Muddle School

What would you do if you could time travel and redo your entire experience starting a new school? Dave gets the chance to do-over his awkward start at Muddle School, but will it be enough to win over his crush, Lisa?

Author and illustrator Whamond’s story starts off with middle school student, Dave, having to move to a whole new school where he doesn’t know anybody. To make matters worse, his mom makes him wear a powder-blue leisure suit because she’s convinced that all new students dress up for their first day of school. Dave isn’t so sure about this, but wears the suit anyway, which starts him off on a day of trouble with the school bullies before he even walks in the building. All kinds of things don’t go as well as he’d hoped, leaving Dave feeling like the universe is against him. 

Dave pairs up with another student, Chad and together, well mostly Chad, they invent a time travel machine. He can’t believe his luck! He finds himself at the beginning of his first day of school again in his regular clothes this time, no embarrassing old suit from his father. He exudes confidence when he realizes he can change how everything happened, and make a good impression on everyone, in particular, on Lisa. 

The artwork style is fun and appealing to young readers. It’s full of characters with expressive faces and dramatic words sprawled across panels. Sprinkled throughout are Dave’s notebook pages showing some of the often funny comics that he has drawn. The cover art is not as exciting as a lot of other graphic novels that are being published nowadays. It’s not likely to stand out on shelves. Furthermore, the entire work has been colored in with a simple blue, black and white color scheme, which again doesn’t make it as visually appealing as other full color graphic novels for this age group. 

Overall, Whamond has created a very relatable character that any middle schooler could empathize with as he goes from one embarrassing situation to the next. Starting a new school is hard and not knowing anyone can definitely be awkward, as Dave certainly demonstrates. This experience is captured realistically, but with a good sense of humor. It’s a quick read that does have a cover and pages that do lack some luster with the simple color scheme, but the story itself is educational and a sincere take on the author’s real life experience.

Muddle School
By Dave Whamond
Kids Can Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781525304866

Publisher Age Rating: 10-13

NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)

Stealing Home

In a personal interview with author J. Torres, he explained that as a young man he was not aware of Canada’s response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was not a subject taught in schools, so it came to him as a surprise that there were Japanese internment camps situated in this country. He knew that this was a story he wanted to tell and spent over a decade thinking about how he could tell it for young readers before realizing that family dynamics intertwining with history was the natural direction for his tale. “There are a lot of stories that never got told about Canadians, especially Asian Canadians,” and the time to tell them is now, especially when the world is witnessing repeats of this type of historical response and behavior. Torres stated several times that if we still haven’t learned it is obviously because we don’t know how this affects people. This is why this story is so important to him and to illustrator David Namisato.

The story is told through the eyes of Sandy Saito, a young boy living with his family on the west coast of Canada. He enjoys reading comic books and adores baseball, following the Vancouver Asahi team* with great fervor. Their loss in the 1941 semifinals is not only devastating to the Japanese Canadian baseball fans, but it is also thought to be a bad omen. By the end of that year, the losses to Sandy and his family and friends are even more devastating. He is bewildered at the changes of perception by his former friends and neighbours, the curfews that are imposed on the Japanese Canadians after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which culminated in their removal to isolated and primitive internment camps. His parents, especially his mother, try to maintain a sense of normalcy for Sandy and his brother, but with his father, a medical doctor, sent elsewhere to where he was needed more, there is little that is predictable or stable. Based on the true experiences of Japanese Canadians and the Vancouver Asahi team, the graphic novel offers insight into how their lives were affected by government action.

While the story is based on historical research and interviews conducted by both Torres and Namisato, the Saito family members and the interment camp are composites conceived by the two creators. The story is told through the child’s point of view, both colouring and erasing some of the more troubling aspects of the camp and overall treatment of these Canadian citizens. After hearing David Suzuki, the Canadian scientist and environmental activist, speak about his initial response to his encounters in the internment camps as attending summer camp, Torres engendered the same type of experience for Sandy and the other children in the camp. There is a sense of freedom and the pleasure of baseball and other games—at least until winter makes itself known to a community housed in shacks without any insulation or conveniences. The arrival of a tuberculosis epidemic in the camp provides a turning point for the story and Sandy’s relationship with his father. The continuous thread of baseball and the idea of team efforts permeates the story and Sandy’s coming-of-age. The story leaves the reader with hope, but also with unanswered questions. While some reviewers are negative about the perceived abrupt ending, Torres explained that it was intentional, as he wanted the readers to seek out the answers to “what happened next”. In our discussion, Torres asserted that learning about other people’s stories helps with empathy and fulfils a need to emerge from one’s own little bubble where everyone else outside of the bubble is considered “the other.” While his major focus is telling an entertaining story for his readers, it is a definite bonus if he can educate and encourage reading. This was, he stated, one of his rationales for ending the story where he did.

