Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Eight Book Reviews: Mutala, Munro, Montgomery, Scofield & Briley, Harlekin Bishop, Einarson, Simpson, and Driver

“Confessions of a Dance Mom”

by Alison R. Montgomery

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$16.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-28-7

     Saskatonian Alison R. Montgomery recently published Confessions of a Dance Mom, and simply put, I love this book. From the outside, it’s an honest, naturally-voiced retrospective of the author’s son’s journey from a child with an interest in dance to his employment with the prestigious Stuttgarter Ballett. But it’s much more. It’s a compelling story about family, and a strong treatise on dedication, pride, loss, and letting go.

     Maternal love is at the heart of this beautifully designed and well-written testimony. Interesting, then, that my out-of-province daughter was visiting days before I began this book. She saw it on my desk, and said: “Alison was one of my high school teachers.”

     Of course. I hadn’t made the connection, but then I also remembered Montgomery, and my daughter and I recalled the tragic loss of her elder son, who died at 24 while mountain-climbing in BC. This is important, because that early loss forms the bass-line in this story: a mother fully supports her now only child’s rise from Brenda’s School of Baton and Dance in Saskatoon to Canada’s Royal Ballet School in Winnipeg as a young teen, and then to Stuttgart. While technology like Skype makes the separation easier, Montgomery’s protective instinct is fierce for good reason, yet she selflessly accepts that for her son to be the best dancer he can be, she’ll have to “lose” him, too.

     The book begins with a Foreword by Mongtomery’s son, Jesse Fraser, who continues to dance professionally in Germany. He writes: “My journey to Stuttgart was not a straight line,” and states that “the preparation part would not have been possible without the unwavering support and encouragement I received from my parents-especially my dance mom!”

     Each short chapter that follows is framed as a numbered “Confession” by the author, and includes telling anecdotes. In “Confession #4: I only watch my kid,” Montgomery says that she had “no idea what was happening anywhere else on stage,” and “it took me years to begin to tell the girls apart” due to their similar hairstyles, make-up, and costumes, and their sheer numbers compared to the males.

     The author loved to watch her son in class, rehearsals and performances, and often travelled to Winnipeg, and eventually to Europe, to continue supporting him in every way. At one point while Jesse was in Winnipeg-and eating solely at the school cafeteria-she noticed he’d lost weight, so she contacted the dean of residence about the quality of the food, which thankfully improved with a new chef. She was also so committed, when she learned he was moving to Europe-where “the arts in general, and ballet especially, were much more revered, respected and funded”-she began studying German!

      The best writing here concerns the author’s acute and complimentary observations of Stuttgart. Although the book’s subjects “missed out on a lot of family time over the years,” this satisfying story demonstrates that passions should be acted upon, because life-as Montgomery well knows-is short, and as “Confession #30” affirms: “Family is everything.” 




by Marion Mutala, illustrations by E.R.

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$9.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-29-4

     Many of us have been greatly influenced by an older family member. Perhaps a loving grandmother, a wise uncle, or an elder sibling with unique hobbies has helped to shape the adult we have become. Saskatoon writer Marion Mutala has shared her story about a mother’s positive influence on an unappreciative daughter in her illustrated moral, Grateful. In this appealing little book (it measures 5 x 5 inches) a child ages a year with the turn of each page, and always yearns for more than she has.

     Mutala begins with a note expressing what she herself is grateful for, including “the wonderful province of Saskatchewan” and “strong, faith-filled parents and grandparents with beautiful Ukrainian and Slovak traditions.” She writes that her Ukrainian “matya,” a mother of ten, told her children not to complain about shoe size and would say: “Be grateful you have feet!”

     This advice clearly served as the prompt for Mutala’s story, in which the main character, a five-year-old girl at the outset, complains to her mother: “Why can’t I have a teddy bear? I wish I had more toys,” and is told to be grateful for the toys she has, including “a baby doll with the clearest blue eyes and the softest hair … Some children have no toys.” To this the child responds: “But I’m 5. I want lots of toys … and I’m not grateful.”

