Yolanda Ridge

Middle Grade Author

Inkling

Title: Inkling

Author: Kenneth Oppel

Illustrator: Sydney Smith

Publisher: HarperCollins

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781443450287

I’ve seen this middle grade novel on a lot of book lists (Quill & Quire Best Book, CYBILS Awards, CBC Best Book of the Year, New York Times Notable…) but the premise of an ink blot coming to life didn’t really appeal to me. Then my kids picked it up at the library and started raving about it too. So I cracked the cover and at the risk of sounding cliché – couldn’t put it down.

Inkling comes to life out of Ethan’s dad’s sketch book but Ethan finds him first (unless you count the confrontation with the cat that opens the story). Soon Inkling’s helping Ethan with a graphic novel project for school. He becomes the dog Ethan’s sister (who has  Down syndrome) always wanted and eventually starts working for Ethan’s dad (who’s a comic artist).

As Inkling becomes a member of the family, Ethan reconsiders everything from the definition of cheating to the real reason his dad’s stuck. But the moral dilemma at the heart of the story is Inkling’s well being. Ethan’s dad thinks Ethan gives Inkling too many human qualities. Ethan’s horrified when other characters in the story treat Inkling like a caged animal. What’s the difference between letting Inkling help and taking advantage of him?

When Inkling goes missing, I felt as horrified as Ethan and his family. That’s when I saw the true brilliance of this character. Inkling starts out as an extension of Ethan’s dad’s imagination but learns from the diverse books Ethan feeds him, changes from experience and grows through his relationship with others. All the characters in this story are strong – and all develop in their own way – but Inkling’s the star.

I got distracted by a few typos and didn’t pay much attention to the black and white illustrations. But the cover art is brilliant and as a package this book definitely checks boxes for publishers wanting middle grade novels with more artwork and magic realism. For me, though, it was all about the heart of the story and the quick paced action that brings Inkling and his family to a tear-worthy conclusion.

 

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No Fixed Address

Title: No Fixed Address

Author: Susin Nielsen

Publisher: Tundra Books

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-0735262751

This is the second book by Susan Nielsen that I’ve reviewed on this site. I usually like to share the love but her latest title is too good to be overlooked. Unlike We Are All Made Of Molecules, this book does not cross the line into young adult content – it’s definitely upper middle grade.

Twelve-year-old Felix and his mom (who he calls Astrid) live in Vancouver. For many reasons – some associated with Astrid’s unnamed mental illness (she has “slumps” and takes medication) and some associated with her poor decision making (particularly with respect to relationships) – they lose their home and end up living in a van that may or may not have been stolen.

At first, life in the Westfalia is fine. But as Felix settles into school and the temperature starts to drop, he becomes desperate for access to things most of us take for granted: a private toilet, regular access to a shower, an address, a meal that does not come from a can, and perhaps most of all – a sense of security.

Since Astrid seems incapable of finding (and keeping) a job, Felix searches for other ways to get the money they need for an apartment including asking for a loan from his “DNA Donor Dad” and winning a trivia game show. The one thing he refuses to do is ask for help. Or let his new friends know that he’s homeless.

The relationship between Felix and Astrid is complicated and realistic. As is the resolution to their story. The back matter includes resources and a discussion guide that both provide further information on hidden homelessness and poverty. While there are many important issues addressed in the novel- and a diverse cast of interesting characters – there’s also enough plot twists to keep young readers turning the page.

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Book Deal!

Here’s the good news I teased you with in my previous post…

I just signed a nonfiction book deal with Annick Press for a book on gene editing aimed at students in grades 9-12!!

Maybe you’ve never heard of CRISPR. Or more likely – since it’s regularly in the news – you’ve heard of it but never quite understood what it is (unless you’re one of my many genetic counseling friends, of course). Either way, this book is for you too, regardless of your age. I have no doubt gene editing will be a big part of our future and it’s up to us to decide how it’s used.

It was fun writing the proposal and it’s been super interesting to continue researching this important topic and drafting the book. But since the deadlines are tight, you might not hear much from me on social media until sometime this spring… until then, happy hibernating (I hope you have a good book… or two)!!

 

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Grade 4 is where it’s at!

 

I had so much fun talking to the fourth graders at Rossland Summit School about the Magic of Three.

Even though I totally believe in the Magic of Three, I’m totally inspired by the Creativity of Four (or the kids in grade four, anyway).

Thanks for hosting me and good luck with your writing!

 

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2019 – here I come!

I haven’t posted on my website for a while because to be honest, 2018 was a difficult year for me. During the past few months, I just haven’t been up to projecting the image of a content and productive writer. Because I didn’t feel like one.

Without going into detail, the main thing that sent me off the rails was my mom’s health. Don’t get me wrong here, what I went through was nothing compared to what my mom and her husband endured. But my mom is my rock. She’s ALWAYS been the one I turn to for support, especially since losing my dad and both my in-laws. It was very hard to have her turn to me for support and even more difficult to watch her go through treatment.

