Bright lessons for young minds

Salma Joins the Team
by Danny Ramadan (illustrated by Anna Bron)
Toronto: Annick Press, 2024
$24.99 / 9781773218281

Not a Smiley Guy
by Polly Horvath (illustrated by Boris Kulikov)

Toronto: Margaret Ferguson Books, 2024
$25.99 / 9780823449873

Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy

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It is fascinating what a septuagenarian can learn reviewing children’s books. To wit, my ears perked up when I heard Danny Ramadan’s name mentioned on a CBC TV feature in connection with school library “shadow-banning.” New to me, the term refers to shifty but effective ways of limiting the availability of books–putting them in hard-to-reach areas, discouraging teachers from accessing them, etc. In other words, without going through the hoops of official banning, those in control can furtively limit access to books. 

Apparently, an Ontario school board shadow-banned several LGBTQ+ books, including the prequel to Salma Joins a Team, Salma Writes a Book. In the throes of reading the former–during Freedom to Read Week, as is happens–I immediately went out to purchase the latter (thankfully in full view at my local bookstore). Salma Writes a Book focuses on a Syrian-Canadian girl who watches–and helps—her mother transcend her homophobia and rekindle her relationship with her brother–and accept his husband.

Author Danny Ramadan

I found it a touching coming-of-age story that depicts the complications a religious immigrant family faces in Vancouver with tact, humour, and grace. I was pleased to learn the shadow-banning has desisted; one can only hope those responsible will have learned a lesson–and that the media attention to the action will boost sales, as banning often does.

Salma Joins a Team finds the irrepressible protagonist eager to emulate the feats of a fellow Syrian refugee, Olympic competitive swimmer Yusra Mardini.

The first step involves trying out for her school’s swim team, and that necessitates wearing a swimsuit that runs counter to her family’s religion and traditions. Salma has taught her parents well, though, and that obstacle is soon behind her. However, our heroine encounters further roadblocks–in the form of biases on the part of more than one of the cultures around her–in her quest, which itself gets altered along the way. Guidance comes from some (at first glance) unlikely sources. Through charm, smarts, and determination, Salma works toward her goal, demonstrating that religious beliefs can be accommodated in the contemporary world–and challenging gender and ageist stereotypes along the way. 

One of Anna Bron’s illustrations in Salma Joins the Team

This straightforward narrative moves at a rapid pace well-suited for young readers. And Vancouver’s Ramadan provides a delightful lesson in the importance of following individual dreams–but also recognizing the power of collaboration. Anna Bron’s crisp black and white illustrations neatly capture Salma’s highs and lows, deftly reinforcing the gentle lessons of the text. Material that encourages young readers to reflect on the role of heroes in their own lives supplements the story itself. 

Salma Joins the Team is well-packaged, as it maintains a delicate balance between instructing and engaging in a way that is likely to ensure the success of the series (a fourth book is slated for publication in 2025) with the target audience of six-to-nine-year- olds.

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American Boris Kulikov’s colour illustrations augment the whimsical nature of Metchosin resident Polly Horvath’s Not a Smiley Guy.

The book follows the life of the aptly-named protagonist Ernest from birth to kindergarten–the length of time it takes his parents to understand a basic trait of their cherished son. 

Author Polly Horvath (photo: Arnie Keller)

Ernest is born satisfied and remains so–apart from longing for an unusual companion. As his community widens from parents to extended family to the townspeople, he understands and appreciates the goodness of those around him.

Yet, because smiling is not for him, his dutiful parents make assumptions and go to extraordinary lengths to satisfy his one unmet need. 

The result, Marcia the elephant, is a winner at Ernest’s kindergarten show-and-tell, but when even this display fails to warrant a smile, his parents finally ask him why he is not happy. 

He is happy, he says, and agrees to his mother’s request that he show them a sign of his contentedness. He complies (with Marcia’s assistance) and the family of four is contented after their communication breakthrough. 

Boris Kulikov’s elephant, Marcia, surprises Ernest and his parents

Horvath’s playful tale provides a satisfying lesson on the deception of appearances and the importance of talking things through. Horvath and Kulikov let imagination soar over edification in this picture book, ensuring that even the youngest of their four-to-eight-year-old target audience will be captivated by Ernest and Marcia.

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Ginny Ratsoy

Ginny Ratsoy is Professor Emerita at Thompson Rivers University, where she created and taught many courses. Her scholarship has focused on Canadian fiction, theatre, small cities, third-age learning, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. In addition to counteracting ageism by maintaining a growth mindset through activism, writing and community engagement, she promotes third-age learning through her involvement as a board member, coordinator, and instructor for the Kamloops Adult Learners Society. Her most recent course, on Canadian female mystery writing, was significantly informed by her writing for BCR. [Editor’s note: Ginny Ratsoy has reviewed books by Yolanda Ridge, Winona Kent, Amanda Lewis, Gregor Craigie, Iona Whishaw, Elizabeth Bass, Karen L. Abrahamson, & J.E. Barnard (eds.), and Gregor Craigie & Kathleen Fu for BCR.]

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The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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