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Friday, June 29, 2012

Little Rat Rides

Is there anything worse for a reader than finishing the last book in a beloved series? We wouldn't mind so much, if only more books for young readers showed the same care and attention to words and pictures that Monika Bang-Campbell and Molly Bang do together in Little Rat.

After all the big sighs, Daughter Number Two still had a few questions about our new favourite furry heroine. So, with a little help, she posed them in an email to the author herself. Here is what we heard back. 

Why did Pee Wee chase the cat?
Pee Wee does NOT chase cats, he is scared of cats. All horses are scared of sudden movements they don't understand, because they are "prey" animals - in other words, they don't chase after other animals to eat them but instead are eaten by creatures like wolves and coyotes and jaguars and lions and bears and . . .

So they are scared by things we feel are very safe, like a running little cat or an umbrella suddenly opening  up.

Was Pee Wee a real horse?

Pee Wee was indeed a real horse, but he was a brown horse with white socks and a black mane. He was a retired barrel racer, so he was originally very swift, but when I rode him, he was old and slow and fat, but he was also still big. The horse in the book was named Salty, and he looked exactly like that: a big palomino Belgian.

Why are there real photos in the book?

The photos were real pictures of my Dad on his horse (who really was named Starduster) when my Dad was young and rode Starduster in the 4th of July parade in Manchester, New Hampshire. But he didn't have the head of a rat. The other real picture is of me, riding a horse named Happy in a show at the Barnstable County Fair many years ago But I did not have a rat head either.

Will we do another Little Rat book? How does Little Rat Dances Irish sound? Maybe. I don't know. I doubt it will be about Irish dancing, but I never can tell.

Why is Little Rat a rat, and not, say, an armadillo?

I made the books about a little rat because I like rats a lot and had a white rat as a pet when I was little. Her name was Sophie Rat, and she was cuddly and gentle. I've never had a personal relationship with an armadillo.

Maybe one of the reasons the series works so well is that it taps into some very real experiences in the childhood of its very real author. This makes the words authentic, and the scary, discouraging and frustrating parts of learning something new ring true. The bumps and the bruises, and the ups and downs are all there, but so is the heart, soul and happiness that comes from doing something difficult, whether its riding, making music, setting sail or even... learning to read.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Tale of Two Nazanins

June 21, 2012

Never underestimate the power of a pageant promise. Especially when the world is watching.

If you ask Wikipedia the meaning of the name “Nazanin” you will find it cited as a common Persian female first name, meaning “lovely”, “beautiful” and the like. And below this definition are listed, by way of example, three Nazanins: Nazanin Boniadi, an actress and spokesperson for Amnesty International, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a human rights activist and Miss World Canada in 2003 and Nazanin Mahabad Fatehi a 17 year-old girl sentenced to death for stabbing a man in self-defense. It is the latter two Nazanins who form, in alternating chapters, The Tale of Two Nazanins by Nazanin Afshin-Jam and Susan McLellan.

“Nazanin” is a fitting, perhaps even prophetic, name for a Canadian beauty queen with a close and loving family and a host of freedoms and possibilities before her. But “Nazanin” is a woefully ironic choice for an impoverished, Khurdish–Iranian girl who suffers most of her young life from neglect and brutality. While one advances in her education and rises on the world stage, the other struggles to go to school, care for her siblings and survive abuse at home, and menace in her surroundings. In such circumstances, it’s no wonder that trouble finds Fatehi, but the severity of her punishment, and the judgment against her is dictated by the fate of being female in a society that regards a woman’s life as half the value of a man’s.

This is no fairy tale for either Nazanin, but there are some victories noted in the book’s final pages. In Afshin-Jam’s fight to save Fatehi from the death sentence, some advances are made in youth justice in Iran, though for every step forward come two back, it would seem.

In any beauty pageant, vows are made to save the world.  But the old adage is true: pretty is as pretty does. The lengths Afshin-Jam goes to answer one desperate plea are a testament to the sincerity of her promise. A beauty queen’s reign is only a year, but in giving up the crown to its ultimate successor, many a former monarch has embarked upon a life dedicated to making the world a better place. Of these, Afshin-Jam is a shining example. Her cause is not for the faint of heart, and neither is her Tale, which only makes it that much more worthwhile to read, and to learn from.

Like the characters in Helen Simonsen's outstanding first novel, sometimes you have to leave your senses to come to them. I rashly abandoned the 14-day loan to linger over a copy of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand from the library, and am unrepentent. This, and Middlemarch, are the best books I have read all year. I lived in Middlemarch for summer vacation; Pettigrew was with me for the Christmas holidays. For everyone who loves England, a cure-all cup of tea, and believes simple happy endings are as possible as people are complicated.