by Larry McCloskey
Reviewed by JC Sulzenko
An old song about only wanting two front teeth for Christmas comes to mind as I begin this review of Larry McCloskey’s new novel, A Christmas Dragon, his third from Dog-Eared Books, a press which he co-founded.
One of the story’s two main characters, Danny, is missing his front teeth, which provided the odd segue into my wish to pin down this young adult novel’s genre.
Time travel, a witch, bullying, religion, child abuse, fear and family ties all have a place in the story’s 167 pages. So, is the book sci-fi or fantasy? Is it an odyssey-like adventure or a mystery? Is it a Christmas story or mini-morality play in a Christmas setting? Or all of the above?
Before I go further, I admit I am not in the target demographic for readers of this book. I also grew up as an only child with the advantages (not having to share or to be shadowed constantly by a sibling) and the disadvantages (loneliness) attendant on that state. In my upbringing, the presence of religion was cultural and spiritual rather than institutional.
With that said, I must be honest and say I found this book both a good read and a disappointment in some ways.
The story revolves around the relationship between two brothers within the context of what it’s like to be a boy growing up in the shadow of the Catholic Church both in the 1960s and then 50 years into the future.
“Hate” is the word Ignatius – nicknamed Zigo, the second protagonist and older brother – uses over and over to describe his younger, resilient brother Danny. From the start of the novel, the use of that word and the power imbalance between the boys bothered me. I never came to like Zigo, while Danny, who worships his older brother, took on the mantle of both victim and hero, and kept my allegiance throughout.
The boys attend a school where some nuns and priests are kind but where one teacher uses the strap and threats to keep students in line, even for the purposes of readying the choir to sing like angels at Christmas. It’s no wonder that Zigo’s fear of having to sing a solo causes a stomach ache! Rival “gangs” of boys, hockey, a TV-star priest who wows adults and children alike but is a pedophile, stereotypical parents who ignore cues from their kids, and a frightening statue of St. George and the dragon he slew all come into play.
Zigo and Danny’s through-the-looking- glass encounter with a magical woman, labelled as a witch by the Bulldog gang, provides a pivotal moment in the narrative. Dared to break into her house to get evidence of witchcraft, the frightened brothers instead find Bernice to be a seer.
When Zigo shares how desperate he is to find ways to be unafraid, she offers the boys a chance to go into the future to help someone and, in so doing, to learn how not to fear what life may throw at them. St. George’s dragon embodies Zigo’s fear.
It is at this point in the story I felt somewhat let down. The “portal” chosen to take the brothers to “Futureland” is ho-hum. The great contrasts between everything the boys leave behind and what they see and experience in a world 50 years ahead of their own time feel underplayed.
What is satisfying, though, is how characters from the boys’ real-time life are encountered in this future world and the pace at which the story proceeds.
There’s an ease in McCloskey’s storytelling. He draws the reader into each situation through the use of dialogue that rings true. The suspense he builds into events as they escalate keeps the reader turning pages and rooting for the success of the brothers in their quest.
I will resist the temptation to share what happens next in any detail, since I do not wish to have to issue a spoiler alert. Suffice it to say there are moments of sadness and joy. There are good guys and bad guys. The former fare well, the latter get their comeuppance.
Zigo and Danny do solve the problem they were sent into the future to address. When they return to their own time, just in time for the Christmas concert, they return stronger, each in their own sense of self.
As to what happens to Zigo’s “hate” for his little brother? You will need to read A Christmas Dragon to find out.
JC Sulzenko is a poet, teacher and writer who lives in the Glebe and curates the Glebe Report’s Poetry Quarter. Her poetry collection, South Shore Suite…Poems was published by Point Petre Publishing in November 2017.
Community starts early
By Ildiko Sumegi
The New Year awaits us with all the promise and potential of a blank page. It’s a perfect time to think about what kind of mark we shall make in the future. While it is not always easy to make the most of each day, cultivating an active interest in the world is a good place to start. Here are a few books that may inspire young readers to be curious and engaged participants in their world.
Dodsworth is a rodent of particular habits. His routine consists of collecting items from the junkyard to sell in his thrift shop, napping and watching television. His motto is “Try to do as little as possible.” One day he finds a broken old pink refrigerator with a note attached that reads, “Make Pictures.” Inside, he finds a sketchbook and art supplies, which he duly takes home to sell in his shop. But when it comes down to it, Dodsworth can’t bring himself to part with the items, and he finds himself interrupting his usual routine to paint a picture! Each day, he finds a new note on the refrigerator and different items inside. Dodsworth soon becomes a rodent with an outdated motto. When one day he finds the refrigerator empty, Dodsworth must decide for himself what it is he will do next.
Tim Egan has produced a one-of-akind picture book that may spur young readers to take a more active interest in their world. Egan’s illustrations are stuffed with the odds and ends of both junkyard and thrift shop, making it all the more remarkable that Dodsworth has lasted so long in his minimal routine. This quiet little book provides a gentle reminder to break free and occasionally take the initiative.
Yasmin has been reading a book a day for over 400 days. The best library in all of India rests at the corner of her street. There, a retired school teacher affectionately known as Book Uncle has laid out his books on planks of wood for anyone to borrow. When the city forces Book Uncle to remove himself and his books from the sidewalk, Yasmin takes an interest in the local election in the hope that something can be done to save a library that has done so much for so many.
