Sunday, November 19, 2017

Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee

Halfway Normal is a novel that explores the struggles a young girl encounters reintegrating back into life outside a hospital after her cancer treatment.

Twelve year old Norah Levy underwent two years of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia and is now well enough to return to school. During her illness she was tutored by Ayesha,  a young woman who also survived cancer. This has led to Norah being ahead by a grade in math and science.

Norah's parents divorced when she was nine-years-old and she now lives with her Dad who is a sports journalist and his new girlfriend Nicole, just outside of New York City. Her mom resides in California where she teaches biology at a college but she is on leave, staying with her friend Lisa.

Norah received her treatment at Phipps-Davison, a famous cancer hospital. Now in remission, Norah is determined to return to school. Her pediatric social worker, Raina Novak warns her it will not be easy.

But returning to school proves far more difficult than Norah ever imagined. First there are all the rules her parents have imposed: no after-school activities, no sleepovers, no school bus, no school lunch and avoiding the bathroom at all cost. Norah immediately notices that no one, not her classmates nor the teachers use the dreaded "cancer" word. Because her hair is short, she is sometimes mistaken for a boy which greatly upsets her. Then there is the attitude of her fellow students to contend with. Norah is considered by some students as "The Girl Who." had cancer. Other students don't like the special treatment Norah receives and believes she wants attention. Norah is also struggling to deal with the fact that many of her best friends did not visit her in the hospital. This includes her close friend Silas Blackhurst.

On her first day, Norah meets Griffin Kirkley, a grade eight student new to Aaron Burr. Norah finds Griffin with his spiky reddish hair, cute. They immediately discover a mutual love of  mythical beasts and Greek myths. However, Norah decides not to tell Griffin about being ill with cancer because she doesn't want him to treat her like her grade seven friends. Griffin is impressed with Norah's artwork and asks her to draw a griffin on his bass guitar. Because of Griffin's interest in the Afterschool program, Norah also decides she wants to be involved and be a part of the Art Club.

In English, Norah reveals that her favourite Greek myth is the one of Persephone who is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld. Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Demeter discovers where Persephone has been taken and threatens to let everything on earth die if Zeus does not return her to the world above. Hermes is sent by Zeus and convinces Hades to release Persephone. Unfortunately, Persephone has eaten some pomegranate seeds, which are food of the dead. This meant she must return to the underworld. However, Zeus arranges for Persephone to spend half a year in the underworld with Hades and the rest of the year with Demeter. She impresses their English teacher, Ms. Farrell with her knowledge of Greek myths.

Norah struggles in her relationships at school, confronting Silas, confusing her best friend Harper and she begins acting out. She stays for the Afterschool program, disobeying her parents, she skips class to eat lunch with Griffin during grade eight lunch so he won't know she's a grade seven student, and she gets her ears pierced without her parents permission. But when a bake sale for breast cancer deeply upsets Norah, she is forced to face her internal conflict and figure out a way to tell her friends what she's feeling and return to school.


Halfway Normal portrays the journey of twelve-year-old Norah Levy as she re-integrates into life after two years of battling cancer. The novel's main theme is that of empathy and resilience. Norah is eager to attend school but Raina Novak, her pediatric social worker attempts to prepare her for the experience. She warns Norah that it will be challenging. "Don't expect your friendships to be just like they were two years ago. You've been through something very big here, yes, but your friends have been through their own situations, which are big to them. And you haven't been a part of that world." In other words, she's telling Norah that her friends will likely not understand her experience in the same way that Norah will not realize how they have changed over the past two years.

This is initial expressed in the friendship between Norah and Silas Blackhurst, Norah's best friend before she became ill.  Norah and Silas spent their time together before her illness, riding their bikes "patrolling the neighborhood for evil elves." But when Norah returns to school she discovers that Silas has changed; he's interested in girls and he likes Kylie Shen. Norah is baffled by this interest. "...I knew that Kylie was exactly the sort of girl boys crush on. My problem was that I couldn't see Silas being one of those boys. He'd never liked girls before. He'd never even noticed that I was a girl." Norah is angry with Silas because he never came to visit her in the hospital. Although Norah wants to resume her friendship with Silas, it becomes apparent that they have both changed significantly.

Norah views every action of her classmates and teachers as being coloured by their knowledge she had cancer. Addison Ventura  makes a heart sign and Norah believes it "... had to be a cancer reference, because why would Addison heart me?" When Ms. Farrell approaches her in class, smiling, Norah thinks, "As soon as I saw that smile, I knew she knew everything...Probably all the teachers knew. Even the office ladies and the janitors." 

Norah is preoccupied with people knowing about her having cancer and she's unprepared for the variety of reactions she experiences from both her classmates and teachers. Some of her friends are interested and want to know about her illness. While Kylie Shen doesn't want to hear "all the gory details", Harrison Warner wants to know the names of the medications so he can look them up later. Ms. Castro won't say the word "cancer" and encourages her to make use of the elevator instead of the stairs. Norah finds this all very off-putting.

Others feel Norah is using her illness as a means to get attention. Norah's teachers are willing to offer her special consideration; Mr. O'Brien the social studies teacher, offers Norah extra time to complete assignments while Mr. Ludlow the PE teacher tells her she can sit out whenever she wants. Addison believes Norah enjoys this attention and at one point in front of their classmates, Addison claims that Norah is like the human weaver Arachne of Greek mythology, because she likes the attention.

Although most people are well meaning, Norah misinterprets everyone's actions and words. When Ms. Farrell praises Norah about her knowledge of Greek myths and refers to her as their "expert mythologist" to Norah "it sounded like 'expert oncologist'. Which I knew wasn't what she meant, obviously. But all gushy praise sounded suspiciously cancer-related." In Ms. Farrell's English class she believes their first assignment is an attempt to get her "cancer story" and so she produces a composition that receives a low mark. Later on when getting her ears pierced with Aria Maldonado, Norah misinterprets Mrs. Maldonado's offer to pay for her ear piercing and the green dragon earrings as a "cancer consolation prize."

Norah's desire to be free of been known as "cancer girl" leads her to be dishonest with her new friend, Griffin.  Norah avoids telling him that she's been away from school for two years because of cancer. Instead she tells Griffin, she is not new to the school but "More like recycled, actually."  The thought that the grade eight students might know her story is horrifying to Norah. "I was more afraid that once the eighth graders discovered 'my whole story', I'd turn into Cancer Girl for them, just the way I was Cancer Girl for the seventh grade. And if that happened, maybe Griffin would change the way he treated me." Her best friend Harper calls Norah out on her dishonesty toward Griffin, but Norah is not ready to accept this. Instead she doubles down and feels that Harper doesn't understand her situation.

It is an English assignment, to write a five-minute speech from the point of view of mythic character, that helps Norah sort out and explain her complicated feelings about her struggle with cancer. But only after Norah experiences an emotional crisis at the breast cancer bake sale being held by her classmates. Norah balks at the unintended hypocrisy of her classmates like Kylie who wouldn't allow Norah to talk about her cancer but who pins a pink ribbon on her sweater, an others who eat pink-frosted cupcakes but never acknowledge her situation.

Norah feels she can't convey to her friends and classmates what she's experienced. "I couldn't pretend I'd never been sick, because that's who I was. The Girl Who; but I couldn't explain what that meant, because to do it I'd have to speak Martian. So it was like I was trapped halfway between two worlds --Sick and Not Sick- and didn't completely belong in either one." Her tutor, Ayesha explains to Norah that she can only keep moving forward and that she must find a way to help people understand and to give them a chance to understand. Ayesha suggests that maybe Norah doesn't want people to understand. "Because maybe you like that a little bit, feeling that nobody gets what you've been through..." This leads Norah to acknowledge that she feels angry and that she needs to work harder at moving forward in her life.

The result is that Norah acts to move forward. She talks to Griffin about why she never told him about her cancer and eventually apologizes. When Ms. Farrell offers her support after Norah returns to school, Norah thanks her even though she still feels like her teacher wants a cancer story. She doesn't get angry this time when Ms. Farrell asks her to dig deeper into the Persephone myth and eventually comes up with a brilliant interpretation of the myth as it applies to her life.

Halfway Normal succeeds in capturing the complicated emotional life of a young cancer survivor. The dominant theme in the novel is the struggle we all face to share and understand each other's pain - an important life skill. Dee explains to young readers the difference between sympathy and empathy in a English lesson with Ms. Farrell. Norah is unable to empathize with her classmates, believing it is they who need to understand her. In English class she tells Ms. Farrell that she doesn't believe "empathy is always possible...Because sometimes the other person's experience is so weird that you can't put yourself in their shoes. I mean, you may think you can, but you really can't." Similarly her classmates are struggling to understand what Norah has experienced.

