Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands

I am beginning this review with two caveats. First, I am a mother of a daughter who works in the trades and while she has not worked in Fort McMurray, she has experienced many of the same behaviors that Kate Beaton confronted in her two years in the camps. Second, I am an Albertan who has visited both the city and the camps in the oil field areas numerous times.  Throughout the several readings of this graphic novel I was reminded again and again of the stories from my daughter and the observations I took away on my short visits. The contradictions innate in the oil-rich area around Fort McMurray has become better known outside of Canada in recent years, but it has always been controversial for the Canadian culture, economy, and, more even more recently, politically.

This was an amazing read, one that I highly recommend for everyone but especially for young women going forward in a disastrous misogynist society. Beaton’s memoir explores through her dialogue a myriad of complex issues including abuse of economic and human resources, lack of respect for the Indigenous inhabitants and culture, sexual harassment and rape, commodification, environmental destruction, isolation, and personal identity. These conversations, and graphic novel, begin with the home life she had before leaving her small town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to travel across the country for lucrative jobs in the oil sands of Alberta to pay down student loans. She was 21, naïve and unknowing, when she arrived. Her readers, through her bleak illustrations and chronological recording, journey with her in her personal discoveries of the enormity of the environmental tolls on the land and the people who work at the various sites.

When hundreds of ducks are snagged in a hazardous tailings pond and a co-worker dies in an onsite accident, Beaton becomes highly cognisant of the global and environmental consequences of the tar sands and camp life. At the same time, she must also contend with the rampant sexism, sexual harassment, and crassness of many of her male co-workers and bosses who have also come from away (the Maritime provinces). Her use of dialogue is effortless and natural, bringing the various characters to life, including Kate herself. There are flashes of subtle and wry humor that provide a welcome balance to the reading experience. Her use of muted grays and the proliferation of wordless panels exemplify the vastness of the landscape and the giant machinery. Beaton’s layout of mostly small panels emphasized the confined environment for the workers and herself. Her illustrations of the interiors reveal the limited spaces and rooms crammed with bed bunks, other furniture, and tools. These interiors are in direct contrast to the vastness of the exterior landscape and sky that she brings to life so effectively, often is full page spreads.

The isolation, loneliness, bleak lifestyle, and the lack of normalcy take its toll on the people in the camps. Some people handle it admirably, but so many were physically exhausted and mentally stressed in living conditions as foreign as the landscape. Her portrayal of the people she encounters and the experiences she has had in the various camps is candidly sincere. She relies on her own acute observations, underlining her personal connections with the people, land, and machinery. The graphic novel is commendably honest. The responses to the fate of the ducks contrasted to those of the Indigenous health and land concerns and the mental health of the migratory workers within and without the boundaries of the oil industry was frightening and telling. The repercussions of this willingness to overlook the dangers of the oil fields because of commercial gain underlies her novel but Beaton is never didactic in her remarks. This is a story that honors critical thinking on behalf of readers.

Beaton suffers through several horrendous experiences but maintained her humanity with her online connections and her creation and postings of Hark! A Vagrant webcomics. Her homepage for the webcomic eventually garnered half a million visitors each month and led to the publication of her first picture book, The Princess and the Pony and the printed collections of Hark! The story ends with hope as Beaton pays off her loan and returns to Cape Breton and her newly found career as a successful cartoonist. Here too, unfortunately, there is another repercussion of her time in Alberta. Becky, her sister who also worked in the oil sands, is diagnosed with cancer. Beaton writes about this in her afterword and later in an article for New York Magazine’s The Cut discussing the failure of the medical world in responding to Becky’s symptoms seriously in much the same way as the suffering of other workers and the Indigenous were treated with silence in previous decades.

Honest investigative reports from journalists and books such as Ducks help illuminate that silence and deserve a large audience. Highly recommended for high school students with a caveat regarding the inclusion of sexual abuse and mental distress. This is an essential purchase for public libraries and highly recommended for academic libraries as well.

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
By Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly, 2022
ISBN: 9781770462892

Publisher Age Rating: Adult

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  Character Representation: Canadian,

Batter Royale

Rose is an amateur baker working as a waitress in a small town restaurant. When she makes a special dessert for a food critic, she is invited to participate in a baking competition with her childhood friend Fred. This isn’t an ordinary competition though as the contestants are faced with obstacle courses, sabotage, and surprise ingredients like brussel sprouts.