The fact that tuberculosis in the camps was rampant was something Torres was not aware of until he began researching the history of the camps. He speculated that if he was writing the book now, with the Covid pandemic being so prevalent, he might have developed this part of the story more. Nevertheless, it is one more element that can be raised in discussions of the graphic novel in reading circles. There are so many thematic and social issues such as inclusion, differences, racism, and diversity within the story, with strong links to social studies and history lessons for Canadians and beyond. In aid of further research, the author has included a list of resources and an afterword by Canadian author Susan Aihoshi offering supplementary background information regarding interment camps.

Torres was exuberant in his praise for David Namisato’s illustrations for his story. Long-time friends, he had always wanted to work with him and had pictured Namisato’s manga art style for the project from the onset. Namisato’s captivating sepia-toned illustrations effectively capture the settings, the emotional struggles and disorientation in the faces of the characters as they navigate their new reality, and the joy of baseball. The layouts and perspectives within the panels complement and extend the story offering, again, additional discussion points. This reader, in fact, particularly enjoyed the clean and detailed art work.

I thank J. Torres very much for his time in talking with me. We discussed several other topics such as gendered reading (neither one of us agree with it, which made that a short conversation) and first-person narration. We also touched about provocative topics such as reluctant readers, cultural appropriation, and the lack of critical thinking. Happily, we were in total agreement with the importance of well written historical fiction and with encouraging people of any age to read critically and with great joy.

I highly recommend Stealing Home for baseball fans, people interested in Canadian history, World War II history, especially in North America, and for those interested in family relationships. It should be in school and public libraries everywhere as well as incorporated in classroom reading lists.

*The Asahi, a Japanese Canadian baseball club in Vancouver (1914–42) was one of the city’s most dominant amateur teams, winning multiple league titles in Vancouver and along the Northwest Coast. In 1942, the team was disbanded when its members were among the 22,000 Japanese Canadians who were interned by the federal government. The Asahi were inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003 and the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/vancouver-asahi


Stealing Home 
By J. Torres
Art by David Namisato
Kids Can Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781525303340
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Japanese-Canadian, Filipinx-Canadian

Three Thieves Series

As an acrobat in a traveling circus, 14-year-old orphan Dessa Redd flies through the air with ease. Still, she is weighed down by troubling memories. But when her ragtag circus troupe pulls into the city of Kingsbridge, Dessa feels a tickle of hope. Maybe here in the royal city she will finally find her twin brother–or the mysterious man who snatched him away when they were just children.

Meanwhile, Topper, the circus juggler, is obsessed with proving his reputation as the world’s greatest thief… by robbing the royal treasury! Topper recruits Dessa and the circus strongman, Fisk, for the job. Hungry and desperate, both agree, setting off a series of adventures that will take the three thieves from one end of the world to the other in search of Dessa’s long-lost brother.

(Publisher Description)


Three Thieves Series
By Scott Chantler
ISBN: 9781554534142
Kids Can Press, 2010
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)


Related Reviews

Three Thieves, vol. 2-3: The Sign of The Black Rock and The Captive Prince

Three Thieves: The King’s Dragon, Book Four

Three Thieves: Pirates of the Silver Coast, Book 5

Burt the Beetle Doesn’t Bite!

Ashley Spires, bestselling author of The Most Magnificent Thing, has created an all new cast of personalities in this adorable comic about bugs, a June beetle, in particular.

Burt the watermelon beetle is the main character. He’s a little guy in a big world filled with all kinds of unique creatures that have special talents that others don’t have. He’s trying to figure out where he fits in amongst all the other seemingly super-skilled insects and bugs. He’s not sure that he measures up or what value he brings to the table, but he’s a hard worker and he’s on a mission to figure himself out. It’s no easy feat. He finds himself competing with bugs that are experts at all sorts of things, like being super stingy, having super sight, and being super excited about poop. 