Dee creates a rather unlikable character in Norah Levy, putting the reader in a similar situation to that of the characters in the novel; readers experience little sympathy or empathy for her. But as Norah works to express what she's feeling and ultimately succeeds, the reader develops empathy for Norah.

Halfway Normal is populated with very modern characters; her mother, father and his girlfriend end up in a sort of accepting, working, blended family for the benefit of Norah while Ayesha is the token gay character.

Although Barbara Dee's son has had cancer, Dee states that the story in Halfway Normal is not about her son's illness, nor is it based on her family's experience. She mentions that she undertook considerable research for the novel and that is evident in the writing. Halfway Normal is a sensitive, caring exploration of cancer and its toll on a young person.

Book Details:

Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee
Toronto: Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division    2017
243 pp.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Of Numbers and Stars by D. Anne Love

Of Numbers and Stars is a picture book about a famous Greek mathematician who lived over 1500 years ago in Alexandra, Greece. Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a professor of mathematics at the University of Alexandria. Alexandria was considered the center of learning at this time and Theon chose a different path for his daughter. At a time when Greek women were schooled in the arts of the domestic home, she was allowed to study and eventually became an academic at the university. She became a highly respected thinker who delved into science, philosophy and mathematics. 

Hypatia's death is a source of great controversy today. Many books, including unfortunately the Author's Note at the back of Of Numbers and Stars, claim that, St. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, urged a mob to attack and murder Hypatia. Unfortunately, many historical events are often interpreted with a very anti-Catholic bias.

It is important to understand the political and social environment which existed in the 5th century in Alexandria. Alexandria was the center of learning at this time, with many important thinkers and a library at the University of Alexandria that was renowned throughout the known world for its large collection of books. At the time of Hypatia's death, Alexandria was a city embroiled in violence between the pagan, Jewish and Christian populations. The Jewish population in 430 A.D. Alexandria was very militant against Christians. The Jews in Alexandria had burned down Christian churches and were determined to persecute Christians and force them out of Egypt. Hypatia, along with the pagan population of Alexandria, sided with the Jews.  St.Cyril, bishop of Alexandria at this time was responsible for ensuring the safety and viability of the Christian church in Egypt.To that end, St. Cyril ordered the burning of the Jewish synagogues in an attempt to halt Jewish aggression. While today this would be considered a crime, in St. Cyril's time such actions were considered necessary to protect the Christian population.

Historical sources, specifically from Socrates, whose writings are considered reliable, indicate that Cyril did not instigate nor participate in the murder of Hypatia. Instead, Socrates states that Hypatia was murdered by a lector (reader) of the Christian church named Peter who led a mob to attack her. Socrates Scholasticus in his book, The Life of Hypatia writes, "Some of them, therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church.

Of Numbers and Stars does not delve into this controversy but instead focuses on imagining Hypatia's early life and her work as a philosopher and mathematician. Sadly there are few primary sources to draw on regarding Hypatia's life but author D. Anne Love weaves a story to inspire young girls.  Love begins her story with a colourful map, locating Alexandria in relation to Egypt and the Mediterranean.  Fleshing out the text are the illustrations of Pam Paparone, rendered in acrylics. The artwork has a decidely classical look which meshes nicely with the story.

Book Details:

Of Numbers and Stars: The Story of Hypatia by D. Anne Love
New York: Holiday House       2006

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Bang by Barry Lyga

Fourteen-year-old Sebastian Cody accidentally shot and killed his baby sister, Lola when he was four years old. In an effort to cope with her death all memory of her has been banished from their home by his mother; there are no photographs, no baby album, no physical reminders such as blankets or toys. "She's been extinguished. She's been erased." Sebastian has been told it was an accident, that happened on a Tuesday in June,that he pointed his father's .357 Magnum at his sister as she sat in her bouncy chair.

Ten years later, in June with the school year closing, Sebastian sneaks out of his room at night and bikes to an old, abandoned mobile home. It is here that Sebastian plans to fire another bullet.

 Sebastian's mom hides her grief well but according to Sebastian, "there is always a veil between her mirth and the world..." Dr. Kennedy who is their therapist, believes that Sebastian's mother is the one who is best dealing with what happened years ago. Unfortunately, every time either Sebastian or his mom want to talk about what happened, the other is not willing to talk.

 Sebastian's best friend is Evan Danforth, whose family is very wealthy. Sebastian and Evan have spent every past summer together, but this summer Evan is attending to Young Leaders Camp. This summer his mom wants Sebastian to be productive, to get a job. But because Sebastian believes this summer will be his last, he's not willing to act on  his mother's suggestion.

What Sebastian doesn't count on however, is meeting the new girl who just moved in across the street. When he crashes his bike outside her house Sebastian meets Aneesa Fahim who will be attending the same high school in the fall.  A second bike crash the next day in her driveway, gets Sebastian an invite into Aneesa's home so she can clean the bad scrapes on his knees. He also meets Aneesa's father who is kind and shows interest in Sebastian.

Sebastian and Aneesa's friendship blossoms throughout July. A week after Evan leaves for camp, Sebastian receives an invitation to the Fahim's Fourth of July cookout. He decides to attend and after the barbecue is over, he and Aneesa spend time talking while her parents go to the fireworks. Sebastian tells Aneesa about his ability to make great pizza and she insists that some day he make her one. Throughout July, Aneesa and Sebastian are inseparable, with Sebastian showing her around Brookdale. One of the places he takes her is to the old trailer where he plans to someday kill himself, although he does not tell Aneesa this. At this point Sebastian is beginning to wonder if there might be a chance he doesn't have to kill himself. Afterwards they return to Sebastian's house where Aneesa encourages him to make her his famous pizza. Sebastian's pizza is a success and this leads her to suggest that he should seriously consider selling his pizza. And to that end Aneesa hits on the idea that Sebastian should create his own channel on YouTube to market his pizzas.

At this time Sebastian is given an ultimatum by his mother to get a job for the summer. It is Aneesa who comes to Sebastian's rescue, selling his mother on the idea of Sebastian creating a YouTube channel that features his pizzas. His mother eventually agrees but insists that Sebastian be committed to making this work.

As Sebastian works with Aneesa to develop his YouTube channel, his perspective about his life begins to undergo a radical change. He begins to wonder if maybe he can be happy. Until a series of events pushes Sebastian over the edge.


Bang is a novel about guilt, grief, self-forgiveness and second chances, but mostly about recovering from a mistake so tragic that the consequences can never be undone.  Fourteen-year-old Sebastian Cody is collapsing under the burden of his guilt over an event he supposedly cannot remember. He accidentally shot his baby sister Lola in the head when he was four years old. No one will talk about what happened, his father has left, there is no evidence in his home or his life that Lola ever existed and he notes that "My sister is in the memory hole because I killed her." All trace of her life has been wiped from their family home, not even a photograph of her remains and at the ten year anniversary of her death, "No one said anything. No one every says anything. Nothing online. Nothing in the Sunday edition of the Lowe County Times..." He also notes that even though his sister's room has not been preserved no one has "moved on. We're all still stuck in place."

Sebastian is so burdened by his pain that he is convinced suicide is the only option left. The voice in his head tells him this. Whenever Sebastian asks the voice if it is time, it always says "No. Not yet."  But just before this summer, the voice said, "Almost. Be ready."  However, after meeting a new neighbour, Aneesa Fahim, Sebastian begins be afraid of what the voice will say. As their friendship develops he begins to rethink his plans and wonders how he will say goodbye to her in the future when his time to end his life arrives. Will he have to? "Unless...Is there any chance? Any chance at all that she could overlook my past? A chance I could stay? " This possibility is frightening to Sebastian.

Unexpectedly, Aneesa creates a sense of hope and possibility within Sebastian. He soon finds he doesn't want to ask the voice if it's time yet, because he doesn't want to know. The voice even tells him all the time he's spending with Aneesa, "cranking out pizzas and videos" is just a distraction from his gruesome end. Sebastian questions himself, "What am I doing? With the pizza stuff, with Aneesa? How have I lost sight of what's important, what matters. The plan I've had for years now, the one that was coming, marching relentlessly toward me." Sebastian promises himself he is still going to "do it."

The beginning of school sees Sebastian experience a series of events that push him towards his original plan. First his English class is assigned to write about a significant life event which to Sebastian means writing about the shooting of Lola. Then when Sebastian gets into a fight over a classmate's derogatory remark about Aneesa, comments are posted about his past and the death of Lola online. Sebastian reaches out to Aneesa for comfort only to realize that his feelings for her are not reciprocated.

This sends Sebastian into a full blown crisis. He has a violent outburst towards his English teacher, Ms. Benitez that results in his parents being called and his retired therapist, Dr. Kennedy contacting him. The voice now tells Sebastian that it's time to follow through on his plan. "It makes perfect sense, suicide does. An end to pain, to misunderstanding. An end to my existence as a walking, talking, living, breathing reminder to my mother of what was taken from her."

