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Month: November 2016

Review: The Blackthorn Key

Review: The Blackthorn Key

blackthorn-key-coverThe Blackthorn Key
by Kevin Sands
371 pages
Aladdin Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Ages 10-14




A quick description of Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key might not do it justice. It’s a historical novel about a young man with an analytical mind and specialized knowledge who sets out to solve a series of murders. But Sands takes the time-worn and makes it fresh. The result is one of the best mystery novels for young readers I’ve read in a long, long time, and one with a much-deserved list of awards and other honours.

Christopher Rowe was living in an orphanage when master apothecary Benedict Blackthorn took him in as his apprentice. It was a life-changing gesture that has benefited both; Christopher has a new life, while Blackthorn has a brilliant apprentice who is not only a quick learner, but also adept at cracking codes … even if Blackthorn isn’t always thrilled when Christopher is able to figure out secret and sometimes dangerous recipes.

It’s a mentor-apprentice relationship that borders on father-son, so when Blackthorn becomes the latest victim in a series of murders of apothecaries, the blow devastates Christopher. He sets out to find out who the killer is … or, perhaps, who the killers are, because he believes the Cult of the Archangel may be behind this … if the group actually exists.

Solving the crime involves being his master’s apprentice one more time: Blackthorn, knowing he could be the next victim, left his protege coded clues that could lead directly to the killer.

The Blackthorn Key ticks a lot of “things we really like” boxes: stories with code-breaking, analytics, and a healthy dose of science have become mainstream in recent years. But there’s always a risk that a book full of puzzles will rely too heavily on analytical tumblers falling into place, and the result can be a cold, clinical feel. That doesn’t happen here: The Blackthorn Key is driven by emotion, and that’s what sets it apart. Christopher has lost the person who gave him a life and a future, and the person who believed in him. It’s a profound loss.

Christopher isn’t completely alone in the world without Blackthorn, though. Sands has given him a friend, Tom. Tom serves two purposes. One is to be a character Christopher’s age — much needed in a book filled with adults. The other is to be the “Watson” figure, but not in the way such sidekicks are typically used in detective fiction. Usually these are the people of normal intelligence who the audience can relate to, and they serve as a story’s narrator so that we can view the genius detective through eyes like our own.

But Sands upends the Holmes-Watson cliché. The author boldly tells the story through the eyes of Christopher, the “Holmes” figure. It’s a superb bit of writerly instinct because in doing so and in reminding us throughout the book of Christopher’s emotional attachment to Blackthorn, the “brilliant detective” is beautifully humanized. We don’t see him as a freak; in fact, we see him as quite normal. He is young, and young at heart, as is apparent in the book’s opening chapter when, unable contain his youthful excitement at figuring out how gunpowder is made, he gets Tom to work with him to build a small cannon, with slapstick results.

Christopher is a character we can relate to. He is “like us” — he just has a different knowledge base. He happens to be excellent at breaking codes and knows how to mix powders, liquids, and chemicals. So, why the “Watson” character in Tom? Because he is someone Christopher can relate to. He ties Christopher to his age.

The accessibility of the novel is also evident in Sands’ use of language. One of the challenges in historical fiction is to write using language that is readable to contemporary audiences but that carries some historical authenticity. In general with middle grade and young adult fiction, it’s best hint at, not mimic, period language. Sands’ language is spot on. There’s a historical feel, but the language is familiar and comfortable to readers. Anyone thinking of writing historical fiction could learn a lot from reading this book.

The Blackthorn Key has become an instant favourite of mine and is highly recommended for any fan of historical crime fiction. It’s a reminder that no matter how thrilling it is to find answers, the heart of a great novel lies in the people asking the questions.


Review by Barry Jowett





Outside the Cave, November 27, 2016

Outside the Cave, November 27, 2016

People seem to like the Outside the Cave feature, so let’s keep this going.

For those of you who are new to Bookcave, Outside the Cave is where we share some of the things we’ve been reading on other websites. Please frequent those sites and give them some love, and come back here too.

The folks over at Book Riot must have read our optimistic post about how we’re too strong to be beaten by the US election, and they were having none of it. They came up with this list of reasons why post-election US is like a dystopian YA novel. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have to tell anyone who frequents Bookcave that dystopian YA novels don’t make the future out to be an unending episode of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. If you read or write dystopian YA, give this piece a look because it’s not just a doom-and-gloom article; it also points to some problems with dystopian YA that we should be paying attention to.

Now, after you read that you’re going to feel a bit down, so go back and read our optimistic piece in which I tell you the future will be okay because of you. Thanks, you.

But even better than that, read this fantastic post on Lori Weber’s blog, in which she talks about writing for kids as a form of activism. It’s passionate and inspiring. If you read nothing else today, read this.

