Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.
Whilst capturing some key historical moments in Newfoundland, these five novels and a picture book each evoke the speech, landscape and mores of the time in which they are set.
In The Nine Lives of Travis Keating, by Jill MacLean, sixth grader Travis is dealing with a few challenges. After the passing of his mother, he and his dad move from St. John’s to Fiddler’s Cove, population 63. Because the town is waiting for parts for the arena’s broken zamboni, Travis is without his crutch: hockey. To top it off, the local bully has threatened everyone into not talking to him. Feeling lonely for the first time in his life, he discovers an abandoned wharf in Gully Cove, a place he’s been warned to stay away from. The starving, feral cats he finds there give him a secret purpose. Things start to spiral out of control when the lies he’s told his dad about where he goes after school, as well the bully’s escalating actions, force him to rely on new and unlikely allies. This is a well-written story that engages the reader’s empathy for the main character. Perfect for grades 5 or 6.
The other present day story in this list is Duncan’s Way, by Ian Wallace. This picture book’s large illustrations and simple tale capture the impact of the province’s declining fishing industry. Duncan’s dad comes from a long line of fishermen. But now he’s an out-of-work dad who sits on the couch, envying lottery winners. When Duncan’s mother breaks the news that they, like many other families, are leaving the province, Duncan takes his dory out across the bay to visit a retired fisherman who helps him come up with a creative solution.
Right from the start, Charlie Wilcox, by Sharon E. McKay, places the reader smack in small-town Brigus, just outside of St. John’s. It’s 1915 and Charlie’s parents are sending him to Montreal to get his club foot fixed. Charlie’s thrilled he can finally follow in his sea-captain father’s footsteps, but his parents want him to go to university. On his first night in St. John’s, he stows away on what he thinks is a sealing vessel, heading for the ice. Turns out the ship is bound for England, filled with war recruits. A series of coincidences lead him to France to volunteer in a war hospital alongside the nurse who healed his foot, then on to become a stretcher bearer on the front lines in a famous battle that wiped out most of the Newfoundland battalion. This is an underdog-turned-hero story that doesn’t shy away from the true horror of war. There’s also a section at the end that gives historical context, thought-provoking book club questions and a taste of the sequel. This one’s appropriate for grades 5 to 7.
The next two are part of the Dear Canada series, historical fiction in diary form, complete with deckled (unevenly cut) pages and bound bookmarker.
Flame and Ashes: The Great Fire Diary of Triffie Winsor, by Janet McNaughton, is set during the 1892 fire which wiped out much of St. John’s. The protagonist, Trifle Winsor, isn’t like other 11-year-old girls who can sit still for hours and make polite conversation, so she takes on writing a diary as an “improving project." Her house in St. John’s is nicknamed “Windsor Castle” by the locals. On the night of The Great Fire, Triffie’s house is burnt down, along with her father’s business, a department store that spans three city blocks. Triffie finds herself in a warehouse home with crates for walls and straw for beds. Her diary chronicles her family’s troubles, as well her changing view of the world, and those less fortunate. This one’s good for grades 4 and 5.
Winter of Peril: The Newfoundland Diary of Sophie Loveridge, by Jan Andrews, is set in 1721. Twelve-year-old Sophie and her family are trading their privileged English life for a Robinson-Crusoe-existence in Newfoundland. In the absence of maids, her poet father and painter mother leave Sophie to her own devices. She endures a difficult ocean crossing to face black flies, encounters with Beothuk, the "black miseries" (doldrums), food rationing and boy trouble. There are also issues in the community: death, a new baby, miscarriage and domestic violence. Her curiosity leads her to preserve fish, raise chickens, learn to cook, and be a different kind of girl than she would have been if she’d stayed in England. The epilogue reveals what happened to the characters the story is based on, along with photos of ships, housing and the landscape at the time. It’s a compelling tale that really captures the values and language without whitewashing early settlers' struggles. Good for grades 5 to 7.
Yikes, Vikings!, by Frieda Wishinsky, is part of the Canadian Flyer series, in which friends Matt and Emily use a magic sled to travel back in time. In this book they land in 1001, in Vinland, aka L’Anse Aux Meadows, where they come face to face with Leif Eriksson. They ride in a "knorr" (trading ship) and explore shores of abundant salmon, learn how to clean and cook fish outdoors, set up camp, collect berries, then leave just before the sled gets stolen by one of the Vikings. Matt and Emily’s top ten facts about the Vikings are in the postscript as well as a tutorial on how to write in "runes," and a few facts from the author. This one’s a grade 3 reading level.
On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press in 2011.