If there’s a quintessential Canadian children’s story, it might just be Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater.
Based on an experience from Carrier's childhood, this story is a perfectly-captured glimpse of rural Québec life in the 1940s. It weaves together snowy winters, hockey played on a frozen pond, and the glory of legendary hockey hero, Maurice Richard.
The Hockey Sweater was first written as an essay for CBC Radio in 1979.
“The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons,” the tale begins. “We lived in three places—the school, the church and the skating-rink.”
All Carrier and his friends could think about was hockey, and their favourite team, the Montreal Canadiens. If they weren’t playing hockey, they were at school dreaming of hockey, or in church praying to be as great a player as Richard.
Carrier’s mother ordered him a new Montreal Canadiens sweater from the Eaton Company department store—writing directly to Monsieur Eaton—but his excitement turned to horror when the package arrives. He was mistakenly sent the sweater of his team’s arch rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even worse, his mother insisted that he wear the sweater anyway.
What could be more mortifying for a young boy?
The Hockey Sweater is told from a child’s point of view with honesty, humour and heart. Its themes are timeless. We've all been so passionate about something, it's impossible to think of anything else. We've all idolized heroes. We've all wanted to fit in, and been humiliated when our parents made us do something so that we didn't.
(And, many of us have taken a side: the Canadiens or the Maple Leafs. In this household, it's the Canadiens, as you can tell from the jersey in the photo above!)
Carrier's essay was so charming, it was made into a much-loved National Film Board of Canada animated short called The Sweater in 1980, directed by Sheldon Cohen. In 1984, it was translated into English and published as a book, with vibrant, cheerful illustrations by Cohen. The book and film almost go hand-in-hand; I’ve seen the film so many times I can hear Carrier’s voice narrating when reading his prose.
The Hockey Sweater is a classic, whether you grew up with it or are reading it for the first time. I've just discovered that a special 30th anniversary edition was published in 2014 with original material from the author and illustrator, and stills from the animated film. I've put this collector's edition on my wish list!
There’s one thing that Max really wants to do, and that’s to become a wizard. He’s pretty sure he has what it takes, but first he has to convince his father. If Sir Bertram has his way, Max will become a sword-yielding knight instead.
Frogspell, a fun little read by C.J. Busby, takes young readers into the world of Camelot. The plot starts rolling right away, as Max plans to show his father that he’s meant to be a wizard. He’s going to come up with a brilliant spell and win the Young Novice’s Spell-Making Competition; and then his father will realize his true calling. But when Max accidentally turns himself, his sister and his pet rat into frogs, he’s not sure how it’s going to turn out.
If this isn’t entertaining enough, things get even more complicated when Max and his sister Olivia stumble into a villainous scheme to kidnap the prince and to topple King Arthur from power. Can Max help Merlin fight an evil sorceress and save the kingdom?
Frogspell is a lively potion of adventure, misadventure and humour. The characters are immensely likeable, the spells gone awry are funny, and who doesn’t love the satisfaction of foiling an evil plot?
We added Frogspell to our home library when my daughter was in second grade. She had been devouring the Rainbow Magic fairy books, and this was a perfect transition into a magic-filled series with a more complex story. There are three other books after the first installment, as Max commences his wizardry training and Olivia trains to be a squire. This was a favourite on our bookshelf for years.
This website is about two of our favourite things—books and cats—so it seems fitting that this week’s purr-fect pick is a book about a cat.
When my daughter was in the first grade, she brought home from school Marie-Louise Gay's beautiful picture book Caramba. We were already familiar with the Canadian author's sweet Stella and Sam series, and were thrilled to have another of her books to read.
Gay's stories draw you into wonderfully whimsical worlds. Her delicate watercolours are warm and inviting, and her characters instantly likeable. They brim with such genuine emotion and vulnerability that they feel like friends you’ve known forever, even if you’re meeting them for the first time.
That's why Caramba's story is so enticing. He's like any other young cat, except for one thing: he can’t fly. He watches other cats swoop and glide through the air, but he simply falls flat on his face.
“What? You can’t fly?” other cats say to Caramba in disbelief. “Every cat knows how to fly.”
It’s a feeling many children will experience at some point—the dismay at not being able to do what your peers can.
Caramba keeps trying, though. One day, after yet another attempt to fly, he falls out of the air. He lands in the water below with a splash, and is surprised to discover he can swim.
“Cats can’t swim!” he’s told.
“Well, I can," replies Caramba. We love that this kind, gentle, brave soul never gives up and eventually discovers his own special talent.
This is a lovely, inspiring story to read with your little ones.
A special shout-out to the TD Grade One Book Giveaway, which is how my daughter received a copy of Caramba in 2010. Each year, first-graders in schools across Canada receive a free copy of a selected children's book to take home. More than half a million books are given away annually. What a great way to encourage reading and introduce families to Canadian authors!
