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Month: January 2017

Cave Notes, January 27, 2017

Cave Notes, January 27, 2017

It’s been a couple of weeks since our last Cave Notes, and that’s because we’ve been a little light on content lately.

Two reasons for this: first and foremost, my day job has been very busy in the new year as I’ve been getting books to print, and that has meant a lot of day-job work has been done from home, where I usually do my night-job stuff, my night-job stuff being, well, this. And the second reason is that I read three books that I didn’t feel comfortable reviewing. My policy is that I only review books I can give a thumbs-up to — my job is to connect readers with books, not tell people what not to read. So, rather than hurt an author’s sales, I keep my negative reviews to myself. (No worries, anyone who has sent me a book for review — your book wasn’t among these misses.)

But there has been content! Wonderful, glorious content! So, let’s look at what you might have missed since our last Cave Notes …

It should surprise no one that I was not terribly impressed with the government of Newfoundland and Labrador, who followed through with their silly plan to put a tax on books. This war on literacy makes no sense whatsoever as it won’t stuff much money into the provincial loot bag — it will only punish people for reading and writing.

I changed out of my grouchy pants for a bit so I could talk about TED-Ed’s World Required Reading List. It’s a column in which I solve all of Canada’s problems by altering the educational system. You can thank me later.

Wednesday was Bell Let’s Talk day, on which people are asked to go online to encourage people to talk about mental health issues. I took the opportunity to review Wesley King’s OCDaniel, which is a very good look at a young person with OCD. (In the review, I also talk about my own anxiety disorder.) As it turns out, I reviewed another book about mental health not long ago, so check out this piece on Martine Leavitt’s Calvin.

If you’ve been following Bookcave on Twitter (like all the cool people), you’ve likely seen me mention that a podcast is in the works. For those of you who haven’t been following on Twitter, a podcast is in the works. I’m just waiting on a couple of pieces of audio equipment and I’ll be ready to start putting together some actual podcasts. I’ve been doing some test podcasts to establish that I can, in fact, figure out how to use ridiculously simple, idiot-proof audio software, so if all goes well, there might be a podcast starting in (fingers crossed) February. But maybe March.

Check in with us on Sunday for our weekly Outside the Cave, in which we tell you about some things we’ve been reading around the web.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Review: OCDaniel

Review: OCDaniel

OCDaniel
by Wesley King
294 pages
Simon & Schuster
Ages 8-12

 

 

 

For about fifteen years, starting from the time I was in my late teens, I was convinced I could die at any moment. Doctors appointments and trips to the emergency room wouldn’t sway me — I was certain I had a heart ailment that was getting overlooked by every medical professional and every ECG, echo, halter monitor, blood test, and stress test I had talked them into giving me. Many times I was told “it’s in your head,” which to me meant “you’re imagining symptoms — they’re not real.” They were real, and they were physical.

One night I had the worst episode I’d ever experienced. It was muscle quivering that started in my lower back and spread through my entire body. My heart raced, and I couldn’t breathe. The emergency room doctor diagnosed it with two words that changed my life: “panic attack.” And he also described what I’d experienced in a way no other doctor head: a physical response to anxiety. That is, he acknowledged that the physical symptoms were real — I wasn’t imagining those. But they had a trigger.

For me, simply knowing what was happening helped me to get my anxiety under control. The attacks became less severe and then stopped entirely as I was able to recognize them for what they were.

During those years when my anxiety disorder went undiagnosed, few people knew about any of the hospital visits, and no one knew how frequent they were. (At the peak, I was at the hospital at least once a week.)

Daniel Leigh, the thirteen-year-old main character in Wesley King’s OCDaniel, also keeps his problems to himself. No one knows about the “Routine” he has to go through every night before going to bed — a Routine he HAS to do because if he doesn’t, he fears “something bad” will happen. No one knows about the tightness he often feels in his chest, or the breathing difficulties. And, like me, Daniel doesn’t even know that what he’s going through is a mental health issue — an anxiety disorder. Specifically, in Daniel’s case, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

Much of the novel sounds like well-trodden ground if you remove the OCD element from it: an underdog on the school football team finds himself starting in the Big Game(s); meanwhile, he has a crush on a girl, but there’s another girl who he doesn’t think of that way, and he doesn’t realize that love is right under his nose. It sounds like a cliché, and that’s the point: there are people we know who seem to be going through life doing all the familiar things, but they are suffering. Just as the novel takes on a completely different feel and significance because of Daniel’s OCD, our understanding of what others are experiencing changes if we know they are in a battle we can’t see.

