Category Archives: Books

“Hawk”: it’s all connected

I was sitting at home tonight heartbroken, confused, and saddened by the news that Colten Boushie’s killer walked free after being found not guilty by a jury of non-Indigenous people in Saskatchewan. Disbelief that a man killed a kid and walks away as if nothing happened. I am seeing the effects of colonialism and systemic racism. A settler society found a settler not guilty according to manipulated settler legal proceedings. As this news was breaking, I was reading Hawk by Jennifer Dance, the story of a young Dene kid who gets leukemia and makes connections to the oil industry upstream from his reserve and connections to the animals who live around him, especially the hawks, whom he is named after.


I was asked to create a wishlist of books at my new school this year. I did a lot of looking, trying to add a lot of different voices into the library, especially Indigenous and Metis voices. So, Hawk ended up being one of the books approved and purchased. I haven’t read it before. I haven’t heard of it before. But it looked interesting, was written for teens, and was approved for purchase. So now there are students around this school reading this book and I thought I better read it myself.

I realize that life is a constant catch-22, as Dance states in the book, because of the oil sands: we need jobs to support people yet what is the impact of the oil sands on the land, the animals, and the humans who exist by the oil sands. It’s hard to talk about critically about oil in this town without feeling like I’m betraying people and also being a hypocrite, seeing as I am employed by the government that relies on oil money to pay my salary.

But that tension is what is present in Dance’s book. She makes some pretty heavy-handed comments about the oil industry and links it directly to illnesses an, animal extinctions, and land destruction. But she’s not wrong. As Adam, Hawk and he was called as a baby and now called again as an older teen, is diagnosed with leukemia and it changes everything. As he is in the hospital, he connects with a hawk that he and his grandfather saved from a tailings pond while on a tour of his dad’s worksite. In the hospital, he is gifted with the sight of the hawk and sees through the hawk’s eyes. He sees the pain and suffering of the animals and the land that he grew up on. He sees the disruption of migration. He sees the mutations and the deforestation. For his final class project in Gr 10, to move on to Gr 11, he shares his story: Hawk-eye View. He shares his story and his connection to the oil sands and the connection with the hawk to his community in a packed theatre that is sponsored by a major oil company.


So, as I’m reading this book about how settler society has disrupted the lives of both people and animals in Northern Alberta I can’t help but connect this colonozation and push for resources to the Colton Boushie case. This family and this community has been painfully disrupted as one of their young people was shot in the head while seeking help on a farm property in Battleford, Saskatchewan. His cousin, Jade Tootoosis, said, “I pity them [the farmer and his people] because I don’t understand why they feel so much hate for someone they don’t know.”

When I think about Canada’s push toward reconciliation, I feel a responsibility as a teacher to teach the truth and expose this racism. So, I am grateful that there are students in my school reading this book. We need more voices and perspectives shared. This isn’t just a settler country, this is a country of treaties. We are all treaty people. I must have hope that the young people of Canada will learn and will make change so that racism doesn’t mean that young people are shot in the back of the head, or living with illnesses from contaminated water. There is much work to do.



“North of Normal”: stranger than fiction

It;s hard to fathom that Cea Sunrise Person’s memoir North of Normal is real life. Her experiences are very real. I couldn’t put the book down because I had no idea what would happen next. What more could happen? How could something else change? What more could be changed? Person writes with clarity, grace, and feeling.]

Cea Sunrise Person grows up during a unique time in American/Canadian history. When I told my Mom and Dad the premise of the memoir, my Dad replied, “Was this in the ’70s?” He knew. Then I remembered…I have inherited my Dad’s Valdy record collection. He knew.

One of the most striking ideas that hit me as I was reading was the resilience, trust, and then determination of Cea. She lived through some intense, painful, wonderful, gut-wrenching, terrifying, beautiful experiences. On her website, Person has a few Q&A videos. She knew as she was living her life that it was extraordinary. Yet she talks about her shame. Shame in being different. Even as a teen, she realized that she had a story to tell that people would want to read. I can’t help but think of the idea that sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. One of the most moving moments in her first video on her website is that she wanted to tell her story for her Mom, who was suffering with caner.

Writing to deal with and overcome the past. That is what she was seeking: trying to understand her own life by exploring her past.