Elsewhere, Buzzfeed shocked the world by posting something with a clickbaity title about Harry Potter fans being at a crossroads. And I took the bait. But it’s an interesting read for fans of Harry and of kids’ books in general. My very simplistic summary is that many ultra-hardcore Potter fans (those who can drop the names of obscure characters I can’t remember) are content with the original series and aren’t always comfortable with the additions that have been made in the nearly ten years since The Deathly Hallows was published.

Take a moment to let it sink in that The Deathly Hallows will be ten years old in July 2017. Now, deep breath in, deep breath out. Everyone okay? Let’s continue.

I don’t have a lot in common with those who rail against the way the new entries change what they know about the Harry Potter universe, but they make some good points. And they address the concerns many fans have had over the way Rowling stepped in it with some unsettling cultural appropriation in The History of Magic in North America. The entire discussion around that book is relevant for those of us in the Canadian kidlit community, where there have been efforts to provide greater opportunities for Indigenous authors.

Speaking of which, one of the superb indie presses trying to provide these opportunities is Second Story Press, and they have recently released two books about Canada’s residential schools. These books are on my list for review in the coming weeks, but Lisa Day gives a few thoughts in her Book Time blog, and talks about deciding whether to read one of the books to her son.

Finally, a review from Bella’s Bookshelves. Am I the only one who hasn’t yet read Martine Leavitt’s Calvin? Probably. And I should get around to it as soon as possible. How’s this for praise: “Calvin is the best YA book I’ve read in eons. A 17-year old kid has a schizophrenic episode and thinks he’s Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes.” So … it’s pretty darn good, right? And that’s just how she starts the review. This is someone who knows her YA, too. So, what the heck is taking me so long? I’m on it.

Here at Bookcave, there are some pieces in the pipeline for the coming week. I somehow work MC Hammer into a piece I’m posting on Monday, and I’m about to polish up a review of a recent award-winning novel. Look for the latter on Wednesday. We’ll have our usual Friday and Sunday features, of course, and I might slip in another article during the week if I get a chance. Keep coming back, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook — new postings are announced there.

A little off-topic, but important as people get to know Bookcave: while I don’t get any actual numbers for several days, I understand some have contributed to our Patreon campaign, which I greatly appreciate. (There’s a link in the top menu.) I want to reassert what I say on the campaign page, which is that every cent that comes in will go towards paying other writers to contribute articles, reviews, short fiction, and possibly other content. Bookcave will always cost me more money than it brings in — it’s set up to do so. If there’s a way for me to personally profit from this, I don’t know what it is and I haven’t been looking for it. If any Patreon supporters want to know how the money gets used, I’ll be more than happy to account for every bit of it. Bookcave exists to support the Canadian kidlit community.

For that matter, anyone who is interested in knowing the details of my plans for Bookcave is welcome to contact me at It’s a project that excites me, and I think that anyone in the community who hears my full vision for the site will be equally excited.

So, that’s Outside the Cave for this week. As always, keep reading Canadian kidlit, and keep bookmarking websites that talk about Canadian kidlit. And if you have a blog or site of your own that I haven’t given a shoutout to yet, send me a missive and I’ll try to post a link in an upcoming Outside the Cave. We’re confident you’re in this for all the right reasons and we want to support you.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson


Cave Notes

Cave Notes

First of all, thank you to everyone who has visited I wasn’t sure how much attention it would get, but looking at the site statistics, we’ve had far more traffic than I would have imagined.

On to our Cave Notes …

Cave Notes is another new weekly feature that reviews what we’ve done on the site in the preceding week and adds additional comments or notes about things that didn’t seem like column-length material but might be interesting to readers.

After a crazy week 1, things have settled down to a more normal level of content in week 2. Long-term plans call for us to have daily content, but for now we’ll be offering material three or four days a week.

On Sunday we introduced a new feature: Outside the Cave. One of the goals of Bookcave is to help increased the online dialogue surrounding books for young readers, and Outside the Cave is where we tell you about what we’ve been reading on other sites around the web. We hope you’ll be a regular reader of all these websites (and Bookcave too, of course).

On Monday we got a bit political, but in a positive way, finding hope and optimism in the wake of an American election outcome that has upset many people in the kidlit community. I’ve received a lot of great feedback on this article and I thank everyone who has been in touch with me about it. I hope it’s made some of you feel a little bit better about things.

On Wednesday I reviewed Mahtab Narsimhan’s most recent book for middle-grade readers, Mission Mumbai. I hope people have found it to be an interesting take, given that the review was written by someone who has published the author in the past. It’s not a perspective we see very often in reviews.