By placing an OCD character in what would otherwise be a cliché storyline, King shatters the cliché and shows us that beneath the surface, mental health issues are the overlooked part of our world. And we can’t lose sight of the fact that Daniel is thirteen, and that mental health issues do affect the young — severely, in Daniel’s case.

Daniel is befriended by someone who experiences anxiety of her own — Sara. It’s Sara who recognizes what Daniel is going through, though she tells him that she first noticed his problem two years earlier. Why didn’t she say anything? Because Sara doesn’t talk. Daniel has gone to school with her for years but was never friends with her because she had not spoken a word to anyone the entire time. Daniel even thought she couldn’t speak. She talks to Daniel now because she needs help — her father has disappeared, and she thinks Daniel can help prove that he was murdered by her mother’s new boyfriend. But, of course, Sara is also helping Daniel find out what’s wrong with himself.

When, with Sara’s help, Daniel finds out that he has OCD, it’s the start of the process of dealing with the problem rather than hiding it. Do his episodes disappear? I’ll leave that for you to find out. The only spoiler I’ll give is that you should not stop reading when the story ends: continue to the author’s note. It’s rare that an author’s note feels like part of the narrative, but in this case, Wesley King ends his emotionally powerful novel by showing why he is able to tell Daniel’s story with such clarity.

Review by Barry Jowett

One Country, One Book?

One Country, One Book?

The folks at TED do a lot of things. They do so much that I don’t really pay attention to them most of the time. But once in a while they come up with something that catches my eye. I was recently tagged in a Facebook post about this article from the TED-Ed part of TED, in which they asked educators from countries around the world to name one book that was each country’s “classic” that is taught to students.

Some things jump out of me about the list. One is that it’s heavily male. That likely reflects a historical bias, since books by men were (and often still are) given undue preference, so the books that came to be regarded as “classics” skewed male. We can, however, correct that when talking about “classics” that are “required reading,” and we should. If you can’t come up with a required reading list with a male-female balance, you aren’t trying. Another thing I notice is that most of the books deal with war. That’s not a value judgment, just an observation.

And, of course, I can’t get past the obvious: none of the books were written for young readers. It’s as if they’re saying “if the book was written with you in mind, it wouldn’t be a classic.” Okay, I’ll just flip a couple of middle fingers at that notion and move on, because I’ll just be preaching to the converted anyway.

The general concept of a “world required reading list” is interesting, though right away you can spot a problem: how do you narrow a country’s literature down to one book?

Let’s use the Canadian choice as an example: Timothy Findley’s The Wars. Let’s overlook that it’s yet another book on the list that is by a male writer and that it is yet another book on the list that is about war. Taken on its own, it was nice to see it get a thumbs-up, for a couple of reasons: first, it’s a great book (despite what happens to the poor horses); second, Timothy Findley’s fame has diminished since his death. At my day job (Cormorant/DCB) we often ask interns about their reading, and in the past few years several have said they’d never heard of Timothy Findley. And these are book people. (Findley isn’t the only writer on the “forgotten” list, but the relevant one here.)

But while I’m glad to see Findley get the nod, is The Wars representative of Canadian literature? Is any book representative of Canadian literature? Canadian literature is as diverse as this “world required reading list.” Asking someone to name one book, and only one book, as “required reading” for Canada is asking someone to give a distorted view of what Canada is.

That said, I love the spirit of the list. The list reminds us that there is more to read in the world than just what is produced in our own country, or in our own language. And in doing so, the list points to a huge gap in how we teach young people literature. When I went to school — and little has changed since then — the writers taught in English literature classes were all (or almost all) from three countries: Canada, the UK, and the United States. That was the world of literature we were exposed to. As a result, that became the base of every young reader’s knowledge, and that remains the case today. It’s a very limited view of the world.

