What makes a picture book special? Perhaps, in this case, it’s a “marriage of true minds” between two authors who love children and the bond they have developed with their illustrator, Jo Robinson.
The series is dedicated to building children’s self-esteem and confidence, achieving self-acceptance and celebrating difference. Myrtle’s adventures illustrate the importance of friendship, of supporting those who are facing difficulties, of giving and receiving help and encouraging empathy.
Myrtle and the Big Mistake is the fourth book in this successful series which takes on important topics in a way that engages the hearts and minds of young children, but also appeals to older siblings, parents, teachers and grandparents, offering opportunities for discussion about problems that many children face every day and giving young listeners an opportunity to develop their own ideas about how to tackle these.
Myrtle is a loveable character, self-aware and serious but at the same time friendly and curious. Each story extends Myrtle’s experience of the world and expands her community of friends. In the first book she is hurt when a bullying stranger turtle claims she can’t be a turtle since she is purple. She longs to be green like others in the Big Pond. Her friends however point out that each of them is different —one is a brownish colour, one has spots, another has a differently shaped shell and that they all love her purple shell.
In Myrtle’s Game, the turtles’ favourite game is a form of water-soccer. When they discover that some of the woodland animals play a similar game on grass they encourage Myrtle, their best “blocker” to ask if she can play. When the team tells her that turtles can’t play soccer, she and her friends get together to help her to become an even better player. After training hard, she asks if she can try out for the woodland team and they admit she is a good goalie so she plays with them, cheered on by her turtle friends. As she leaves the field she invites the team to come over and try playing water-soccer with them in the Big Pond.
In the third story, Myrtle Makes a New Friend, a fox family moves into the neighbourhood and some turtles become suspicious and angry. Adults say things that make Myrtle and her friends afraid. Myrtle is nervous but, when she meets young Felix Fox; he is hiding behind a bush and crying because he thinks that all the children will hate him. Myrtle kindly insists that this is not true and says she will be his friend. When Myrtle tells Felix, she is going to be late, he gives her a ride on his back to school, where Myrtle is able to introduce him to the others as her new friend and he becomes part of their play group.
The fourth book examines the fallout, when one of Myrtle’s classmates mishears and spreads a false story about another member of their class. This time Myrtle immediately steps up to defend her friend, Snapper, and tells the gossiper that the story is untrue. But the gossip spreads quickly and Myrtle and her friends have to track down the source of the story, Garret the parrot, and set the record straight. Garret tells all the animals he is sorry and that he made a big mistake. Still feeling bad and unhappy he is about to leave, but before he can fly away, Myrtle and Snapper to his surprise invite him to play. Children are engaged here in understanding complex problems and solutions, allowing them to sympathize with the characters and appreciate Garret’s remorse and his honesty at the conclusion to the story.They can also share in his relief and the happiness of the group of friends as they all go “off to play together”.
Myrtle, and her friends, new and old are deftly developed by the authors into characters who are hard to forget and easy to love. Jo Robinson’s well designed and colourful illustrations capture the emotional moments and turning points of these appealing stories. Young listeners will want to hear these tales repeated over and over again and will, no doubt, be anxious to hear the about Myrtle’s further adventures.
When I move house I always ask myself, how long will it be before I feel at home in this new place? I worry about being able to join a new community? Will I meet people who will become friends? My novel Alone: A Winter in the Woods probes those questions and others that arise for immigrants and settlers, wherever they find themselves.
I’m wearing a T shirt today which says “Never stop exploring,” but I discovered long ago that exploration doesn’t necessarily mean travelling, but instead digging deeply into one’s surroundings. When I left Toronto, to live in the country after many years teaching in the inner city, we explored the area around our new home. One of our favourite places is Presqu’ile Provincial Park, a small peninsula which curves out into Lake Ontario. Mixed woods and a marsh harbour a multitude of birds, animals and wild flowers. The park also contains an abandoned farm, but not that of the first settler in the area whose name is preserved on a cairn just outside the park gates. A small plaque also records the fact that he, Obediah Simpson, brought his young son and some cattle to their land grant in January 1796, over the lake ice. After building a cabin, he returned to his previous home to collect his wife and young family and bring them up the lake by boat in the spring. The 12 year old boy, stayed alone in the woods taking care of the cattle and the tiny homestead for a couple of months. It was an unforgettable story, prompting questions, which seemed unanswerable.
The Cairn outside the park
After some research, I found that Obediah and his wife died little more than ten years after their settlement. Documents about Simpson’s military service and ones relating to his land grant were readily available and he left a will and an inventory of his belongings. His eldest son took over the farm and raised his young brothers and sisters. But the family left no letters or journals that I could discover. What they had thought and felt remained a mystery.