It occurs to me if that my Bookcave boss (who happens to be me) weren’t such a darn-good guy, I wouldn’t have been allowed to review an author I’ve worked with. It would be a “conflict” and there would be a concern about “bias.” However, our Reviews Editor (again, me) was okay with it. And yes, there is a bias: the bias is that I like this author’s writing, and that’s why I published her twice. And frankly, if I didn’t like the book, I wouldn’t have reviewed it. (Inside scoop: I don’t review books I don’t like.) So, my hat’s off to my Bookcave boss and our Reviews Editor (me and me) for being such right-minded individuals. Individual. Whatever.

Finally, I will once again reassure people that I still have a day job as publisher of Dancing Cat Books. Bookcave is something I do on the side – I haven’t been headhunted. It seems adding Bookcave to my LinkedIn profile led many to think I’d moved from one place to another. Given that Bookcave pays me $0 (it’s run be a cheapskate, you know), it would not be a wise move.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s posts. If you would like to support the site, there are a few ways of doing so. One way is to retweet our @Bookcave2 tweets, particularly the ones that link articles. Another is to share our posts on Facebook. Retweets and shares help us to get the attention of other social media users and hopefully they can start following us and reading our articles.

If you hate being hit up for cash, click away now while you still like me, because I’m about to turn my hat upside down. Should you like to make a monetary show of support, you can do so on Patreon, where we have an active campaign. Any Patreon support we receive will be used to help grow the site by allowing us to hire writers to contribute articles, reviews, and perhaps even short fiction. Patreon support could also help us to launch a podcast and maybe even add video content. And I’ve come up with some rewards for supporters, too, so let’s take a moment to feel sorry for the people who clicked away at the beginning of this paragraph, because now they don’t know about the rewards. Okay, the moment has passed. Now let’s feel awesome for ourselves.


Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Review: Mission Mumbai

Review: Mission Mumbai

mission-mumbai-coverMission Mumbai
by Mahtab Narsimhan
262 pages
Ages 9-12




As an editor, reading a new book by an author you’ve published is always an anxious experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re the publisher of the new book or not — you want it to be good.

I’ve had the good fortune of publishing two of Mahtab Narsimhan’s books, The Third Eye and The Tiffin, so I had those editor’s nerves working as I opened her most recent middle grade novel, Mission Mumbai. Not only does Narsimhan come through with another excellent book, but her versatility is on display. She’d already shown herself capable of shifting course when she went from the Tara Trilogy — fantasy rooted in Hindu mythology — to The Tiffin — gritty realism; Mission Mumbai returns to the same setting as The Tiffin (the city of Mumbai), but does so from a very different angle.

The story features two New Yorkers: our narrator, Dylan, and his friend Rohit. The pair have travelled with Rohit’s family to their home city of Mumbai, India, where Rohit’s cousin will soon be married. Already we’re in different territory from The Tiffin: these are not India’s disadvantaged, struggling to get by. These are people with enough money to be comfortable, and to travel. (Rohit’s family is not as wealthy as Dylan’s, but definitely have a higher standard of living than the characters in The Tiffin.)

There is also a very different point of view. The reader is seeing Mumbai through the eyes of Dylan, an American who is visiting India for the first time. This allows Narsimhan to explore many of the cultural differences between India and North America, and to have fun with them. Dylan comes to Mumbai with little knowledge of Indian culture, and Rohit hasn’t done much to help him learn. So, when the book starts with Dylan trying to clear a cow from blocking traffic by hitting it with a stick, we know he’s in for some trouble on this vacation. (Cows being sacred to Hindus, Dylan’s help is not terribly well received.)

Food mishaps, heat intolerance, and experiencing Indian toilets for the first time are among Dylan’s comical misadventures. For readers with little familiarity with India, it’s a great introduction to the country’s largest city. For readers who know a lot about India and Mumbai, there are plenty of laughs to be had at Dylan’s expense.

He’s not merely the butt of jokes, though. Readers can sympathize with Dylan, who is clearly out of his depth and trying to fit in, but getting little help from Rohit, as the two have begun to squabble about their personal situations.

Rohit’s life is in New York now, but a stubborn aunt is trying to convince his parents that he should live with her in India. Dylan’s advice to wait out the dispute backfires. But Dylan has problems of his own, as his father is trying to convince him to devote his time to “manly” pursuits like playing soccer, while Dylan dreams of being a photographer.

Both characters prefer blurred lines to sharp definitions. Rohit has blended his Indian heritage with his American life, while Dylan has rejected being put into a box. How perfect, then, that the pair are in India to attend a wedding — people coming together. Contrast this with Rohit’s aunt trying to separate Rohit from his blended culture, and the symbolic contrast of Dylan’s parents, who are separating.

But while it’s a book with depth, it’s also a lot of fun, and it doesn’t spoil anything to say that it ends with a celebratory event — the wedding. Does that event go off without a hitch? That much I won’t spoil.


