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Stockings stuffed with adventure

Books are more than a timeless form of entertainment that wiles away a few hours. They have the power to change lives and point us in a new direction. The Christmas season is a time to reflect and share good times with family and friends.

Books are more than a timeless form of entertainment that wiles away a few hours. They have the power to change lives and point us in a new direction.

The Christmas season is a time to reflect and share good times with family and friends. On Christmas Eve, drop a book or two into your child's stocking and allow them to rediscover themselves in a new way.

Below is a list of books Canadian publishers are offering this season.

Pierre Le Poof!

Writer/Illustrator Andrea Beck

Orca Book Publishers

Hardcover: $19.95

Pages: 32

Pierre Le Poof!, a 32-page picture book, is one of those sweet preschool morality tales reinforcing the idea that there's no place like home.

The wet-nosed Pierre is a pedigreed pooch training for the championships. In his down time, the puffball poodle sits on his bay window and watches other dogs frolicking in the park.

They don't have goofy haircuts or sissy diamond-studded collars. They're out rolling in the dirt and having fun. Instead of training on a treadmill, Pierre dreams of running in the wind, chasing squirrels and jumping into a pile of stinky stuff.

One day the young pup performs a perfect routine, and while his owner, Miss Murphy, is accepting accolades, he spies an open door and bolts.

Free to roam the streets, he meets up with two street mutts, Sparky and Lou. They show him how to root through garbage and sleep in cardboard boxes at night. But the adventure pales when he gets hungry, cold and no one pays attention to him.

Andrea Beck, who does double-duty as writer/illustrator, uses a language that is whimsical, playful and as energetic as a four-legged fur ball. But it's the illustrations that truly reveal Beck's own love for dogs. She combines contrasting bold hues with muted colours to create a dreamy effect.

And each sketch reveals a host of real-life dog mannerisms: those big begging eyes, the joy of rolling in garbage and the sleepy contentment of lying next to the master.

This is a straightforward, uncomplicated story that makes an excellent teaching tool without losing any of the fun.

— Anna Borowiecki

Shadow of the Leopard

By Henning Mankell

Annick Press

Softcover: $10.95

Pages: 175

Shadow of the Leopard is a compelling short novel for young adults about a land-mine victim's day-to-day struggles, the betrayal of love and a display of incredible human courage when faced with towering adversity.

Readers are propelled to a dusty, poverty stricken village in Mozambique where author Henning Mankell continues the saga of Sofia Alface. Mankell first introduced Sofia in Secrets of Fire, when as a nine-year-old she lost both her legs in a landmine explosion.

Today Sofia is a 20-year-old happily expecting her third child with her childhood sweetheart, Armando. With no avenue of employment in the village, he works in the big city as a mechanic and returns to visit weekends.

One weekend, Armando does not arrive and Sofia discovers he has found another woman. Not only that, living in the big city has changed him in ways Sofia could never have predicted.

Written in a direct, powerful language, Mankell's greatest strength is in creating sympathetic, colourful characters that instantly connect with readers. There's Sofia's mother, Ma Lydia, a strong woman wrapped up in grief since her daughter Maria died of AIDS; Master Emilio, a kindly old attendant at the hospital who fits Sofia's artificial legs, and Mrs. Mukulela, the village gossip that drinks too much beer.

Sofia's world is fraught with danger at every turn and survival of the fittest takes on a new meaning. Yet, it is the compassion and humanity of so many decent people that ultimately points a path of triumph.

— Anna Borowiecki

Dunces Anonymous

By Kate Jaimet

Orca Book Publishers

Softcover: $10.95

Pages: 157

Any parent that has ambitious plans for their children might do well to read Dunces Anonymous, a delightful, quirky fiction penned for upper elementary readers.

Writer Kate Jaimet has developed three slightly wacky 11-year-olds suffering from parental pressures. Josh Johnson's mother, a Type-A divorced businesswoman, is pushing him to run for class president.

Magnolia Moncrieff's mother, a failed actress, wants her daughter to audition as Juliet for the school play, And man of action Wang Xiu is completely bored learning chess strategy at his father's insistence.

Each child resents these parental expectations. To combat these issues, the trio forms the nucleus of a new school club, Dunces Anonymous, where they devise covert plans to free themselves.

While some of the scenarios are predictable, they are never boring. Jaimet keeps the action moving at a steady clip, and she has a great ear for writing upper elementary dialogue.

And lastly, her characters are funny, entertaining and endearing. Dunces Anonymous is a strong reminder that the power of friendship can move mountains, and it will leave you with a smile on your face.

— Anna Borowiecki

Clever Rachel

By Debby Waldman

Illustrated by Cindy Revell

Orca Book Publishers

Hardcover: $19.95

Pages: 32

In this preschool picture book, Debby Waldman's retelling of the old Jewish folk tale, Clever Rachel, is a riddle wrapped in old-fashioned, homespun wisdom.

Rachel is the innkeeper's daughter. Since she was a baby, her father would read riddles instead of lullabies and stories. When it comes to solving riddles, the now young girl, can outwit and outplay everyone in her community.