Persons writes a lot about her grandfather, Papa Dick. It was Pap Dick’s idea to move to the wilderness to get off of the grid and to experience the simple life. One of the phrases that stood out to me and stuck with me is what Papa Dick says to Cea: “Welcome this, for life lessons come by experiences and not by chatter” (Pg 120). I realize that in Person’s situation that a lot of what she experienced is abuse. Yet I this phrase stands out: how do we live and learn? By living.

I hope that Person’s life has settled and that she has found peace and forgiveness. I am grateful that she shared her story.

“Counting by 7s”: people matter

I’m trying to catch up on some new books. It’s been a while since I’ve read YA fiction. Lately I’ve read The Hunger Games, Hawk, and now Counting by 7s. I want to know what my students are reading (especially if they are reading as a small-group novel study in class). The Hunger Games was fun. I enjoyed it. Hawk was interesting and I liked it too. But there’s something about Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan that stuck with me.



Do you ever have times or cycles where your dreams are vivid, realistic, and disturbing. Those dreams where you wake up and you feel rotten, anxious, afraid, or sad. I can’t always remember the dreams, but I know that they wake me up several times a night. I’m not too sure what my brain is processing, but I hate these dream cycles. While reading this book, my dreams changed. I woke up feeling warm and fuzzy. I woke up feeling happy and connected. Amazing.

But then again, maybe not. Counting by 7s is the story of one young gal, Willow, who is trying to find connections after the tragic death of her adoptive parents. She doesn’t have  any other family. Not even that many close friends. So what’s a girl to do? How can someone connect at a new school in a completely terrible situation. But that what Sloan writes about. Throughout the novel, Willow collects a family. It’s lovely, it’s beautiful, and it’s uplifting.



I LOVE LOVE LOVE the idea that teens are reading about how to build positive relationships. It makes my teacher heart happy to see that students are getting so much out of this novel. It makes my societal heart happy to see teens reading about building positive relationships that build up friends. There is no competition in the book: it’s about genuine friendships and hardwork to form meaningful relationships. I think that’s also why my dreams changed while reading this book: I was so enveloped by hope and joy.

Thank you Holly Goldberg Sloan. Thank you. A wonderful reminder that life is hopeful, that people are good, and that life can be beautiful.




“All My Puny Sorrows”: just listen

I bought All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews with a good friend at the CBC Calgary Reads Book Sale months ago and was happy to have my book club choose this as our Fall book. I missed reading A Complicated Kindness, but now I’m curious because I loved All My Puny Sorrows.



This book follows the life experiences of Yolandi and how she lives with the sorrow of seeing her sister Elfrieda struggle with life. I like the tag line of the review in the Globe and Mail: “a funny novel honouring deep sadness.” That’s exactly it. Honouring deep sadness.

Mental health is something that is part of my everyday life. In the last few years, I’ve had several friends suffer and survive with mental illnesses. It’s so hard to watch the people you love suffer and the feeling of helplessness that comes with it. This is why I needed to read Toew’s novel: I needed to acknowledge the sadness of having my friends no longer in my life in the same way. My heart friends, women who have become part of my soul and life, are unwell and it hurts my heart that they are suffering. Yet, we still have memories of past adventures, current check-ins to talk about the frivolity of cat videos, and the hope for future conversations and adventures.

Throughout the novel, Yolandi, our narrator, helps her concert-pianist older-sister through a bout of dark depression and suicide. While in the hospital, we get flashbacks to the girls growing up. Rebelling against the rules of their strict community upbringing. Spraying graffiti and burning buildings. These two girls shared so many secrets and thoughtful moments. Through her thoughts and hopes, we see the pain of seeing a sibling suffer without being able to reach them. Although Yolandi does what she can to support her sister by being present, by listening, and by caring, we still see the deep sorrow of not being able to fully reach another human, reach to their soul and share the pain with them.



Reading this novel has helped me to better understand my friends and my role in loving them while they fight.

Yet it’s not all darkness and sorrow. Toews’ has a great sense of humour and that is what kept me reading the novel. At one point in the novel, she writse about the trials of shaving one’s legs. In a conversation with one of Yolandi’s lovers, she writes their conversation about body hair:

“He jokes in broken English that he is not quite fully evolved and I tell him that I admire him for not burning it or ripping it all away like North Americans who are terrified of hair and fur in general. Body hair is the final frontier in the fight for the liberation of women” (Pg 62).