Review by Barry Jowett

The Triumph of Despair: A Children’s Story

The Triumph of Despair: A Children’s Story

It was the worst of times, it was the oh-crap-it’s-way-worse-than-we-thought of times in the Canadian literary community. But maybe it’s not as bad as we think. As events at a western Canadian university have divided us, events in the US have brought us together.

As the winners of last week’s TD/Canadian Children’s Book Centre awards gave their acceptance speeches, many talked about what happened in the US on November 8. There has been so much hand-wringing and outright depression and despair about this that I’d tried to shut it all out, and had promised myself I wouldn’t write about it. But one thing struck me as each winner expressed their thoughts: no one sounded beaten.

And it also occurred to me as they were talking that they had the room. The audience was with them. I don’t know how many people at the awards actually liked the result of the US election, but it would not be a surprise if that number were zero.

The November 8 American election had an outcome many believed was so horrible that the aftermath felt like the days after a major tragedy.

It felt like someone had died.

But on the other hand … it felt like someone had died.

And yes, I know I just said the same thing twice. Except that I didn’t. Not really.

Life is tough. There’s a lot of stress in life. And we all go through times when we think we’re deadening inside, unable to feel emotions like we did when we were younger. And then something happens — something big. Someone we know is ill, or dies. And when it happens it is awful. But we realize that it feels awful because we cared so much about that person in the first place.

We’re not dead inside. We never are. We care deeply, even if we’re not always aware how much we care.

Our world has never been perfect and there has never been a time where there wasn’t good reason to be appalled by greed, selfishness, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other evils. It did seem like things were at least getting better, though. And when American voters elected a black president in 2008, it felt like real progress had been made.

Then 2016 happened. It’s been a terrible year on many fronts, but the 2016 US election threw us all for a loop. Now, I’m not one of those who insists that everyone who voted for the winning candidate was racist, misogynist, or homophobic. (I won’t use his name here, not just because he’s earned the he-who-shall-not-be-named treatment, but because I don’t want to deal with the bots invading my Comments sections.) I think a great many people who voted for the winner are not racist or misogynist or homophobic. But every single person who voted for him was okay with racism and misogyny and homophobia. They were okay with him bragging about sexually assaulting women. They were okay with him cruelly mocking a person’s disability. They might not advocate those things, but they condoned them by voting the way they did.

And that hurts. It hurts that a candidate can win despite such awfulness.

Here’s the thing, though: it hurts so much because we care so much. If people were merely bothered or annoyed by the outcome, that would be a true defeat. If it were just about “my team lost your team won,” then yes, it would be a real loss.

But people are despondent. People are outraged. I have never seen an election outcome create such deep emotional responses.

And that’s why we can’t possibly be beaten. We care too much.

What does this have to do with kidlit?


Recall what I said about the winners who expressed their feelings on the election: they had the room.

This was not just any room. This was a room full of children’s authors, children’s publishers, children’s reporters, children’s bloggers, school teachers, school librarians … all sorts of people whose lives are dedicated to bringing words and ideas to children.

We’re the ones who care about kids. We’re the ones who care about the future.

The ideals expressed by the new American president-elect and his supporters aren’t about the future and they’re not about “other people.” Those ideals are all about things that are immediate: these are people who put themselves first, and they’re people whose only interests are the present. They’re about status quo. These people are not about the future.

We are. And we’re about other people.

We’re about things beyond ourselves.

And it is our voices, and the voices we celebrate, that future generations hear from.

Sometimes a candidate who is about old-school hate will get elected, and that’s what happened on November 8. I don’t see this as a victory for the bad guys. Rather, I see it as the death-throes of a dying set of hateful ideas. A colleague recently compared it to an animal who, while dying, will have a burst of adrenaline and might jump up or lash out. The beast is still dying, but it gets one last burst of life. That burst can’t change what’s inevitable.

That’s their animal, though. There’s nothing about our animal that is dying — that much has been clear over the last two weeks. We care too much. And even though we realize we may never create a perfect world, we do know we can bounce back from this, and we know we’re the ones who will last. We’re the ones passing on the dream of a better world to our young people.

We lost on November 8, but in the long run, we will always be the winners. We’re the only ones who have a future.

Outside the Cave

Outside the Cave

Here’s our look at some of the things we’ve been reading around the web. We’ll try to make this a regular (weekly?) feature to share other great sites you will want to follow.

First up, this was a big week in the Canadian kidlit community, with the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Awards aka the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards being held on Thursday. While focused on Bacchanalian excess, Kerry Clare at 49th Shelf gathered comments from many of the nominated authors and illustrators about their inspirations.’s drunken live tweets turned out to be non-disastrous and I think I even managed to get them all out without spelling errors … though I did leave off one winning illustrator’s name, and for that I feel great shame.

