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2014 August

15

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

On 15, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Mambo in ChinatownFrom GoodReads: Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.

But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

I think this one is technically an adult novel, although I didn’t realize that when I got it. I would call it New Adult with plenty of appeal for an older YA audience. I’m not sure why I decided to read it (must have gotten a good review from someone) since I tend not to be interested in adult novels, but I’m glad I did.

Hooray! This one was not about a miserable middle aged woman having a tepid affair. In fact it ends well and despite adversity and a lack of confidence, Charlie is a likable and relatable character who you’re happy to see things work out for. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on adult fiction after all. 😉

Mambo in Chinatown tackles a TON of issues, but Kwok keeps it from turning into an after school special. The struggles Charlie faces make the characters and story feel real. Actually, it’s the variety of issues and problems that could broaden the audience this book would appeal to.

Not only is dance a large part of the story but it’s shown as a path to bettering her chances in life. Charlie never considered going to college. She has some undiagnosed learning difficulties and never really did well in school. It was refreshing to read a story about someone choosing a different path that is treated as equally valid (even if it’s difficult).

Tension between traditional ways (and generations) and the younger generation is also a major theme. The immigrant experience plays into this, as well as ethnicity. Charlie has rarely been out of Chinatown and it’s a big deal when she begins to work outside. Charlie’s sister also suffers an unexplained health crisis (it is explained toward the end). Their uncle is an eastern medicine practitioner and their father tends to prefer this type of treatment and defers to his brother. Charlie is skeptical of it, especially when her sister’s health continues to spiral downward.

I was especially taken with the relationship between Charlie and her sister Lisa. They are eleven years apart and their mother died shortly after Lisa was born. With the added stress of being very poor, Charlie has had to grow up quickly and is more of a mother figure to Lisa than a sister. Charlie is wonderfully encouraging of Lisa and, because she is young and less tied to tradition, she makes a good advocate for her with their father, uncle, and larger community.

There’s been a lot of talk about NA being YA with sex and I even heard an author call Fifty Shades of Gray NA. I suppose it is in a way, but I think the idea that it has so much sex doesn’t make it NA. Sex is certainly a part of many (most?) people’s lives when they’re new adults but I think it’s rather simplistic to think that it’s the only thing that’s changed between young adulthood and new adulthood. Or the only part that new adults want to read about. Mambo in Chinatown has sex in it. One sex scene that really happens off page. It’s certainly not graphic. In fact I’ve read steamier sex scenes in YA novels. But I think the way Kwok handles this relationship in the book is how sex in a book appeals to new adults. If you want lots of graphic sex, read erotica. Read erotic NA. Here the sex is simply a part of the story, a minor but good part.

My one and only complaint about the book was that some of the metaphor gets a bit heavy-handed and obvious with big flashing red arrows pointing at them, but they were few and far between. Nor did they detract from the rest of the writing which was good.

Give this book to kids who are interested in dance, dance competition, diverse characters, tensions between tradition and modernity, and mother-daughter relationships.

 

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13

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Nightingale’s Nest

On 13, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Nightingale's NestFrom GoodReads: Twelve-year-old John Fischer Jr., or “Little John” as he’s always been known, is spending his summer helping his father with his tree removal business, clearing brush for Mr. King, the wealthy owner of a chain of Texas dollar stores, when he hears a beautiful song that transfixes him. He follows the melody and finds, not a bird, but a young girl sitting in the branches of a tall sycamore tree.

There’s something magical about this girl, Gayle, especially her soaring singing voice, and Little John’s friendship with Gayle quickly becomes the one bright spot in his life, for his home is dominated by sorrow over his sister’s death and his parents’ ever-tightening financial difficulties.

But then Mr. King draws Little John into an impossible choice—forced to choose between his family’s survival and a betrayal of Gayle that puts her future in jeopardy.

Inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story, Nightingale’s Nest is an unforgettable novel about a boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a girl with the gift of healing in her voice.

I’m not really sure what I expected from this one. I guess I thought it would be more fantasy than it was. It ended up being magical realism, which really isn’t my thing. That being said, it was beautifully written and very moving which is why I finished reading it despite knowing early on that I wouldn’t personally click with it.

On the surface this is a story coming of age story wherein Little John learns to stand up for what is right and to deal with his grief over the death of his sister. Nightingale’s Nest runs deceptively deep though. It tackles poverty, child abuse, death, grief, and loss, the idea that money can’t buy happiness, and creepy old men.