This is a wonderful story and a quick read. It features easy vocabulary even though readers may be hearing about some of these different species for the first time. The author does a marvelous job of simplifying some complicated concepts to easy-to-understand (and often funny) explanations. The reader goes on a journey with Burt, meeting up with all different categories of bugs and learning about the skills that each different creature has. Additionally, there is a section of interesting facts at the end. This section includes hilarious bug cartoons to illustrate the information, making it very fun to read through.

The artwork is colorful with expressive characters and simple pink and red backgrounds. There’s a variety of single panel, full page images, and multiple small panels, which keeps things more interesting for youngsters.

If you are looking for a short read that is witty and full of cute characters, this is the graphic novel for you. This is an excellent addition to any children’s library. It’s full of humor, an attention-holding story, and lots of fun information about the little critters that live all around us. It gives readers a good amount of new knowledge about different kinds of insects and bugs, without getting too detailed and potentially boring. Spires concludes the story with a touching moment when Burt the Beetle finally does find his place and he feels like he truly belongs. Educators will love this book for reluctant readers and to aid in teaching lessons on fitting in, and embracing your unique gifts. 


Burt the Beetle Doesn’t Bite!
By Ashley Spires
Kids Can Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781525301469
Publisher Age Rating: 5-8

NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11), Picture Books (3-8)

Binky


Binky is a space cat – at least in his own mind. He’s really a house cat who has never left the family “space station.” Unlike other house cats, Binky has a mission: to blast off into outer space (outside), explore unknown places (the backyard) and battle aliens (bugs). Binky must undergo rigorous training so he can repel the alien attacks that threaten his humans. As he builds his spaceship, he must be extremely careful with his blueprints – the enemy is always watching. Soon Binky is ready to voyage into outer space. His humans go out there every day and he’s sure they need a certified space cat to protect them. But just as he’s about to blast off with his co-pilot, Ted (stuffed mousie), Binky realizes that he’s left something very important behind ? and it’s not the zero-gravity kitty litter.

(Publisher Description)

 


Binky
By Ashley Spires

ISBN: 9781554533091
Kids Can Press, 2009
NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9)


 

Our Review

Binky the Space Cat


 

Related Reviews

Binky the Space Cat, books 3-4: Binky Under Pressure; Binky Takes Charge

 

The Three Thieves


As an acrobat in a traveling circus, 14-year-old orphan Dessa Redd flies through the air with ease. Still, she is weighed down by troubling memories. But when her ragtag circus troupe pulls into the city of Kingsbridge, Dessa feels a tickle of hope. Maybe here in the royal city she will finally find her twin brother — or the mysterious man who snatched him away when they were just children.
(Publisher Description)


The Three Thieves
By Scott Chantler
ISBN: 9781554534159
Kids Can Press, 2010
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)


Related Reviews

Three Thieves, vol. 2-3: The Sign of The Black Rock and The Captive Prince

Three Thieves: The King’s Dragon, Book Four

Three Thieves: Pirates of the Silver Coast, Book 5

Gordon: Bark to the Future

What do you do when aliens have taken over and only you can save the world? Call Agent Gordon to the rescue! Gordon: Bark to the Future by Ashley Spires begins with our favorite canine returning home. He discovers something is amiss as he learns his partner has been kidnapped, and that the organization he works for P.U.R.S.T. (Pets of the Universe Ready for Space Travel) is not responding to his calls. He realizes the only thing he can do is travel in time and prevent the alien invasion. Only problem is he travels too far back in time and his time machine runs out of fuel.

The story is full of humor as Gordon’s instincts as a dog override his instincts as an agent. One of the things at the top of the list is to play ball. He decides he needs to play ball in order to clear his head. Another unintended consequence of his behavior is he gets really hungry and eats all the food. He ends up eating a bag of cat food, and tosses away a recruitment flyer for a super agent organization. As a result, his friend Binky (of Binky the Space Cat fame) does not join, and they never meet and become friends.

