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October 19, 2018

Africville, by Shauntay Grant and Eva Campbell

I am generally impressed with the search function for my online photos—if I search for “playground,” “Kensington Market,” or “bookstore,” it tends to have an uncanny sense of what I’m looking for, although it still has trouble telling the difference between a cup of tea and bowl of soup. But a search for “Africville” turned up nothing, a location Google didn’t recognize—which meant I had to go back into the archive and find the photo myself, the one of my children in front of the Africville Museum on our trip to Nova Scotia in 2017.

Which actually didn’t surprise me in the slightest, the history of Halifax’s historic Black community being one that’s not much about erasure, never mind that many of its residents could trace their roots back to the arrival of Black Loyalists in Canada during the American Revolutionary War. But while the community thrived in many ways, Africville’s residents never receive the same services as other taxpayers in the Halifax area, such as running water or sewage systems, and the municipality also saw fit to zone a garbage dump and slaughterhouses as its neighbours–all of which meant that when it became fashionable to condemn this historic Black community and recommend its demolition, there appeared to be plenty of reasons to support this action, and in the 1960s—against opposition—residents were moved out and the community was torn down.

On the site now, a replica of the community’s church has been built as a museum, following the declaration of Africville as a National Historic Site of Canada in 2002. Our visit in 2017  was moving and informative, with a great scavenger hunt that got my children involved and engaged with the exhibits, and prompted important conversations about systemic racism and its historic legacies. But while there were books in the giftshop, there were no picture books about Africville exactly. Instead, we got Up Home, a beautiful book about another Nova Scotian Black community called North Preston, written by poet Shauntay Grant—whose The City Speaks in Drums we also picked up somewhere along the way, a perfect Halifax souvenir. All this meaning that I’ve been really looking forward to Grant’s latest release, Africvillea finalist for this year’s Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature, lyrically resonant and stunningly illustrated by Eva Campbell.

“Take me to the end of the ocean,” the book begins, “where waves come to rest and hug the harbour stones.” Africville reimagined in Campbell’s illustrations, oil and pastel on canvas, brightly coloured houses beside the bright blue sea. Blueberries growing on the hill, smells of apple pie and blueberry duff drifting from the kitchens. Football, rafting, and warm summer nights, “down at Kildare’s Field,/ a bonfire burning red/like the going-down sun.”

“Where the pavement ends and family begins.”

Through her story, Grant shows the resilience of Halifax’s Black community who wasn’t about to let their history disappear, and founded an annual Africville reunion festival in 1983, which continues years later and helped lead to the historic site declaration decades later. The rainbow houses are gone, but we see a stone marking the names of community families, and celebrations and singing inside the festival tent. “…where memories turn to dreams,/ and dreams turn to hope,/ and hope never ends. Take me…to Africville.” A history that’s erased no longer.

October 16, 2018

The babysitter is not here.

I need a babysitter. Literally, yes, but also more figuratively too, and I’m having trouble finding the one I need, because teenage girls are so much younger now than they used to be when I was a small child, when I regarded babysitters with the reverence Dar Williams articulates exactly in her song, “The Babysitter’s Here.” A babysitter like Elisabeth Shue in Adventures in Babysitting, pretty much the archetypal babysitter. But if you recall, Shue’s “Chris Parker” character was only available to babysit because she’d just had a date cancelled by her jerk boyfriend—in reality, seventeen-year-old girls are not very interested in  babysitting at all. Eleven and twelve-year-old girls girls are actually where it’s at, babysitting wise, but then it’s the same thing that all of us had to deal with when we examined The Babysitters Club series with a critical eye, and realized the girls in the club were just children. No offence to Mallory Pike, but I’m not totally comfortable leaving my children in your care (and besides that, you have a nine o’clock curfew).

But when I was a child and it was 1985, the seventeen and eleven were indistinguishable from my vantage point, and the babysitters all had feathered hair, and exotic accoutrements like braces and acne. Dangling earrings. To me, they were all beautiful, and fascinating, and a window onto my own future as an adolescent, although I would never be as amazing as they were. (It is likely that they were also not as as amazing as they were.) My babysitters were basically Nancy from the Netflix series Stranger Things, who (along with Winona Ryder) was mostly everything I actually liked about Stranger Things, pure babysitter nostalgia. They had names like Bonnie-Ann, and Sarah-Michelle, and Lisa and Heather. One time we even had one who was actually called Nancy, who lived in a townhouse near Oshawa Centre, and I must have come along when my parents picked her up or drove her home, because I think about her every time I drive down Dundas Street in Whitby, and it’s possible that I only ever knew Nancy for a couple of hours in my entire life.