Uma Krishnaswami brings a community to life in this amusing and observant little book. Not very many children’s books of fiction address community action and democracy in quite this way. In fact, Yasmin soon learns that the election is not the end of the struggle. Promises are often forgotten and voters must continue to make their voices heard. Occasional black-and-white illustrations by Julianna Swaney offer moments of rest amidst the action.
When a piece of land appears in the middle of the river due to the diversion of waters downstream, 12-year-old Billy is intrigued. The sandy island is the size of a soccer field and it seems that it does not belong to anyone. As the summer holidays begin in Ontario, Billy along with his friends Sami and Charlie decide to stake a claim to the island. They plant a flag, put up a sign and sing a heartfelt anthem to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” So it is that The Kingdom of No Worries is born. It is a place of tolerance where everyone is welcome and everyone is equal. As word spreads, people start arriving on the island, bringing with them not only their hopes and joys, but their garbage and their problems as well. The city of Briffin is unimpressed and action is taken in an effort to evict the population of the kingdom. When a group of First Nations people wade over to the island one day to argue their own claim to the island, the boys must ask themselves the ultimate question: who really owns the land?
Philip Roy has written a thoughtprovoking, touching and at times hilarious story of three boys who spend their summer grappling with questions of sovereignty, community and responsibility. Readers are treated to an amusing crash course in statehood and government. The story provides an entertaining and openended opportunity for middle-grade readers to ponder the complexities of creating a better world.
Ildiko Sumegi is a Glebe resident, mother of two boys, and reviewer for the Canadian Children’s Book News magazine.
New holiday picture books
By Susan Townley
Celebrate the holiday season by reading some new children’s Christmas books available at your local Sunnyside library.
Beginning with the very youngest of readers, there is a new board book from the popular children’s author and illustrator Sandra Boynton. Merry Christmas, Little Pookie is the latest in her board book collection about the little pig Pookie. It’s Christmas Eve and Pookie and his mother are out for a walk in the snow. Returning home with frozen noses they make paper garlands, turn on Christmas lights and bake cookies. There is a typically unique Boynton song when friends and family arrive for carolling. With charming illustrations and Boynton’s usual lilting rhymes, this board book is sure to please both the child being read to and the reader as well.
Another popular children’s author, Sherri Duskey Rinker, has a new Christmas picture book for fans of her construction series. As with the other books in her series, Rinker introduces trucks and their important jobs on the construction site with upbeat rhyming couplets. Christmas has arrived at the construction site and the trucks are finishing building a special house. As night comes and snow falls, their work is done and the fire trucks roll into their new home. Truck lovers will enjoy Rinker’s newest addition. Construction Site on Christmas Night will no doubt be read all year long.
The Little Reindeer by Nicola Killen is a gentle Christmas Eve picture book that begins with a fresh blanket of snow and the soft jingle of bells chasing away a small girl’s sleep. Peeking out the window, she sees a magical world of shimmering snow. She dashes outside, sled in tow, chasing the sound of bells. She finds a bell-studded collar snagged on a tree. A reindeer steps from the shadows and offers her an unforgettable ride through the night sky. Die-cut windows, shimmering silver foil flakes and dashes of red accents contrast the muted charcoal and white illustrations. This is a perfect Christmas bedtime read.
Red and Lulu by Matt Tavares is the story of a pair of cardinals who make their home in the branches of an evergreen outside a suburban house. This seemingly perfect place to live changes one day when Red returns to find that the tree has been cut down and his beloved Lulu is trapped inside the tree that has been loaded onto a truck. Red frantically follows the truck to New York City. Dramatic, bird’s-eye-view illustrations of New York fill the pages until Red spots the tree in its place of honour at Rockefeller Center. It is sparkly but still as beautiful as he remembers it and there in the tree he is reunited with Lulu. Detailed watercolour illustrations capture the holiday season and sense of adventure and tension. Even the most sensitive readers will be reassured by the happy ending, with the tree being recycled into homes for families in need and Red and Lulu moving to Central Park after the holidays.
Love, Santa (When you’re ready to share the beautiful truth about Santa), written by Martha Brockenbrough and illustrated by Lee White, is a lovely introduction to the truth about Santa. Every parent dreads the moment when they have to have the difficult discussion about whether Santa exists. This picture book is filled with letters that Lucy writes to Santa and that Santa replies to Lucy, beginning when Lucy is five with simple questions and requests and continuing until Lucy is eight, when she is pretty sure that she knows the answer to the letter she writes to her mom: “Dear Mom, Are you Santa?” The answer she receives is thoughtful and heartfelt, as was the answer that the author wrote to her own daughter that was published in the New York Times in 2009. The watercolour illustrations and charming text capture the joy of the season and the emotional uncertainty of growing up.
Finally, with some holiday fun for everyone there is The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book by Chris McVeigh. This is a step-by-step guide to building LEGO® ornaments such as presents, poinsettia and snowflakes. There are some other quirky additions such as a burger, a camera and an arcade to build as well. LEGO aficionados will recognize the typical pictorial instructions similar to those included with LEGO sets. This book would be a fun addition for anyone who loves to build with LEGO and a great way to spend some quiet hours over the holiday period.
These books and so many more recent holiday reads are available at your local Sunnyside public library.
Susan Townley loves to sing, dance and have fun every day in the Children’s Department at the Sunnyside Branch of the Ottawa Public Library.