     As the child ages she expresses her frustrations, like having to wear a sister’s hand-me-downs when she really wants “new clothes from the store like [her] friends,” and, at 10, having to eat “a hunk of kielbasa and homemade kolach” in the car rather than eating in “a fancy restaurant”. Matya responds to the latter as many parents would, and do: “Be grateful you’re not hungry ... Some people have nothing to put in their bellies.” 

     Near the end of the book, the main character is suddenly fifty-years-old and she receives sage advice from her ill, eighty-nine-year-old mother. Mutala’s created a touching and relevant conclusion.  

     It’s interesting that the book’s artist-attributed only as “E.R.”-has chosen a manga style for the illustrations. Manga is a Japanese comic that conforms to a style developed in Japan in the late 19th century. The stylized figures are recognizable by long, straight hair; over-sized, expressive eyes; and a circular face with a pointed chin. Manga stories are usually printed in black and white, just as Grateful is. Manga has become extremely popular, perhaps particularly with young readers, all over the world. E.R. has also used a Ukrainian motif for the borders on each page: a series of small squares and diamonds that emulate Ukrainian embroidery. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and it works.   

     This would be a great story to share with a young child. Anyone who grew up in a large family and had to “make do” with less than they desired will also appreciate the lesson relayed here.      

     To learn more about Mutala and her works, including her “Magical Ukrainian” trilogy, see


“ABC’s Down on the Farm”

by Eileen Munro

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$12.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-27-0

     Have you ever thought about how much fun it would be to create an alphabet book? There would be so many ways to approach it, from simple animal alphabets to esoteric books geared, mostly, for adults-it just depends on your interests and experience.

     Saskatchewan writer and painter Eileen Munro grew up on a farm, and this year she put her own brand on the alphabet, with ABC’s Down on the Farm, a colourful burst of farm-inspired pages that reveal some of the best features about rural life via relatable text and cheery, down-home illustrations.

     Like many who desire to release their work in a professional quality book, this Rocanville creator has selected Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing to package her lively creation. Throughout the rhyming story we follow a pony-tailed girl and a blond boy as they enjoy a country lifestyle that includes picking apples, violets and flax flowers; interacting with various animals; and taking part in activities like hauling grain to the elevator and collecting eggs.    

     The tone is light and musical, ie: “Cc is for combine in the field, threshing grain. Dd is for ducks that splash in the rain. Ee is for elevator, so big and so high. Ff is for flax as blue as the sky.”

      Munro’s ABC’s Down on the Farm is also just the right size for little hands-

or visiting Grandma’s purse! If there is someone on your gift list at the right age for learning the alphabet, add this ABC book to their shelf … it’s like a smile on every page.


“Jamie and the Monster Bookroom”

by Kerry Simpson (with Jamie Simpson)

Published by DriverWorks Ink

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$13.95  ISBN 978-1-927570-15-9

     Saskatchewan boasts a wealth of writers and artists, and, increasingly, companies that help new writers get their books into print. Deana and Al Driver are the experienced husband and wife force behind DriverWorks Ink, a Regina-based company established in 2008 to publish “true stories of fascinating Prairie people and unsung Canadian heroes, books for children, fiction and humour.” Deana Driver is a journalist, writer, and editor, while Al comes from a long history as an editor in the Canadian newspaper industry. Their evolution into publishing seems a natural one.

     I opened my first DriverWorks Ink book, Jamie and the Monster Bookroom, ready to embrace a fresh Saskatchewan voice. The story features a little girl, Jamie, who loves books, her local library, and, as the back cover copy states, “all the smells and textures that come with the books she’s read on her weekly visits there.”

     Kerry Simpson, a teacher by profession, wrote the book with the help of her own young daughter, Jamie, and from the bio notes I assume this is a story that reflects the “real” Jamie’s life. The story is filled with specific details, ie: “Jamie and her mom warmed up their car and travelled the fifteen minutes it took to get to their town’s library.” A few lines later we read: “With her recycled library book bag in hand, Jamie and her mom battled their way up the steep steps”. The inclusion of specific details like “fifteen minutes” and “recycled” suggest that this tale is likely based on fact.