But there is a kind of presence that babysitters possess, an easy authority. No babysitter ever had to yell at us, because my sister and I were in love with all teenage girls and would have done anything they asked of us. My one episode of defiance came about when my babysitter Lisa had her boyfriend over while she was babysitting us, and I was really uncomfortable with his presence, because I was aware that this was a transgression, but also I didn’t like him, and he was distracting our babysitter from lavishing her attention on us. So after I’d been put to bed, I called downstairs to Lisa and her boyfriend that my parents’s car had just returned to the driveway, even though it hadn’t, and she had to get rid of him out the side door fast. I don’t remember if she brought him back once it was clear that I was lying, or if she demonstrated her anger toward me, but I do know that that was the last time Lisa ever babysat at our house.

The most magical babysitter ever (“She’s the best one that we ever had…”) was Sarah Michelle, who was so pretty (“pretty” was an essential quality for babysitters to have, as far as we were concerned) and who played with us, which was novel, and she became a kind of legend (I think we built something out of a cardboard box) and I remember too that she came to babysit us again after a break, as she wasn’t magic anymore and didn’t play with us at all. Possibly she’d just turned seventeen and had just started had a date cancelled by her boyfriend, but I recall the disappointment viscerally, one off my earliest heartbreaks. The unsustainability of superstar babysitting, for most ordinary people, is an unfortunate reality. Except for a select blessed few among us, the novelty of time spent in the presence of small children is something that wears off fast.

Which is a fitting place to transition to my own experiences as a babysitter, and the children I was caring for factor very little in my memories of being a babysitter—and how Bonnie-Ann, Sarah Michelle, Lisa and Heather probably don’t think of me at all. My own babysitting memories are set in the 1990s with City TV late night movies on, most notably the 1982 film Cat People, about people who turned into monstrous black panthers, and which was so terrifying that I was afraid even to get off the couch and go into the kitchen and eat all of the pickles in the fridge leaving behind bottles of brine, which was my usual tactic as a babysitter. When I wasn’t eating all their chips and ice cream, that is. “Help yourself to anything in the kitchen,” was a dangerous offer to me in 1994, and many of my babysitting clients would live to regret it. You’d think they’d even stop hiring me, with thoughts toward conserving the grocery bill, but then babysitters are hard to come by, a most precious resource. You take what you can get.

October 15, 2018

Splitsville, by Howard Akler

Howard Akler packs a lot into a scant 119 pages in Splitsville—a neighbourhood, a city, a legendary municipal battle that’s nearly fifty-year-old. History and geography. The beginning, middle and end of a love affair. Words I didn’t know the meanings of, and which made me pull out my underlining pen instead of rolling my eyes in frustration: aniline; exophthalmic; badinage; ulna; oppugnant.

And a mystery: Hal Sachs had run a used bookstore on Spadina Avenue as the debate over the Spadina Expressway was heating up, and he falls in love with Lily Klein, fired from her job teaching civics at Harbord Collegiate for activism. (“The point is: people are really steamed. They’re organizing. That’s the true meaning of democracy. It’s not as simple as majority rules. It’s more about voice, about speaking up and about the city learning to listen to other points of view.”)

On the day before the final decision about the Spadina Expressway is brought down, Hal Sachs disappears. Decades later, his nephew (“Aitch Akler:” this is autofiction of a sort, as I understand it, except it’s not exceptionally annoying, distinguishing this novel in the genre) is expecting his first child, and trying to piece together fact and fiction to understand what happened to his uncle, and what happened to the city whose streets and sidewalks he navigates on a peripatetic journey into the past and into the future at once.

A huge part of my passion for this novel is personal: the characters trace the same sidewalks I walk every day, sidewalks that wouldn’t even exist in the Spadina Expressway plan had not been thwarted—because otherwise my neighbourhood would have been demolished. Every day I walk up Robert Street north of Sussex, a playing field because the houses had been bought up and torn down to make way for the expressway that never arrived. On Saturday, we went out for lunch in Chinatown because Splitsville had made me hungry. I know these streets. But it’s more than that too, this novel fulfils a yearning I’ve had for real and deep conversations about civic engagement at a moment when our democratic rights as Torontonians have just been trounced upon a by spiteful and reckless provincial government. What does it mean to fight for something? Does it matter if you win or lose?