At this point in the novel, Lyga employs several plot twists to move the story along; information about exactly what Sebastian remembers and the reason the rundown trailer is so important to him are now revealed. Sebastian, unable to cope any longer with his pain confronts both his father and eventually his mother. He tells his father that suicide offers a means to end the pain. His father manages to show Sebastian that suicide is not the answer, telling him, "...But you got a whole life to live....Your job is to live for yourself, Sebastian. You only get one life. You get chance."  He urges Sebastian to talk to his mother. Sebastian confronts his mother telling her he cannot no longer pretend that nothing has happened and that Lola never existed. "Mom, I have to talk about it. I have to, okay? I can't go on like this. I've been --" but he does not reveal that he has been contemplating suicide. Both of these encounters allow Sebastian and his parents to express and acknowledge their pain and to begin the process of healing. As a result, Sebastian comes to believe that time does not heal wounds. Instead, "We heal wounds.  Not time. Us." The  novel concludes on a positive note, with Sebastian beginning to come to terms with what happened ten years ago

Lyga was inspired to write Bang after his wife noted that there were few novels that dealt with situations where children accidentally shot a family member and how that tragedy affected these children. Although Bang tackles the issues of suicide, and to a lesser extent, gun control and prejudice, the central theme is about healing from a mistake that cannot be undone. “This book is about trying to figure out a way to move on after you have made the mistake that had never been reclaimed or fixed. No level of apology, no level of contrition, no level of atonement will ever come close to repairing the damage you’ve caused—how do you move on?The message is that one tragedy does not define a person and that as Sebastian states in his class assignment at the end, "It was an accident, but not the sort that you can apologize for and fix. You cannot repair this mistake; it lives on. So do I." And that significant events often do not change people - "Most of us just go on, the walking wounded, dealing with our lives." In the end, Sebastian refuses to be pigeon-holed as the boy who killed his sister, just as he refuses to accept Aneesa being pigeon-holed as "Muslim girl eats pizza".

Bang is written from a first person point of view and is divided into three sections, "History" which tells the backstory, "The Present" which relates Sebastian's struggle to cope with the aftermath of the events, and "Tomorrow" which lays out his change of perspective as he begins to heal. Some chapters are very short, others reading like free verse. Overall, Bang is a sensitive, well written novel that treats the subject of loss, suicide and self-forgiveness authentically and with compassion.

Book Details:

Bang by Barry Lyga
New York: Little, Brown and Company      2017

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator

Amelia Earhart and the mystery of her tragic attempt to fly around the world still captures the imagination of people everywhere. The Legend of the Lost Aviator presents Amelia's life story beginning with her childhood. Her growing up years were spent in Atchinson, Kansas in her grandparents home. Amelia and her sister, Muriel rode horses, went bike riding, and played tennis and basketball. They also loved to explore the banks of the Missouri River and to pretend to travel all over the world. This latter pastime was to foreshadow Amelia life.

After her beloved grandmother's death, Amelia's family moved frequently, meaning that she attended many different high schools. Her parents eventually separated. Muriel went to college in Toronto, Ontario, while Amelia studied near Philadelphia.

In 1917, with World War I raging, Amelia decide to become a nurses aide and moved to Toronto. Her interest in flying was piqued by a visit to a military air field with her father in 1920. A ride in a plane did exactly the opposite her father was hoping - she

It was unusual for a woman to learn to fly but Amelia managed to take lessons from Neta Snook, a female pilot and instructor. She quickly purchase her first plane, a yellow Kinner Airster, which was a small, very light plane. Although Amelia had several crashes, she remained undaunted.

For a while Amelia settled down to a somewhat normal life, working as a social worker helping immigrant families. But in 1928 Amelia received a phone call that would profoundly change her life and set in motion the events that would lead to tragedy nine years later. George Putnam, a publisher, promoter and Amelia's future husband,invited her to be a part of a flight from Trepassey, Newfoundland to Southampton, England and so become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Although she would not actually fly the plane, Amelia agreed. After this success, Amelia was inspired to not only promote flying as a means of transportation, but to undertake her own daring flights. These flights became longer, set records and became riskier. The last of those flights would be her attempt to fly with Fred Noonan, around the world in 1937. She never completed the flight and exactly what happened to her and Fred remains a mystery to this day.

Canadian award-winning author, Shelley Tanaka has written an engaging account of Amelia Earhart's life and adventures. The Legend of the Lost Aviator is filled with photographs of Amelia, her family and her husband, the planes she flew and of her life promoting flying. Tanaka used Amelia Earhart's own writings as the source for her writing, capturing the determined spirit of Amelia as the world's premier female aviator.  Accompanying Tanaka's well written text are the rich,colourful illustrations of Canadian artist, David Craig. The back of this book contains a list of books, articles and websites for further research.

For more information about Amelia Earhart readers are directed to the Smithsonian Magazine's online website. 

Those who are interested in a picture book devoted to Amelia's flight across the Atlantic should read Robert Burleigh's Night Flight.
Amelia on her aircraft before departing Miami, 1937

Book Details:

Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator
New York: Abrams Books For Young Readers 2008
48 pp.

Friday, November 10, 2017

DVD: Temple Grandin

"...They knew I was different, but not LESS."

Temple Grandin is a biopic about the famous scientist of the same name, who specializes in animal behaviour and who revolutionized the treatment of animals in the livestock industry. What makes Temple Grandin so unique is that she is autistic. Temple was diagnosed as a child in the 1950's when autistic children were often institutionalized. Her mother courageously refused this path for Temple, instead encouraging, teaching and advocating for her daughter.

Temple's story begins when she is a struggling teenager about to go to college. The story of her childhood is told in flashbacks. In the film, Temple arrives at her Aunt Ann's ranch in the summer. Temple's mother and father have divorced and her mother, Eustacia has remarried (although this is not shown in the movie). Temple has been sent to the ranch to give her mother a break from the summer. It is during her time at the ranch that she begins to discover her true passion - a love and respect for animals.

Temple sees everything in pictures and has a heightened sense of hearing. She looks at the ranch gate and sees angles and geometry. The sounds of the cutlery rattling, the cattle mooing, and the banging of the cattle gates all startle her. Aunt Ann shows Temple her room, and in order to make her feel welcome,  puts a sign up that says "Temple's Room".

Temple's attention is immediately grabbed by the cattle and their response to what is happening to them. She is particularly fascinated by how the cattle are calmed at being placed in the "hug box", leading her to ask a cowboy why this works. He tells her it "gentles" the cattle.

When Temple finds herself overwhelmed and frightened she begins putting herself in the hug box, much to the horror of the cowboys and her Aunt Ann. Otherwise her days at the ranch are filled with interesting things to do and see. She creates a special pulley system for the ranch gate, and learns to ride a horse with a reputation for being unruly and dangerous. When Eustacia visits the ranch she is upset to see that Temple uses the hug box but comes to understand that this calms her daughter. Despite Temple's insistence that she stay on the ranch, Eustacia sends her to Franklin Pierce College in 1966.

At Franklin, Temple's anger at not having a roommate like the rest of the girls, brings the first flashback of the movie. Eustacia remembers taking Temple to a psychologist in 1951. He bluntly tells her that her daughter is clearly autistic, an infantile schizophrenic who will never learn to talk and who should be institutionalized. When Eustacia presses him on other alternatives he tells her there is no treatment and that this is believed to be the result of a lack of bonding with a cold and aloof mother. Eustacia angrily tells the doctor it is Temple who refuses to be hugged. Instead of taking the doctor's advice, Eustacia begins to try to teach Temple to talk, a task that is frustrating.

Life at Franklin Pierce is not easy for Temple. Overwhelmed by the sounds and sensations, she decides to build herself her own hug box out of plywood. However, this is completely misunderstood by the students and faculty. Temple attempts to explain what her "squeeze machine" does, that it makes her feel calm but the doctor interviewing her believes it has a sexual function and the box is removed from her room. Temple returns to her Aunt Ann's ranch where she rebuilds the squeeze machine and she and her mother return to Franklin Pierce to explain how it works. They agree to allow the squeeze box back in Temple's room if she can prove it works by having the students use it and measuring their reactions. When she submits her paper on her research and receives an F, Temple goes into crisis and calls her mentor, Dr. Carlock.