This could easily be my personal bias talking, but Nightingale’s Nest felt more like a children’s book written for adults. It would certainly be the right book for a particular kid. If you have one of those kids in your library, you’ll know just by reading the synopsis who to give it to. I would note that the description calls it “inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story” and that would be about right. I’m not super familiar with the particular story, but it didn’t read much like a fairy tale, not even one set in a modern time. Even though the story ends on a hopeful note, it’s still awfully depressing and Little John can certainly be a sad sack. It skews young in terms of the vocabulary and complexity of the writing (not in how well it is written, but in a technical, mechanical sense!) but the themes and ideas and tacit messages of the book skew much older. The writing also had a dreamy, often almost unreal quality, that I tend to find magical realism books to have. I could see that being a challenge for a younger audience.

A number of the characters in the book are terrible people, but Loftin was really good at fleshing them out, making them flawed with motivations to be the people they are instead of caricatures. On the flip side, Little John was such a good guy. He got a lot of guff from his parents and other adults around and he beat himself up over his sister’s death, but none of it is his fault. It was interesting to see him come into his own and still make mistakes as the story unfolded.

I could see fans of Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant and Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy enjoying this one if they’re ready for something a little more complex and little darker.

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12

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Summer Reading Round Up: Graphic Novels

On 12, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

This summer I read a number of graphic novels. I thought I would round my reviews of them up into one post. Since there are quite a few I’ve just linked their title to their GoodReads page if you would like to hop over and read the descriptions. As a general comment, all these graphic novels had excellent, if very different, art.

Summer Graphic Novels

Skim / Mariko Tamaki: I loved Skim for how it nailed the angst and tension of high school. In some ways Kim could be a total cliche. She tries out religion (Wicca), has a crush on her teacher, goes on awkward dates, has a friend who isn’t such a great friend, and even finds a friend in an unexpected person. But who didn’t have all (or most) of these experiences in high school? This universality makes the story transcend cliche. I was also really impressed by the length of the book. How many times do you read a graphic novel and think “that was short”? It usually doesn’t have any bearing on liking it, but I find myself wishing the reading experience had lasted longer. The length of Skim did not leave me feeling that way. (YA)

Anya’s Ghost / Vera Brosgol: I thought this one was very atmospheric and creepy, but the ending felt a little silly to me. I think this was the combination of ghost story combined with some more serious topics like fitting in, the immigrant experience, and damaging, dysfunctional romantic relationships. Minus the final scene with the ghost I think Anya’s Ghost did something really interesting using the ghost story to frame and highlight these issues. Despite the final scene with the ghost, though, I still really enjoyed the book as a whole. Anya was a likable and realistic teenager. And I’m always a sucker for a good creepy (but not to scary!) ghost story. (YA)

Amulet: The Stonekeeper / Kazu Kibuishi: This one wasn’t short on action by any means. This was a graphic novel I wanted to last longer because it was so exciting. There was a lot of mystery and suspense to keep the pages turning and combine with the graphic novel format, makes this a good book for reluctant readers. (Kidlit, MG)

Cleopatra in Space / Mike Maihack: Why, why why were these kinds of books not around when I was growing up?! I’ve never been a huge science fiction fan, but this has some aspects of Ancient Egypt in it so I would have been all over it. Even as an adult I really loved this story. Cleopatra isn’t your traditional heroine in that she is beautiful and good at everything. In fact she isn’t really into school and isn’t all that good at academics. But when it comes to guts and bravado (and the ability to aim a gun) she dominates. She’s also fairly self confident even if she feels a bit different and lonely, which could grate, but she’s not flawless so it felt more endearing and fun. She’s the kind of kid you would want to be friends with in middle and high school. A good one to recommend to fans of Zita the Spacegirl, reluctant readers, and Egypt fans. As a related side note, I wish the cover of this didn’t look so much like Zita. I feel like it makes it look more like it’s capitalizing on Zita‘s popularity (although I’m not sure which was published first, come to think of it). (Kidlit, MG)

Zita the Spacegirl / Ben Hatke: This was a graphic novel? I came away from it feeling like it read more like a regular novel. The story had complexity, adventure, awesome characters, and good world building. I’m not really sure what else to say about this one. I enjoyed it. Zita is a plucky girl with a good heart, but the story doesn’t come across as didactic. Again, I’m not really a sci-fi fan, but the story is a lot more complex than a genre. In fact I would say it’s more about doing the right thing and about friendship (although, again, it isn’t preachy). I would give this one to any kid that likes adventure, space-related or not. It’s just an all around good book. (Kidlit, MG)