Rose is motivated to win the grand prize in order to attend college at a prestigious cooking school. She is also dealing with her parents’ eminent divorce, her developing feelings for Fred, and a rival who is willing to do anything to prove herself to be the best. It’s no wonder she finds herself distracted and just managing to stay off the bottom in the competition. 

This story has all the feelings of a Hallmark romcom. The author/illustrator does a fantastic job of balancing the plot with humor, seriousness, and the competition. The judge makes a lot of corny baking puns, which is a fun recurring joke throughout the story. The illustrations are crisp and with just enough details to convey the emotions and visual cues that readers should be able to easily pick up.

Although there is not a lot of technique explanations in the text, this book does include detailed recipes sprinkled throughout the story. I did not have the chance to try making any of them, but the ingredients look to be standard baking fare and the directions easy enough to follow. Younger readers will need help from an experienced adult to help them understand some of the unexplained terms, but preteens and teens should be capable enough to follow along.

Batter Royale is recommended for any collection aimed at preteens or younger teens.  

Batter Royale
By Leisl Adams
Amulet Books, 2022
ISBN: 9781419750755

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  Character Representation: Assumed Black, Canadian,

Living with Viola

Raina Telgemeier’s breakthrough graphic novel Smile opened the door to a host of memoir-style books for tweens and teens, focusing on the angst of friendship troubles, first crushes, and negotiating the often difficult path into becoming teenagers and onward to adulthood. However, despite the flow of read-alikes, it’s only been in the last few years that a more diverse selection of voices have begun to be heard.

Rosena Fung’s story of a young tween trying to please her family, fit in at school, handle microaggressions as a second-generation immigrant, and deal with her growing anxiety is shaped by her own experiences. She is the daughter of a family that immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada and as a teen she dealt with her own mental health challenges.

Livy stumbles onto the page with a disastrous first day at a new school and the constant presence of Viola, the embodiment of her growing anxiety, who berates and taunts her. She finds refuge in her art and the library, and moments of joy as she makes dumplings with her mother at home. Eventually, she starts to be accepted into a trio of girls she joins for a group project. But the weight of her family’s expectations and the ever-growing presence of Viola keep her off-balance. As she worries that there might be something wrong with her, she grows obsessed with the family gossip about a cousin who has mental health issues and is further distressed by the break-up of the trio of girls she is trying to join. Her issues are exacerbated by the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt racism and harassment she receives as an Asian-Canadian and the child of immigrants. Will Livy break under the strain and what will her parents do when they find out how much she is struggling?

Fung’s artwork packs a huge range of emotions into the pages. As Livy’s anxiety grows, it’s shown as a looming, blue, ghost-like figure that hovers over her and drags along a torrent of negative words, thoughts, and images. Livy swings from wild enthusiasm over the things she loves, with starry eyes and bouncing ponytail, to abruptly recoiling into herself, physically crouching under the weight of the damaging words of family, friends, and her own inner voice. Some of the most entrancing art is the explosion

of sounds, scents, and tastes as Livy relaxes with her mom, creating the food they love together. Some of the most painful scenes show Livy with hunched shoulders and a nervous smile, as she struggles to navigate between the competing pressures in her life. Fung uses her nuanced artwork to show the widely differing personalities and cultures of Livy and Charlotte, the other Asian-Canadian in her friend group. Charlotte is a self-contained person, shown with a short bob, plaid skirts and jumpers, and unlike Livy’s wild emotional swings, she appears to be indifferent to the harassment they both suffer for their heritage. However, as the presence of Viola increases towards the end of the story, Charlotte breaks out of her mold as well. Once Livy is able to work past some of her anxiety, both she and Charlotte are able to deepen their friendship, with Charlotte breaking out of her containment with a genuine smile and banding together with Livy to speak out against how the other girls are treating them.

This graphic novel will appeal to fans of the fictionalized memoir genre, and also offers a welcome aspect of diversity to the genre. Readers who struggle with mental health issues or their cultural identity will find much to relate to in this story, while other readers will be prompted to consider how they relate to their fellow students and the experiences of others.

Living with Viola
By Rosena Fung
Abrams, 2021
ISBN: 9781773215488

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Canadian,  Anxiety, Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Character Representation: Canadian,  Anxiety

Leonard Cohen: On a Wire

In this personal contemplation on the life, death, and influences of Leonard Cohen, Philippe Girard creates a tour de force. Originally published in French, the novel was translated to English by Helge Dascher and Karen Houle.