      The book highlights childhood curiosity, imagination, bravery, and-of course-book loving. There is one room in the library the main character, Jamie, is afraid to enter. She calls the dark and dusty room the “Monster Bookroom,” and fears what’s inside might be a monster or “a ghost who scared children so much that they hopped into the book, never to return.” On her birthday Jamie gathers the courage to enter the strange room to find books that “looked lonely” and “sleepy”. Within this unusual environment the child finds the “perfect,” book, and is led on an amazing journey within its pages.   

     The darling watercolour illustrations are provided by Regina artist and educator Erika Folnović, and from snowflakes to spiders to happy looking spooks, there is much for the young reader (or listener) to delight in. A purple character named “Aooga” plays a big part in this story, as well, and, I’m guessing, we’ll be hearing more about Aooga-and Jamie-from this mother-daughter writing team in books to come. Congratulations to all involved in this pleasant debut.  


“Maskisina: A Guide to Northern-Style Métis Moccasins”

by Gregory Scofield and Amy Briley, Historical Overview by Sherry Farrell Racette

Published by Gabriel Dumont Institute

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$24.95  ISBN 978-1-926795-11-9

     Here’s a test for the efficacy of a “How To” book: 1) select one on a subject you have no knowledge of, and perhaps no previous interest in. 2) carefully read it. 3) if said title inspires you to want to do the “How To,” then you’ve just read a successful book.

     I came to maskisina: A Guide to Northern-Style Métis Moccasins, by Gregory Scofield and Amy Briley, without knowing anything about the subject, though I spent years in northern Saskatchewan. The attractive, coil-bound guide is filled with step-by-step instructions and large photo illustrations that even the uncrafty could easily follow to create fur-trimmed, cuffed, or wrap-around moccasins from home-tanned moose hide or commercially-tanned leather. (Gorgeous beaded “vamps” that cover the forefoot are another skill, and literally, another book; see wâpikwaniy: A Beginner’s Guide to Métis Floral Beadwork, also published by the Gabriel Dumont Institute.)

     The actual instructions, “Helpful Hints,” and brief anecdotes\advice (ie: “Acknowledge and respect that you are making a connection. The pair of moccasins you create connect the person to this Earth. The feelings, thoughts and energy that you put into them need to be good …”) are only part of what makes Maskisina an interesting read. It begins with an introduction by well-known poet Gregory Scofield, whose “maternal ancestry can be traced back to the fur trade.” Scofield is also an expert bead artisan. He was taught by his Auntie Georgina, and says both his beadwork and stories are “distinctly rooted in Cree/Métis tradition and art form and … in the soft rhythmic sound of my Auntie’s voice.”

     Scofield tells the story of his aunt receiving a pair of moccasins in the mail from her sister-in-law, and upon opening the package, she inhaled deeply and said, “Oh my boy … Dat just smells like home and dah old days.” Then she slipped the moccasins on and “did a little jig.” In the spirit of “Pass it On,” Scofield taught his co-author, Amy Briley-who works for Gabriel Dumont Institute and lives in Martensville-to bead. 

     This durable book also includes an historical perspective by Sherry Farrell Racette, an artist, educator and academic, and a member of Timiskaming First Nation. She’s also a moccasin-maker, and her overview contains gems of information, ie: “Every major exploring expedition in what became northern Canada included women whose central role was caring for the clothing critical to survival, especially moccasins.” She writes that Sir John Franklin and John Rae “hired the wives of men employed for their expeditions,” and that the craft of making moccasins also engaged men, including Gabriel Dumont. I learned that on “very special occasions or for greatly revered and loved individuals,” the moccasin’s soles were beaded, as well. These decorative moccasins were not made for walking!

     I am inspired: maybe someone on my Christmas list will actually get a pair of Leedahl-made moccasins! And if I run into any trouble while making them, I can also consult the instructional DVD provided with the book. Sweet package, Gabriel Dumont Institute!                  


“Gina’s Wheels”
by Mary Harelkin Bishop
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$13.95  ISBN 978-1-927570-12-8
     I lived in Saskatoon for seventeen years, and during my frequent runs along the Meewasin Valley Trail, I would sometimes encounter a pleasant and energetic woman in a wheelchair. I recognized her to be Colette Bourgonje - one of Canada’s most accomplished Paralympic athletes - and I’m so pleased that the accomplished Saskatoon writer, Mary Harelkin Bishop, has penned an inspiring picture book celebrating both Bourgonje’s positive energy and achievement and the compassionate nature of a young child.
     Gina’s Wheels is based on a true story as experienced through a curious “real-life” girl named Maeve, whose mother co-taught with Bourgonje in a Saskatoon school. Impressed by Colette in the classroom, at three Maeve began using her own stroller like a wheelchair to “[explore] the world in a different way”. Harelkin Bishop – whose name many will recognize from her highly successful Tunnels of Moose Jaw Adventure Series – learned about Maeve when she was doing research for her biography, Moving Forward: The Journey of Paralympian Colette Bourgonje.
     Sometimes stories come about as if delivered on a plate, and kudos to the author for recognizing that this would make a good one.
     On a “typical shopping day” in a mall, young Gina observes the passersby. She “love[s] watching people best of all,” and soon notices Colette as she’s rolling toward a display table graced with metals and photos. Any parent knows that children are naturally direct, and – to her mother’s embarrassment - Gina realistically asks the sit-ski athlete: “Why can’t you walk?” Colette discusses her spinal cord injury - the Porcupine Plain-raised athlete suffered a paralyzing car accident at eighteen - and explains what the Paralympics are before she has to leave for another mall engagement. Outside, Gina watches as Colette maneuvers her wheelchair into her truck. The child is impressed, and wonders what it’d be like to be in a wheelchair.
     Back home, she fishes her old stroller out, and even though her mother attempts to “convince Gina to use her legs,” the empathetic girl spends “the next several weeks” before kindergarten doing “everything from her wheelchair\stroller.”
     The story features a heart-warming conclusion, and the author’s added information about and photos of “the Real Gina” and Colette Bourgonje, a ten-time Paralympian. I was delighted to read that in 2000, the City of Saskatoon honoured Bourgonje by naming a crescent, court, and terrace after her, and that in 2010 she was awarded the Whang Youn Dai Acheivement Medal, a special gold medal given to two world class athletes at the Paralympic Games.
     The book’s illustrations – some full bleeds, extending to the edges of the pages - are credited to Diane L. Greenhorn, an artist, drawing instructor and animal lover who lives on an acreage near Saskatoon. The text is easy to see, even when superimposed in white over the pastel images. 
     It’s interesting to follow the careers of writers from my home province and learn how they’ve diversified re: genres. Congratulations to Mary Harelkin Bishop for trying something new, and succeeding so nicely.
“Art, his Heart …and the Phlart?!”
by Fawn Einarson, illus. by Arthur Karakochuk
Published by Hear My Heart Books Inc.
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$10.00 ISBN 978-0-9877251-5-8
     One of the coldest facts in this world is that horrific things sometimes happen to our most vulnerable members of society: children. It takes a courageous and discerning writer to tackle difficult subject matter and present it in a way that children will understand, learn, and heal from. Saskatoon writer Fawn Einarson braves the task in her empowering illustrated book Art, his Heart … and the Phlart?! This sensitive picture book is published by Hear My Heart Books Inc., a small Saskatoon press publishing “therapeutic stories”.
     We learn the author’s intent in her dedication: “This story is meant to act as a shield to protect children from sexual abuse.” Einarson provides seven pieces of advice to adult readers who share this story with a child who discloses his or her own abusive experience: remain calm; ask if it’s okay to take notes; record exactly what’s said; do not ask leading questions; ask the child to draw a picture; “Let the child know that telling is okay;” and immediately phone a professional.   
     The story concerns a shy boy, Art, who “spent a lot of time alone, watching the other kids skip.” While en route to school, an adult - “the phlart” - talks the hesitant boy into skipping with him, while the other end of the rope is tied to a tree. The lonely child “love[s] skipping so much” and is happy to have the attention. The adult continues to beguile the boy, feeding him both candy and compliments. Soon the pair are meeting both before and after school. One day the phlart wants to play a “secret game that [makes] Art feel bad.”