I would love to see young people exposed to more literature from around the world. It would make them better readers and better writers, but it would also make them more aware of the world itself. Nothing takes you to a new place or exposes you to a new culture better than a book. A book does the job far better than a movie or the internet, because your mind lives in a book while you’re reading; it’s a far more intense and far more personal connection than anything you experience on a screen.

I would not, however, do so at the expense of Canadian books. In fact, I’d like to see school students reading more Canadian books. In my ideal world, there would be two required English courses every year: one that teaches nothing but Canadian writers, and another that teaches world literature — and more than just British and American writers. I’d even challenge the idea that you have to teach kids a Shakespeare play every year. That’s a lot of time sucked up by one writer. Why do we all need to be Shakespeare experts? (Maybe I’ll write a column about that bit of blasphemy one day. You can hold off on your fists-shaking-with-rage responses until then.)

Imagine what we’d end up with if we exposed young people to a half-dozen or so Canadian writers — a diverse group of writers — every year, and combined that with connecting them to the rest of the world on a deep level by exposing them to a half dozen or so international writers every year. By the time they finished high school they’d have a rich understanding of the world. We’d envy them. I wish I’d been exposed to more world literature when I was young.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Helping No One, Hurting Many

Helping No One, Hurting Many

When you’re governing the province ranked last in Canada in literacy (and second last in Canada when territories are included), the thing to do is further discourage people from reading, right?

Well, maybe not, but the government of Newfoundland and Labrador doesn’t seem to care.

It was announced last year, but took effect on January 1: readers in Newfoundland and Labrador are now being hit with a 10% tax on book purchases.

Now, I’m not against taxes — not in the least. Taxes are good, for the most part, even if we don’t like paying them. And the Newfoundland and Labrador government had a revenue problem they were addressing by adding and increasing taxes in a number of areas. But decisions on taxes should make sense, and things that are tax exempt should make sense. It made good sense for books to be exempt from the province’s HST, as they are in every other province in the country. (Nova Scotia and PEI toyed with the idea of taxing books, but came to their senses when they thought it through — something Newfoundland and Labrador failed to do.)

Literacy is, as it always has been, important, and the benefits are undeniable. The disadvantages cause by illiteracy are also undeniable. I don’t need to outline any of these advantages and disadvantages here, though I’d be happy to do so if challenged. I don’t think I’ll be challenged, though.

When you artificially increase the price of books by a whopping 10%, you discourage reading. When you discourage reading, you encourage illiteracy. I don’t think I’m revealing anything that isn’t blatantly obvious here.

So it’s unlikely the government of Newfoundland and Labrador is unaware of the impact of their decision.

They just don’t care.

Because, you see, they need money.

Sadly, they appear to be math-challenged. Books are not, as it turns out, big-money items. And since school purchases are excluded from the tax, we’re talking primarily about bookstore and online sales here. The amount of revenue the government will bring in is negligible. No one will benefit from this tax. People will only suffer. That’s why I oppose it: it helps no one, but it hurts many.

Who does it hurt? Clearly, book buyers. But also booksellers — and there aren’t a lot of those in Newfoundland and Labrador compared to other provinces, so the existing booksellers should be cherished.

The province’s publishers will be hurt; they, like many publishers across the country, thrive on regional authors and regional stories. Their sales will be affected.

What about authors? This is a huge blow to the province’s authors. Their sales will be affected, but so will their opportunities to get published.

How so? Well, the bulk of any author’s sales are usually sales in the area in which they live. A Nova Scotia author will sell a lot of books in Nova Scotia; a BC author will sell a lot of books in BC; a Saskatchewan author will sell a ton of books in Saskatchewan.

When publishers are deciding whether to sign an author, we look at sales history. If an author’s sales in their own region plummet — which is a distinct possibility for those affected by this tax — that will be reflected in the numbers that all publishers in Canada have access to. (Fun publishing fact: thanks to Booknet Canada, I can look up the sales of any book sold in Canada. We do this every time we’re deciding whether to publish a book.)

Now, there is a silver lining: while Newfoundland and Labrador has a low literacy rate, those who are book readers are great at supporting regional authors. They’re among the best in Canada. So I hope the book buyers will be unfazed by their government’s attack on their wallets.