Jane, the Fox, and Me / Fanny Britt: Helene and I share a love of Jane Eyre. I think she saw herself more in the pages than I ever did (I loved the hopelessly romantic and dramatic elements of it), but that was reason I picked up this one. It turned out to be a really beautiful story about the transformative power of friendship. I think a lot of girls can relate to Helene, who you might call a late bloomer. Her old set of friends has become far too cool and are awfully mean to her, (falsely) teasing her for being overweight. Helene really takes their messages to heart, as I think many girls who are teased do. She vacillates between wanting to appear cool and retreating into an escapist world found in Jane Eyre. However, the end is hopeful. On an overnight class trip she discovers a friend and ally in a girl who breaks with the popular crowd, possibly over the treatment of Helene. Stopping wallowing in her self pity does wonders for Helene’s outlook on life and Helene comes to see that being different may not be such a bad thing. She also realizes that she’s hearing some less than positive messages about weight from her mother (as well as her former friends) and that maybe she shouldn’t let their teasing get to her as much. As a school librarian, I’ve known kids like this and the story rang very true. (MG)

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11

Aug
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Animal Science

On 11, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Animal Science

Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World by Steve Jenkins: This is an incredible book. Jenkins has taken an ostensibly boring subject (the evolution of the eye), and using the layout, the illustrations, and the selection of information, made a book that will capture your interest. It would be more useful as a title to browse and pique interest or as a resource for a report on the evolution of the eye than as a resource for any specific animal. But kids are naturally curious about the world around them, so it’s the type of book that will keep their engagement in tact instead of boring it out of them. I even read this one (in very small sections) to my three-year-old. With some interpretation and extra explaining, mostly to define words she didn’t know, even she was able to enjoy the book. The animals a certainly familiar, but the context is very fresh.

Unusual Creatures: A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth’s Strangest Animals by Michael Hearst: The slightly off colors of this book give Unusual Creatures a throwback quality.  The format and small tidbits of information are reminiscent of the Guinness Book of World Records books that I loved as a kid and know are still popular. More importantly, I think, this book was funny. From the ridiculous title, to the introduction, to the Did You Know facts. It’s a good way to get kids reading nonfiction. The format would even allow more reluctant readers with high interest to dip in and out of the book.

Bone Collection: Animals by Rob Colson: This is another one kids can dip in and out of. Although this is more like visiting a natural history museum. The skeleton illustrations are amazing. What really struck me about the book, though, was the presentation of the information. Each skeleton is on a two-page spread that primarily has information about the specific animal. The next two-page spread moves out to a broader set of animals. So for example from the cod to fish. What I think is important about this is it shows kids how to make observations about things in their world, a specific animal in this case, and make generalizations and connections to broader ideas. Albeit this is subtle, it is still a good example of how science often works and makes their own natural thinking processes a little more explicit.

All three of these books have higher reading levels (upper elementary), but I think that’s due in large part to a complicated vocabulary. However, they are also pretty high interest subjects so this could motivate lower readers to tackle them and the context of the vocabulary really aids the reader in understanding it. They are also broken into small chunks of information which any reader can move through at their own pace.

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07

Aug
2014

In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Information and Digital Literacy Specialist

On 07, Aug 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

By way of my husband I came across a really interesting job opening at a Bay Area independent school. Sadly, it isn’t one I would be applying for simply because we don’t live close enough to Walnut Creek. But it got me thinking about updating my resume and about working on some different projects. The title and description are:

Information and Digital Literacy Specialist

  • works with the Librarian, the PC Specialist, the Mac/iPad Specialist, and the Director of Technology as a member of the Information Media Team
  • the candidate must have
    • a knowledge of STEAM and Maker movements
    • experience working with the students and teachers on planning, implementing, and assessing authentic, integrated, hands-on projects in innovative work spaces
    • strong research and organizational skills
    • a knowledge of media/information literacy and integration of electronic resources
    • a proven ability to assist teachers and serve students in a variety of environments

It’s not technically a library or librarian position, but I think a lot of librarians, especially school librarians would be well suited for the job. I was particularly interested because I think at this point I want to stay (and am stuck) in school libraries. They’re also looking for some skills and interests that I’m interested in, particularly the Maker Movement and the project-based learning portion.

Just thought I would share. I haven’t done a lick of research on this, not even a simple Google search, but I am curious if anyone else has run across this type of job (maybe not with the same title) before?

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