Other things have been afoot lately. This is a bit older, but hey, it’s our first Outside the Cave, so we can go back as far as we want. Publishing Perspectives recently took in Neilsen’s Children’s Book Summit, and though it’s obviously US-focused, there are some interesting insights to be gained. It includes speculation that robot narratives might be the next big thing, so feel free to flood me at my day job with all your robot manuscripts. Plus, some interesting ebook numbers, as there has been a decline in ebook sales for juvenile books, so take that, paper-haters.

They also talk about millennials as book-buying parents, so some of us are going to need to take a deep breath and realize that millennials are now book-buying parents, which means not all of us are as young as we used to be.

Still in the US (which might be a depressing place to think of being these days, but hold off on that depression because I’m going to get rid of it with tomorrow’s column), Publishers Weekly has a preview of some spring 2017 titles. Yes, they posted this in July, but spring is still coming, so there.

And in an October column, PW took a look at YA authors as social activists.

Getting back to Canada …

I was recently tipped off to Joyce Grant’s website that focuses on literacy — Get Kids Reading. With the holidays coming up, you might want to check out her August column on some great toys and games that encourage literacy. Have a look, because these look pretty cool.

Finally, this isn’t an article, but the glorious people at the Canadian Children’s Book Centre have posted about their upcoming seminar on the business of writing. It’s coming up on November 26 at the Northern District Library in Toronto, and the panel includes Helaine Becker, Debbie Ohi, Felicia Quon, and Joel Sutherland, and presumably every author has now clicked away from my site because they’re all signing up for the event. It looks like a winner.

That’s it for this week. Keep checking the site or follow @bookcave2 on Twitter, as there is new content coming over the next seven days, including a column inspired by the CCBC Awards gala, and a review of a book by a favourite author.




Update: TD Canadian Children’s Literature Awards Winners

Update: TD Canadian Children’s Literature Awards Winners

I’m working on a longer piece from last night’s awards, since some of you drank way too much and that has somehow affected my writing this morning, but for now, here’s a rundown of the winners, with links to reviews here and at other fine sites around the web:

TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award:
Missing Nimama, written by Melanie Florence, illustrated by François Thisdale
Published by Clockwise Press
See our Bookcave review here.
And the CM Magazine review here.

Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award winner:
Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, written and illustrated by Danielle Daniel
Published by Groundwood Books
See the National Reading Campaign review here.

Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-fiction:
Sex is a Funny Word, written by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth
Published by Seven Stories Press
See the School Library Journal review here.

Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People:
Uncertain Soldier by Karen Bass
Published by Pajama Press
See the Canlit for Little Canadians review here.

John Spray Mystery Award:
The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
Published by Aladdin, and imprint of Simon & Schuster
See the Quill & Quire review here.

Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy:
The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
See our Bookcave review here.
And the Publishers Weekly review here.

Amy Mathers Teen Book Award:
The Truth Commission by Susan Juby
Published by Razorbill Canada
See the Kirkus review here.

Fan Choice Award:
The Nest by Kenneth Oppel
Published by HarperCollins
See the Guardian review here.

And finally, the TD Grade One Book Giveaway for 2016 is Small Saul by Ashley Spires, published by Kids Can Press.

Awards Night Preview: The TD Canadian Children’s Literature Awards

Awards Night Preview: The TD Canadian Children’s Literature Awards

It’s on. The TD Canadian Children’s Literature Awards are tomorrow night — Thursday, November 17.

It’s going to be lit.

(I’m assured that “lit” is a good thing when the kids say it. So, consider me hip and in-the-know.)

This is a massive, pack-a-million-people-into-a-room-full-of-booze-and-food-then-let-the-fun-begin event. It’s a magical night that transforms normally introverted authors and editors into extroverts — or at least, whatever is between introvert and extrovert.

Let’s be honest for a second. We’re all friends here. We love kids. Love ’em, love ’em, love ’em. We’re in children’s books, after all. But when we get an invitation that says the event is “not a suitable venue for children” … well, we know we’re in for some fun. Hell ya. Party on.

“Not a suitable venue for children” is code for “there will be alcohol.” It’s open bar, too, which is my favourite kind of bar.

Okay, I’m making it sound like a booze-fest. It’s a glamour event, and the most glamorous event on the kidlit calendar. It’s the kidlit version of the Writers’ Trust Awards or the Giller Prize. Except that it’s with kidlit authors, who are a lot of fun.

So, I won’t fixate on the open bar. There’s also food. Lots of food. And it’s great food. I usually only eat the hors d’oeuvres, since the “dinner” food usually requires two hands, and one of my hands is constantly occupied with some sort of beverage. But the hors d’oeuvres are always good. And sometimes weird.