Treatment that turned my strong, nurturing mom into someone who could not look after herself.

Treatment that saved her life.

I’m happy to say that she is on the road to recovery. She fought hard and was, as ALWAYS, a role model for how to cope when life sends you in a direction you didn’t plan – or want – to take.

While I was away from my husband and kids caring for my mom, I continued to write. But when I got home I found myself staring at a blank page. Or worse, making a mess of my work-in-progress.

Even though I knew she was receiving good care from my sister and step-dad, being away from my mom when she was still receiving treatment was way harder than being there to help. And I just couldn’t concentrate. The only time my brain seemed to work well was at three o-clock in the morning.

At the same time, I was getting schooled on how much the market for children’s literature is changing. I’m still processing some of this but I will say that I understand why it needs to evolve. And I accept that this may be a time when other people’s voices need to be louder than my own.

From this, I took a lesson from my mom. My writing path was not going in the direction I’d hoped so I chose to follow another sign post. This one from a friend who suggested I try writing nonfiction for kids, using my background in genetic counselling as an anchor.

So I’m updating my website at the start of 2019 to project my true image of a struggling but determined writer. I know I’m not alone in assuming that everyone’s life is flowing like lava because it’s the good stuff that gets posted and shared. I will have good news about a book deal in the next few weeks. But until then, this is me starting 2019 on a new and open road. I hope to see you along the way!

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The Dollar Kids

Title: The Dollar Kids

Author: Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9780763694746

Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Jennifer Richard Jacobson both as a writer and a person. She was my mentor at the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop and I have so much respect for her knowledge and talent. I have previously reviewed Paper Things but I’ve read everything she’s written and I love it all. I had no doubt The Dollar Kids would take me on the same emotional journey I’ve come to expect from her middle grade titles.

I was not wrong.

The Dollar Kids opens with the tragic death of 12-year-old Lowen Grover’s neighbour and younger friend, Abe. The responsibility Lowen feels for Abe’s death drives the rest of the narrative from the Grover’s family decision to buy a dollar house in a small, rundown old mill town to Lowen’s interactions with the new people he meets in Millville. Lowen’s guilt drips off the pages, making it hard for him to live next to a funeral home, make new friends, and continue to draw comics – formerly his most favourite past time.

What I love most about this book is the nuanced characters. Jennifer Richard Jacobson does a great job of showing how the entire Grover family reacts and adjusts to Abe’s death. She also examines the concept of dollar houses as a way of revitalizing dying towns. At the climax, a town divided has become a community and Millville is saved through sheer determination and co-operation. I especially love what Mr. Avery – a former Mill worker and one of the most verbally opposed to the dollar houses – learns from his grandson:

“At one time or another, everyone needs help – and everyone, at one time or another, can find a way to be helpful.”

Highly recommended.

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Missing Mike

Title: Missing Mike

Author: Shari Green

Publisher: Pajama Press

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781772780451

Having just spent the summer breathing in the smoke blanketing the entire province of BC, with fires burning close enough to my home that I packed up photos and essentials in preparation for evacuation, this story really resonated. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down and I’m pretty sure I didn’t take a full, deep breath until I finished. Luckily as a novel in verse, it’s a pretty quick read.

When ten-year-old Cara and her family are evacuated from their home in the fictional Western Canadian town of Pine Grove, they have ten minutes to pack and leave. But when they pile into the car with their just-in-case backpacks and other possessions, Cara’s dog, Mike, has disappeared. As the family drives along the packed highway away from their home – rescuing a stray cat and helping a stranded young father who ran out of gas – I felt like I was on the jorney with them, sharing Cara’s devastation about having left Mike behind.

Along with her parents and older sister, Cara is billeted by a lovely volunteer family. They only stay with them for two and a half weeks but their life transforms during that time. Cara turns eleven, contemplates the potential loss of her home, worries about changing schools for the start of grade six, finds out her best friend is moving to Vancouver, and struggles through a changing relationship with her sister… all while helping out at the evaluation centre and trying to locate Mike.

Missing Mike is filled with the kindness of strangers which gives the book hope. The conclusion is a satisfying mix of reality and happy ending. Interestingly, neither of my 12-year-old boys would even crack the cover. Perhaps because the possibility of fire evacuation was too close to home. One of my sons was clear that he he did not want to read a book about a missing dog. I loved this book because it placed my fears into a story of survival and resilience where the main character discovers what home really means. But for some, the journey to get there may be too much.

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Wolf Hollow

Title: Wolf Hollow

Author: Lauren Wolk

Publisher: Dutton Children’s Books

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781101994825

I recently attended the SCBWI webinar “The Craft of Writing Historical Fiction” and received feedback from Kelsey Murphy, associate editor for Balzer and Bray, on the first ten pages of the only historic middle grade novel I’ve ever attempted to write, Twisted Fate. I’ve thought about this book a lot over the years it’s been hanging out in the cloud (my proverbial drawer), but whenever I contemplate going back to finish it I get overwhelmed by the task of getting all the historical details right. I love the story and the characters but since I’m not overly familiar with the setting (even though I’ve visited London several times) or the time period (even though I’ve read a lot about England post World War II) the research required is more than a little daunting.