Books in series: 2
Caramba and Henry
For more about Marie-Louise Gay, check out our post about her chapter book Travels with My Family, which we wrote about here.
Earlier this year, when our family visited Paris for the first time, we asked the kids what was on their must-see list. The only sights they could name were the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.
We wanted them involved in planning the trip, so we gave them a copy of Mission Paris: A Scavenger Hunt Adventure to get them in the spirit. It’s a travel guide just for kids, written as a secret spy mission.
In the book, young readers are selected to be special agents and tasked with a number of assignments to gather intelligence in Paris. Sixteen famous museums and landmarks are featured, including the Musée d’Orsay, Luxembourg Gardens, Sainte Chappelle and Palais Royal.
Keen agents must hunt down clues and key features of various attractions. They're given points for completing each assignment, such as locating an ancient Sphinx in the Louvre, the statue of Joan of Arc at Sacré Coeur, the miniature cannon at the Palais Royal, and La Géode (a mirrored sphere) at the Cité des Enfants.
As kids complete each mission, they learn interesting facts and history about Paris. They'll discover what the Louvre was before it became a museum or the story behind the biblical kings on the outside of Notre Dame. They'll even undertake a challenge on the Paris Métro system, and get points for speaking French or trying French foods.
Mission Paris is a perfect way to engage young travellers. There's nothing boring about museums, cathedrals and monuments here—instead, the book offers a creative way to explore the city as a family and to get children excited about their travels.
As our children were older (13 and 11 at the time), they weren't as interested in a scavenger hunt. However, the book was still a wonderful introduction to the city's iconic landmarks and it helped the kids choose the sights they were most interested in.
Mission Paris is part of a series, so your special agents can gather intelligence around the globe. Other titles focus on London, Rome, Barcelona, Washington DC, New York, Amsterdam and Florence. If you're headed to one of these cities, be sure to pack a copy for your young adventurers.
My daughter discovered Jessica Day George’s magical world of dragons while on vacation one summer. We were driving through Portland, and stopped at Powell’s Books to pick up reading material for our road trip.
Kate chose George's novel Dragon Slippers, and by the time we’d made it to the Oregon coast, she was mesmerized by the story of young Creel and her dragon friends.
This middle-grade novel is brimming with all the good stuff: a brave heroine, really cool dragons, an evil villain, and a kingdom that needs saving.
The story begins when Creel’s aunt comes up with an unusual plan to improve their family’s fortunes. What if Creel is rescued by a knight in shining armour, who will whisk their family away to live in a castle? Thus, Creel finds herself abandoned in front of a dragon’s lair, as her aunt fervently hopes that a hero will save her niece from the fierce creature’s clutches.
From the moment that the dragon awakes with a rumble and a plume of smoke, it’s impossible to put the book down. Creel ends up befriending the dragon, who has no interest in her aunt's silly plot. “I am old and tired and bored with all the foolishness that humans cause,” he moans.
Clever young Creel uses the situation to her own benefit. She convinces the dragon to give her some treasure that she can use to escape into the city and start her own life. She's sent on her way with a pair of slippers, but little does she know she's about to stumble into an evil quest for power. As she fights to save her dragon friends and restore peace to the kingdom, we find out just how much foolishness humans can cause.
The adventure is made all the more enticing by the lovable characters. You can’t help but cheer on Creel as she heads to the city to pursue her dreams of being a seamstress. There’s also the unforgettable dragons—Theodradus, Shardas, Feniul, Amacarin, Niva and Velika—all beautiful, majestic, thinking and feeling creatures with their own personalities.
When Kate finished the book, I picked it up myself and immediately saw why she was so charmed. Dragon Slippers blends fantasy, adventure, humour, and romance, all into a well-woven page-turner. There was no question of what we would read on the trip home—we stopped at the same bookshop to get the sequels, Dragon Flight and Dragon Spear.
And, we negotiated who got to read them first.
Melanie Watt’s gorgeous picture book, Augustine, is as much fun for grown-ups as it is for kids. It's full of little surprises, and I never tired of pulling it off the shelf to read with my children at bedtime.
The book tells a simple, timeless story that many kids can relate to: what it's like to start school as the new kid, and to not know anyone.
In this case, the new 'kid' is Augustine, a quiet, artistic little penguin. Her dad's job uproots the family from their home at the South Pole, and takes them, literally, to the opposite end of the earth: the North Pole. She sadly packs her things and says good-bye to her teachers, friends, cousins, and grandparents.
Augustine is named after Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and this sets the tone for the love of art that's infused throughout the book. When Augustine is alone at recess at her new school, she takes out a pencil crayon and starts sketching. She's using a blue crayon, so of course, she calls it her Blue Recess Period. Soon, Augustine's curious classmates gather around, and she begins making friends.
The left-hand pages are divided into a 3 x 3 grid, with a simple, playful drawing in each square. My daughter and I had fun fitting each picture into the plot, as we read: there are the cards she plays Go-Fish with; here's the breakfast she has before school; these are the eight igloos her family looked at before moving into one (which igloo would you choose?). There's so much to look at and talk about.
In the centre of each grid is a sketch by Augustine, inspired by a real work of art. You'll recognize the penguin versions of the Mona Lisa, Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles, Grant Wood's American Gothic., and more. Of course, Augustine's interpretation of The Scream represents the first day of school.
Augustine is a beautiful and enriching read. Smile to yourself as you pick out Augustine's versions of famous paintings. Teach your child about the masters, and talk about how art brings us together. Or, simply enjoy the story of a sweet, creative little penguin who finds her way just by being herself.
One night, my daughter looked up at the starry sky.
“There’s Pleiades,” she said, pointing to a cluster of stars. “And those three make Orion’s belt. And that bright one is Betelgeuse.”
I certainly can't navigate the night sky like that. But then again, I haven’t pored over H.A. Rey’s two books on stargazing the way my daughter has.
Rey, along with his wife Margaret, is best known for writing the beloved Curious George books. What is not as well known is that he was an amateur astronomer who wrote two wonderful books to introduce kids to the wonders of stargazing.
Rey makes a complex subject simple and appealing. The book Find the Constellations starts off playfully: “At night time, when the stars are out, the sky all of a sudden becomes a huge picture book…Those pictures are made by the stars, and finding them is a wonderful game. Let us start the game with a picture you may have heard of…The Big Dipper.”
It’s a great way to entice kids to read further, and Rey's flair for writing for children shines through. And, if you’ve ever looked at a constellation and thought, “How exactly is that a bear, anyway?”, Rey will show you by literally connecting the dots and pointing out how the stars form the bear's nose or paws.
Find the Constellations also explains concepts such as magnitude, and how some stars are brighter than others. This is a useful tip that my daughter uses all the time—she picks out brighter stars first and then uses them to find other stars and constellations. As well, he includes information about the solar system, planets, and light years, as well as sky charts and fun quizzes.
For older readers, Rey wrote The Stars: A New Way to See Them. It's a great book for beginning astronomers, covering concepts in more depth, but using the same simple, plain language and engaging style. Both books are regularly updated so be sure to get the latest edition.
I’ve always loved picture books with smart, strong heroines, so when I discovered Cornelia Funke’s A Princess, A Pirate and One Wild Brother at our local bookshop, I had to add it to our personal library. My daughter adored Funke’s lively collection of stories as much as I did, and it was a staple for us to read together when she was younger.
There’s no shortage of gorgeous picture books to share with your kids, but this one in particular, brings together the prose and illustrations to perfection. Funke whisks readers immediately into a world of adventure filled with funny, lovable, and spirited characters. Meanwhile, Kerstin Meyer’s exquisite illustrations draw your eyes to the page, and her details are as much fun to savour as the stories.
The collection opens with The Princess Knight. Little Princess Violetta has three older brothers, and the king decides to bring his daughter up the same way as the boys have been raised. She learns to ride, joust, and fight with swords. Unfortunately, being the youngest and the smallest in the family, Princess Vi struggles to keep up with her brothers. You can’t help but cheer on this determined little girl as she tries to master the same skills as the boys. When the time comes for her to get married, and she’s promised to the winner of a jousting competition, she outwits everyone. Go, Princess Vi!
Equally as inspiring is Molly, the main character in Pirate Girl. One day, as she’s sailing alone to visit her grandmother, she’s kidnapped by a band of pirates. Captain Firebeard thinks he can get a handsome ransom for Molly, but she refuses to tell him who her parents are. He sentences her to work on his ship, scrubbing and cleaning and polishing, but not to worry: she has a plan. There’s a surprise twist as to who her mother is—and she’s more fierce than Firebeard and his pirates. This is a family of women to be reckoned with.
In the last story, The Wildest Brother is a young boy named Ben. Thanks to his vivid imagination, he spends his days taking care of slime-burping monsters, green ghosts, and the other dangerous creatures lurking about his house. The lovely part of this story is his relationship with his big sister, Anna. Here’s where the illustrations truly enhance the story: the prose tells us Ben is bravely protecting Anna, but the drawings show that she's barely batting an eyelash and is humouring her little brother. At the end of the story, as darkness settles on the house, it’s Anna that lovingly protects this brave boy. As a mother, I loved the sense of family that shines through.
Funke's stories unfold with humour and warmth. This collection is perfect for reading with your child anytime, but especially at bedtime, when it will ensure your little one goes to bed with a smile. When Kate grew older, and we had to make room on her shelves for other books, A Princess, A Pirate, and One Wild Brother was a treasured book that we couldn't part with.
Princess Knight, Pirate Girl, and The Wildest Brother are also available individually as stand-alone books.
Two kids, two cats, and a house full of books. We share our favourite picks for young readers.