But they shouldn’t have to bear this load. This tax was poorly thought out, if it was thought out at all. It’s mean-spirited, unproductive idiocy.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Outside the Cave, January 8, 2017

Outside the Cave, January 8, 2017

Hey, those holidays were great, eh? But if you’re like most people, you were so busy that you missed out on some reading. We’re here to help with our weekly Outside the Cave — a review of things we’ve been reading on the internet this week.

First up, here’s something I didn’t know existed, and hadn’t even considered: kids’ books translated into Latin. Now, the first question that crosses most people’s minds is … “Why?” And the second question is, “No, really,  why?” The market for native Latin-reading kids has been a tad small for the last couple of millennia, and it’s not like grade one kids are getting Latin lessons at school. But the idea is to keep Latin alive as a language. Actually, if I were a kid I’d probably find these books a lot of fun, so I’ll pull back on my skepticism a little bit.

Keeping reading itself alive is also a noble goal, and Joyce Grant’s “Get Kids Reading” site is dedicated to promoting literacy among young people. Recently she posted this piece about why instruction books are great for literacy.

Unfortunately, there are some people who hate literacy, and even more unfortunate is that they’re in government in Newfoundland and Labrador and are able to slap an ill-conceived tax on books just for the hell of it. (This war on books was announced last year but came into effect January 1.) And it’s triple unfortunate because the geniuses who came up with this scheme clearly have no idea that the affected books won’t bring in all that much tax revenue anyway, so, great job guys! You’ve just done something that is of little benefit to you and only hurts other people. On the bright side, the tax will generate SOME revenue, and my guess is that the cash they bring in will be almost enough for the mop and bucket they’ll need to clean up the blood from all the knuckles that were dragging across the floor of the House of Assembly when they passed this bill.

And speaking of people who shouldn’t be in a position to draft legislation, some people who shouldn’t be in a position to draft legislation south of the border are drafting legislation. Let’s see how that is going. Oh look, in Virginia, they’re trying to make it easier to ban books that might tell young people sex exists. The term “sexually explicit” is so open to interpretation that pretty much any book that is about the real world we live in will be at risk of a school ban. The only bright side I can think of is that if I send them the books I’ve published with DCB over the years I might be able to get them to ban at least half, and I can spin that into some great “this book was banned” publicity! Wish me luck.

But why dwell on folks who were transported into our world from the seventeenth century? Let’s look at people who actually like and understand young readers.

Buzzfeed interviewed Patrick Ness, who has had a wee bit of a success. He shares his thoughts on writing for young people, including this: “In a way, there’s nothing that’s taboo. It’s about how you tell it. Teenagers certainly think about the most difficult things – all you have to do is read what teenagers write. Their own fiction is far darker than anything a YA author would be allowed to publish.” Kids can handle subjects tougher than most adults give them credit for — this is something I’ve maintained as long as I’ve been publishing — and Ness hits the nail on the head with this comment.

And finally, you know all that complaining we’ve been doing about the weather lately? Let’s take a look at this list from 49th Shelf. They’ve reminded us that, for kids, winter isn’t quite the unending misery-fest that we grownups sometimes think it is.

That’s it for this week’s look around the web. Some Bookcave-originated content is on its way in the coming days, so keep checking in, and watch our Twitter and Facebook pages, where we always announce new content.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Cave Notes, January 6, 2017

Cave Notes, January 6, 2017

Happy New Year from Bookcave!

Keen observers will have noted that Bookcave took a break for most of the holidays. It turns out that all that travelling and getting-together wasn’t terribly conducive to providing content for the site, but we re-emerged this week.

A little bit of news: we’re working towards launching a podcast in the spring. (March, April, or May, depending on how the learning-the-ropes phase goes.) It will be a weekly podcast and will feature interviews with authors, booksellers, and other members of the Canadian kidlit community. We haven’t begun lining up guests yet, but the equipment shopping list has been made and we’re digging into our pockets to pay for it all.

But while we’re still in the text-only era of Bookcave, let’s review what has transpired this week on the site.

On Tuesday, we made our triumphant return from the holidays with a take on the controversy surrounding a book being published in the US. While Bookcave strongly condemns the signing of this book, we will not boycott works from the parent company of the imprint that is publishing the offending title. As I say in the column, boycotting that company would punish authors who have nothing to do with that book’s acquisition, and Bookcave is, first and foremost, about supporting authors.