I think you need not be a person who cross Spadina Avenue at least six times daily or be someone whose voting rights have recently been undermined to appreciate Splitsville, however.  My passion is only partly personal, and is also about the novel’s attention to language, its literary references, its bookstore setting, the subtlety of its plot and pacing, its absolutely perfect conclusion, and the mystery at its core, questions without answers. I was on Page 93 of the book when I went online and ordered another copy to mail to a friend, which is some kind of endorsement for sure. And now that I’ve read to the end, I want to give a copy to everyone.

October 12, 2018

Picture Book Friday: The Crowd Pleasers Edition

We’re pretty-obsessed with Hotel Fantastic, Thomas Gibeault’s picture book about a journey’s end that’s beyond your wildest imaginings. It’s a place like no other, indeed, providing a good night’s sleep to all sorts of creatures—dragons, robots, mermaids, monsters, and giants. There’s a gryphon in the gift shop and a Viking in the restaurant (where everything is roasted with dragon fire). There’s even a rooftop pool, and of course there is, because the Hotel Fantastic has everything, including a ballroom with a disco ball and an infirmary, and hotel security is a knight, a ninja, a superhero and a t-rex—but even they are no match for the PLOT TWIST that reaches in to the Hotel Fantastic at the end of the story and turns the whole thing on its nose. This book is an ode to play and unbounded imagination, as well as the realities of meddlesome siblings. Plus, Gibault’s illustrations are rich with colour and detail, drawing readers right in.

**

And Steve is back! We’re so excited. We loved Kelly Collier’s debut, A Horse Named Steve, and have been wondering what he’s been up lately, that loveable, self-obsessed equine. And so expectations were pretty high for Team Steve, her follow-up, but I’m pleased to announce that we heartily endorse it. And by “we,” I’m not being royal, but mean literally “we”  with my team in picture book criticism, those without whom there would be no storytime, by husband and two children. We love Steve, who thinks he’s got the annual race-a-thon ALL TIED UP because he’s got the longest legs of all the creatures. Except now the rules have changed, and the race is a relay, and Steve’s on the team with Duck, Turtle and Snail. “Wait a sec,” says Steve. “A duck waddles, a turtle walks, and a snail…is a snail! How are we supposed to win?” But Steve, see, just literally can’t lose, no matter what he does, partly because this an unlikely tortoise and the hare-type story, but also because he’s got an ego as big as his heart is. This is a book with twists and turns (and plods and shuffles), and the ending was absolutely a delight.

October 9, 2018

The Ontario Government’s Consultation on Public Education (or: WORST ONLINE SURVEY EVER)

As a woman who literally came of age reading magazines in the 1990s (graduating from Seventeen and YM to Glamour and Cosmo—in fundamental ways, Bonnie Fuller built me), one would think that I’d have more enthusiasm for an online quiz. Certainly, I’ve taken my fair share, including one that determined what kind of kisser I was based on the shape of my lipstick (“mostly a’s!”), which was particularly illuminating seeing as I was fourteen, had never kissed anyone, and didn’t wear lipstick.

And since then—particularly as my media consumption moved online—I’ve dutifully checked the boxes to discover if I was Blanche or Dorothy, Samantha or Carrie, what my ultimate travel destination was, or what new hot foodie trend I should be trying. Although I will admit my quiz-taking enthusiasms were dampened by recent disclosures that online surveys were actually harvesting data with which to undermine our online privacy—but by this point I had a good-enough grasp on what kind of kisser I am (STELLAR) and my Golden Girls character (Dorothy—I will own it) that quizzes in general were much less of a fascination. There was the question too of the value of my time—I charge a whole lot more than the chance to win a free iPod for a quarter hour, my friends, and so too should you.

But then along comes our new Provincial Government with their populist leanings and fervour for “consultation.” They want to be listening “to the people”—although not so much that I’ve yet received a response from my letters to the Premier and Minister of Municipal Affairs in August about their undermining of Toronto’s upcoming municipal election, or any engagement from my tweets to the Education Minister about her government’s decision to cut a $100 million fund for school repairs among many other issues. Alas, this is a government that prefers to communicate via online quiz, for better or for worse—but mostly for worse.