     The abuser uses threats - “If your mom finds out about our new game, she won’t love you anymore!” - to keep the child from revealing what’s happening. Einarson writes that “Art had a bad feeling in his tummy all the time” and “his hurting heart grew lots and lots.”
     As is sometimes the case, the victim begins to feel that it is his own fault. He recognizes that the phlart is his sole friend, and the boy’s “feelings [are] all mixed up like a blizzard.” As the abuse continues, Art shuts off his emotions altogether. Fortunately, the boy eventually discloses and the story becomes one of healing for Art, and, ultimately, for any child has also suffered the horror of sexual abuse.
     As this book is also a resource, the author has included telephone numbers for the National Childhelp Hotline, the Kids Help Phone Hotline, and the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
     llustrator Arthur Karakochuk, from Prince Albert, portrays the characters and scenes in simple, animation-styled illustrations. He has intelligently chosen to depict the pedophile with just a single arm and a menacing, razor-toothed shadow. We gradually see colours lighten as Art makes a friend, discloses, and gets help.
     This ten dollar, 32-page softcover book is ideal for use in childhood sexual abuse prevention or therapy, and if it helps even one child, it is priceless.
“Opening Up: How To Develop Your Intuition And Work With Your Angels”
by Lisa Driver
Published by DriverWorks Ink
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-927570-13-5
     Are you as happy as you’d like to be? I’m guessing that most would answer “no” to this glaring question, whether our challenges concern illness, loneliness, grief, financial woes, strained relationships, confidence issues, employment worries, addictions, or something altogether different. Of course many books promise happier, healthier living, but Lisa Driver’s Opening Up: How To Develop Your Intuition And Work With Your Angels takes a unique approach: it combines elements of Christianity (the author was raised in a Christian home and uses “God” to describe the “loving energy” we all share) and what some term “new age” beliefs, ie: developing intuition through meditation; using crystals; participating in Angel Tarot card readings, energy work, and Reiki; and recognizing when our angels are communicating with us.
     Regina-born Driver was in transition in her own personal life - she’d had “about seven jobs in as many years” - when she attended a “Natural Health and Healing Expo” in her adopted city, Medicine Hat. There the “’regular’ Saskatchewan prairie girl” was introduced to an “angelic medium from Swift Current,” who professed that Driver was “meant to” become a spiritual coach who guided others via Angel Therapy. Driver was impressed by how much the medium articulated about the author’s life and desires. A book by Doreen Virtue confirmed Driver’s belief that “we are all connected and made of a loving energy and are meant to come together, to love each other, and enjoy each day on this beautiful planet.” Her studies continued with Virtue’s “Certified Angel Card Reader” and “Angel Therapy Practitioner” courses.
     This candid guidebook is extremely positive about the improvements we can make in our lives, but emphasis is put on the fact that change doesn’t come of its own volition. Driver realized firsthand that “when you leap, the net appears.” Her big “leap” was starting her own business, “Flight of the Phoenix Spiritual Healing,” through which she offers mediumship readings, angel readings, and more. She writes: “know in your heart you are surrounded by departed loved ones, angels, archangels, and guides who are sending you energy, guidance, and love every day.”
     In a chapter titled “The Ways We Can Talk To Heaven,” she discusses clairvoyance and its sisters, “claircognizance,” “clairaudience,” and “clairsentience,” and how everyone has some degree of intuition. In the chapter “Surrounded By Signs,” she suggests that we receive unexpected signs from our angels through the recurrence of certain objects in our lives, like coins, feathers, or dragonflies. These signs, she says, can be a response to questions we’ve asked the angels, and “can help [us] navigate through life and bring [us] peace.”                
     This subject matter may be new and surprising for some, and Driver accepts that “Not everyone is open to these ideas”. Her message is that life is a “tremendous miracle,” and her book and work are her attempts to help people experience more of this joyous miracle by connecting with the energies of others.
     “Opening Up” is a beautiful concept, and this guidebook explains just how to do it.  

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