The graphic novel opens on December 7, 2016, with legendary Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen dying on the floor beside the bed. Girard imagines that a bird on the wire outside the bedroom window may be one of the last sights of Cohen’s final moments. He also imagines Cohen’s final reminiscences as he faces mortality to offer the reader a myriad of episodic flashbacks on Cohen’s life and achievements. As we turn the page, we are transported to a traumatic winter day in 1947 in Montreal, Quebec when young Leonard discovers his deceased dog. His sorrow immediately takes him to his typewriter and solitude, a familiar reaction to distress, which is constant throughout his lifetime.

This is soon followed by his reverence for poetry, music, wine, and, of course, women. Cohen moves to London where Girard dresses him in a blue raincoat, another nod to Cohen’s song titles that reverberate throughout the novel. His distress with his flagging writing career and the wet weather prods him to leave for Greece, where he meets his muse, Marianne Ihlen, and becomes a writer of songs. Girard returns us to the dying man saying his goodbyes to his life at that time and to Marianne. The palate of the background for the pages with Cohen lying on the hospital room floor are dark and cloudy while the backgrounds for his memories are filled with colour and light.

This episodic pattern continues throughout the book, highlighting his fascination with Suzanne, his recording career, his touring in Israel and other points of interest, and his escapades with well-known stars such as Lou Reed, Nico, Phil Spector, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Judy Collins, Rebecca De Mornay, John Cale, Rufus Wainwright, Jeff Buckley and more. A brief annotated Rogues Gallery of these cameo appearances is provided at the end of the novel along with a concise bibliography for further reading. We follow his iconic recording career, Girard’s humorous depiction of Cohen’s disenchantment with the popularity of the myriad of covers of his song Hallelujah and the lack of recognition of him as the writer, and his retreat to the monastery. Girard also highlights Cohen’s necessary emergence to tour again and his eventual diagnosis of leukemia, before returning us to early memories that offer us background knowledge of some of Cohen’s axioms hinted throughout the book.

The final full-page illustration by Girard of the towering mural depicting Cohen wearing his signature fedora with his hand over his heart pays respect to both the man and the city he called home. Both Leonard Cohen and Montreal are brought exquisitely alive in this tribute to the man whom Girard, along with a large universal fandom, obviously venerated.

I appreciated this personal view of Leonard Cohen. I have been a long-time fan with many memories of the man, his music, and his words. I appreciated the selective process that Girard must have undergone because of the length of Cohen’s lifetime and career. Of course, there were episodes I would have liked to see included, especially his time in Edmonton, Alberta. As my friend Gilbert Bouchard reported on July 23, 2008, Cohen wrote several poems and songs while he was here as the guest of the University of Alberta. This is where Sisters of Mercy, one of Cohen’s best-known compositions, was written and where Cohen got his first taste of real fame. “He became one of the first Canadian writers to step away from the academy and become a celebrity and a pop culture figure at a time when that was just not done. His visit wasn’t a celebrity experience for those of us there. It had a very personal feel.”

I appreciated the research methodology that Girard undertook. In a recent interview webinar, Girard explained how he wanted the book to represent his own impression of Cohen and so did not undertake any interviews himself. Instead, he made his way to the public library and took out everything they had on Cohen and read everything and watched every video he could for five months before he started to write the novel. He then drew a Star of David and allocated each point as a decade in Cohen’s life. A song, woman, and item were chosen as pivotal moments for each decade. Girard presented his material in a forthright manner, with straightforward lines and warmly coloured panels, for the most part, extending a nuanced and balanced portrayal of his subject. The layout of the panels is also fairly uniform and straightforward with simple backdrops to the personalities and items that are the focus of each panel.

This realistic and honest look at a man, his career, and his influences should be included in all biographical collections from high schools to public and academic libraries. There is a universal and spiritual appeal to the story and, for the wide legion of fans, could be considered required reading. Highly recommended for readers to pull up a chair, pour yourself something to sip, and listen to a selection of your favourite Leonard Cohen songs while appreciating the skill and talent of both Leonard Cohen and Philippe Girard.

Leonard Cohen: On a Wire
By Philippe Girard
Drawn & Quarterly, 2021
ISBN: 9781770464896
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Canadian
Character Representation: Canadian, Jewish

The Girl from the Sea

Molly Knox Ostertag, writer and artist of The Witch Boy graphic novel series, tackles the myth of the selkies in her latest middle grade graphic novel. In The Girl From the Sea, teenage Morgan finds herself enchanted with a mysterious beauty when she slips from the cliffs of her island home and into the sea.