I know it’s mostly for worse because last month I attempted to fill in their survey on public services, my thinking being, “I’ve got lots of opinions, and I’ve been filling out quizzes since Bonnie Fuller was editor of Flare.” I was definitely feeling pretty quiz-confident, but when it came time for the survey, I actually just shut down. Because the quiz was really, really long, and asking my opinion on matters I know nothing about. I’d come to the survey through through my interest in early childcare education in Ontario—but here they were consulting me as well on social services, Northern affairs and mining, and unemployment benefits. And not to paint this government with the evil brush or anything, but I also couldn’t properly be sure that if I skipped the parts of the survey of which I have no knowledge, interest, or relationship that they mightn’t see my lack of engagement as a way to excuse government wriggling out of providing these services altogether. (“We consulted Kerry in Toronto, and based on her feedback, we will no longer be providing infrastructure to communities in Northern Ontario.”) As I failed to complete this survey, I also found myself wondering why I was being consulted about issues I know nothing about. Aren’t there experts on these matters? Mightn’t it be more valuable to be consulting with those experts instead of with me? Oh, wait

But not content with their very crappy online survey about public services, this government is back with their consultation about public education. “We invite everyone – parents, students, educators and interested individuals or organizations, and also that guy screaming at the sky and the woman obsessed with anal sex who ran for PC leadership – to provide feedback on the education system in Ontario,” the survey begins. They don’t care who you are—if you are a religious zealot who is convinced that the previous sex-ed curriculum was developed by a pedophile; if you are a father who’d prefer his daughter not know the name of her body parts than be protected from sexual abuse; if you are someone who’s been sending hate mail to LGBTQ families in your community. It really doesn’t matter—they want to hear from you.

Which makes it very important that they hear from me too, even though this survey is just as stupid as the other one, and even though it’s a giant waste of my time, and I can’t believe that I and even people who are stupider than me are being given a say in how our public education curriculum is developed—when we have teachers and other pedagogical experts who know a whole lot more about teaching and education than we do. Which was basically my answer to most of the questions in the survey—that teachers need to be the ones deciding the curriculum and that our educational system means nothing if teachers are not empowered, and also that I want my children to be learning about gender identity, LGBTQ families, about consent and protecting themselves online, because my children live in this world and not some imaginary one the anal sex lady is trapped inside (and somebody let her out, please? It doesn’t seem nice in there).

It truly was the worst online survey ever (“Mostly C’s: You are Burning With Rage at the Stumbling Incompetence of This Province’s Elected Representatives Who Should Be Too Embarrassed To Get Out of Bed in the Morning, Let Alone Posting Self-Congratulary Tweets That Have Nothing to Do With Their Portfolios“). But it’s our civic duty, my fellow Ontarians—particularly those of us without ideological axes to grind and children in the public system aka a stake in the game—to step up and do the work. Be consulted. Use your voice, and let the government know that you want a robust and well-funded public education system that supports teachers and the spectacular work they do for our children every single day. 

October 8, 2018

The Reptile Club, and other great books

In lieu of a Picture Book Friday post, check out my round-up of great picture books for autumn—which includes the absolutely delightful The Reptile Club, by Maureen Fergus and Elina Ellis.

October 4, 2018

Notes For the Everlost, by Kate Inglis

As an adult, the very first person I ever knew who was pregnant gave birth to a stillborn baby at full term, which would forever-after colour my understanding of pregnancy and its possibilities, and this understanding would be part of my impulse for creating The M Word many years later, to integrate experiences of loss into the motherhood story. Because a baby isn’t always the outcome of that story, or even a healthy baby—at least not at first. And neither is pregnancy the only path to a person’s understanding of what a mother does and what a mother is. There are so many ways to be a mother, for better or for worse, and in Notes For the Everlost: A Field Guide to Grief, Kate Inglis writes about the hardest way, which is to be a mother for a child who is no longer here.

Now, there are several reasons why one might want to read a book subtitled “a field guide to grief.” Most obviously, if one is grieving—and Inglis has made this a practical book for such a situation, one informed by her experience of running an online forum for bereaved parents. Chapter One is titled, “The Immediate Protocol,” and the first guideline is, “Don’t apologize.” Chapter Three, “What Now,” is about finding one’s way through the first year, and it’s first sentence is, “You’ve got to get up and make breakfast.” There is good advice here, both for the bereft, but also for the people who love those who are grieving. Without being explicit, Inglis has also created a field guide for saying and doing not-terrible things around the grieving—when someone’s baby dies, don’t talk about your dead dog, please. “You will learn to surround yourself with people who understand that occasional sadness is not about them, and who never begin sentences with You should… unless they end with ...come over ’cause I just made soup.”

There’s a lot of generosity here though, toward those clumsy clods who don’t know what do say, or who say the wrong thing, who tell you that your baby’s in a better place now. Inglis writes about people whose miseries pale in comparison to hers—but also how others’ pain might make hers look slight. And what is this hierarchy anyway, and how we all takes turn being above and below. Inglis urges compassion from the grieving—for all those who are really doing their best, even when their best is awful. And there will be days when one can so generous, and other days when such generosity is not attainable, and grief is not a straight line, she writes. There is no perfect metaphor, for how it never goes away, and how it changes. She doesn’t write about “healing,” but instead about “integrating,” an ongoing process.