Toews writes about a subject that is hard to think about: suicide. How is it that we hold on to people who are ill far longer than they are actually present? How do we support and empathize with those closest to us who are suffering?

The greatest gift of this book is the love in the moment. It’s easy to try to solve someone’s problems and seek solutions, It’s easy to seek help for someone and hire professionals. What is hardest in life is to sit and listen. How do we every really know someone else? How do we every make connections if we want others to live what we believe is the best way to live? Being present and listening. Through the fun and the sorrow.




“Do Not Say We Have Nothing”: importance of storytelling

I kept seeing Madeline Thien’s book Do Not Say We Have Nothing seemingly everywhere I went (well, where I went online), so I felt that I had to read it. It was shortlisted for the Ban Booker Prize, and it won the Governor General’s Literary Award. It has to be good!


This novel is an epic saga. It looks at the lives of generations of a family during the cultural revolution in China. In high school, I did one of my major research projects in one of my History classes on the Chinese revolution and Chairman Mao. It fascinated me that a single idea could change the lives of millions of people in such a short amount of time. Also, that protecting culture and banning the influence of others, especially the West, was carried out. I knew the dates and names of the campaigns and leaders, but Thien’s novel made that time period come alive through the tragic stories of families torn apart, and innocent people’s lives being destroyed by judgmental neighbours. It’s one thing to read a textbook with facts, but it’s another thing to see how those facts influence people.

I read this book on a trip up to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. I carried this library book with me to the coffee shops in town, up to the Bush Pilot’s Monument, and to the picnic tables at Frame Lake. I was caught-up in the stories of Thien’s characters. I wanted to know what would happen to them and if they would reunite. I wanted to know if they would survive the re-education camps and the daring protests. At the same time, I was also caught-up in Yellowknife culture. Here is a place where communities and cultures live together and support one another. The Dene community, the Inuit community, the Metis community, the Filipino community, the mining community, the construction community, the crafting community. What a difference in culture! People fighting to stay alive and be seen to tow the party line, and that contrasted with a city that actively tries to bring cultures together to celebrate differences.


Truthfully, I feel like this book was a little too ambitious. There was a lot going on, yet Thien does well at connecting it all together. But sometimes the details were a bit overwhelming (and exhausting). It’s clear that either Thien is a musician or is interested in music because the characters in her novel love music. Several are composers, music professors, or performers. Like a good Canadian (and fan of Bach), she writes a lot about Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach. In fact, Gould’s name shows up throughout the novel, not just once or twice. I’m curious as to why she chose this eccentric Canadian performer. Bach’s music is so structured, which is why I think Gould loves Bach. One of my cousins loves Gould and often sends me YouTube videos of Gould. These are a few of my favourites:
The Chair
Piano skills

Overall I enjoyed Thien’s novel. I was on vacation and was able to linger on the story and find time to read it. And the stunning views helped for sure.

Thien reminds us of the importance of hearing stories. Not just facts, but stories. I think stories are the success behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. And I hope that the stories of families and friends makes the inquiry into Canada’s murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls just as healing. We need to listen to each others’ stories in order to find justice, healing, and a way forward. In the novel, the characters find each other through a novel written chapter-by-chapter and through the story in music. There is power in a story. May we have the patience and the heart to hear.


“Griffin & Sabine”: believe in magic

Remember the joy of pop-up books? The books that were tactile and interactive? What a wonderful way to connect with what you’re reading! This is why I am so glad that one of my good friends recommended that I read Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence by Nick Bantock. It had envelopes and letters you could actually touch! I loved it.


Bantock writes and illustrates a creative idea: a woman writes postcards (which she creates) to a man in a completely different country and they begin a beautiful friendship. There is romance. There is mystery. There is despair. There is magic. There is hope.

Griffin and Sabine write letters and postcards back and forth, exploring their extraordinary relationship. As a reader, it’s so lovely to slow down and read mail. You have to actually open the envelopes in the book to read the handwritten (cursive) letters. I found it such a beautiful and intimate experience that let me be a nosy neighbour and eavesdrop on someone else’s conversations. Griffin creates postcards in a shop in London. He is an artist, but didn’t fully agree with the art school’s ‘art for art’s sake’ philosophy. In fact, at one point in the book Sabine encourages Griffin to explore his darkness. She almost gives him permission to explore his depression through his art, that he sells on postcards.