And speaking of the authors, a point I made in the column was that many of those authors are upset about the publisher’s decision. Here are the thoughts of one such author, and his views are shared by many. I don’t believe this author, or others like him, should be punished for something they are clearly opposed to.

On Thursday, we posted a review of Martine Leavitt’s award-winning book Calvin. This is one of my three or four favourite books I’ve read in the past year. It’s a bit of an older title — it was published in 2015 — so I hadn’t planned on reviewing it. I loved it so much, though, that I wanted to review it. It’s great stuff; I wish I’d read it before posting our pre-holiday book recommendations. But what the heck — buy it for yourself and you’ll love it so much you’ll want to buy it for friends and family, too.

Stay tuned this Sunday for the return of Outside the Cave, our weekly review of things we’ve read on other sites around the web that we think you’ll want to have a look at too.

Finally, our final Cave Notes item is always a reminder that there are two ways of supporting Bookcave. The first — and a much-appreciated one — is sharing. If you see a post you like, share it on social media (or share our tweets and Facebook posts). Shares increase our page views, and page views are valuable. The second way of supporting us is through our Patreon campaign.

That’s all for this week’s Notes. Have a great weekend!

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Review: Calvin

Review: Calvin

Calvin
by Martine Leavitt
180 pages
Groundwood
Ages 13+

 

 

 

 

 

In Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, the lines between what was real and what was fantasy were blurred. While you often were aware that something you were seeing came from Calvin’s imagination, sometimes you were fooled into thinking something “real” was happening, only to have the rug pulled out from under you.

And so, Watterson’s strip was the perfect background for Martine Leavitt’s YA novel Calvin — a book about a seventeen-year-old with schizophrenia who has trouble distinguishing between what is real and what is imaginary.

It’s a book in which the reader is constantly wondering which parts of the story are true. The main character shares his name with Watterson’s creation: Calvin … though the reader has to wonder if even that much is true, since so much of what Calvin tells us is a product of his own mind.

Calvin once believed that he was, in fact, Watterson’s character, and had a stuffed tiger that he believed was Hobbes. At the point in which the main story takes place, our Calvin is aware of his schizophrenia and knows that he is not Watterson’s Calvin, and he also knows that Hobbes is not real … though that doesn’t stop Hobbes from hanging around.

This is where any certainty Calvin has ends. It’s also where any certainty the reader has ends, and it’s this uncertainty that gorgeously, delightfully, and poignantly powers the novel.

Calvin — our Calvin — has a friend who we are told is named Susie. He also has a bully named Maurice. People familiar with Watterson’s comic will know that his Calvin has a frenemy named Susie Derkins and a bully named Moe. And if you really know your stuff about Calvin and Hobbes, you’ll know that one of the monsters who lives under his bed is named Maurice.

So, we have to wonder if Maurice is real, and is really named Maurice. But Maurice is a minor character. More important to the reader is whether Susie is real, because Susie is Calvin’s companion on the journey that he ends up taking.

And what a journey it is. Calvin has given himself the idea that he can clear his head of his delusions if he can meet Bill Watterson and convince him to draw one more strip of the comic he walked away from in 1995. To do that, Calvin is determined to walk all the way from Leamington, Ontario, across frozen Lake Erie, to Watterson’s home in Cleveland, Ohio.

And Susie is going with him.

The planned journey is so outrageous that the reader has to immediately doubt that Susie exists, because it’s almost unimaginable that a real person would follow Calvin on his trek. But this Susie does.

We also wonder if Calvin is really making this journey at all.

They run into an ice fisherman along the way across Lake Erie — and get advice on how to know when the ice is safe to walk on. The advice is so specific and so solid that we begin to believe the journey must be happening and that, since the ice fisherman acknowledges Susie’s presence, she must exist too.

But that, of course, presumes that there really is an ice fisherman.

And as if we don’t have enough layers of uncertainty already, Leavitt even takes a moment to make us question whether what we perceive as reality in our own world is reality after all.

