by Caitlin Giffin

This year, the trend of kid-friendly on-fiction has shown no signs of slowing down and I am thrilled. A book that combines storytelling and science or history can be just as entertaining as any fiction title for family story time and reading aloud to groups. Here are a few new non-fiction titles published this year that are perfect for sharing.

Interactive picture books are a fun and effective way to get young children interested in reading. Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak is no exception. The story follows Min the microbe and her gang of microscopic pals on an adventure to your teeth, t-shirt, and even the inside of your belly button! Cute cartoons by Julian Frost and microscope photos by Linnea Rundgren are sure to pique your child’s interest. This title would also be a good read-aloud to a group.

Canadian author and illustrator Elise Gravel’s funny, whimsical style is a big hit with kids and adults alike. In her newest, The Mushroom Fan Club, Gravel shares her love of nature walks and foraging in easy, accessible language. Paired with her adorably anthropomorphic illustrations, this book is a great starting point for aspiring young mycologists. If you decide to go mushroom hunting, remember to follow Gravel’s two mushroom rules: Protect their environment and don’t eat them (without an adult mycologist).

I love a good suspense, and I was on the edge of my seat reading this next title. Otis and Will Discover the Deep: the Record-Setting Dive of the Bathysphere takes place in the 1930s and centres on Will Beebe and Otis Barton’s attempt to be the first human sever to experience the deep ocean. Their diving tank, the Bathysphere, weighs 5,000 pounds but the inside is only as big as a small closet! Will they achieve their goal of traveling deeper into the ocean than anyone before and making it out alive? Award-winning author Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Katherine Roy have created an exciting historical picture book with Otis and Will Discover the Deep.

Marti’s Song for Freedom tells the story of 19th century Cuban independence hero José Marti. Marti was an intellectual, writer and political activist who fought throughout his entire life for the abolition of slavery and the end of Spanish colonialism in his home country. Historian Emma Otheguy brings Marti’s story to life with bilingual verse-style prose in English and Spanish, as well as excerpts from Marti’s own poetry. This book deals with some very serious subject matter, but in a gentle and inspiring way appropriate for school-age children.

These books and so many more are available at the Ottawa Public Library.

Caitlin Giffin is a children’s programs and public service assistant at the Sunnyside Branch of the Ottawa Public Library.


GraceFreedomMy grandfather the chief justice

Grace and Wisdom; Patrick Kerwin, 1889 − 1963, Chief Justice ofCanada: A Biography, by Stephen G. McKennaPetra Books, 314 pp.

Reviewed by Chris McNaught

The appointment of Patrick Grandcourt (surely the perfect bilingual name for a Canadian jurist!) Kerwin to Canada’s highest bench in July 1954, and his subsequent tenure, pose a stark counter-piece to the chicanery currently debasing the U.S. Supreme Court. Canadians, typically, know little about the politics, philosophical bent or personality of any of Canada’s “Supremes,” past or present. Kerwin’s grandson (Stephen McKenna) has done an exemplary job of portraying the quintessentially Canadian Chief Justice: even-keeled, rigidly impartial, the soul of brevity in his opinions, a decent, quietly religious family man, with no publicly political axe to grind and an unassuming but deep devotion to high office.

This biography does not sizzle with scandal, personal vitriol, high drama or moral innuendo (Clarence Thomas, Kavanaugh anyone?); it is what it is, a straightforward, pleasantly intimate tale from birth to death of a very Canadian Canadian. While not riveting in the sense of a thriller, it is fully engaging in how old-fashioned rectitude, dedication and standards can produce a person worthy of being a model for a younger generation whose attention span often matches that of a rusted soap dish. This man listened, was fair, and cared about people in general and his country in particular – what’s not to admire?

Over time, legal scholars may properly acknowledge Kerwin’s deceptively profound yet by no means flamboyant dicta. What more unalloyed, prosaic expression of the right to free speech than his statement in an address to the Boston University School of Law in June 1957?: “Barring such matters as sedition, libel, slander and indecency, the individual in a free community may not only hold to his ideas but he may set them forth in words or writing without fear of untoward consequences.”

Or this principle, illustrating the Chief Justice’s three hallmark guides of brevity, adherence to precedent, and cautious experimentation: “In cases where constitutional issues are involved, it is important that nothing be said that is unnecessary.”

Born in Sarnia in Queen Victoria’s reign, the son of a ship merchant father, Patrick Kerwin grew up to help moderate Canada’s juridical, and by extension, societal, complexion during the grey years of the Cold War. One notorious case reaching the top court under Kerwin attested to his lack of bias and ability, if needed, to suppress personal credo or affinity. He was a staunch Catholic and well understood Quebec’s deep roots in that faith; yet in the 1959 Roncarelli v Duplessis decision, he ruled in favour of a Montreal restaurateur who funded the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ dissemination of tracts attacking established religions, particularly Roman Catholicism. In so voting, he reinforced the key precepts of civil liberties and individual freedoms and put a pin in the balloon of the autocratic Duplessis, who tagged the Witnesses as a threat to public order.

Perhaps the darkest shadow thrown over the rule of law by Duplessis, however, came in the sensational Wilbert Coffin affair. As a former criminal lawyer, I would have been thrilled to learn of any personal speculation or comment by McKenna’s grandfather on the merits of Coffin’s fate; but while McKenna cites the fact that the case passed through the Kerwin court’s hands, that’s all we hear – proper judicial protocol of course inhibits any public speculation, but oh, one could wish!

Coffin, a prospector and woodsman, was convicted in the murder of three Pennsylvanians visiting the Gaspésie in 1953. The bodies were located over a wide area, one of them mauled by a bear. The evidence was at best circumstantial, save for Coffin’s odd admission to stealing some of the victims’ luggage.

The autocratic premier had let it be known that any acquittal would be detrimental to Quebec’s appeal to foreigners and the trial at the local level produced a conviction. Quebec’s Court of Appeal upheld the verdict and the Supreme Court denied an application for leave to appeal. To Kerwin’s apparent credit perhaps, he caught the ear of the federal government with the view that, had the full court been queried, as opposed to the single justice who examined the leave-to-appeal application, he would have allowed leave to appeal. The federal cabinet thereupon stepped into the cause célèbre with a rarely used “reference” to the Supreme Court, i.e. “how would you have decided if you had granted leave to appeal?” The Court then nevertheless upheld the conviction (five to two) – Kerwin with the majority, on the basis that there had been a fair trial. Was it a political ploy to preserve appearances or the integrity of the system? No matter to Coffin, who was hanged in 1956. In the early 80s, I had the opportunity to interview his distinguished Quebec City counsel, François de Billy Gravel, and he was still tearful about the result. Thank god the death penalty is gone.

This biography is an unpretentious but proud family exploration, with legal and historical tangents. I must have been into the single malt, but after looking at the photo illustrations and absorbing the decency of Kerwin, I had a warm glow, a grandfatherly liking for the man, and parallel images floated in of old Judge Hardy in the classic 40s film series (with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland )…sigh!

Chris McNaught is a Glebe author, former criminal lawyer and feature writer for Canadian Lawyer Magazine. His most recent novel is The Linnet (Vanguard Press/Pegasus, U.K.).

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