For a time I brooded over these questions: were families so very different in the eighteenth century from those of today? What might the feelings of the boy’s parents have been about leaving their son alone and what were those of the boy himself? Did parents have very different expectations of their children than we do today? And how could a youngster cope with the responsibilities of keeping himself and the cattle alive and his frightening isolation? In our “connected” world, being completely unable to communicate with family and friends is almost unimaginable, especially for young people. How would the boy deal with such solitude? I wondered how my own sons and some of the students I had met in my years of teaching would respond to this dilemma and concluded that though the challenges and their responses might be different, they would rise to them and that many had already done so. Perhaps it wasn’t so difficult to imagine this boy’s experience, after all.
Slowly the character of John Turner began to come to life and his family grew around him. Alone: A Winter in the Woods is the product of those years of trying to answer the questions which haunted me. The family left behind at the old community became important in the exploration of beliefs, ideas and feelings that might motivate people at that time. Their life is recorded, in her journal by Josephine, a young woman from Montreal, adopted by the Turner family after her mother dies. She has own adventures as she struggles to overcome her feelings of isolation as an “outsider”. Pa and John, travelling through the icy woods to an empty township, have a strong relationship and build on this to increase their trust in each other, while they clear the ground and build a first cabin on their land. That trust strengthens them both, when they have to part. During John’s solitude he comes to know the land grant well and begins to love his surroundings. But it is the work he puts into taking care of the animals, planting a garden, defending the homestead and preparing the cabin for the arrival of his family which most contribute to his perception of the land as home.
With my grand-daughter at the launch of Alone: A Winter in the Woods
I wrote, with a colleague while teaching, several text-books and books for teachers, but later became interested in writing fiction. I, with another friend, wrote two mystery novels that we sent to a few publishing companies but then forgot about them. I’ve published poems and short pieces in anthologies and journals and belong to a regional arts’ group, Spirit of the Hills. The writer-members have produced two anthologies, a mixture of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction called Hill Spirits and Hill Spirits II (Blue Denim Press, 2012 and 2015) I have been one of the editors for these as well as a contributor.
And finally, I am the co-host of a local radio show Word on the Hills in which we interview regional writers and invite them to read from their work.
First published on the Story Reading Ape’s Blog August 19th 2020.
I’m excited to announce that almost five years after the publication of Alone: A Winter in the Woods as a print edition, the book is now being released as an ebook
Alone: A Winter in the Woods is a story for all ages. It quickly engages the reader in thirteen year-old John Turner’s adventures. Forced to grow up quickly, while left alone on the family’s land grant in a virtually unsettled township, on the shore of Lake Ontario, in the winter of 1797, John has to overcome devastating isolation and loneliness. With only a pair of oxen, a pregnant cow, a handful of chickens and his dog to keep him company, everyday tasks become ten times more difficult than they were while Pa was still with him, building their tiny cabin. Meanwhile John’s mother has adopted the orphaned Joséphine, who keeps a journal recording the life of the Turners and her own experiences, while the family waits for Pa to return to Adolphustown to escort his wife and young children up the lake to the new settlement once spring allows water traffic to resume. This tale explores the differences and similarities between family life and expectations in the eighteenth century and the present, as John and Joséphine reflect on what home, family, and friendship mean to them and struggle to find the courage, determination and faith needed to face the future.
Felicity Sidnell Reid delivers a compelling, at times harrowing, adventure story that will be enjoyed by readers of any age…The book is filled with such vivid descriptions of the forest of Upper Canada, the rivers and marshes, the glimpses of Lake Ontario in the distance, and the changing seasons that the reader easily imagines sharing these surroundings.
Peggy Dymond Leavey, biographer of Mary Pickford, Laura Secord and Molly Brant, and author of nine novels for young readers.
Alone introduces us to a panoply of characters–homesteaders, loyalist refugees, a young woman from Quebec, a family of Ojibwas, and a Methodist circuit rider. They made up the cultural patchwork of Canada then and foreshadow the multiculturalism of today. Alone is a coming of age story crowded with life and youthful derring-do.
Erika Rummel, author of many prize winning novels, the most recent being. The Road to Gesualdo and Three Women and Alfred Nobel
The novel, Alone, skilfully combines historical fact with the writer’s imagination. Felicity Sidnell Reid’s writing brings us into the heart of a boy’s thoughts, and his courage, calm in the face of fear. She weaves history into the story much as an artist underlays a painting so that when one is finished, one has been on a journey back to 1797 with a young teen.