The pages of the graphic novel are printed on a dark grey background. The panels contain light grey, beige, and blue colors. One distinct detail that I enjoyed about the artwork is that a simple movement of the eyes can convey a message. A shift to the right could mean curiosity or concern. Eyes pointed upwards mean either Gordon is sleepy or he is ready to give up. For a graphic novel with very little text, the eyes and their placement really gives us insight into the mindset of our hero. The story contains a lot of charm as it is told from the viewpoint of a dog. A dog would naturally crave food, chase rubber balls, and want to go to sleep.

I would highly recommend Gordon: Bark to the Future for elementary school children. They will love the antics Gordon gets into. It’s a graphic novel they will likely read over and over again. In addition, I would recommend purchasing the first P.U.R.S.T. adventure, Fluffy Strikes Back, and the Binky the Space Cat series. Readers can enjoy Gordon: Bark to the Future without reading those first, but they do compliment this book and provide further background into P.U.R.S.T. and the other characters.

Gordon: Bark to the Future
by Ashley Spires
ISBN: 9781771384094
Kids Can Press, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Ages 7-10

 

Hot on the Trail in Ancient Egypt

Stuck and bored in their hometown one summer while all the other kids are away on vacation, twins Emma and Josh and their mischievous little sister Libby are whisked away on an unexpected journey of their own.

Following Libby into a suspicious travel agency as the kids walk around the city alone, Emma and Josh meet the store owner and open his “Travel Guide to Ancient Egypt” only to find themselves—and Libby too—transported back in time to Egypt circa 2500 BCE. The time travel literary device, while familiar to older readers, is likely to retain its excitement for younger ones as the plot moves briskly along, landing the siblings in Ancient Egypt after just a few pages.

The book is non-fiction at heart, but non-fiction framed by narrative. The scrapes and adventures that Emma, Josh, and Libby get themselves into allow for the clever inclusion of interesting facts about Ancient Egyptian culture. Excerpts from the magical travel guide accompany each page, so that the reader picks up information about Ancient Egyptian tools and construction, economy, cultural customs—from diet to dress to mummification—and more, all while remaining engrossed in the plot surrounding the trio of children.

The storytelling is functional rather than literary. There is virtually no characterization in the text, with the narrative focused on moving the plot forward. Characterization and humor are provided by the illustrations. Without the dynamic drawings and engaging speech bubbles, the story itself—as relayed in white boxes at the upper left of each panel—would be fairly dry. Each page includes vividly colored illustrations, the box containing narrative, characters’ speech bubbles, and a non-fiction “travel guide excerpt” at the bottom. Although the layout is busy, it consistently follows that template throughout. Readers should quickly figure out what’s going on and how best to read the book.

The illustrations are colorful, detailed, and effective at portraying action and personality. The depictions of Egyptian culture seem carefully researched, but have a slightly exaggerated quality that at times verges on problematic. The Ancient Egyptians are by no means cast as antagonists throughout the book. However, when Josh, Emma, and Libby find themselves cornered in a pyramid by the king’s guards, the illustrations highlight the guards’ features (namely, their darker skin and large noses) in a way that felt questionable.

Hot on the Trail in Ancient Egypt is an update of Adventures in Ancient Egypt (2000), Bailey and Slavin’s original edition of the graphic novel. This book is set to be followed by reissues of other books from the Good Times Travel Agency series, which included travels to Ancient China, Greece, and the Viking Age. Such exaggeration of the circumstantial villains could simply be a characteristic of the series, as applicable to the Viking bad guys as the Ancient Egyptian ones. A review of the other books in the series is necessary before a conclusion can be drawn as to whether the illustrations represent characters from all cultures fairly.

Though the publishers classify the book as for ages 8-12 or grades 3-7, Hot on the Trail in Ancient Egypt is more appropriate for the lower end of this age range. For most middle schoolers, the text would be transparently educational and lose its entertainment value. The book is one of those slim paperback volumes that seems destined for crushing or misplacement on a public library’s shelves. Taken as a whole, Hot on the Trail in Ancient Egypt seems most ideal for inclusion in a school or classroom library, where it could truly shine as an entertaining supplement to a unit on Ancient Egypt.

Hot on the Trail in Ancient Egypt
by Linda Bailey
Art by Bill Slavin
ISBN: 978-1771389853
Kids Can Press, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War

Child SoldierWhen he was five years old, Michel Chikwanine was kidnapped from his school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and forced to fight as a child soldier. For months he suffered abuse and terror, but eventually escaped. At sixteen, he emigrated to Canada with his mother and older sister, but lost another sister and his beloved father, a human rights activist, to the ongoing strife in his homeland.

As he struggled to make peace with his past and adjust to life in a new country, telling his story became a form of therapy for Michel. Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War is a retelling of Michel’s ordeal as a graphic novel, co-written with Jessica Dee Humphreys and illustrated by Claudia Dávila. The book is in the Kids Can Press series Citizen Kid, which aims to educate and inform children to become knowledgeable world citizens.

How should a graphic novel draw the line, so to speak, between representing violence and exploiting its victims? And how should a book with an expressly educational purpose draw the line between entertainment and didacticism? Child Soldier balances between showing and telling in relating Michel’s story, and its painterly, colorful style does so with honesty, compassion, and restraint. While the book doesn’t shy away from telling the facts about children forced into violence, its showing of the details is far less explicit, thus introducing young readers to the subject in a way that they can handle. For example, panels addressing one of the initial traumas of Michel’s captivity—when he is drugged, blindfolded, and forced to kill another boy as an initiation practice in the rebel militia—show only a symbolic representation of Michel’s mental state and a very partial depiction of the bloody aftermath of his terrible deed. Later, in drawings of a Ugandan refugee camp, Dávila represents Michel’s deprivation and loneliness with abstract squares representing rows and rows of tents fading into the distance.

Michel’s culture shock after he moved to Canada was compounded by what he first saw as other teens’ shallowness and ignorance. But soon he realized that by telling his story, he could inspire young people to make a difference. The last section of Child Soldier is written like a magazine article, with a clear and straightforward explanation of how rebel militias and criminal gangs in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Colombia recruit children to fight and serve other roles. (That these children are often the victims of sexual violence is mentioned briefly and factually.) The authors describe the efforts of the United Nations, national governments, international organizations, and individuals to demobilize and rehabilitate child soldiers. Readers who want to help are given appropriate suggestions, such as sharing copies of Child Soldier to educate friends and classmates; writing or emailing politicians; and raising money for charities that work on the ground in war-torn countries. This final explanatory section makes the book an excellent choice for middle-school social studies programs.

Child Soldier is marketed as a middle-grade title, but younger children could also understand Michel’s story, perhaps while reading with teachers, parents, or older siblings. As a parent, I was moved to tears by Michel’s story. Older children and teens will be moved, one hopes, to action and activism to build a world where there will never be another child soldier.

Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War
by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine
Art by Claudia Dávila
ISBN: 9781771381260
Kids Can Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14

Three Thieves: Pirates of the Silver Coast, Book 5

PiratesSilverCoastCover
   
After a rather introspective and reflective fourth volume, Chantler resumes the fast pace of the previous volumes in this fifth title in the Three Thieves series. Dessa’s leg has had a chance to heal, so she and her companions move on to the next stage of their search for Dessa’s kidnapped brother. Arranging the hiring of a smuggler’s ship with the funds accumulated by the swift theft and sale of Captain Drake’s horse, the trio set sail for the “dark island” of Astaroth. Their voyage is derailed by the mighty pirate king who takes the trio on her pirate vessel to aid in the search for monetary reasons. Interspersed with Dessa’s tale is the story of Captain Drake’s future being foretold in the cards at a spring festival. Foreshadowing future episodes, Drake discovers Dessa’s brother just as she and the pirate king discover Astaroth, and the reader is left waiting for the next installment of the chronicle. Deeper depiction of the major characters continues to make this series not only a pleasure to pursue but also a compulsion, since this reader, at least, eagerly awaits the next book in the series.

As with the previous volumes, the artwork and page layout is clean, easy to follow, and intriguing. The illustrations are energetic, and careful reading of the panels, along with explicit characterization, will offer the reader essentials of foreshadowing and effective indications of mood and atmosphere. A bright palette of colour is primarily utilized, but Chantler is not afraid of using dusky, muted panels to further the storytelling. He seems equally at home with writing witty and engaging repartee and clever plot twists.

Three Thieves: Pirates of the Silver Coast Five, Book 5
by Scott Chantler
ISBN: 9781894786546
Kids Can Press, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12