Little Witch Hazel – A Year in the Forest by Phoebe Wahl


Little Witch Hazel – A Year in the Forest by Phoebe Wahl
Publisher: Tundra Books
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Little Witch Hazel is a tiny witch who lives in the forest, helping creatures big and small. She’s a midwife, an intrepid explorer, a hard worker and a kind friend.

In this four-season volume, Little Witch Hazel rescues an orphaned egg, goes sailing on a raft, solves the mystery of a haunted stump and makes house calls to fellow forest dwellers. But when Little Witch Hazel needs help herself, will she get it in time?

Little Witch Hazel is a beautiful ode to nature, friendship, wild things and the seasons that only Phoebe Wahl could create: an instant classic and a book that readers will pore over time and time again.

Everyone needs some kindness in their lives, including forest creatures!

In “Spring: The Orphaned Egg,” Little Witch Hazel found an abandoned egg in the forest and decided to try to hatch it herself even though it was bigger than she was! I chuckled as she figured out how to safely bring it home and keep it warm as the creature inside finished growing. This was my first glimpse of what a compassionate character Hazel was, and it made me want to get to know her better.

I was not so impressed with “Summer: The Lazy Day.” Hazel’s adventures began with her trying to run some errands and getting frustrated by her inability to finish any of them. As adorable as her day turned out to be, it bothered me a little to see a character not be able to gather berries for the winter, have her shoes repaired before autumn hit, or return library books so someone else could enjoy them next. It wasn’t like she was acting grumpy and expecting everyone else to be equally productive that day or anything like that! She simply wanted to plan ahead responsibly, and I think that’s something that should be encouraged even in lighthearted tales like this one.

There was just a little bit of spookiness in “Autumn: The Haunted Stump” when Hazel heard a scary noise and went to investigate who or what might be causing it. I enjoyed the Halloween themes of this one quite a bit, and the warm-hearted twist at the end made it all even better. As much as I want to go into more detail here, it really is best to read it without any hints about what she finds.

“Winter: The Blizzard” wrapped everything up beautifully. The themes of compassion and kindness repeated themselves for the fourth time, but now Hazel was the one who needed help after she was surprised by a terrible blizzard while walking home after a long day of doing home visits with various patients she was caring for in the forest. The plot was strong and fast-paced here, and I was eager to see how she’d get home safely when she was cold, tired, and still such a long walk away from her cozy fireplace and warm bed.

This seems like a good place to mention the fact that these stories are all connected to each other and should be read in the order they appear in this anthology.

Little Witch Hazel – A Year in the Forest was a magical read.

Carson Crosses Canada by Linda Bailey


Carson Crosses Canada by Linda Bailey
Publisher: Tundra Books
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Feisty Annie Magruder and her dog, Carson, live in British Columbia, Canada, and they’re setting out to visit her sister, Elsie, in Newfoundland. In their little rattlebang car, packed with Carson’s favorite toy, Squeaky Chicken, and plenty of baloney sandwiches, Annie and Carson hit the road! They travel province by province, taking in each unique landscape and experiencing something special to that particular part of this vast, grand country. For example, they marvel at the beauty of the big, open sky — and grasshoppers! — in Saskatchewan and discover the gorgeous red earth and delicious lobster rolls in PEI, before finally being greeted by Elsie — and a surprise for Carson!

Who wouldn’t love a summer road trip?

I was excited to read a picture book about a Canadian woman who was a senior citizen. There are precious few main characters out there who fit all of those labels in this genre, so it was a thrill to finally meet one. Annie was such an adventurous person, too. She planned out her cross-country trip carefully and genuinely seemed to enjoy every new experience she had as she drove from British Columbia to Newfoundland. I also appreciated learning about her reason for making this drive. While I can’t share what it was without giving away spoilers, it made me smile to see how she made the best of a sad piece of news. That is definitely a skill that everyone should learn, kids and adults alike!

Carson brought a wonderful dollop of humor to Annie’s plans. He was a curious little dog who had no idea what to expect when his human decided to travel. Some of the funniest scenes were the ones where Annie interpreted Carson’s dog noises in ways that made it seem as though they spoke the same language and he genuinely understood the questions she was asking him. It showed off their close and loving relationship nicely, and it also made me giggle.

This tale did a wonderful job of sharing some of the most picturesque parts of Canada in kid-friendly ways. Anyone who is familiar with Canadian geography will probably be able to guess at least some of them, but the plot works just as well for readers who wouldn’t have the foggiest notion of where to find Saskatchewan on a map. I adored the fact that it left ample room for readers of all ages and backgrounds to bond with the characters and enjoy their trip.

Carson Crosses Canada was a gentle and marvelous adventure.

Tough Like Mum by Lana Button


Tough Like Mum by Lana Button
Publisher: Tundra Books
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Kim’s mum is tough. Everyone says so. She can deal with unruly customers at the Red Rooster with a snap of her fingers.

Kim is tough, too. She doesn’t need to wear a hat to keep her ears warm. And she can make soup all by herself, even without the stove.