Patricia Calder, photographer and author of Roadblock
Felicity Sidnell Reid’s skill as a historian, observer of humanity and wordsmith allows her to add depth and nuance to this story in the detail with which she presents the routines of everyday life, the human themes she addresses, and the incisiveness of the language she employs. Both principal characters are captivating. For the greater part of the story, John is physically isolated from his family and lives entirely without neighbors save for the occasional passing trader, Ojibway band or circuit rider. Perforce he must learn how to best cope. Josephine, though living with the rest of Turner family in Adolphustown, is within an alien culture and not yet quite adapted to her new environment. John’s perspective allows us to see what is going on at the ‘sharp’ end of settlement where no roads or villages yet exist; Josephine’s graphically illustrates what a small colonial settlement was like in those days and the pressures that bore down on a lone and vulnerable young woman.
Ronald Mackay author of The Fortunate Isle: A Memoir of Tenerife and many short stories and travel articles.
Recently I came across a file containing part of a novel I started writing a number of years ago, then put away and more or less forgot. Since re-reading it I’ve been trying to continue the story, which has allowed me to “travel” in this time of Covid, since the novel is set in northeast Thailand near the Cambodian and Vietnamese borders.
I pulled out books of faded photographs, guide books, one of Thai phrases and even a journal and settled down to recall the excitements and challenges I experienced travelling alone to an unknown place, where I didn’t know the language and where I had committed to teaching English at a teachers’ college for six months…
Thais are a wonderfully hospitable people. I was assigned a house on the campus and frequently taken to town to shop and eat out and…
Summer has come upon us after a long and, for many, a frightening and lonely spring. But there have been some positives to that lockdown season where I live; people have, on the whole, felt safe—instructions have been clear; politicians have listened to expert medical advice and followed it.
Communities pulled together to help their residents. Local organizations kept in touch with the elderly and stores stepped up or initiated delivery services. Telephone services for young people who need help in this difficult time, have risen to the challenge of responding to a large increase in calls. National Arts organizations have made video performances of both music and drama available for free, as well as discussions between artists, organizers and other participants, while local associations have encouraged their members to continue to create by setting up virtual art galleries and blogs where writers can share their current work or reflections.
Most of us have become familiar with platforms like Zoom, which have enabled us to attend family get-togethers, meetings with colleagues, and in my case, continue to record interviews for our radio series Word on the Hills. Not everyone has been able to work from home, but education, businesses, and other services have managed, with much effort and many challenges, to move online.
We’ve gratefully acknowledged the courage and dedication of essential frontline workers whether in health care, maintaining infrastructure or necessary services such as security, stocking shelves in the grocery store, or cleaning and disinfecting objects and spaces the public is obliged to use, but I hope that a fuller recognition and a deeper understanding of their contributions to our societal well-being will be part of our future.
Stage 2 of the recovery plan for the economy, instituted last week in areas of my province where infection rates are acceptably low or now non-existent, has brought some relief and excitement, but also more uncertainty and stress. Rules are less clear. While maintaining social distance is still regarded as key to preventing a new outbreak of the virus, meetings of up to 10 people are now allowed and family and friends may visit each other.
In public places like restaurants, service is only possible on the patio and regulations for the safety of both workers and customers have to be observed. Many businesses have, as essential stores did months ago, set up plexiglass barriers between dining tables, or between vendor and customer. Everyone who enters a store is advised to wear a mask, as is anyone who works there. As more people go back to work, Public Transit is requiring passengers to wear masks. Preparations for opening up can be elaborate and expensive. Not all companies are ready to go.
When restrictions were first loosened for Stage 1 several weeks ago, I was thrilled to be able to return to our local provincial park with my dog and delighted to find that people were conscious of social distancing regulations and willing to observe them. It was our first adventure— actually walking in a public place beyond my garden and neighbouring streets. Both these locales had left me more appreciative of my neighbours and neighbourhood, but being able to go further was real freedom. I discovered that our favourite trails were less popular than the shore; we seldom met anyone but another dog walker or occasional cyclist, from whom we kept our distance while exchanging cheerful greetings.
So last week when we entered Stage 2 of our recovery plan I asked my hairdresser, who runs her business on her own, if she was ready to open up. She told me about all the precautions she’s taken and gave me an appointment. Last Friday, feeling I must confess a little nervous, I presented myself at the proper moment and was greeted by Val and her dog, Cody. Sanitizer in hand, Val smiled from behind two protective masks, while Cody blinked at me from his basket. We spent a relaxing time together, and I left with my hair tidied, trimmed and pinned up, determined to continue growing it until it can be easily styled even by me!
But our uncertainties and worries remain. How safe are we as governments loosen restrictions? Will people follow advice once it is no longer a strict rule? Will we find ways to support vulnerable members of our society needing homes, food and jobs? Will money and profits once again become more important than people and healthy communities? Will we remember and act on the lessons of the pandemic with regard to health, travel, education, modes of living, politics, justice and climate change— systems and issues that affect the whole world as well as each individual life?
Thanks to Chris Graham, The Story Reading Ape, who first published this post on his blog