BOOK PERSON | Vol. 22

Sally White with kids' books for all ages, including a compelling Harry Potter alternative and stories for tough subjects.

Hi pals,

This week I’m reading Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung, which will be out in July: a feat of sparse, evocative prose that achieves an impressively high word-to-emotion ratio while telling the intergenerational story of a Chinese-Canadian astronaut family.

And last week I read The Creep, by Michael LaPointe, which was so good I barely noticed that I was reading a water-marked PDF (humiliations of the book reviewer). If you are tired of what Joyce Carol Oates calls “wan little husks,” please sink your teeth into this dark, intricately-plotted thriller about scientific menace, corporate greed, and compulsive lying.

This week’s BOOK PERSON is Sally White, Creative Director for Owl Crate Jr., a very cool book subscription service for middle-grade readers. She’s also a fellow alumna of Kerrisdale Elementary (Class of 1999, baby!). I’m so excited to share a second edition of kids’ book recommendations from a true connoisseur of the form. Enjoy!

What's your favourite bookstore in the whole wide world?

I really love Kidsbooks in Vancouver. I worked there for a few years, so I have some retail nightmare emotions tied to it, but the staff is so knowledgeable about what kids actually want to read and it has a really lovely community feel to it. I also love The Strand in New York, particularly the children's section upstairs because it feels like a bit of a maze and has really high shelves. It feels like a movie bookstore.

What is the first book you remember loving as a child?

The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton. I remember reading a big illustrated version when I was around 6 and wanting to find this tree that led to hundreds of different lands SO BADLY. It led to a lot of tree climbing. Revisiting it, the writing is so old fashioned and the author is problematic, but it really sparked my imagination as a kid.

Which children's book character do you most strongly identify with?

Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy. I am nosy by nature and love to get to the bottom of a mystery.

Name five great kids' books and tell me why you love them:

My job involves reading a lot of middle grade novels, so I will stick to that age range for this question!

  1. Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend. This series is incredible and made me feel as an adult the way I did at age 13 reading Harry Potter for the first time, but I promise you it is better plus the author is a wonderful person. The story is fun and dark and complicated with an exceptionally well realized fantasy world. There are three installations out already and (if all goes well) there will eventually be nine deliciously long books in the series.

  2. Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder. This is a beautiful magic realism, semi-sci-fi allegory about being on the cusp of leaving childhood. I've never read anything else like it. It is written for 9-12 year-olds, but in all likelihood enjoyed more by adults.

  3. The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf. This book is not afraid to get SCARY but it is also very heartwarming.

  4. The Barren Grounds by David A. Robertson. A Narnia-esque portal fantasy inspired by Cree sky stories, with contemporary Indigenous kids as the protagonists. I'm really looking forward to book two.

  5. Matilda by Roald Dahl. Her love of books and sense of retribution definitely shaped me as a person.

What's the best book for brand-new parents?

Here We Are: Notes For Living On Planet Earth by Oliver Jeffers.

Which book do you give most often as a gift?

Any or all of The Boy series by Oliver Jeffers (How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, The Way Back Home, and Up and Down). I love the illustrations, they remain fun to read even on a loop, and they come in a satisfying larger board book style that is harder to destroy than paper pages but doesn't feel "babyish" for slightly older kids.

Who are your favourite illustrators?

Oh my gosh, I'm overwhelmed with the sheer number of options and the fact that I'm terrible at remembering names! Jon Klassen, Kate Beaton, Lorena Alvarez, Christian Robinson, Bill Peet, Jill Barklem, Beatrix Potter, Carson Ellis, Ryan Andrews, Anthony Browne, Oliver Jeffers, Richard Scarry... this list could go on for a long long time.

Who are the authors you love and why?

I'm mentioning a lot of specific titles in other answers, so I'll go broad here. I love authors who trust the intelligence of kids and write interesting, complex, engrossing stories for them. There is so much patronizing crap written for kids and it always gets my hackles up. But then you find books like Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk that are breathtaking and timeless and could just as easily have been written for an older audience. Kids deserve good writing.

What's a fun (or funny) book to read together with a baby?

Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard, Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andreae, and pretty much anything from Sandra Boynton's extensive catalogue. (Ed. note: Maeve loves this one.)

What's a book you never get tired of reading?

Triangle, Circle and Square by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. I have read them to my now-4-year-old nephew many many times over Zoom in the last year and they are still funny and weird. I actually bought them for myself because I love the artwork, but luckily he likes them too. I also love A Bedtime For Bear because it is full of big words and the bear is so dramatic and fussy.

What do you look for in a book for little kids? What are the key elements that makes something magical or memorable?

A good rhythm, fun pictures and silly and/engaging characters. Stories that don't talk down to kids.

What's a book you think people should stop giving parents?

The Giving Tree. I do not understand what we're supposed to take away from this story. Give until you're broken as long as it makes the person you love fleetingly happy? Bleak!

What are good books for introducing difficult subjects like racism or grief to young children?

For ages 5+, A Kids Book About Racism by Jelani Memory is a really well put-together and straightforward explanation of racism.

Last Stop On Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson.

When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson is a beautiful book and an especially important one for learning about the lasting impact of Canada's residential schools, which is something we did not learn about through my entire K-12 education.

For the 8+ crowd, this just scratches the surface of what is available: anything by Jason Reynolds (he writes for a range of ages); New Kid by Jerry Craft (graphic novel); Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B Alston (fantasy); Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes.

Two books about grief: The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers; When A Pet Dies by Fred Rogers

Who writes books or series that adults can enjoy as much as kids?

Jessica Townsend. If you want to sink into a fulfilling fantasy world, or you may be looking to replace a Harry Potter-sized hole in your heart, look no further.

What are the best books to read aloud?

This answer may be a cheat, but any book that keeps their attention. For some reason people think that reading aloud can or should stop once kids can read to themselves, but stories only get better for big kids and I think it’s a routine to hold onto for as long as possible.

What's a great series to read with kids as they get old enough for chapter books?

All the ones previously mentioned, plus Malamander by Thomas Taylor, Arlo Finch by John August, A Clock Of Stars by Francesca Gibbons, and A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison.

Must-read graphic novels?

This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews, Snapdragonby Kat Leyh andGuts by Raina Telgemeier.

What's a classic kids' book that still holds up?

I’ve been mulling this over for ages now and have to go with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The descriptions of all Willy Wonka’s inventions still make my mouth water, Quentin Blake’s sketchy pen drawings are iconic, and the rude language is thrilling for a kid.