Kelsey was encouraging and in the webinar Anna Myers made the process sound not only possible but fun! My favourite take home message from both Kelsey and Anna was that I should read more historical middle grade fiction. In addition to digging into Anna’s titles, I also followed her recommendation and read Wolf Hollow, a 2016 Newbery Honor Book. I’m glad I did! This is how historical fiction is supposed to be done. I became so immersed in Annabelle’s story and the setting that I completely forgot it was “historical”.

Set in small town Pennsylvania between the first and second world wars, the story follows 11-year-old Annabelle who lives on a farm with her family and attends a one room school house. Annabelle’s quiet, steady (but unexciting) life is disrupted when Betty, a new girl in town, starts bullying her and her brothers. From there, things escalate quickly. Annabelle ends up protecting and defending Toby, a reclusive World War I veteran, who Betty accuses of committing her own crimes.

This is one of those books that could be included in my post middle grade grows up. Although Annabelle is eleven, Wolf Hollow tackles some difficult issues and Betty’s bullying really does cross the line into criminal and life threatening behaviour. While Annabelle deals with challenging emotions and situations, she has very amazing, mature insights. My favourite quote: “If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?”

As much as I enjoyed Wolf Hollow, neither of my sons really got into it. This could be because the setting distanced them but I think it’s more likely because this is really a book that appeals more to adults. I tend to favour contemporary children’s fiction (although I love adult historical fiction) but I hope to find more titles like Wolf Hollow and The War That Saved My Life so I can learn more about historical children’s fiction as well.

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Mine!

Title: Mine!

Author: Natalie Hyde

Publisher: Scholastic

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 9781443146609

The opening line of Natalie Hyde’s latest title – also a contender for the 2018/19 Red Cedar Book Prize – is sure to grab the attention of young readers: “Moose snot is a real thing, you know.” From there, Chris Dearing (who hates his name) takes us back in time to explain how he ended up in the middle of the Yukon trying to make a gold claim on land swindled from his grandfather decades before Chris was born.

The opening line is not the only clever use of words in Mine! There’s a play on “the muffin man” rhyme that comes late in the novel and made me wonder if I’d missed out on more along the way. The focus on Chris and his family’s BAD luck gets a little tedious at times but all in all, this is a wild ride filled with whacky characters.

For starters, there’s Chris’s dad who’s an alcoholic making bad choices in addition to his bad luck. With social services breathing down their necks, his dad ends up in jail and Chris is left seeking help from Fiona who owns the bar his dad most frequently visited. As luck would have it (and Chris actually has a lot of GOOD luck, regardless of what he thinks), Fiona is also from the Yukon and agrees to take Chris up there when she learns about his grandfather’s lost claim. When her motorcycle breaks down, Chris is lucky enough to get saved by his best friend and her uncle, who just happens to have a mobile muffin selling business. They accompany Chris and Fiona all the way to the Yukon where more unbelievable (but highly entertaining) events unfold.

As is often the case, one of my sons loved this book and one didn’t (proving just how subjective this book business is). The one who didn’t found it too unrealistic and convoluted. For me, it was a quick read and putting the rational side of my brain on pause, I was able to thoroughly enjoy the trip North with Chris and his friends.

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Be Prepared

Title: Be Prepared

Author: Vera Brosgol

Publisher: First Second

Reviewer: Yolanda Ridge

ISBN: 978-1626724457

Joining the growing stack of graphic novel memoirs comes this great book by the author of Anya’s Ghost. As with all graphic novels, Be Prepared is a quick read but the story and images stay with you for a long time after you’ve turned the last page.

Nine-year-old Vera does not fit in. Her mom’s struggling to make ends meet while single parenting three kids and going to school. In the opening scene, Vera’s at a sleep over with her privledged friends who all have fancy historical dolls and spend every summer at camp – things Vera’s never had or done. To make matters worse, her Russian heritage sets her apart even further when she tries to have a sleep over birthday party of her own.

So when Vera finds out about a Russian Orthodox camp, ORRA, she becomes convinced it’s the answer to her problems. Unfortunately, Vera doesn’t fit in any better at ORRA – apart from her bad Russian teeth – and the rest of the book follows her as she struggles through four weeks of camp.

Readers are right there with her, feeling all the rejection and humiliation she feels as Vera tries to win over her tent-mates, brave the pit toilets – called Hollywood – and continually make mistakes. The author is unflinching in her portrayal of herself, showing all her faults and also her triumphs (which never seem to last long). Unfortunately, I think the book has turned my sons off wanting to go to camp. Having no camp experience myself, I can’t quite relate. But I definitely feel like I’ve been to ORRA – and shared in the wide range of experiences it offers (both good and bad) – after finishing Be Prepared.

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