Even though Keltie manages to save Morgan from drowning, she cannot rescue her from her problems. Morgan lives on a tiny island with her recently-divorced mom and little brother and feels trapped, unable to tell anyone, including her close-knit group of girlfriends, that she is gay.

Morgan’s plans include getting through high school and moving off the island so that she can be her true self. Her first kiss with the shape-shifting Keltie puts a giant kink in those plans. Her younger brother is still angry about the divorce and is difficult to deal with. Morgan feels increasingly isolated from her family and friends, and hiding among the cliffs with Keltie seems like the best she can manage. 

Keltie, who lives with her family of seals on the island, cannot quite understand the human she has fallen for. Morgan wants to keep her life compartmentalized and secret, out of fear and anxiety more than anything. But her secret, and Keltie’s, are on a collision course that could put people in danger.

As with The Witch Boy, Ostertag captures the fears and feelings of isolation in young teens. This graphic novel is a rich blend of fantasy and realism. The artwork is sweetly rendered. Although the review copy was mostly black and white, the initial pages feature deep, sea green colors on a black background, evoking Keltie’s underwater world. The line art is simple but detailed, with attractive characters and, what are sure to be gorgeous when inked in the final version, rocky shoreline backgrounds.

This coming of age tale is more sweet than bitter but its poignant conclusion leaves the readers with hope, for Morgan and Keltie, and also, a sequel.

The Girl from the Sea is rated for ages 12 and up by the publisher and its honest depictions of teens in love with chaste kissing and hand-holding are age appropriate for middle grade readers. This is a must-have for a library graphic novel collection. It is available as an audiobook as well as in paperback, hardcover print, and digital formats.

The Girl from the Sea
By Molly Knox Ostertag
Graphix, 2021
ISBN: 9781338540574
Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Gay
Character Representation: Canadian, Lesbian

I Am Not Starfire

What if your mother was a solar-powered, bikini wearing, alien superhero? This is what Mandy Anders struggles with, in addition to more standard teenage problems like appearances, first loves, and college applications. And yes, her mom is Starfire. That Starfire. The most naively written character in Teen Titans is now a single mom. The “single” part of that comes up in the book from time to time, but is never really expanded on. Like many things relating to Starfire and Mandy, it is a mystery.

For her part, Mandy considers herself to be extremely different from her mother, and seems to go out of her way to be more so by dyeing her hair in the opening of the book. She is surly, chubby, and unpopular. She doesn’t have any superpowers (despite years of waiting) and seems to resent everything except for her best friend Lincoln and her crush Claire. She does not plan to attend college, which is a point of friction between mother and daughter. Over the course of the book her relationship with Claire progresses smoothly until Claire meets Starfire’s co-workers and posts about it online. Things only get worse from there for Claire…

All of this is beautifully illustrated using muted colors and lots of layering effects and abstract shapes in addition to more traditional comic book art. Taken together it means the books can range from looking like a digital collage or to looking like a space faring action book. It is to Yoshitani’s credit that those tonal shifts are easy to follow and never distracting to read. There is also a recurring set up of a two-page spread with Starfire on the left and Mandy on the right, mirroring each other. It’s a neat image to return throughout the book, showing their relationship and personalities. 

What can I say about Tamaki’s writing that hasn’t been said before? It’s wonderful and she writes incredibly believable teenagers and dialog. The Titans most resemble grown-up versions of their television incarnations, but could pretty easily be slid into any continuity. There are definite shades of Tamaki’s past works here, especially Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me. But then again, when you write one of the best teen romance stories in recent memory, why wouldn’t you build on that? 

I Am Not Starfire is reminiscent of the aforementioned book as well as Tamaki’s other works for DC Comics like Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass and Supergirl: Being Super. It also fits in with other out of continuity DC tales like Oracle Code or Shadow of the Bat. The balance of teen slice of life and space faring superheroes is excellent and means this book can appeal to a wide variety of readers. 

The publisher recommends this book for teens, and I would agree with that. There’s a tiny amount of blood in a fight scene, and copious swearing in that same fight scene.  If Tamaki’s other books have been a hit for your readers, you should definitely check this out! 

I reviewed a digital copy of this book provided by the publisher. As a digital book it was a fine reading experience, but given the number of two-page spreads I think it would be a better purchase in print. 

I Am Not Starfire Vol. 
By Mariko Tamaki
Art by  Yoshi Yoshitani
DC Comics, 2021
ISBN: 9781779501264

Publisher Age Rating: 13+
Series ISBNs and Order
Related media: 

NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Representation: Canadian, Lesbian,