When the brainiac Jacob hears of her abilities, his jealousy overrides reason. He rushes to the inn and attempts to belittle her. As the rivalry heats up, a woman rushes in asking to solve three riddles or the man she loves will marry another. If the two riddle rivals are to help this woman, they must learn to work together.

Cindy Revell's folksy illustrations beautifully complement this simply told story. Using bold earth tones, Revel's two-dimensional sketches instantly spring to mind a style of 'naïf art' reminiscent of a child's drawing. Heads are proportionally larger, facial features are exaggerated, and arms and legs are longer. But there is a whimsical, timeless quality to each sketch that never grows or fades.

For an added bit of fun, the last page contains seven riddles and mind-manglers with accompanying answers.

— Anna Borowiecki

After Peaches

By Michelle Mulder

Orca Book Publishers

Softcover: $7.95

Pages: 106

After Peaches is a fairly heavy book for upper elementary readers with themes that deal with refugees, the exploitation of migrant workers, fitting in and friendship. Writer Michelle Mulder has chosen some fairly hefty themes but I'm not sure she fully succeeds in telling a children's story.

Ten-year-old Rosaria and her parents are political refugees in Canada living in British Columbia. After she is teased in school about her thick accent, Rosaria vows not to speak again until her accent is completely clean.

She just wants to be a normal Canadian kid. But when her parents plan to spend the summer working in B.C.'s fruit belt surrounded by Mexican workers, there is little chance she can practice.

When her parents' best friend becomes deathly ill from spraying fruit trees without proper protection, he is rushed to the hospital and Rosaria is the only one with enough language skills to explain to the doctor what has happened.

The storyline has an excellent, gripping premise. But interestingly enough, the bulk of the book takes place where Rosaria interacts exclusively with adults.

From my own experience as a parent and reviewer, young readers tend to favour books that relate stories about children banding together to defeat a common foe. They relish books where heroic children conquer great odds often at the adults' expense.

Rosaria is in an adult world dealing with weighty issues where no other children exist. She simply doesn't come across as a child. When I came to the last page, I could not help but wonder if After Peaches was written because adults think children should read material like this, or if it's a book children will actually enjoy.

— Anna Borowiecki

A Thousand Years of Pirates

By William Gilkerson

Tundra Books

96 pages


If you ever spent time as a child pretending to be a swashbuckler on the high seas then there's a chance you carried some of those flights of fancy into adulthood. A Thousand Years of Pirates might be the one book you can justify buying for your own children but borrow frequently for yourself.

This isn't so much a storybook as it is a book of histories from the days of Vikings to more modern buccaneers. While it steers clear of recent pirate hijackings in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, it does pretty well to set anchor in the more glamorized pirate tales of the Caribbean and even Canada. While Captain Jack Sparrow doesn't make an appearance, there are characters that come pretty close.

That is especially true if you take in the glorious illustrations, also by author William Gilkerson, a real fan of the high seas. You don't get a good sense of them just from the cover page but his renderings of the naval vagabonds and their vessels are excellent, with minimal artistic license. One picture from the story of Woodes Rogers the pirate catcher contains a battle scene on land with a few ships near the shore. One cloud overhead looks a little too much like a Jolly Roger to be a coincidence.

This book is suitable for all ages — young children can at least look at and love the pictures, older children can benefit from the stories and you can enjoy having a pirate book at home without the embarrassment of it sitting on your own bookshelf.

Vanishing Girl: The Boy Sherlock Holmes – His 3rd Case

By Shane Peacock

Tundra Books

260 pages


What better time to pick up this book, with another movie version of Sherlock Holmes coming out. This one though is geared toward tweens; if you've missed the first two adventures then you've got some — but not much — catching up to do.

A girl has gone missing as if by magic and it's up to Holmes to find her again using his nascent powers of deduction and logic. It's a race against time but don't rush to the end of the book to see if things turn out OK. It isn't a smooth ride.

Peacock has the style and ability to carry off these stories with the same heart as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; it's strange this series hasn't taken off with the same oomph as other engaging tales for youngsters (Harry Potter). I dare say it's more satisfying than other trite tales of magic set in England. These are solid adventures and well crafted. At less than 300 pages, they're easier to digest than some of J.K. Rowling's tomes too. I look forward to each new title and hope Peacock continues to write these highly enjoyable tales.

Clay Man: The Golem of Prague

A retelling by Irene N. Watts

Tundra Books

96 pages


This is apparently the 400th anniversary of the legend of the Golem of Prague but if you're not aware of the famous story, it goes like this: a rabbi's son wants to venture out of the walled ghetto of Jewish Town, but Passover is dangerous for Jews. One night he follows his dad out of the gates where he and two companions form a man out of mud on the banks of the river. The rabbi says a strange incantation and the Golem is born.

Think of this as an early draft of Frosty the Snowman from the 16th century. It's a fantastic children's story and an important addition to this festive book list because it focuses on Jewish culture in time for Hanukkah but can just as easily be appreciated by children of other faiths.

Clay Man is for older children though, as it is more of a storybook than a picture book. The illustrations (by Kathryn E. Shoemaker) are really just simple pencil drawings and don't add much life to the tale. Apart from that, I just love a good old folk story based on a cultural myth.