Sabine is an interesting character, and she knows it. She lives on the island Katie in the Sicmon Islands in the South Pacific. Yet she doesn’t always exist there. She has a strange and mysterious connection to Griffin: she can see when he draws. She can’t see Griffin, but she sees his art as he creates it. Weird, right?! But so fun!
Sabine is an artist of her own and also creates postcards and stamps.


I am so grateful for the experience that Bantock created in this book. You have mystery, you have magic, you have beautiful art, you have intimacy. Reading the letters and thinking about that ‘what if’ scenario: what if there was someone you had a connection with, but had no way to express that connection or make that connection a reality? What if we are all alone because we aren’t able to accept that life might not be reasonable and might in fact be magical?

The hope for the unexpected is something that is hard at times. We get run down by life and we become emotionally and spiritually exhausted. I think it is during these dark times that we miss the joy and the magic of simple connections. In those moments we are hoping for something big and dramatic to come into our lives (as Sabine enters into Griffin’s life), yet I don’t think it needs to be that dramatic.

What if a life-changing, life-altering, life-affirming moment and expression happens in the smallest way, to nudge us and remind us that life is worth the living. Maybe these small, daily miracles (a butterfly, a great memory, a delicious tasting meat, a smile from a passer-by) are the ones we need to be looking for and appreciating. I suppose that is why depression is so brutal: you can’t take the miracles for miracles because you don’t have the energy or the hope to believe that things will get better or that life is beautiful.

So hold on to those small miracles when you are able to see them for what they are! And hope for magic!


“The Fate of the Tearling”: love costs

At the end of this novel, I actually said out loud to my empty apartment, “WHAT?!” Erika Johansen did it again. The final novel in this series of three had me playing along the entire time.



Without spoiling the wild ride, I’ll just say that this book reminded me of what the writers/producers of Star Trek did in the 2009 film: they created a story line where time shifted and therefore they could create a whole new series of adventures and planets. Genius!! Johansen does something similar, which is why at the end I couldn’t help but utter an impassioned and appreciative “What?!” Nicely done. (I know I’ve said it before about her other books, but this woman writes beautifully!)


After three long epics, I appreciate that Johansen took a risk. On Goodreads, it seems fans are divided on Johansen’s story decision. Yet again, I am interested in her craft and how she creates twists and causes the reader to join her in several moments where suspension of disbelief is necessary, yet not betrayed. What a fabulous series!



Ok, enjoy gushing about the author’s brilliance. Johansen has some thoughtful commentary on society and how greed and selfishness leads to hatred which leads to harm. “Hatred is wasy, and lazy to boot. It’s love that demands effort, love that exacts a price from each of us. Love costs; this is its value” (Pg 81). Throughout the novel, characters are forced to make hard decisions about life and death. In the end, it is those who love that end up struggling; in the end, it is those who want to do the right thing because of their love for others that end up hurt. Yet, time after time, those who love, even though it is the harder choice, have a richer life. They have relationships, friends, and peace. As with most societies, even today, religion and religious beliefs,  beliefs that were started out of love, end of being sources of jealousy and posturing. Trying to be perfect and trying to look good destroys lives, as we see throughout this novel and in real life. Yet the foundations of religions are love, compassion, peace, and forgiveness. I think that as humans, we forget that these values are hard and require work. It is easier to sit through a sermon that tells you three ways to be a better leader, or three ways to love your neighbours more. Yet when it comes to making life-changing decisions and doing the right thing, it’s easy to draw back out of fear and stay in the bubble of safety, waiting out the upheaval or change. But that is not the way of love.



I think one of the reasons that I loved this series so much is that characters make mistakes, giant mistakes that destroy things. Characters also show the strength of compassion and forgiveness. It’s not easy and Johansen shows that the struggle is real: sometimes life isn’t black and white, most of the time it’s grey. So how do we find the courage to love others, even when it means sacrifice and cost? I’m not sure. That’s why this series has left me so happy: it was a pleasure to read, it has unexpected twists and turns, and it challenged me in my own views about life and society.