Spark : A Reading Staycation

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Who knew that my home province of British Columbia has produced so many great children’s books? My Reading Staycation project has grown beyond my initial expectations, and I’ve been surprised and delighted by each new discovery!

Spark is the endearing story of a little dragon who just can’t seem to control his flames. He desperately wants to be a fire-breathing dragon like his mama and papa, but all of his efforts seem to end in a big, smokey mess.

Anyone who’s ever worked with young children has likely come across a few little Sparks in their time, enthusiastic kids who just seem to inadvertently wreak havoc wherever they go. From having a voice that carries (no matter how hard they try to use their library voice) to having a grip that sends glue squirting across the table (even when they’re “squeezing gently”), some kids are just waking tornadoes, despite their best attempts to control their exuberance.

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Not being able to do something can be disheartening and frustrating for any child, especially when they can see others accomplishing the same task with ease. In situations like this, a gentle story like Spark can help remind disappointed children that sometimes things just take a little time. Waiting is hard, but sometimes it’s the only thing that will do the trick.

Kaillie George is a Vancouver-based writer, educator and editor who has published several picture books, early readers and beginner chapter books.

Russell Books – A Reading Staycation

How better to continue my British Columbia book celebration than to share one of my favourite B.C.-based independent book stores?

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Victoria-based Russell Books is Canada’s largest new and used book store, and it’s every bit as magical as you might imagine. The store recently celebrated it’s 25th anniversary in its current home on Fort Street in Victoria, and its 55th year as a business. Offering a fantastic mix of new and second-hand books, Russell Books also offers antiquarian and out-of-print books, as well as collectibles, journals, calendars and other lovely items.

The antiquarian/special edition children’s book section is a place of special wonder for any children’s librarian or literature lover. So many beautiful old (and not so old – hello Hugo!) children’s books, so little time (and money)….sigh…..Can’t I just take them all home with me, please?

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Still family-owned, Russell Books prides itself on being active in the local arts community, hosting book launches, author readings, musical performances and other events.

And wow, the store is a bookstagrammer’s dream come true. Just look at those shelves! Definitely my dream #shelfie….

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Now, it’s often cheaper to buy books online, I definitely understand that. But local, independent bookstores like Russell Books create jobs in our communities, support local authors and publishers, host community-building events, and provide personalised, knowledgeable service. The next time you’re looking for a new book, consider checking out your local independent bookstore!

Audrey (Cow) – A Reading Staycation

As part of my Reading Staycation project we’re looking at children’s books from B.C.-based authors/illustrators, and I’ve got another great title to share with you today. Who knew that my home province was also home to so many talented creators?!

Audrey (Cow) by Dan Bar-el is the funny, heartfelt story of a plucky cow and her bid for freedom. Audrey dreams of a life beyond her home in Bittersweet Farms, and when a fellow inhabitant warns her that she is headed for the slaughterhouse, Audrey decides that she has no choice but to mount a daring escape from the farm and set out on her own.

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The story of a farm animal longing for freedom is nothing new – we’ve had Wilbur, Babe, even Ivan the gorilla. What makes Audrey (Cow) so engaging is the way the story is framed. Audrey’s story is recounted by over thirty different narrative voices , who tell the story “to the camera”, as if participating in a documentary. This variety of narrators allows for some engaging changes in perspective and perception, and provides great moments of heart and humour.

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Tatjana Mai-Wyss’ charming, elegant pencil illustrations complement the poetic text beautifully, creating an almost nostalgic atmosphere.

I’m not the only person who enjoyed Audrey (Cow) – it’s been nominated or shortlisted for a number of awards, including the:

  • Governor General’s Award
  • Rocky Mountain Book Award
  • Red Cedar Book Award
  • Ruth & Sylvia Schwartz Award
  • Maine Student Book Award

It also received a bunch of starred reviews from the likes of Kirkus, School Library Journal and Quill & Quire.

Dan Bar-el is a Vancouver-based award-winning children’s book writer, educator, storyteller and educator who has worked as a preschool teacher, actor, playwright and comedian. You can find more about him on his website, and check out this interview with him on The Book Wars.

Owls See Clearly At Night : A Reading Staycation

If you’ve followed my blog for a little while you’ll likely have already heard me rave about the works of Cree-Metis author/illustrator Julie Flett. Originally from Toronto, Flett has been based on the West Coast for over twenty years. She is an activist as well as an author/illustrator, and is an active campaigner for indigenous rights and education, language preservation, and women’s issues, particularly with regard to Aboriginal women in Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside.