Which reminds me … I swear that one year one of the hors d’oeuvres was popcorn on a bean. A single piece of popcorn stuck to the end of a green bean. I think they used cream cheese to make it stick. It goes without saying that I had to try it to see what it tasted like. (Remember, there was an open bar, so my sense of adventure was heightened.) It tasted like popcorn and bean. Not sure what I was expecting. And that’s fine … but it was a little weird. Creative, though.

The thing is, no one else seems to remember this appetizer. People think I imagined it. So, if you remember the popcorn-on-a-bean treat, please @ me on Twitter or Facebook to confirm that I was not imagining this.

But enough about food. No one’s reading this for the food. Back to the drinks.

I don’t know if they’ll have the open martini bar this year. That was a popular stopping spot in years past, but it was skipped last year. One year they goofed a bit — they were serving a drink called something like a “Plain Kate-ini.” This was a nod to one of the titles nominated for the TD Children’s Literature Award — Plain Kate by Erin Bow. And it was a cute idea, though it struck me as odd that they named a drink after only one of the nominees. Then it dawned on me: the drink was named after the winner, and someone messed up and started serving it BEFORE the ceremony, thus accidentally tipping off who the winner would be.

On the bright side, it was a good drink. And I tried my best to have enough of it that I’d forget that I knew who was going to win. The “drink the spoiler away” strategy failed, but the effort was worth it.

This event is invitation-only, so if you didn’t get invited this year, get a Canadian Children’s Book Centre membership next year and you’ll be on the guest list. If you have been invited and are trying to decide whether to attend, I’ll make up your mind for you: you’re going. Thank me later.

TD is, of course, the sponsor of the event and of the “big” award of the evening.  Many brush aside sponsorship, pointing out that there are benefits to spending money to appear to be good corporate citizens. Fine … but TD could have put their “good corporate citizen” money into anything they wanted; they chose to put it into children’s books. And they’ve put a lot of money into it. Publishers, authors, and most importantly, children, have benefited. So, that deserves applause. just got up and running yesterday, in a very short period of time, so I haven’t had a chance to write reviews for all the nominated books — that’s something I’ll be doing in future years. For now, I’ve posted brief reviews of four titles (links below), and have created this preview.

There are eight awards up for grabs on Thursday.


TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award

The big prize is the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. All children’s books are eligible for this award — the only award of the evening that is for all ages, formats, and genres. In its eleven-year history, the award has heavily favoured chapter books, with picture books only winning twice. But this year, there is only one chapter book nominated — Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest. It’s a gorgeous middle-grade novel and has been piling up award wins, but it’s up against some pretty special competition. This is a very tough one to call.

Canadian presses are well-represented on the list, and two are relative newcomers — Clockwise Press and Pajama Press are recent additions to the kidlit community (though both are run by industry veterans).

The nominees are:

Missing Nimama, written by Melanie Florence, illustrated by François Thisdale (Clockwise Press). See my review here.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (HarperCollins)

That Squeak, written by Carolyn Beck, illustrated by François Thisdale (Fitzhenry & Whiteside)

The Wolf-Birds, written and illustrated by Willow Dawson (Owlkids Books)

A Year of Borrowed Men, written by Michelle Barker, illustrated by Renné Benoit (Pajama Press)



Prix TD de littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse

TD and CCBC make sure they cover all of Canada, so there is a French component to the evening. I am a poor excuse for a Canadian, sadly, and don’t have a particularly strong reading ability in French, so I’m unable to comment on the list — I can just present it to you. For next year’s preview I’ll make an effort to get a French-speaking contributor to preview this award. My only comment will be “I’ll bet they’re all very good.”

The nominees are:

L’arbragan, written and illustrated by Jacques Goldstyn (Éditions de la Pastèque)

Aux toilettes, written by André Marois, illustrated by Pierre Pratt (Éditions Druide)

Camille by Patrick Isabelle (Leméac Éditeur)

L’épopée de Petit-Jules by Maryse Rouy (Éditions Hurtubise)

Le prisonnier sans frontiers by Jacques Goldstyn (Bayard Canada)


Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award

This is where illustrated books get the focus — the only award of the evening that is open exclusively to picture books. Willow Dawson’s The Wolf-Birds is, notably, a two-award nominee this year, and the only book in this group nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. But that double-shot hasn’t been a strong predictor in the past. Dawson is up against some heavy hitters and previous winners.

The nominees:

In a Cloud of Dust, written by Alma Fullerton, illustrated by Brian Deines (Pajama Press)

InvisiBill, written by Maureen Fergus, illustrated by Dušan Petricic (Tundra Books)

Sidewalk Flowers, storyline by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith (Groundwood Books)

Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, written and illustrated by Danielle Daniel (Groundwood Books)

The Wolf-Birds, written and illustrated by Willow Dawson (Owlkids Books)


Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction

This award give us one of the more charming moments of the evening as multiple generations of the Fleck family take the stage to make the presentation. As for the books themselves … I am sold on every single one of these books because of their titles/subtitles. Damn, that’s some great title-writing.