At this point a second flashback tells how Temple came to meet Dr. Carlock when she enrolls in  Hampshire Country School in 1962. After Temple was expelled from her school, her mother took her to this boarding hoping to enroll her. During a meeting with staff, Eustacia decides to leave, believing that the school won't work for Temple. However, Dr. Carlock, who teaches science at Hampshire Country  tells Eustacia that he finds Temple wonderful and that she has done everything right as a parent. He feels the school has much to offer Temple, that they understand how different she is and that this is the first step towards getting Temple out into the world. Temple enrolls at the school and quickly Dr. Carlock comes to understand that Temple is an outstanding visual thinker. When she is ready to move on, but expresses reservations and fear, Dr. Carlock tells Temple to think of college as " a door. A door that's going to open up to a whole new world for you." It is this image that Temple carries with her for the rest of her life and it motivates her now ask that her paper be reconsidered.

Temple working with Dr. Cardstock in the movie.
She is eventually allowed to keep her squeeze machine and her new roommate, Alice who is blind accepts Temple for who she is. The two young women can relate because they experience the world around them in ways that are profoundly different from other people. Temple sees the world in pictures, while Alice sees the world through sound and voices.

Dr. Carlock's image of a door helps Temple as she works her way through college and a Masters of Science in animal science at Arizona Statue and into a career as an advocate for the humane treatment of animals. Temple is shown succeeding through sheer determination and smarts to outwit the obstacles in her path. She becomes a renowned scientist and a voice for people with autism.


Temple Grandin is a moving account of this famous autistic woman's life. The film is both touching and informative as it presents life from the perspective of an individual with autism. The film does an excellent job of demonstrating the unique way in which Temple's mind works and how she uses this to make significant contributions in her work with livestock.

From the very beginning of the movie, Temple is shown to think in pictures. For example, she looks at the ranch gate and views it geometrically in angles and shapes. In French class, which Temple hates, she explains to the teacher that she simply looks at the page, sees a picture of it in her mind and then can read what is written from that picture. She thinks literally with pictures; when Aunt Ann tells her they get up with the rooster, Temple pictures them sitting next to the rooster on the barn roof! And when Uncle Mike mentions miracles,  Temple sees an image of Jesus walking on water. Temple also has the ability to see situations on the ranch from an animal's perspective. Curious as to why the cattle are afraid to go into "the dip", Temple gets down on her hands and knees and crawls through the chute, seeing the shadows, glare of sunlight and metal chains that are frightening.

A squeeze machine for autistic individuals.
While Temple understands animals, she doesn't understand people's reactions and they do not understand hers. She doesn't like to be hugged but finds the squeeze machine used to steady cattle during inoculations to be comforting. Temple's resourcefulness leads her to build one for her own use.

The movie highlights her mother Eustacia's relentless efforts to help her becoming a functioning, contributing adult, advocating for her daughter and refusing to institutionalize her when she was a young child. Her efforts are acknowledged by Dr. Carlock but it isn't until the end of the movie when Temple gets up to speak at an autism convention in 1981 that Eustacia realizes that Temple does understand the efforts she's made on her behalf. This is perhaps the most touching moment in the entire movie because Eustacia's efforts have helped Temple to succeed in a way likely neither of them ever dreamed.

Temple's determination to forge her own path, to figure out how to live in a world where she thinks differently and to follow her passion are the focus of this film. And her passion is the humane care of animals raised for food. She explains that the animals deserve our respect and they should not die afraid and in pain. She tells the ranchers and those who run feedlots, "Nature is cruel, but we don't have to be." Temple learns how the animals feel, is able to visualize what they see and discovers what frightens them (shadows, lights, and chains) and what calms them. Based on these discoveries, Temple goes about working to change how cattle are treated in an industry rife with concern for animal welfare. She is met with sexism, resistance and anger, but she persists and succeeds. Her design of a curved corral to calm and direct cattle as they are led to "the dip" seems almost self-evident and yet the cattlemen don't understand her new methods at all. As the film credits state, today almost half of cattle in the United States are handled using her methods.

Temple eventually becomes an advocate for autistic individuals, although this is shown only at the very end of the movie in what is a very touching scene. Based on a true event that occurred at a autistic convention, Temple speaks up, explaining how her mind works and why she behaves in certain ways. For the first time, parents and doctors are hearing what it's like to be autistic from an person with autism.

That the movie Temple Grandin succeeds in portraying all of this is amazing and is in large part due to actress Claire Danes' brilliant performance as Temple Grandin. Danes gives a believable and touching performance that offers a window on how the autistic brain works. Dane captures Temple's frustrations, her joy when she succeeds and her resourcefulness and determination. Her performance won her an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award. She spent considerable time preparing for the role, learning Grandin's way of speaking and her awkward movements. Danes also has stated that she had to force herself not to emotionally connect with the other actors on the set. For Temple Grandin it was rewarding seeing herself portrayed so accurately and she was thrilled to see her revolutionary "dip" recreated exactly as she designed it.

Catherine O'Hara and Julia Ormond supply incredible supporting performances as Aunt Ann and as Eustacia.  David Straitharn captures a kind, patient and understanding Dr. Carlock who helps Temple face her fears and who guides her. Directed by Mick Jackson, Temple Grandin is a remarkable film about a remarkable, talented scientist and woman.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky

Cloth Lullaby presents the life an work of avant-garde French artist, Louise Bourgeois who is best remembered for her sculptures of giant spiders. Louise Josephine, born on Christmas Day in 1911 in Paris, France, was named after her parents, Louis Bourgeois and Josephine Fauriaux. Her family consisting of an older sister and younger brother, lived above their shop in the genteel St. Germain neighbourhood, where they sold tapestries.The Bourgeois's also had a villa and workshop in the countryside, where they worked to restore damaged antique tapestries.

When Louise was growing up, she was often recruited to help restore these tapestries during the weekends. At the age of twelve she would draw in the missing areas of damaged tapestries. In her teen years, Louise attended Lycee Fenelon in Paris. Her childhood was marred by an unhappy home life. Louise was very close to her mother but her father was unfaithful to her mother. His mistress lived with the family creating a great deal of tension in their home life. Louise was also unable to live up to her father's expectations.

In 1930, she attended the Sorbonne, where she studied math and philosophy. But,when her mother passed away in 1932, Louise was inspired to switch to studying art. From 1934 to 1938 she studied at various schools including the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Academie Ranson, the Academie Julian and several others. Although she initially studied painting, Louise was told she should become a sculptor. She began to draw on the upsetting experiences of her childhood as her creative inspiration. Her first exhibition was in the Salon d'Automne in 1938. Louise also opened a print shop in a section of her father's tapestry shop. Her father did not support her choice to become an artist but he did allow her the use of part of the family's shop. It was in the print shop that she met her future husband, American art historian, Robert Goldman. They married in 1938 and Louise emigrated to New York where her husband was employed at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts as an art professor.

A young Louise Bourgeois. 1946
Louise joined the Art Students League, an art school in Manhattan where she worked on her technique as a painter. Over the course of the next four years she had three children, (the first adopted from France). In the 1950's Louise and Robert returned to France for a short period of time. She also began therapy after her father's death and continued for almost thirty years. By the 1960's Louise began to experiment with many different materials including wood, rubber, latex and marble.

Over the years, her art became a sort of therapy for Louise, in which she dealt with the anger over her father's infidelity to her mother and the presence of his mistress in her life. Spirals, spiders and cages are several of the forms Louise used to express certain ideas. For example, the spiral was termed by Louise as "a twist. As a child, after washing tapestries in the river, I would turn and twist and ring them. . . Later I would dream of my father's mistress. I would do it in my dreams by ringing her neck. The spiral - I love the spiral - represents control and freedom."

Spiders first appeared in Louise's work in the 1940's but it wasn't until the 1990's that she created the spider sculptures for which she is famous. The spider represented her mother who was her best friend. "The spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver...Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother."

Maman sculpture
Cloth Lullaby opens with Louise's childhood, painting it as somewhat idyllic, as would be expected for a children's picture book. Novesky brings to the attention of readers, Louise's childhood love of the world around her, especially the trees and the river. The picture book then moves on to explore the impact her family's tapestry heritage had on her art. To Louise repairing the threads of damaged tapestries were a reminder of the work of spiders as they spin their webs. Mentioned are Louise's use of spirals, her interest in body parts, and of course her interest in weaving. Although many books focus on Louise's strange sculptures, Cloth Lullaby emphasizes her use of fabric. Her fabric collages and cloth drawings were "her way to make things whole." Louise's love of her mother and her attempts to keep the memory of her mother are also mentioned. Cloth Lullaby sprinkles quotes from Louise throughout and pictures of her strange spider sculptures are also included.

Accompanying this text are the unique illustrations of artist Isabelle Arsenault, done in ink, pencil, pastel, watercolor and Photoshop. This is a lovely picture book that captures the special talent of Louise Bourgeois.