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Flett’s commitment to supporting language acquisition and preserving indigenous languages can be seen in her stunning Michif alphabet book, Owls See Clearly At Night, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature.

Michif is the traditional language of the Metis people, who are one of three Aboriginal populations as defined by the Canadian constitution, and who are traditionally based in the prairie provinces, primary Manitoba. Their culture and language are a blend of Aboriginal and European roots, with a particularly strong French influence. Michif is a complex language that evolved from a merging of Cree, French, English, and other Aboriginal languages, including Ojibwa and Assiniboine. It is also unfortunately a critically endangered language, with only about 1000 fluent Michif speakers still remaining.

Owls See Clearly At Night is indicative of growing movement dedicated to revitalizing threatened indigenous languages. As an alphabet book it serves as a means of introducing both Metis and non-Metis readers to the basic fundamentals of the language, as well as important cultural elements. Significantly, Owls See Clearly At Night is a Michif-English alphabet book, with the Michif text given the most emphasis, turning the traditional linguistic power dynamic on its head.

Elegant, beautiful and power, Owls See Clearly At Night is an ode to a powerful language that might be dying, but which can still be saved. The Metis language is only one of thousands of threatened languages around the world. According to the BBC,

Over the past century alone, around 400 languages – about one every three months – have gone extinct, and most linguists estimate that 50% of the world’s remaining 6,500 languages will be gone by the end of this century (some put that figure as high as 90%, however).

Languages “are conduits of human heritage…Languages also convey unique cultures. Without the language, the culture itself might teeter, or even disappear.” Language shapes the way we see the world and our place within it, and influences every aspect of our culture. In many indigenous communities language has played a critical role in cultural transmission, as knowledge was traditionally passed down through generations orally, and not transcribed. Cut off from their traditional languages, minority communities in countries around the globe can be dangerously  weakened and entire cultures may be lost. By preserving their  languages and supporting their growth and development, indigenous communities can strengthen their bonds both within their communities and with their ancestors, linking themselves with their past and building a strong foundation for the future.

Grumpy Bird – A Reading Staycation

“When Bird woke up, he was grumpy.”

Well, who can’t relate to that opening sentence? I think we’ve all woken up on the wrong side of the bed like Bird, grumpy and grouchy for no apparent reason, and frustrated to the brim with the world and everyone in it.

Bird is too grumpy to eat, he’s too grumpy to play, he’s too grumpy even to fly, which means he has no choice but to walk to get where he’s going. Turns out all the other animals in his neighborhood LOVE walking, and Bird quickly finds himself a pied piper of sorts, leading the rest of the animals in a jaunt around the woods. When Bird realizes that the other animals are following his lead, and that he can make them do silly things like stand on one leg or jump, he forgets all about his grumpy mood, and invites all of his new friends back to his nest for a snack.

OK, so it’s not the most complex picture book out there, but that’s what makes it such a perfect group read-aloud. The story is short and direct enough to grab and hold the attention of a wiggly audience, the text is simple with just enough repetition, and there are plenty of opportunities to really ham it up as Bird grows more and more exasperated with his too-cheerful neighbors. The illustrations are just awesome – bold black lines, simple shapes, expressive characters, primary colours and few fine details make for eye-catching images that really work well when shared with a crowd.

Grumpy Bird is just so appealing because we’ve all been Grumpy Bird – grumpy, grouchy, and annoyed by every chirpy, cheerful, annoyingly well-meaning person we come across. Hello, Mondays….

Originally from South Africa, Jeremy Tankard lived in several different cities before settling with his family in Vancouver. He was the artist for the BC Summer Reading Club in 2014, and is the author and/or illustrator of several picture books. I also met him once when he brought his family into the central library (I gave him the key to the family washroom), and he was very nice.

Dawn Lo – A Reading Staycation

For this instalment of my blog feature Beautiful British Columbia : A Reading Staycation I’m going to shake things up a bit. Instead of profiling a book by a B.C.-based author or illustrator I’m sharing an interview with a talented local illustrator (who also happens to be a coworker of mine!) – Dawn Lo.

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Q. Tell us a bit about yourself.

Hello everyone! My name is Dawn Lo and I am currently living and working in Vancouver as an illustrator. I love creating things – from making handmade books and pins to illustrating children’s books. When I am not drawing at my home studio, I work at the library where I can surround myself with more books and people who love books! I also enjoy bike rides, hikes, the Office, and taking care of my little patio garden. 