The suspense remains high throughout the book. But there’s far more than suspense, because Calvin’s story grips the heart. The reader, like Calvin, is in a constant battle between what they want to be true and what they know to be true. And Susie is a big part of the battle. As Calvin and Susie become closer, and even romantic, we hope, desperately, for Susie to be real, because we want Calvin to find real happiness. And we do more than just wonder if she is real: we fear that she is not, and that fear becomes intense.

The emotional battle has another element: we want for Calvin to win his mental health battle, even though that means conquering the illusions. If Susie is one of the illusions, there is sadness attached to winning the battle.

Of course, we also have another concern: walking across a Great Lake in the middle of winter sounds extraordinarily dangerous, and it sounds that way because it is. The questions about what is real and what is not real start to take a back seat to the worry that not everyone on this journey — whoever is actually on this journey — is going to survive.

Calvin is deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking while telling an engrossing story. Every step of Calvin’s journey is a treat. And though the copyright page tells us that the book was written and published without the approval of Bill Watterson, one hopes that he will enjoy that readers of Calvin are likely to go back and re-read Calvin and Hobbes comics with a different perspective.

Reviewed by Barry Jowett

We Won’t Boycott Authors

We Won’t Boycott Authors

Recently, the imprint of a major publisher in the US (and one with a branch plant in Canada) signed an author to a $250,000 book contract. I’m not naming the author or the publisher, for reasons I’ll explain later. But if you’re familiar with this story — as many in our community are — you know that the controversy about this signing is that the author has expressed racist, sexist, and homophobic views and has engaged in online trolling that has promoted the harassment of others.

This is the sort of author I would never publish, and I can’t condone anyone else publishing him. They’re not obligated to publish anyone, so if they allow the publication of someone whose views are vile, they are promoting those views. They are promoting intolerance. That’s a healthy advance, too, and since the justification of a large advance is the author’s celebrity, and since this author’s celebrity is built on hate and intolerance, they’re rewarding him for being despicable.

But while I have serious issues with anyone publishing such an author, there have been some sites and journals who have said they will no longer review books from that publisher. (We’re talking about the parent company here, not the imprint.)

I have a problem with such a boycott.

The lesser issue is that this book is being published by one of the company’s imprints. The parent company umbrellas many imprints that, as far as I’m aware, operate independently of one another. The other imprints had no involvement or even knowledge of this book’s acquisition, let alone any ability to do anything about it. Is it fair to these imprints to boycott them because of something out of their control? How about the Canadian operation? I don’t know if they’ll be distributing the book or not, but it may not even be their call. Or it might be. I don’t know. But if I were to consider a boycott, I’d want that information before doing so, because the people at the Canadian operation may not have anything to do with this book.

That’s the lesser consideration.

The greater consideration, though, is that this publishing company represents many authors. These authors had nothing to do with the imprint signing this book. They probably didn’t even know the imprint existed (few authors are likely to keep tabs on a conservative publishing imprint).

I can’t in good conscience punish these authors for something that had absolutely nothing to do with them. Many of them, I can assure you, are unhappy that the controversial book is being published, but they can’t legally opt out of contracts, nor should they. And frankly, a “boycott” by me would simply be grandstanding. It would literally be the least I could do. I would much rather do things that counter such views (and I think I do in the books I publish with Dancing Cat Books). But refuse to review that company’s authors? I’m not going to punish writers for this.

In the brief history of Bookcave I’ve reviewed books by two of the authors that are presumably being boycotted. I have a couple of more books by this company’s authors that I’ll be reviewing in the coming weeks. I do this because the authors deserve to be reviewed. They should not be held accountable for the actions of an imprint, or the parent company’s approval of those actions.

Which brings me to the reason I haven’t named the author or publisher.

When you announce you’re going to boycott the company because of this book, you’re fuelling the discussion of the author, which plays into his hands. He loves being known for his views. You are actually helping him to sell more copies of his book, which, presumably, you would not have been promoting otherwise. And by boycotting, you’re hurting completely innocent authors.

In effect, you’re helping the author you don’t like and hurting all the other authors.

In fairness to those outlets who are boycotting, their intentions are good. We’re on the same side in this, even if I disagree with the boycott route.

The decision to publish this vile person’s book is shameful, to be sure. But that shame shouldn’t be shared by people who had nothing to do with it.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson