On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light
By Cordelia Strube
ECW Press, 377 Pages
To use a clichéd turn of phrase (the very sort Strube advises against in her recent writing instructional book Exhilarating Prose, written with Barry Healey), On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light is a heartbreakingly funny book.
Harriet, whose family and neighbours mostly call Harry, is an 11-year-old artist with a plan to escape her family and life in the Shangrila, a shabby apartment tower filled with seniors and single mothers.
Harry’s brother Irwin is plagued with numerous maladies, and the stress of his health has driven their parents apart. She professes dislike toward Irwin, though her actions speak otherwise.
Neither Harry’s mother nor her mother’s boyfriend appreciate her art, and so she saves every dollar she earns running errands for her elder neighbours, dreaming of running away to a life in the woods in Algonquin Park, left alone to paint.
Complicating those plans are a wide cast of characters, many familiar enough to prompt a smile of recognition, while avoiding slipping too far into stereotype as to become caricatures. There’s the detached father, devoid of deep emotion and seemingly more concerned about his bicycle than his daughter; slightly older friend and neighbour Darcy, who would appear to know much more about the world, including boys, than Harriet; and the wide cast of mostly senior citizen neighbours who offer a constant running commentary on Harry and her world.
It’s not easy to write from the point of view of children. Write them too smart and they become inhuman plot devices wise beyond their years. Make them too naive, and they’re unfitting characters to propel a story line. Harry, I will admit, won me over – her wry observations mixed with the naivete of her age pulled me into the world of this young outcast.
Maybe youth is the perfect weapon to bypass a journalist’s inherent cynicism? No matter the reason, the entertaining spectacle of Harry and her family was distracting enough that what should have been a predictable story completely caught this reviewer off-guard.
The left-turn of the second act could have easily ventured into melodrama, but Strube keeps the story on-track, steering what could have been a highly improbable finish into what feels like the only way this book could have possibly ended.
Touching and cynical, deeply sad and very funny, On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light is the work of an author in full command of her art. If On the Shores is not on awards shortlists this fall, it will be both a surprise and a grievous error.
And if Harry and Irwin don’t break your heart, you may want to check for signs of a pulse.
Flo and Her Family
By Joan M. Wright
Dorrance Publishing Co., 55 pages, illustrated
Flossita del Budgeroo is back for more adventures with her budgie husband “Fwed” (known as Fred to those without Flo’s particular manner of speaking).
Introduced to young readers in Flo: A Very Special Budgie, Flo first met Fred when her owner passed away and she went to live in a crowded aviary. After slowly adjusting to life there, she was won over by Fred.
In this new book, Flo and Her Family, Flo and Fred have decided to have a family of their own. Soon enough, two blue chicks and one green chick are sharing Flo’s next box, and she and Fred must contend with learning to be parents, and learning – grudgingly – to accept advice from other budgies.
Meanwhile, Flo and Fred try to continue with the singing that initially brought them together, all the while teaching Floss, Flip and Tweeter to fly, to feed, and, of course, to sing – despite the influence of an avian rock quartet.
Flo and Her Family offers a colourful look at parents’ perspectives on fledgling family life, and author and illustrator Joan M. Wright’s simple but effective story is sure to please young readers and their parents.
A Handbook for Grandparents
By Lynn Wilson
Friesen Press, 189 pages
Long-time Beacher Lynn Wilson has taken her knowledge as an early childhood education author and professor and focused her third book on the oldest members of most children’s social circle: grandparents.
A Handbook for Grandparents is Wilson’s missive to every parent’s favourite unpaid babysitters, an effort to offer a lengthy list of activities for grandparents to take part in with their grandchildren that can be fun for both ends of the age spectrum.
The book starts with a primer (or reminder) on dealing with young children, starting with child-proofing the home and how to prepare materials for young visitors for short or long visits.
The meat of the handbook is, of course, a wide variety of activities to try out with grandchildren, ranging from bath time with toddlers, to games and crafts around the house, to outdoor and travel ideas.
Many of the ideas serve not only to entertain, but to teach. There are counting, math, and science games. There are artistic activities to spare, from finger painting to printmaking. The kitchen provides another list of ideas, ranging from early familiarity and learning safety to healthy snacks and basic food preparation.
Of course the outdoors is covered, with activities for every season. Early exposure to plant and animal life or fun times in the snow go a long way to discouraging a sedentary life, and the handbook has no shortage of ideas to help kids fall in love with nature.
Many of the ideas in the handbook don’t require any special materials, relying instead on common items found in most homes, ensuring a variety of fun times even without advance planning.
Grandparents looking for a range of suggestions to have fun with their grandkids would do well to pick up a copy of A Handbook for Grandparents – there’s sure to be a popular idea or 10 for grandchildren of all ages, and for grandma and grandpa too.