Book Details:

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky
New York: Abrams Books For Young Readers         2016

Sunday, November 5, 2017

That Burning Summer by Lydia Syson

That Burning Summer covers a series of fictional events during the summer of 1940, just as World War II is ramping up. Set in the Romney coast area of England the story opens in July just after Peggy Fisher, her younger brother Ernest and her mother have been forced to leave their home in Lydd near the coast and move to the farmhouse by Snargate where her mother grew up. The army has requisitioned their house so they have moved in with Uncle Fred, Aunt Myra and Cousin June and her baby daughter Claudette. The story is told from three points of view, that of Peggy, Ernest and Henryk.

Eleven-year-old Ernest is obsessed with the Leaflet that has been circulated by the Ministry of Information and the War Office about what to do if the German's invade. But Peggy is sick of hearing him talk about it and reminds him that "It says 'If the invader comes." Not 'When the invader comes.'" However, Ernest believes it's best to be prepared and can't understand Peggy's lack of interest.

Ernest ignores his sister's instructions to return home and instead rides his bike to the shore where he stands looking towards France. The instructions in the leaflet weigh heavily on his mind as he worries what he would do if the Germans invaded. He sees the coils of barbed wire along the shoreline and the low concrete buildings called blockhouses. As he's riding back towards home, Ernest hears a plane falling from the sky, on fire, black smoke trailing behind. The sight and sound of the plane causes him to crash his bike and lose his glasses so he thinks it has crashed into Walland Marsh. What he doesn't see is the pilot parachuting to the ground. When Ernest returns home to tell his family what he saw he is sent to the Land Defense Volunteers to make a report. The volunteers set out to where Ernest believes the plane went down and find evidence of the crashed plane but by this time it has sunk into the marsh and as everyone believes, along with the pilot too.

However it turns out that the pilot did survive. Polish airman, Henryk had just survived an encounter with German enemy fighters and set off in pursuit of a single plane heading towards France. He never saw the plane that hit him. Henryk falls out of the plane and manages to engage his parachute, but he hits the ground hard causing him to sprain his ankle. Shaken and covered in fuel, he is able to pack up his parachute and hide it, and hobble towards a line of trees.

That night Peggy, unable to sleep, decides to check the hen house door. Drawn to the hen house by the chickens squawking, she discovers a dirty, frightened man with no boots, wearing a flight suit and goggles on his head. He tells Peggy he cannot go back and reveals that he is a Polish pilot with the RAF and introduces himself as Henryk. Torn between turning him in and helping him, Peggy decides to hide him for the night in the abandoned church. She fetches him a pair of boots and her father's old clothing and leads him to the church before heading home.

In the morning Peggy is preoccupied with what happened during the night. Is she a traitor? She's supposed to report him to the nearest authority. She decides she will feed the missing pilot and then send him on his way. But things are not so simple. When she offers Henryk a way they can come forward, his overwhelming fear is evident. Peggy decides she will wait. What she doesn't expect is that as the days pass they will become friends and that things will become more complicated than she ever anticipated.


That Burning Summer is one of several recent young adult novels exploring life in England during World War II. In this novel, the setting is the very south of England, in the Kent and Romney Marsh area which is just across the English Channel from France. The English, particularly people living in this area were understandably nervous about the real possibility of a German invasion.

By July of 1940, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemborg, Norway and France had surrendered to Germany after being invaded. Finland was captured by the Soviet Union. In June, 1940, Germany invaded the Channel Islands and in July, 1940 what was to become known as the Battle of Britain, had begun. Hitler had already signed off on a planned invasion of Britain, known as Operation Sea Lion. If an invasion was to happen, the flat coast and accessible beaches of this area offered a prime location for the Germans to land. As Syson mentions in her novel, the beaches were covered with rolls of concertina wire which also identified areas that were mined. In addition concrete pillboxes or blockhouses were also constructed along the coast as another layer of defense. The LDV (Local Defense Volunteers) was set up, comprised of men who were ineligible for military service. Their purpose was to slow down the invading troops, providing regular military units a chance to reorganize.

Syson effectively captures the uncertainty and fear many English felt in the summer of 1940 with frequent mention of the booming sounds coming from France, "the thunder across the sea." However despite their fear, each of the characters in the book reaches deep inside to act courageously. This fear is especially evident in the character of Ernest who is eleven-years-old at the beginning of the novel. His fear is shown by his obsessive attention to a pamphlet detailing what to do should England be invaded. Ernest has memorized the pamphlet and reminds himself to follow the tips for spotting an invader. He worries about almost every aspect of the invasion, about recognizing the enemy, about whether the church bells will be able to be rung in time, about whether they will hear them.

Ernest is shown to be very much like his father who is an artist and someone who abhors killing anything. When Ernest comes across the dead moles he feels disgusted and doesn't want to be involved in checking the traps but doesn't know how to tell his Uncle Fred this. "Ernest couldn't possibly tell him the truth about how her felt, though Dad would understand, of course. He didn't think it was silly or squeamish. A dead animal, in your bare hands, that you've killed yourself...? Ernest shuddered, imagining the feel of a stiff, cold body, hard under velvet." The gun given to him by Uncle Fred on his twelfth birthday is not something he's happy to receive.

Ernest is convinced he has LMF - Lack of Moral Fiber a term coined to describe RAF flyers too afraid to fly anymore. "But it's just the same, isn't it? I haven't got the moral fiber to go trapping with Uncle Fred. Or rabbit-hunting. I'm too scared. I'm no good at that kind of thing. A coward. They used to shoot cowards, you know." When Ernest visits Henryk alone, he is trying to determine is Henryk is who he claims to be. Instead he learns about courage and why some people can no longer be brave. Henryk suggests that courage is like a bank and that it can be used up and that it cannot be made on its own. "Can you make it from nothing? I don't think so. I think perhaps...I think you get courage from other people. Bur when they go, it gets harder and harder. And when you know you have just a little left, and just a few people, it seems to go faster and faster. Until you are like me. Ernest, I have to tell you...I have none left. Not even the courage to die when I wished it..."

When Ernest learns the truth about his father, that he is a pacifist who took the peace pledge, he's devastated. Ernest believed is father was overseas fighting in the war.  Instead, he went away to Eastbourne where he helped conscientious objectors prepare for their hearings. Eventually he was arrested, convicted and sent to prison for handing out leaflets and newsletters outside the conscription office. Peggy reveals that their mom never told anyone in their village because she felt ashamed.  Ernest feels ashamed of his father and is determined to be different. "Ernest set the gun on his shoulder. Be like Dad, the posters said. But he would be better than his dad." He would reveal Henryk. However, Ernest ends up not facing Henryk, but a real spy, determined to silence Peggy, Ernest and Victor. When Peggy tells Ernest to run and get help, he refuses to leave her and tries to help.

Through the character of Henryk, the devastating reality of the war in Europe is shown. When Henryk's homeland of Poland was invaded as part of the Polish airforce he fought the Nazis. Unsuccessful, he was forced to flee, enduring the pain of leaving his beloved country, travelling through Romania, Bulgaria, the Black Sea to Constantinople and then to Beirut. At a camp in Beirut Henryk learned from his sister Gizela's letter that their parents have been murdered by the Nazis and later that his three sisters have also been murdered. Eventually he made his way to Britain where he became part of the RAF. However, when he is shot down over Romney Marsh, Henryk is unable to turn himself in to authorities. He can no longer fly and fight. His courage is gone. Peggy recognizes that Henryk is not well. She explains to Ernest, "He twisted his ankle. But that's better now really. He's hurt in another way though. Not the kind of hurt they can do anything about in hospital, I don't think. It means he can't fly." Although Henryk believes he has no courage left, he decides to leave to protect Peggy, and on his way encounters Peggy and Ernest being attacked. Risking everything, Henryk comes to their aid, firing his revolver, something Peggy would not have believed him capable of doing just a day earlier.

Peggy must deal with her growing conflict over hiding Henryk who would be considered a deserter and the fact that she is falling in love with him. At first hiding Henryk "was like carrying around a boulder, this mistake she had made: huge and indigestible, it weighed her down." "For the first time she began to fear for herself. Maybe she was a traitor already. After all, she'd encouraged someone not to do his duty. That was a kind of treachery." Peggy remembers that they hung traitors so she decides she will feed the missing pilot and then send him on his way. But seeing Henryk's fear she understands that he is unable to fly. With compassion she hides and feeds Henryk, not knowing what the future holds. Peggy too shows courage when she comes to the aid of Victor, whom she despises, but who is being drowned by the spy. "She had no hope of rescuing Victor...She was sinking. It felt hopeless. Yet Peggy refused to give up. Mrs. Velvick could not lose another son." 