Kim and her mum are tough.

But Kim is learning that sometimes toughness doesn’t look like what you’d expect.

In this tender exploration of a mother-daughter relationship, Kim and her mother learn that in order to support and truly take care of each other, they need to be tough — and that sometimes being tough means showing vulnerability and asking for help.

Explaining mental health problems to kids isn’t easy, but this book can help.

Kim was such a brave and upbeat kid. I immediately began rooting for her and hoping her life would improve soon. She had a marvellous way of finding the positive side of even the toughest circumstances no matter how many times things didn’t go the way she hoped they would. I admired her determination and grit.

Some of the situations Kim found herself in as a result of her mother’s mental illness came pretty close to crossing the line into child neglect due to the almost total lack of proper supervision for this little girl. While I had a great deal of compassion for her mother, I did find myself wishing the storyline had been a little clearer about the fact that this wasn’t a healthy situation for a child to live in.

With that being said, I definitely did appreciate the honesty of the storyline. Many children grow up with parents who struggle to meet their basic needs occasionally for all sorts of different reasons, and I liked the fact that the author was straightforward about how hard it was for Kim to not have an observant parent reminding her to bring her hat to school on a cold day or to pack a nutritious lunch for her. This was something I think would be quite appropriate to read to preschool and young elementary-aged children, especially if they’ve been through a similar situation or know someone who has.

Tough Like Mum was a thought-provoking read.

Terry Fox and Me by Mary Beth Leatherdale


Terry Fox and Me by Mary Beth Leatherdale
Publisher: Tundra Books
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Non-Fiction, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope, this picture book biography tells the story of a friendship defined by strength and love.

Before Terry Fox become a national hero and icon, he was just a regular kid. But even then, his characteristic strength, determination and loyalty were apparent and were the foundation for his friendship with Doug. The two first met at basketball tryouts in grammar school. Terry was the smallest – and worst – basketball player on the court. But that didn’t stop him. With Doug’s help, Terry practiced and practiced until he earned a spot on the team. As they grew up, the best friends supported each other, challenged each other, helped each other become better athletes and better people. Doug was by Terry’s side every step of the way: when Terry received a diagnosis of cancer in his leg, when he was learning to walk – then run – with a prosthetic leg and while he was training for the race of his life, his Marathon of Hope.

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What does it mean to be a hero?

The best scenes in my opinion were the ones that explored the friendship between Doug and Terry, especially after Terry had to learn how to walk again after losing his leg to cancer. They provided an excellent example of what it means to be someone’s friend when they’re going through a scary and difficult experience. Not only was Doug kind and supportive, he did everything he could to help his best friend achieve something that would be pretty difficult for any athlete to accomplish.

I do wish this picture book had covered what happened to these characters while Terry was running his Marathon of Hope from one coast of Canada to the other. It stopped right before this part of his life started up. While many Canadian adults already know of what happened during that long marathon, most young kids will probably not be. This will be even more true for anyone who isn’t already aware of this part of Canadian history.

There were some wonderful anecdotes from Terry’s early life included in the first few scenes. He learned how to keep trying no matter how low his chances of succeeding were long before he was diagnosed with cancer. I liked the fact that the author gave so many examples of how Terry persevered in life. Most people will never have bone cancer, but everyone should learn from an early age how to remain determined and hopeful no matter what obstacles they may face in life.

Terry Fox and Me was a heartwarming true story about a true hero.

Ooko by Esme Shapiro


Ooko by Esme Shapiro
Publisher: Tundra Books
Genre: Childrens, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (40 pages)
Age Recommendation: 3+
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Ooko has everything a fox could want: a stick, a leaf and a rock. Well, almost everything . . . Ooko wants someone to play with too! The foxes in town always seem to be playing with their two-legged friends, the Debbies. Maybe if he tries to look like the other foxes, one of the Debbies will play with him too. But when Ooko finally finds his very own Debbie, things don’t turn out quite as he had expected!

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Everyone needs friends. This includes foxes, too.

Ooko’s relationships with the various humans he met on his quest to make a new friend was delightful. Not only did he assume they were all called Debbie, he also thought they all liked the exact same things. This misunderstanding early on lead to all sorts of adventures later on. I was entertained by his assumptions about people just as much as I was curious to see if he’d ever become true friends with anyone he met.

There was one part of the plot that I wish had been developed more thoroughly. It had to do with Ooko’s original urge to find a friend and how he decided that was something he wanted in his life. He spent so much time talking about this desire that I was surprised by how he reacted to it once he grew closer to possibly reaching his goal. I would have expected the exact opposite to happen, so it would have been nice for the narrator to go into more detail about this before the end.

The ending was perfect. Not only was I satisfied by what happened to Ooko in the final scene, I appreciated the fact that the author gave so few hints about what would ultimately happen to him before she revealed everything. This was an excellent decision for a character who so often refused to live by the rules that humans often assume should apply to everyone. It felt very fox-like in the best sense of the term.

Ooko made me smile. I’d recommend it to anyone who is in the mood for a picture book that deals with a common childhood problem.