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Review: I Am Not a Number

Review: I Am Not a Number

IANAN_cover.inddI Am Not a Number
Written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Illustrated by Gillian Newland
32 pages
Second Story Press
Ages 7-11

 

 

Good presses and good authors don’t shy away from heavy subject matter. For the second week in a row, we’re reviewing a book from Second Story Press that covers the subject of Canada’s residential schools.

I Am Not a Number brings the full force of this dark subject. Author Jenny Kay Dupuis (who worked with co-author Kathy Kacer on this book) has based the story on that of her grandmother, Irene, who we see taken from her family and put in a residential school.

This, in itself, is horrifying; during Canada’s shameful history of residential schools, Indigenous families were required by law to allow the government to take their children and place them in schools far away from their homes to be assimilated into “Canadian” culture. Readers learning of this for the first time will find it astounding.

But it doesn’t stop there, and we see Irene punished at school for speaking her own language — she’s told she’s not allowed to speak anything other than English. Her hair is cut and she is told her Indigenous heritage is meaningless. And she is not even allowed to keep her own name — she is given a number.

The book sugarcoats nothing. The darkness of this chapter in Canadian history is present throughout, and a historical note at the end of the book makes clear that Irene’s story was not unique. But rather than rely solely on bleakness to carry the story, the authors allow for optimism in the form of Irene’s silent defiance. Though she’s told she has to forget her name, she refuses to do so, telling herself that she is not a number, and recalling her mother’s final words to her before she was taken away: “Never forget who you are.” This provides the story arc that turns Irene’s story into one of triumph on the final pages.

Second Story Press is one of Canada’s finest independent presses, and their commitment to telling the uncomfortable history of Canada’s relationship with the land’s Indigenous people is among the many commendable things they do. The disgrace of the residential schools system is something every Canadian should be familiar with and Second Story, along with authors Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, and illustrator Gillian Newland, have provided a superb book that will tell this necessary story to readers at a young age.

Review by Barry Jowett

Review: The Mask That Sang

Review: The Mask That Sang

MaskThatSang_fullcover.inddThe Mask That Sang
by Susan Currie
192 pages
Second Story Press
Ages 9-13

 

 

 

One of the challenges writers are often faced with when writing for young readers is how to introduce a subject without creating a book that feels like a teaching tool. In The Mask That Sang, Susan Currie is up to the challenge.

We’re introduced to Cass, a twelve-year-old living with her single mother. Cass’s mom, we soon learn, was abandoned as a newborn by her birth mother. She’s carried bitterness about this her entire life — so much so that when a lawyer tracks her down and informs her that her birth mother has left her her life savings and her house, Cass’s mom wants no part of either.

Cass, though, wants a new home away from the bullies at her current school. But what’s more, she wants the connection to her family’s past that her mother is determined to run away from.

Many authors would fall into the trap of overexplaining a theme, but Currie does not spell out that the mother is shutting out the past and the daughter is seeking it. It’s a theme that’s there for readers to explore, but it’s not shoved down their throats. Instead, she keeps the plot moving forward.

When Cass’s mother finally relents and they move to the new house, Cass finds more “past” than she was expecting. Cass hears singing in her head, and it draws her to a dresser containing an Iroquois false-face mask. Cass feels an immediate connection to the mask — the reasons for which we learn towards the end of the book (though most readers will see that coming, particularly if they’ve read the author bio and seen that there’s a touch of autobiography woven into the story).

When Cass’s mother sells the mask to a pawn shop, Cass begins having dreams that give cryptic clues to the mask’s location. But Cass will need help deciphering the clues, and she gets that help from Degan, a classmate who is from the Cayuga nation and knows something of the history of false-face masks.

After failing to buy back the mask themselves, they learn the mask was bought by someone they’d rather not have to deal with — Ellis, a school bully who, among other things, has taunted Degan about his Indigenous heritage. This is a clever detail for the author to include. The sale of false-face masks to non-Indigenous persons is a contentious issue — the masks are sacred, after all. Currie doesn’t harp on this detail or even exploit it — she leaves as a nugget for readers who have explored beyond the book.

At this point I need to dance around spoilers, so without saying why, I’ll say that residential schools, a shameful part of Canada’s history, turn out to be significant in the lives of the characters. And again, Currie introduces this information without overplaying it.

The Mask That Sang is fast-paced and magical. There’s a simple story, but one that has richness and complexity behind and beyond the text. Readers simply looking for a lively read will be satisfied, while anyone with an interest in the history and the present of Indigenous peoples in Canada will find inspiring starting points.

 

Review by Barry Jowett

Welcome to Bookcave.ca

Welcome to Bookcave.ca

I’ve been teasing about a new side-project I have in the works, and this is it. Or, at least, it’s phase one of a new project.

This looks like a blog. And at the moment, it is, kinda, except that I won’t be calling it a “blog.” I call it an “online journal,” because that sounds more impressive, and because if I call it an “online journal” I can call myself a “journalist.” So, welcome to this online journal.

In the next few days, I’m going to be posting content: a few book reviews, and preview of Thursday’s TD Canadian Children’s Literature Awards.

The site is small now, but I’ve got plans to grow it into something big.

Bookcave.ca was born out of a frustration: Canada doesn’t have enough promotional outlets to serve its huge and vibrant children’s literature community. Believe me, I know; my day job is as a children’s publisher at a company that publishes books for all ages, and the kidlit promotional outlets are dwarfed by those available for adult titles.

So, this is my attempt to provide one more opportunity to for authors and publishers to connect with people looking for great books for kids, from children’s books to middle grade to young adult.

What’s this online journal going to look like in the future? My goal is to have much more content, and to hire contributors to provide a lot of that content. A podcast is being planned – one that gives authors a chance to promote their work. I have ideas for video content. And a downloadable e-journal with additional content is what I hope will be the culmination of my vision for Bookcave.ca.

For now, you’re going to see reviews – weekly, I hope – as well as posts with news items and opinions. I will also give authors and publishers a chance to let people know about their books and events: if you have a book being released, or a launch or reading or other event, send me the information at barry@bookcave.ca and I will try to mention it in a weekly roundup.

Also, if you have a book you would like me to review, please email me and I’ll tell you how you can get it to me.

Now, that’s all going to require funding, and I have plans on how to bring in some cash. One of those plans is Patreon, a crowdfunding platform. If you’re inclined to support this site and its growth, please click on the orange Patreon button and have a look at what I say there.

patreon-button

An important note about this site: As many of you know, I am publisher of Dancing Cat Books, the young readers’ imprint of Cormorant Books. That might lead people to think that I plan on using this site to promote DCB titles. Well, I’m not doing that. That would be a conflict. I will not be reviewing any books that I publish on this site – if I mention DCB books at all, it will only be in my weekly roundup of events and releases, and the DCB titles will get no preferential treatment. Once I have brought other contributors on board, they will be free to review DCB titles, and will be asked to provide honest evaluations.

So … that’s it: post number one is done. If you would like to provide any feedback or ask questions about the site, please email me. You can also follow Bookcave.ca on Twitter (@bookcave2) and on Facebook.

Barry Jowett
Publisher, Bookcave.ca
barry@bookcave.ca