The strength in That Burning Summer is its wonderful portrayal of the uncertainty and fear of the English as well as their stout determination to defend their country as the Battle of Britain begins. Syson brings the novel to an exciting conclusion and ties up all the loose ends by jumping ahead to the end of the war in 1946 in an Epilogue. The novel is rounded out with a Historical Afterword that explains about the LMF designation, peace protests, missing pilots, spies and Polish pilots in Britain. This novel would have done nicely with a map of the Romney Marsh area, and perhaps a more mysterious cover suited to the story. In her Acknowledgements, it is evident Syson did considerable historical research for That Burning Summer.

For information on the Romney Coast area during World War II, readers are directed to Romney Marsh The Fifth Continent .

Picture credits:
Romney Marsh Map:

Book Details:

That Burning Summer by Lydia Syson
New York: Sky Pony Press          2013
298 pp.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Look Up! by Robert Burleigh

Over one hundred years ago, a woman astronomer named Henrietta Swan Leavitt made a remarkable discovery that changed forever how astronomers viewed the universe. For her breakthrough, Henrietta Leavitt received absolutely no recognition. It was a discovery that other astronomers such as Ejinar Hertzsprung and Edwin Hubble would use in their own research. In fact, Hubble never credited Leavitt's previous work as a significant factor in his own research. Recognition for Leavitt's outstanding contributions to astronomy would come after her death in 1921. InLook Up!, Robert Burleigh tells Henrietta Leavitt's story for a new generation of young girls, inspiring them to follow their interest in science.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt was born in Massachusetts on July 14, 1868. She was an intelligent, hard-working student, attending Oberlin College and then the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women, which was eventually renamed Radcliffe College. At Radcliffe, Henrietta received an intensive education that if she were a man, would have led to a career in academia. However, in the late 19th century, such a possibility was not open to young, intelligent, well educated women.

In 1892, in her senior year at Radcliffe, Henrietta discovered astronomy. In 1893, after graduation, Henrietta  joined the Harvard College Observatory as an unpaid volunteer where she became a "Harvard computer" under the direction of astronomer Edward Pickering. Despite her rigorous education this was the only type of job available to educated young women. Henrietta was forced to leave due to a serious illness that left her profoundly deaf. She eventually returned to the Observatory in 1902. Her job, at a pay of 30 cents, was to catalogue the brightness of stars.

The 'Harvard computers' was a group of over eighty women who came to be collectively known in scientific circles as 'Pickering's Harem', a somewhat demeaning reference. The Harvard Computers included many brilliant women who would come to make outstanding contributions to the field of astronomy. These included Williamina Fleming who discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888, Annie Jump Cannon who helped catalogue over one million stars, Margaret Harwood who was later to become the first woman director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory, and Cecilia Payne who discovered that the Sun was comprised mainly of hydrogen.

Leavitt's job was to look at variable stars, so named because their luminosity changes over time in a regular pattern known as a period.  She was working with Cepheid stars in the Magellanic Clouds (two dwarf galaxies near the Milky Way). Henrietta discovered by mathematical calculation and detailed observation of these Cepheid variable stars that there is a direct correlation between how bright a star is (called the star's magnitude) and the length of time it goes from dim to peak brightness (its period of luminosity). In other words, brighter stars had larger periods of luminosity. This became known at the period-luminosity relationship or Leavitt's Law. Since the Cepheid stars are all about the same distance from Earth, their period is directly related to the magnitude, not distance. Using magnitude, one can determine their distance from Earth. Henrietta did this, not by telescope which she was not, as a woman, allowed to use, but by examining photographic plates. She published her results in 1912 in the form of a chart that allowed astronomers to determine very accurately the distance of stars from Earth and the distance between stars. Astronomers would even be able to attempt to calculate how large the universe is.

Unfortunately Henrietta Leavitt never received the recognition she deserved for this discovery which immediately set off a chain of amazing discoveries in the field of astronomy. At the time, the universe was believed to contain only the Milky Way galaxy but working from Henrietta's discovery, astronomers quickly learned the vastness of the cosmos. She was under consideration to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1925 but this was too little too late. She had passed away four years earlier. Even one hundred years after her amazing discovery, little has been done to commemorate her outstanding contribution to astronomy.


Look Up! tells Henrietta Leavitt's story for young readers, capturing many of the crucial points of her life. Burleigh does a good job of attempting to explain exactly what Henrietta discovered and its significance to the discipline of astronomy. Raul Colon's exquisite illustrations are "rendered in watercolors, Prismacolor pencils and lithograph pencils on Arches paper."  They add lovely visual dimension to this beautiful picture book, as they should, enhancing Burleigh's simple text.

Look Up! is a must-have book for any library or school wishing to promote the hidden accomplishments of women scientists to young girl readers.  Burleigh has included an Afterword that tells a bit about Henrietta Leavitt, a Glossary of Terms, and a list of resources, both online and print for learning more about the stars, telescopes, planets and the solar system. Although there is a small portrait of Henrietta Leavitt , it would have been wonderful to see more photographs of her included in the afterword.

Book Details:

Look Up! by Robert Burleigh
New York: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers 2013

Sunday, October 29, 2017

What I Lost by Alexandra Ballard

Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Barnes finds herself entering Wallingfield Psychiatric Facility for her anorexia. In the lobby Elizabeth meets Lexi a very thin girl from Long Island Massapequa. Elizabeth and her parents meet Mary who will be Elizabeth's therapist who tells them that it is almost snack time. Mary explains that every day the girls meet in the dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner and that there are three snacks each day. Sally the nutritionist will work with Elizabeth to set up a meal plan and at every meal a nurse will check to see that everything has been eaten. Every morning weights and vitals are taken but numbers are not revealed. Elizabeth is scheduled to have a bone density test done. Elizabeth learns that Lexi is her roommate.

First snack is horrifying to Elizabeth because it consists of milk, one muffin and one apple. Willa tells her if she doesn't eat, Kay the mean monitor will force her to drink Ensure. Elizabeth is unable to eat most of her snack but Kay lets her off because it's her first day. Willa who has hidden all of her muffin under her shoe has to drink an Ensure.

Elizabeth's roommate Lexi who exercises at night, tells Elizabeth she has been in treatment before and has had both an nasogastric tube and a stomach tube. Elizabeth's first breakfast is a nightmare as she struggles to eat all the food on her plate. Not being used to so much food at once, she vomits up her breakfast and is made to drink Ensure. Lunch is even more difficult, because it includes salad with a dressing.

Group therapy for Elizabeth's cohort is run by Marci, a twentysomething counselor. This group includes Elizabeth, Lexi, Willa, Beth, Jean and Margot Camby who is someone Elizabeth once knew from ballet class when she was six years old. None of the girls are eager to participate but to spare Margot, Elizabeth mentions about hating the lanugo (fine hair) that is growing all over her body.

Lunch is even more difficult for Elizabeth; she manages to eat everything but the salad which she must eat with salad dressing that she describes as "unhealthy" and "disgusting". Kay insists that she will have to drink an Ensure but with the support of Willa and Lexi,  Elizabeth manages to eat the salad.

As Elizabeth goes through treatment, she discovers an inner strength she didn't know she had. That courage will be needed as she confronts her own problems, struggles to deal with her parents and must find her place at school where she faces bullies and the fallout from social media.


What I Lost offers a poignant, candid treatment of anorexia that will help readers better empathize and understand this serious illness.  Ballard knows her subject well and has captured many of the ritualistic behaviours and the thoughts experienced by those with an eating disorder. Through the experiences of both the main character, Elizabeth Barnes and several of the secondary characters, the author also demonstrates how difficult it can be to overcome this illness, presents some of the consequences anorexia can have on the body, but also offers hope to those who are impacted by anorexia.

What I Lost begins with Elizabeth's admittance to a treatment facility and focuses on portraying her struggle towards recovery. When Elizabeth arrives at Wallingfield she is in a state of denial; she believes she doesn't belong there. But her frame of mind is quickly revealed when she catches a glance of herself in the mirror above the fireplace in the common room. "That girl made me sick. I hated catching glimpses of her. It didn't matter where --whether in a mirror, or a window reflection, or on my phone screen after a group selfie."

Her state of mind reveals that she is focused on being thin, especially when she sees Lexi. "Her purple hoodie and black leggings hung off her like clothes on a hanger, and her legs, folded beneath her, were so thin they made her feet look too big for her body. My cheeks burned. I felt inferior. She was so much skinnier than me." Elizabeth notes that although she has her dad's genes, she is now skinnier than her mom, something she is proud of.

However Elizabeth's illness quickly manifests itself at Wallingfield when she struggles to eat her first snack. Unlike some of the other girls there however, Elizabeth does force herself to eat. This is a hint that deep down, Elizabeth wants to get well. This is demonstrated when Lexi explains how the treatment center works."You can either refuse to do everything, and then eventually  they'll kick you out...Or you can do what they tell you, get fat, and go home.." But Elizabeth wonders "What about girls who want to get well?", a thought she quickly suppresses.