Q. Tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on.

One of the most excited projects was creating artwork for the Richmond public art program, where I get to create a series of illustrations for the theme: Small Monuments to Food. The images are reproduced and displayed around illuminated columns supporting the city’s public transit.

Another project that I really enjoyed working on was creating a set of illustrations for a publisher in Hong Kong for them to create paper goods. It is the fifth or sixth time that we collaborated so they trusted me and gave me lots of freedom through out the process. I really appreciated that!

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Q. You’ve illustrated a new picture book, “The Rainbow Garden is My Friend” by Amy Takeda. Tell us a bit about the book.

“Rainbow Garden is My Friend” is the first children’s book that I illustrated, published by Free Spirit Books in November 2015. The story is about a quirky boy’s quest to overcome his biggest fear. It has been great working closely with the author, Amy. I know that for most illustrators and authors, they do not even get to see or talk to each other while working on a book. It was a pleasant experience where we got to work on ideas as a team to make the illustration and text go well together!

After I graduated, one of my goals was to illustrate a picture book so this is like a little stepping stone to me.

Q. Where do you get the ideas for your illustrations?

My childhood, my surroundings and just little moment that I like to capture! I am currently obsessed with Grandparents’ fashion. I get stressed out from time to time but I think sometimes you just need to keep drawing and loosen up a bit *magic will happen~* I go on drawing dates with my fellow artist friends too! This really helps to push me when I am feeling lazy at my studio.

Q. What techniques do you use to make illustrations?

My favourite medium is gouache! Even though I am most comfortable with graphite, gouache makes great colours and has this awesome chalky texture that I like. Most of the time, I like to mix it up with graphite, pencil crayons and watercolour to create interesting visuals.

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Q. What’s the best part about being an artist? What’s the worst part?

There is always good and bad in things. The best part of being an artist is definitely being able to do what I love as a job. There is a lack of structure in the freelance field but that is something I am willing to work with. I like making a list of tasks every morning. Crossing the list off gives me a certain kind of satisfaction. Create a structure that works for you!

Q. Can you tell us about some of the projects you’re working on now?

I’m currently working on a couple personal projects. This first half of 2016 has been about commissions, artisan markets and promoting events for Rainbow Garden is My Friend. I would love to spend more time developing my personal work. One exciting piece of news is that I got accepted in the Mount Revelstoke National Park Artist Program so I will be at their studio working on fun stuff!

Q. What advice would you give to students interested in a career in art?

“Sometimes I’ll start a sentence and I don’t even know where it’s going, I just hope I find it along the way.” – Michael G. Scott

For the last question, I don’t know if I am qualified to answer haha I am still figuring out stuff for myself and everyone has different goals as an artist/ illustrator, so I quoted Michael Scott from the Office. There is this insecurity of putting your art/ yourself out there and letting everyone see, examine and judge it. Even though personally I haven’t fully overcome this fear yet, I think as long as I keep trying in some way, I will eventually get there… Something like that, haha!

Thanks so much for stopping by my blog and sharing your thoughts, Dawn! For more examples of Dawn’s artwork, be sure to follow her on Instagram and on Tumblr!

Obasan – A Reading Staycation

If you grew up in British Columbia like I did, chances are you read this semi-autobiographical novel in high school. Obasan, or aunt in Japanese, tells the story of Naomi Nakane, a schoolteacher in a small Canadian town, who recounts her painful experiences as a Japanese-Canadian child in World War Two-era British Columbia and the impact these experiences had on her and her family.

Fans of former Star Trek star and social media darling George Takei will likely be familiar with the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War – the music Allegiance is based on the experiences of Takei and his family, who were forcibly removed from their homes and imprisoned following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

The internment of citizens of Japanese descent occurred in Canada as well, beginning after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and lasting until 1949, several years after Japan’s surrender. Japanese-language newspapers were shuttered, and the government seized and sold property owned by Japanese Canadians, including business and homes. Like Kogawa’s character Naomi Nakane, Japanese Canadian families were relocated to small communities in the interior of the country, where many were forced to remain, even after the end of the war. Japanese Canadian families lost most or all of their material goods, lived in harsh conditions and experienced systemic racism and prejudice, all of which left emotional and psychological scars on the people who lived through this period.

Obasan is a sensitive, deeply moving, painful yet quietly hopeful account of the internment of a Japanese-Canadian family and the lingering impact the experience had on individuals, particularly children. Kogawa weaves several stories and perspectives together, moving from Naomi’s adulthood in 1970s Alberta to her childhood in the 1940s in Vancouver and Slocan, British Columbia, and introduces characters of several generations from both Canada and Japan. The trials Naomi and her family endure are terrible, pushing the characters to their breaking points, and Kogawa doesn’t shy away from hard, painful truths. Sexual abuse, animal cruelty, parental abandonment, depression, racism, isolation, repression, cultural taboos, violence, war, death – all are discussed and laid bare in this complex novel.

When first published in 1981, Obasan received lukewarm reviews. The prose was complex and lyrical, which some reviewers found too complex, even confusing. The content was graphic and unsettling, which some readers considered too negative for young people. Perhaps more unsettling, though, was the fact that Obasan called on Canadians to admit to a dark, embarrassing, painful period in their history, and accept the lingering damage their actions had caused countless innocent people. Obasan refused to allowed Canadians to hide from their past, and called on all citizens to look to their past to ensure that such dark times could never be repeated.

Obasan went on to win the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Canadian Authors Association Book of the Year Award, and Kogawa, who began her literary career as a poet,  was awarded the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia, and the Order of the Rising Sun. The novel has since become a modern Canadian classic, and is required reading in many high schools and colleges throughout the country, but particularly in Kogawa’s home province of British Columbia.

Binky the Space Cat – A Reading Staycation

We’re kicking off Beautiful British Columbia : A Reading Staycation with a bang! Our first book comes to us from the pride of Ladner, talented author-illustrator Ashley Spires. If you haven’t heard of Binky the Space Cat, you’d better fix that, pronto. This fun series of early graphic novels features Binky, a house cat who’s convinced that he’s actually a space cat, charged by a secret organization with the protection of his human family. Armed with space cat technology, Binky fights off evil aliens (which look remarkably like houseflies), keeping his house and his family safe. Is Binky really a space cat, or he is just a frisky feline with a very fanciful imagination? You decide!

Ashley Spires has created several books about Binky the Space Cat, and the character remains one of B.C.’s most recognizable literary exports. Binky the Space Cat was nominated for the 2011 Silver Birch Express Award and the 2011 Hackmatack Award, and there are six Binky titles in the series.

Spires has recently introduced a spin-off series of graphic novels featuring Fluffy Vandermere, the cat sergeant in charge of P.U.R.S.T. (Pets of the Universe Ready for Space Travel), which are just as weird and hilarious as you might expect.

Cleverly illustrated with charming animal characters and silly, sly text, Binky the Space Cat is highly appealing to emerging readers, and acts as a great introduction to the graphic novel medium.

On a related note, I just had to include this quote from a review of the sequel Binky to Rescue  I found on Amazon:

This is a Canadian children’s series, which makes for some interesting comparisons. The Canadians are different from you and me. They have a bit of a European sensibility to their comics. For the most part Binky is like any other comic you might name, though shots of his rear are amusingly French. He also seems to suffer from a bit of space gas, but a big deal isn’t made about this. If you have kids that are desperate to find fart jokes in all their literature then I’m sure they’ll be adequately amused by the little “poooot!” but for other readers it will hardly register.

Yes, dear readers, we Canadians are indeed different.

Beautiful British Columbia – A Reading Staycation

 My partner and I were planning a brief getaway over the B.C. Day long weekend when we hit a few snags in our plans. Well, one major snag, really – the Canadian dollar. We originally wanted to drive down to one of our favourite cities, Portland, Oregon, for a few days of craft beer tasting and Powell’s Books browsing. High season hotel prices and a weak Canadian dollar torpedoed our plans, though, and we decided to try something a little closer to home – Vancouver Island.

What we found was spectacular – breathtaking beaches and luxurious rainforests in Tofino and Ucluelet, fantastic used book stores and tourist delights in Victoria, and great craft breweries in quirky towns up and down the island. We had a fantastic experience exploring our own backyard.

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If you’re politely wondering what the point of all this is, it’s to introduce a little project I’m embarking on, which I’ve unimaginatively dubbed  Beautiful British Columbia : A Reading Staycation. Inspired by the beauty and diversity of my home province, I’m going to be exploring children’s books written and/or illustrated by British Columbian authors over the next few weeks. I hope you’ll join me!

Stay tuned…..