The Art of the Possible: An Everyday Guide to Politics, written by Edward Keenan, illustrated by Julie McLaughlin (Owlkids Books)

A Beginner’s Guide to Immortality, written by Maria Birmingham, illustrated by Josh Holinaty (Owlkids Books)

Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, written by Jessica Dee Humphreys and Michel Chikwanine, illustrated by Claudia Dávila (Kids Can Press)

Foodprints: The Story of What We Eat, by Paula Ayer (Annick Press)

Sex is a Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings, and You, written by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth (Seven Stories Press)


Shoutout to Seven Stories Press for having the good sense to use a serial comma in the subtitle of Sex is a Funny Word. Power to the Pause, my friends.



Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People

The Bilson Award jury gets this year’s thumbs-up from me for having the most indie representation of all the awards: four of the five titles come from independent, Canadian-owned presses. Don’t spend that thumbs-up all in one place.

And a high-five to Willow Dawson, who appears yet again on a shortlist. She’s nominated for a three awards this year. (Two as a writer-illustrator, and here as an illustrator.)


Avis Dolphin, written by Frieda Wishinsky, illustrated by Willow Dawson (Groundwood Books)

The Farmerettes by Gisela Tobien Sherman (Second Story Press)

Mad Miss Mimic by Sarah Henstra (Razorbill Canada)

Uncertain Solder by Karen Bass (Pajama Press)

The Unquiet Past by Kelley Armstrong (Orca Book Publishers)


John Spray Mystery Award

If you follow the Canadian kidlit world, you know there has been a lot of crime fiction published over the years, so it was welcome news when the Spray Award was introduced in 2011. The lists have been consistently excellent in its first six years.

Sharp observers will notice that Kelley Armstrong pops up again. She is also nominated for the Bilson Award for The Unquiet Past, and is the only writer to be nominated for two awards this year for two different books. (Willow Dawson was nominated for three awards for two different books — she was the illustrator on both books and the writer on one.)


The nominees:

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands (Aladdin)

The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford (Alfred A. Knopf)

Delusion Road by Don Aker (HarperTrophy Canada)

The Masked Truth by Kelley Armstrong (Doubleday Canada)

Masterminds by Gordon Korman (HarperCollins Publishers). See the Bookcave review here.


Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy

Two titles on this list are also nominated for other awards this evening: Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest is up for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, while Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules is nominated for the Amy Mathers Award.

The nominees:

Clover’s Luck by Kallie George (HarperCollins Publishers)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (HarperCollins Publishers)

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow (Margaret K. McElderry Books). See the Bookcave review here.

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston (Disney-Hyperion)

The Unquiet by Mikaela Everett (Greenwillow Books)


Amy Mathers Teen Book Award

This is only the second year for this award, which was long overdue and made possible by the efforts of Amy Mathers, whose “Marathon of Books” a few years back helped fund the prize.

The nominees:

5 to 1 by Holly Bodger (Alfred A. Knopf)

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow (Margaret K. McElderry Books)

Trouble Is a Friend of Mine by Stephanie Tromly (Kathy Dawson Books)

The Truth Commission by Susan Juby (Razorbill Canada)

Young Man with Camera by Emil Sher (Arthur A. Levine Books). I’ve got a review of this book here.



I’m not going to post my picks for any of the awards this year — I don’t think it’s my place to do that as I haven’t read every single book. Next year I’ll be making some predictions on this site. This year, you’ll have to get my picks out of me after I’ve been to the bar a few times.





Review: The Scorpion Rules

Review: The Scorpion Rules

scorpion-rules-coverThe Scorpion Rules
by Erin Bow
400 pages
Margaret K. McElderry Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
Ages 14+




It’s only been a few years since Erin Bow’s first novel for young readers, Plain Kate, caught the attention of the Canadian kidlit community. It went on to win the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, perhaps the country’s highest honour for children’s books. With The Scorpion Rules, her third book for young readers, she proves herself to be one of the heavyweights of Canadian kidlit.

Set in the distant future — 400 years after world governments entrusted the cause of peace to artificial intelligence — the novel’s central character is a contradiction: Greta is a crown princess, but she’s also a hostage. So are the other young people who live with her in an isolated facility. Called the “Children of Peace,” they are heirs to the leadership of nations. By a centuries-old decree, leaders are forced to turn their first-born over to the Swan Riders — agents of the United Nations — who hold the children until they turn eighteen. If a leader incites war, their child is executed. This is how peace is maintained.

That’s the plan, anyway. The effectiveness is suspect, and in the first chapter Greta’s friend is hauled off for execution after his parent starts a war. So much for that.