After her first group therapy session Elizabeth realizes that she feels understood at Wallingfield but she also wants to go home and have a normal life. "These girls got me. And yet...a part of me wanted to cry. This wasn't normal. I wanted to be home, listening to Spotify wit Katrina, studying for my SAT's, reading Hamlet, and training for states with my cross-country team."

In therapy Elizabeth begins to explore some of the factors that have led her to where she is now. Elizabeth believes that her mother wants her to be thin. At first she can't tell Mary this because she doesn't know how she will react. Elizabeth knows her mother has "expectations" or hopes. "Hopes for my appearance, anyway." Memory of a shopping trip to Macy's brings up what Elizabeth's mother's hopes are. "Our shopping trips usually led to horrible fights where I begged her to leave me alone and she told me that if I let her dress me, I'd look great. You just have to purchase the right clothes for your figure, she'd say. You don't have the right body for the juniors' department. But the juniors department was where all my friends shopped, and I wanted to shop there too. And sometimes the things he hated on me, I didn't think looked that bad. Until she pointed out the flaws -- my hips, my thighs, my chubby knees." 

When her parents become involved in both group and family therapy Elizabeth must deal with intense conflict as she begins to realize that her mother's view of food is not a healthy one. In family group therapy Elizabeth decides to be honest about what's happening. "No one would ever have guessed my mom was anything besides a naturally thin woman who'd won the genetic lottery unless they ate with her." During a family phone call that includes her therapist, Elizabeth realizes that her mother's behaviour during meals makes her feel "ashamed that I was such a pig" and "ashamed of my appetite". Her parents' inability to confront this leaves Elizabeth feeling vulnerable and disappointed. Eventually Elizabeth is forced to confront her parents over her mother's disordered eating during lunch with parents. " 'Mom! It is so hard to eat when you're acting like that. You're supposed to model normal behavior for me!' Before Wallingfield I'd watch Mom eat and feel guilty if I ate more than she did. Now, though, I saw her eating for what it was. Screwed up..." As Elizabeth gets further into her recovery she recognizes her mother's disordered eating and understands her denial because she experienced the same thing.

Seeing the other girls struggling with the effects of anorexia on their bodies has a lasting impact on Elizabeth. When Lexi reveals that her anorexia has damaged her heart possibly irreparably, she tells Elizabeth "Be scared for yourself. Really, really scared, because that's what's going to make you better." Elizabeth knows from her previous support group twenty percent of girls never recover from anorexia and she doesn't want to be one of those girls. Yet Elizabeth continues to struggle. When Sally meets with her to plan  her meals, Elizabeth has the unrealistic expectation that she can cure herself while limiting her food to 800 calories per day. At the same time Elizabeth knows she has to eat if she wants to recover - a conundrum for many people suffering from anorexia. Elizabeth knows the increased food intake is changing her body and she states, "I was mourning the body I was losing each day a little, too."

As is the case with many girls with anorexia, eating begins to heal the body and the brain, something Elizabeth soon begins to recognize. "I did have things to be happy about. I'd finished my lunch. In fact, I was proud to report that I'd finished every meal and snack in the past week. Because of that, I felt better both in my body and my brain. I wasn't psyched to be gaining weight, but my thoughts were clearer and they moved through my head faster." 

In the end several things help Elizabeth to eat and begin to recover; she begins to confront the unhealthy approach to eating that her mother has and how that has affected her, she fears damaging her body as Lexi and Margot have done, and she realizes that she wants her life back and wants to be healthy. Ballard makes all of this seem realistic because Elizabeth still struggles with how she views her body. "I did want to stay how I was and eat pancakes. There were healthy size 0 girls. Why couldn't I be one?" The most important thing is that Elizabeth decides to get well for herself. "And right then I knew. If I went home and started to restrict my eating again, I would shrivel up like a dry plant. If I ever wanted to run again -- to live again-- I'd have to get better. And I'd have to do it for me."

And when she returns home, she almost immediately falls into her old pattern of lying and trying to get around eating. This too is a realistic portrayal. In the end, it is Elizabeth who owns her illness and decides she wants to recover. "Did I want to spend my life bouncing in and out of treatment centers, have bone scans and waiting for the bad one?...If I skipped lunch I'd find a way to skip dinner. Then breakfast, and lunch, and dinner again. It wasn't a slippery slope. It was a straight free fall, and I knew it." 

Ballard includes several subplots involving Elizabeth's friends which serve to provide context and setting later on in the novel when Elizabeth is released from treatment and must return to school. Elizabeth receives a series of mysterious packages which she believes comes from her ex-boyfriend. Ultimately, these packages help her to work through what happened between them, to heal from that experience and to recognize her own strength. There is also a second storyline involving her continued bullying by a classmate which Elizabeth faces with grace and courage. With her new found strength, Elizabeth with the help of friends and family, confronts these challenges and continues to move forward.

Overall What I Lost is a realistic portrayal of someone struggling with an eating disorder. While Elizabeth's recovery may seem somewhat fast-tracked, her timeline of actively restricting is relatively short. The longer disordered eating occurs, the more entrenched the behaviours become and the more difficult it is to remove them and the accompanying thoughts. Balland undertook considerable research for her book and this is evident throughout. The ending is positive and hopeful  - which is something people with an eating disorder need to know. Recovery is difficult and hard work but there is hope!

Book Details:

What I Lost by Alexandra Ballard
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux      2017
390 pp.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries by Don Brown

Rare Treasure tells the story of the greatest "fossilist" of all time - Mary Anning of Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. Mary was born on May 21, 1799 to a cabinetmaker who supplemented his income by selling the strange finds from the fossil beds by the town. Although Mary's parents, Richard and Molly had ten children, only Mary and her brother Joseph survived to adulthood.

When Mary was a toddler, she was with a group of women watching an equestrian show when a storm blew up. The women took shelter beneath a tree when it was struck by lightning. Only Mary survived. This event seemed to mark a change in Mary who grew into a lively child full of curiosity.  Although Mary learned to read and write, she never received much education. The Anning family was poor and because of war on the continent, (England was at war with France), there were often food shortages.

Lyme Regis soon became a tourist mecca for the English looking to get away from the polluted, dirty cities of the north.  Richard Anning took Mary and Joseph with him as he scoured the limestone and shale cliffs around Lyme Regis looking for fossils. They would then set up a table in the town and sell their finds to tourists.

In November 1810, Mary's father passed away, leaving the family in even more serious poverty. To supplement their income from the parish relief they received Mary continued to hunt for fossils on the cliffs of Lyme Regis. Over the years she built up a substantial business and a reputation.

Her first major find was in 1811 when she was twelve years old. Over the period of several months she and Joseph dug up a fossilized skeleton of an what would later be called an ichthyosaur. Other substantial finds included a pleisosaur  in 1823, a pterosaur in 1828 and a squaloraja in 1829.

Although Mary Anning had received little schooling she read scientific papers and even studied the anatomy of living creatures to better understand the fossils she was finding. She lived at a time when women had few rights, the could not vote and were not allowed entry into universities. Although she was often not given full credit for her discoveries, eventually her contributions to the field of paleontology was recognized by several prominent geologists of the time. Mary Anning's discoveries had a profound influence on how humans thought about the planet and its past. At the turn of the century, the belief that the Earth and everything in it was created in six days by God was common. However, the fossils that Mary Anning discovered were of creatures that no longer existed and they made scientists rethink the past and how the present came to be.

Mary Anning's sketch of a Plesiosaur, 1824
Rare Treasure is a well written, short account of Mary Anning's life. Brown is a capable storyteller, capturing the more important parts of Mary Anning's life; her family's struggles with poverty, the dangerous work of searching for fossils on the shore, the wonderful discoveries she made, and her desire to understand what she found.Although some of the obstacles Anning encountered are omitted, Brown does emphasize that Mary Anning came to be highly regarded by many prominent scientists of the day including William Buckland and Richard Owens.  The pen, ink and watercolour illlustrations of Don Brown are a wonderful supplement to the story of this intelligent and courageous English woman.

Rare Treasure is recommended for young readers, especially girls interested in dinosaurs, earth science or science in general.

Book Details:

Rare Treasure: Mary Anning and Her Remarkable Discoveries by Don Brown
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company     1999

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

In A Perfect World by Trish Doller

Seventeen-year-old Caroline Kelly is stunned to learn she will be spending her senior year of high school living in Cairo, Egypt. Caroline had planned to spend her summer vacation working at Cedar Point with her best friend Hannah. Her parents had also arranged for her to attend a summer soccer camp at Ohio State and Caroline's goal was to make captain of the girl's team in her senior year.

