it an enjoyable read and reread.

Picturebook scholars often talk about the “drama of turning the page” as a special aspect of picturebooks. Klassen’s book utilizes this drama wonderfully. The last half of the book relies heavily on this drama to create its humour, something I believe adult readers will find equally as hilarious as the children they’re reading to. My favorite instance of page turning drama takes place when the bear finally realizes who has his hat. Despondent, the bear lies defeated on the ground. A forest animal asks the bear, “What does your hat look like?” (npg) The Bear answers, “It is red and pointy and . . .” (npg). If children had not realized thus far that they’d seen the hat, this description offers the last chance for them to join in on the joke before the bear. The drama comes in the ellipses. Will the bear realize as well that he HAS seen his hat?!

i-want-my-hat-back-12-638

Turn the page, and the bear has bolted up, eyes wide open, the background drenched in red “I HAVE SEEN MY HAT.” Drama ensues.

Klassen in a master at creating books that give readers more information than the characters, which empowers the readers. It is this sense of empowerment, being in on the joke, which makes the book attractive. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole (click to see my review) is another wonderful example of Klassen’s style.

This picturebook is best suited for toddlers up to age four or five (or well beyond if like me, you seem to have the same sense of humour as a two year old). I give this picturebook a 5/5

The Misfits

The Misfits

by James Howe

Published in 2001 by Atheneum

A1AxR2eFQcL

The Story: The Gang of Five, a group of (you guessed it) misfits, decide to make a change in their school by running for student council. After a failed platform attempt to represent minority students, they realize what everyone has in common are being called names. Thus the No-Name Party is formed, which challenges fellow students to stop name calling in their middle school, because, as the No-Name’s slogan says: “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will break our spirit”

What Wallace and I Think: I thoroughly enjoyed The Misfits, as well as endured many cringe-worthy moments during my reading. I like that the novel presented a diverse cast of characters, and the bullying presented wasn’t over-the-top, but the everyday name calling that can stick with people for a life time. Because of this, the novel presents a school environment and situations many young readers could relate with. I also appreciated how Howe illustrated the lasting effects of name calling, by engaging adult characters who confess to child characters how they are still haunted by names they were called as children, as one adult realizes: “I believed those voices telling me I was a sissy and a mama’s boy” (204).

I also like that this novel has bled into the real world, and sparked No Name Calling week in schools. This is great that the message from the novel has been put into practice in the real world, and that if you’re inspired by reading the novel, you can actually DO something with it. For more information visit No Name Calling Week’s website here. They talk about instituting it in Jr and Sr high schools, but I think having a No Name campaign as early as elementary would be amazing; stop habits before they form.

So what did I find cringe-worthy about the novel… the character Addie. Howe was probably trying to portray her as an innocent go-getter who doesn’t think through the ramifications of her decisions. I, however, felt she was a character that did things for purely to get attention, and some of her attention schemes were HORRIBLE. For example, it is Addie who talks the Gang of Five into running for student office with a party that will represent minorities. Even that a privileged white female could think that she could represent minorities is highly questionable. Her friends point out that they hardly represent minorities (three white males and one white female), and her solution is to ask an African-American student to run with them as president, purely BECAUSE HE IS BLACK. WHAT?!?!?!? Even though her friends do subtly question her on this (“you’re picking him because he’s popular and, excuse me for point it out–again–because he’s black” [55]), and DuShawn, the poor victim who is chosen to be their token minority figure, is hurt by this, the blatant racism is not criticized enough in my opinion.  Addie tries to make grand political stands to change the world, but how it comes across is that she wants attention. She comes across as an ignorant idealist. I would be curious to read Howe’s novel from Addie’s perspective, and see how she is portrayed there.

Overall I give this book a 3.5/5. Addie really cast a shadow over the book for me (I would be curious to know how other readers felt about her, because maybe I’ll being too sensitive), but I do really love the No Name Calling Week that spawned from the book. The back cover suggests readers between the ages of 10-14, though I think even from 9-16 this book would appeal too.