In the early going, Greta is a conformist. But when a new hostage arrives, Elian, most definitely NOT a conformist, Greta begins to question the rules, and her destiny.

It’s a book about contradictions: the Children of Peace are future world leaders but also hostages; those in power are powerless when it comes to the fate of their children; the UN enforces peace with threats of death.

One of the most compelling contradictions is Talis, whose “Utterances” are the scripture that guides this dark world. Talis was born human, but his mind was uploaded and he became an AI (an artificial intelligence). He’s the thoughts, memories, and personality of a human, but he is also non-human.

The development of artificial intelligence is a part of our world, and is sometimes controversial. Some of the greatest minds of our day (Stephen Hawking among them) have cautioned that developing true artificial intelligence could doom the human race. There are many theories about how this could happen; one of the most basic is that if machines with artificial intelligence are programmed to seek ways to maintain their own existence, sooner or later they’ll figure out that the greatest threat to their existence is humanity. People know where the “off” button is. So, the best way for AIs to ensure their own survival is to destroy us.

Well, the AIs in this book don’t do that, but one of them, Talis, does come up with the nasty “Children of Peace” plan.

A question that becomes central to the book is whether a person can be given eternal life by uploading their mind to a machine. If all your thoughts, emotions, characteristics, and memories are made electronic, all that is “you” can be replicated and the rest of the world can experience what you are (or were), but is that new being really you? Do you have a continued existence, or is this new “you” just another being with access to your database? The question is really about what happens to your consciousness — whatever consciousness is. Recently, science has been looking at the consciousness, a subject so difficult to explain that science previously stayed away from it. Some have put forward that consciousness is a state of matter — different parts working together to give you that awareness that makes you you.

It’s a question that the characters in the book end up needing to consider, and as the series continues, I hope to see the question continue to be explored.

The Scorpion Rules is a book of big ideas that enthrall rather than overwhelm. The big ideas and concepts are made concrete and easy to grasp. It’s a novel that engages, and it inspires readers to think beyond the book, beyond themselves, and beyond their own lifetime.


Review by Barry Jowett

Review: Masterminds

Review: Masterminds

by Gordon Korman
324 pages
HarperTrophy Canada
Ages 8 to 12




As an editor, I tense up whenever I get a manuscript that has multiple narrators. These tend to be the manuscripts I tell authors to rewrite and resubmit. It’s not that I’ve got my rules and people need to follow them; it’s that few authors can successfully pull off multiple narrators. Variety of voice is difficult to nail, and even when you achieve that variety, often the voices are so different that a reader will enjoy reading one narrative far more than the other.

Well, over the course of his forty-plus year career and eighty-plus books, Gordon Korman has probably written from every perspective there is, plus a few that haven’t been invented yet, so when he writes a book with five different narrative voices, he makes it look easy.

Masterminds is a small-town-where-something-weird-is-going-on book. We’re suckers for these stories. We love them in books, on TV, in movies, in podcasts. There’s something irresistible about these isolated small towns, seemingly cut off from the world, and the secrets they possess. And the town of Serenity, New Mexico is one such community.

Early in the book, Eli tries to ride his bike out of town with his friend Randy — it will be the first time he ever leaves town. But he gets sick on the way. Randy doesn’t.

And soon after, Randy’s family suddenly moves out of town. But before they leave, Randy gets a message to Eli: something weird is going on in Serenity.

And Eli realizes that maybe he got sick on his way out of town for a reason. Maybe someone is trying to keep people in. But not everyone — Randy was allowed to leave, after all.

Why? As Eli learns, Randy isn’t special. Eli is. So are a small group of kids, including our four other narrators — Amber, Malik, Hector, and Tori — who, one by one, start to realize that they are being controlled, and that they’re being kept in Serenity for a reason. They’re part of an experiment. And everything they’ve believed — including who their parents are — is false.

When they find out who their real parents are, they begin wondering whether their destinies are tied to the town in which they live, or the genetics they inherited.

That’s about as much as I’ll spoil for you. When you know more, you find out why our five narrators are “masterminds.”

Why do we enjoy these weird-and-isolated-small-town stories? In part, small town narratives are easy to like because when a book is set in a small town, almost the entire town can be described for us. We can feel like we know the place. We know the names of streets, places, and in this case, the big local industry — in Masterminds, the local industry is said to manufacture orange construction cones, but in reality, it’s up to something sinister.

But we’re also drawn to the idea that our world isn’t what we’re told it is, and that if we can figure out the truth about our world, we’ll discover some new, liberating reality.

As you would expect from Gordon Korman, Masterminds is fast-paced storytelling, but there is great depth. These are characters trying to figure out who they are and what their place is in their world, and in the world outside. And at the heart of the novel is the question of what makes us who we are. How much is built into our DNA and how much comes from our environment?


Review by Barry Jowett