Instead, Caroline and her mother will be spending the year in Cairo where her mother will be working for OneVision, a nongovernmental global health organization that "provides eye examinations and glasses to people in need, and eye surgeries to restore sight." Her mother, has been asked to set up an eye clinic in Cairo. Caroline will finish her senior year at the American school. Caroline's father who is a tugboat captain will only stay for a week to help them get set up in their apartment.

At the airport they meet Ahmed Saleh Elhadad who is their driver. Mr. Elhadad drives them to Rhoda Island, where their apartment is located. Their third floor apartment is large and sunny, but not furnished as agreed on, meaning they must buy everything. Mr. Elhadad sends his son Adam to set up their new furniture a few days later. Caroline notes that Adam is cute but is puzzled by his reluctant greeting. Her mother explains this is his way of showing respect.

The next morning Mr. Elhadad takes Caroline and her parents to see Manshiyat Nasr neighborhood where the new clinic is located. He tells them that it is known as the Garbage city because the "people who live there - the Zabbaleen - collect the garbage from around Cairo and take it back to Manshiyat Nasr to sort out the recyclables."  The city has no running water, sewers and little electricity.  However, Dr. Kelly's clinic is clean and bright, already for her to set up.

Manshiyat Nasr- the Garbage City
Caroline attempts to follow her mother's suggestion that she not stay within the confines of their apartment, but her first outing, an attempt to walk to the movie theater is disastrous when she is harassed by an older Egyptian man. She flees back to the apartment where she tells Adam what happened. He tells her she must try to ignore this behaviour as even some of the niqabi are assaulted. Caroline notes that Adam seems interested in her and she wonders if she could be attracted to someone like him.

After a week in the apartment, Caroline's mother calls Mr. Elhadad who offers to take Caroline to the pyramids. However, it is Adam who shows up, when Mr. Elhadad becomes ill. Caroline isn't ready to see the pyramids, so Adam takes her to the restaurant where he works, gets a take-out order of ksohary and they go to the park to eat.  A few days later, Caroline summons her courage and walks down to the movie theatre to see a film. This time she has no problems. Adam takes Caroline to the Friday Market, the souk al-Gomaa which Caroline describes as "more like a garage sale on the surface of the sun." Adam is helpful and tries to teach Caroline how to haggle. She also begins to learn more about Adam, that his mother Manar works in a wedding shop altering dresses, and that he has a younger sister Aya who is fifteen.

Koshary - popular street food in Cairo.
After Caroline and her mother are taken to the pyramids at Giza by Mr. Elhadad, who has now recovered, they stop for a snack at the shop where Adam works.Following the meal, Mr. Elhadad has a heart attack and is rushed to hospital. This development means that Adam must leave his job and take over his father's responsibilities as Caroline's driver. This sets up an awkward situation because both Caroline and Adam feel increasingly attracted to one another. As Adam drives Caroline to various sites around Cairo (the Hanging Church, Khan el-Khalili) their budding friendship blossoms into a forbidden love. But when radical Islamists attack the OneVision clinic, Caroline's family must change their plans. Can their new love overcome the obstacles of culture and distance?


In A Perfect World is a touching story about identity, forbidden love and acceptance. Doller focuses on Caroline's journey towards understanding a culture very different from her own. Caroline is an Irish Catholic who has grown up in predominantly white Sandusky, Ohio. Her mother, Dr. Rebecca Kelly is an eye specialist, while her father is a rugged tugboat captain. Caroline's has played soccer and dated and is planning to study anthropology at university. In contrast Adam Elhadad is a devout Muslim who is working in koshary shop and hopes to be a chef one day. His sister Aya wants to study engineering but that is dependent on her test scores. Unlike Caroline who doesn't believe in fate, Aya believes whatever happens is the will of Allah.

The Hanging Church
As soon as she arrives in Cairo, Caroline experiences a profound culture shock. "...people are staring. At her. At me. Particularly the men, who drag their gazes from my hair to my chest -- even though my red bandana-print top covers me completely..." Caroline is surprised to see some women with their hair uncovered, "flowing around their shoulders or knotted in buns." Some girls wear hijabs, others are dressed in jeans and sandals. "Many --but not all--of the older women are cloaked in black abayas and hijabs, while a few wear veils over the lower part of their faces. These women unsettle me because their identities, their personalities, are concealed. Are they happy? Sad? With their mouths covered, it feels as if they've been silenced...Clearly the rules are more complex than I thought. But if Muslim women have a choice in what they wear, why would they choose to cover themselves up?"

Caroline is even put off by the Arabic language which she describes as "...a harsh and unyielding language that I will never be able to understand." When she and her family first hear the Muslim call to prayer from the nearby mosque, Caroline describes it as "eerie as it is beautiful, but unsettling in the same way as the veiled woman at the airport. Fear of the unknown. I don't understand what is being sung--or why."

When she first meets Adam Elhadad, Caroline is surprised to discover that he looks like an ordinary guy that she might meet back home in Sandusky and that he's handsome. She "expected something more unusual" and wonders if she could be attracted to a boy like him.

However as she experiences life in Egypt, Caroline begins to learn about the culture and her preconceived ideas about Islam begin to change. This is demonstrated in her conversation with her best friend Hannah who believes all Middle Eastern men have beards and admits that the only Middle Eastern man she knows is Osama bin Laden, a terrorist. Caroline tells her "The Middle East is a huge place -- a bunch of different countries that have their own cultures. Not all the men have beards, just like not all the women wear hijabs, but misconceptions like these are how people end up believing that everyone from the Middle East is a terrorist."

When the adhan (call to prayer) begins, Caroline no longer finds it so scary, "especially now that I'm getting used to it, now that I know people who rise before the sun to say the prayers and perform the movements that accompany them." She begins to learn a bit of Arabic, teaching herself numbers and invites Adam to teach her some basic words.

Doller attempts to show through Caroline and Adam, that despite their obvious differences, people are often more similar than is immediately evident. For example, Caroline's mother helps her to see that some things about the Muslim's practice of their faith is not so different from their own faith. She points out that as a Catholic she says morning and evening prayers and even prays throughout the day, something she has in common with the Egyptian Muslims. Their calls to prayer are similar to the ringing of church bells in Sandusky for Mass. When Adam informs Caroline that Muslims use their right hand for all things honorable they discover that they are both left handed and that family members have been discouraged from using their left hand. Later on when talking with Aya, Caroline notes that her grandmother has a similar saying to the Arabic "Inshallah" which means "If it is God's will."

Doller tackles many different issues in her novel including how different life is for women in Egypt compared to America, the role religion plays in Egyptian society, the strong influence of family on young people and how both cultures have generalized misconceptions about the other.

As Caroline and Adam fall in love they face increasing resistance from their concerned families and friends. Adam knows a relationship with Caroline is "haram" but he decides to follow his heart. He must deal with the expectations of his family to marry a Muslim girl while Caroline struggles to fit in with his friends, some of whom do not like her. She also feels deep conflict over what a possible marriage to Adam might mean. Caroline cannot envisage herself converting to Islam and living the rest of her life in Cairo as she feels strongly drawn to her Catholic faith. As it turns out neither have to decide at this time to go against their culture or their beliefs.

Doller weaves in a satisfying ending for her readers, that is both romantic and plausible. Adam and Caroline are free to choose their relationship but only in America where society is more open. This novel's strengths are its descriptions of life in Cairo and the well drawn cast of characters.  Even the secondary characters are real and interesting.

Sadly this novel is marred by a stereotypical portrayal of an older Catholic, Caroline's Grandma Irene who is characterized as a bigot. She warns Caroline "to stay away from Muslims." obviously an impossible task for her granddaughter who is living in a Muslim country. Grandma Irene is a hypocritical Catholic despite attending weekly Mass. She is the foil to the younger Caroline, who represents the modern Catholic, open, flexible, and tolerant. Of course no mention is made of why Caroline's grandmother feels this way, only that it is wrong and intolerant. (The animosity between Muslims and Catholics goes back to the 7th century with the loss of important Christian shrines in the Holy Land, the persecution of Catholics in Muslim countries, as well as several attempts to conquer Christian Europe throughout the centuries. Persecution continues unabated today with attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt. In April 2017 two churches were bombed in Tanta and Alexandria during Easter and in May 2017 a group of Coptic Christians on a pilgrimage were massacred by Muslim extremists. Christians who make up ten per cent of Egypt's population complain of little protection by police and non enforcement of freedom of religion laws.) To make her grandmother even more intolerant, it turns out she doesn't like blacks either. It would be nice to see a positive characterization of a Catholic in young adult literature.

Overall, In A Perfect World is a timely novel that explores both the differences and similarities between a Muslim and a post-Christian culture through the eyes of two young people.

Book Details:

In A Perfect World by Trish Doller
Toronto: Simon Pulse     2017
294 pp.