Another reason to read a book subtitled, “a field guide to grief,” or at least to read this one, is that because Notes for the Everlost is just an extraordinary literary creation—an engrossing and fascinating reading experience, rich with turns of phrase and imagery, as surprising and absorbing as any decent field guide should expect to be. I loved this book for its sentences and its structure, and for the harrowing, devastating story at its core, and the incredible writing, the reflection. A balance of love and anger, moving on and remembrance, holding on and letting go, living and dying, dark and light. As good as A Year of Magical Thinking, but a decade instead, what happens once the magical thinking is over, and even after that. Proof that living through tragedy is possible, even when you think you can’t or won’t. A book about death that—at its heart—is about life, and which dares to ask big questions without pretending to have all the answers.

October 3, 2018

Fall Books on the Radio

I was looking forward to my books column on CBC Ontario Morning today because these are five books I am really, emphatically excited about. Of course, I like all the books I recommended, but these ones in particular are standouts—and what a wonderful thing it is to be tasked with talking about things you really, really love. You can listen again on the podcast here—I come in around 23.40.

October 2, 2018

Staying Home to Read

I read fifteen books last month, and some of them were really long, and so many of them were really good, and I’m pleased with this progress and with how much better I feel about the world knowing that these books are in it. Books that have reminded me: I really, really love reading, which is pretty much the root of everything I get up to these days. There is even time enough for it…which is always the thing I say around this time of year before I take on twenty stupid or less-stupid commitments that render such a statement untrue. But there is only time enough because I stayed home every night. Dear Writers: I am desperately sorry I wasn’t able to attend your literary gathering, but instead I was at home reading your book.

With just a couple of exceptions, of course. Last Saturday we had the pleasure of a weekend getaway to Huntsville, where I took part in the Huntsville Public Library’s Books and Brunch event with Hannah Mary McKinnon and K.A. Tucker. McKinnon’s most recent book is The Neighbours, which is the novel that kicked off my holiday reading in July, a twisty domestic drama that hinges on the premise of a woman’s ex-boyfriend moving in with his family to the house next door. Let me tell you how the situation turns out: NOT SO GREAT, ACTUALLY. And I read Tucker’s novel (her sixteenth, I think?), The Simple Wild, and I LOVED IT. It was funny, gripping and swoon-worthingly romantic in the way all my favourite 1990s’ films were. Together, the three of us had a fun and engaging conversation about writing, books, and publishing, and it was absolutely fabulous to be in such excellent company.

And then this weekend I found myself at another wonderful event, this time with members of my coven (because doesn’t every witch need a coven, and how fortunate I am that this one adopted me) celebrating Jennifer Robson’s forthcoming novel, The Gown. It was an afternoon tea, which is always up my street, and the food was divine, the bookish conversation delightful as we listened to Jen and Kate Quinn, and the table conversation was even better, as it always is when we get together. Definitely worth leaving the house for—which is not a phase I throw around lightly.

October 1, 2018

The Journey Prize Stories 30

Seasons aside, a year is kind of an arbitrary span of time, but I love that my 2018 has been defined by the gestation of The Journey Prize Stories 30 and the experience of being a juror for the prize. It was January and the dead of winter when I received an email from McClelland and Stewart Editor Anita Chong with this amazing opportunity, and it was February and March as I read the stories, 100 of them, usually while my children were at Brownies or swimming lessons, and I was the woman with the giant bundle of papers. April and May were my conversations with co-jurors Sharon Bala and Zoey Leigh Peterson, which were so rewarding and inspiring and we learned a lot from each other (and then Sharon and I spent a day together at The FOLD in May, and my admiration for her was set in stone). Through May and June, we wrote our introduction together, and set the stories’ order, which was also terrifically interesting. And then our jury was announced in late July, the finalists not long after. And last week the book become available in stores, that giant bundle of papers rendered into something readable and magnificent. I’m reading it now, a story per night, revisiting these stories in a very different context from where I found them in the first place. What a journey, to be more than a bit corny. But I am really excited about this book. (And about the presentation of the winner at the Writers’ Trust Awards in November. The Journey Prize year goes on and on…)

Anyway, I now implore you all to go out and buy The Journey Prize Stories 30, because it’s such a rich and wonderful collection of stories. But I’ve got a second copy going that I want to give away to someone in the meantime. If you’d like a chance to win it (and have a Canadian address), please leave a comment on my blog or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram telling me what your favourite Canadian story, or story writer, or story collection is. Winner will be chosen Monday October 8.

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