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2014 December

30

Dec
2014

In Uncategorized

By Elizabeth Wroten

Looking Ahead to 2015

On 30, Dec 2014 | In Uncategorized | By Elizabeth Wroten

This is the post where I make my blog resolutions for next year. Feel free to skip it, I’m mostly doing it for my own accountability.

Each month I am going to review at least one:

  • picture book
  • chapter book
  • middle grade
  • YA
  • and nonfiction

There will probably be more, but that’s my goal.

I will also read and review a single author in the last week of the month. Next month I’m starting with Joseph Bruchac because he is coming to Sacramento to speak!! He’ll be here early in February so I wanted to have read through a number of his books before I see him. After Joseph Bruchac I believe I will read through Jewell Parker Rhodes YA books since I read the ARC of her latest novel and loved it.

I am making a concerted effort to pick books to read next year that either feature diversity or are written by a diverse author. There are a couple books that I want to read that don’t fit the criteria (there’s a sequel to The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate coming out!!!!) but I want to be part of encouraging publishers to publish diverse titles and authors. I don’t feel like there is much I can do to help this cause yet, but I can read and review diverse literature.

I will continue to share what is going on in the Makerspace I’m running and, of course, I’ll share my thoughts on various library topics as they come up.

I hope everyone has a happy and safe holiday season and 2015.

23

Dec
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

On 23, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Unknown AmericansThe Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

From GoodReads: After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel’s recovery-the piece of the American Dream on which they’ve pinned all their hopes-will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles. At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she’s sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America. Peopled with deeply sympathetic characters, this poignant yet unsentimental tale of young love tells a riveting story of unflinching honesty and humanity that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be an American. An instant classic is born.

I think technically this is an adult book. A good chunk of the narrative centers around adults and one of the major themes is the struggle of being a parent and wanting to protect your child even though you often can’t. However I think for older YA it’s a great foray into adult literature and does feature a teenage girl and boy very prominently.

In part, this was such a sweet story. You meet all these characters that live in a small dingy apartment building and hear their stories of why and how they came to the US. All have come for a better life and, while they may not have found great wealth, many of them are happy. Everyone is poor, but they manage to get by and support their families. You can’t help but feel for these people and come to care about them. The book certainly could have become overwrought trying to win your sympathy for poor immigrants, but it never felt disingenuous or contrived.

Alma and her husband (whose name is escaping me) have come to the US because Maribel, their daughter, has suffered a fall and a traumatic brain injury. Here they can get her into a good school that can help her recover and cope with her condition. Maribel is very beautiful, but her mind is not quite all there (although this begins to change as the story goes on). When they arrive Maribel is befriended by Mayor, a boy from downstairs. In the small moments he gets to know her and comes to love her for more than her beauty. While Alma is busy struggling to overcome language and cultural barriers and worrying over Maribel, Mayor comes to see her for herself and appreciate the girl she is post-accident- something Alma really struggles with.

There is of course strife, mostly inflicted by parents who are just trying to protect their kids. Maribel is being watched by some creep in the neighborhood and after an incident where he touches her, Alma tries to keep Maribel even closer. This interferes with her friendship with Mayor and gives it a bit of a Romeo and Juliet feel. There is also sadness in the book, it is a story about immigrants who are just barely making it in America. But this is tempered with the stories of the people in Alma’s apartment block and Maribel and Mayor’s love story.

The book also does a wonderful job highlighting that all immigrants are not the same. Some came here as children, others came here as adults. Some have been in trouble with the law, others have always been on the straight and narrow. Some had good jobs and opportunities back home while others were forced to leave because of political conflict or because of a lack of options. Some have struggled others have maintained a certain level of quality of life all along. Some have found love, others have not. Some come from Mexico, while some come from various parts of Central America. They are as varied in their stories as the white middle class. It’s a refreshing glimpse into a community that often gets painted with a broad brush by the media and politicians.

I feel like I don’t know exactly what to say about the book. It was just so enjoyable despite the sad parts. It felt like peeking into cars as you drive along and realizing people have lives separate from yours and wondering they are going.

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22

Dec
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Revolution by Deborah Wiles

On 22, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

RevolutionRevolution by Deborah Wiles

From GoodReads: It’s 1964, and Sunny’s town is being invaded.  Or at least that’s what the adults of Greenwood, Mississippi, are saying. All Sunny knows is that people from up north are coming to help people register to vote.  They’re calling it Freedom Summer.
 
Meanwhile, Sunny can’t help but feel like her house is being invaded, too.  She has a new stepmother, a new brother, and a new sister crowding her life, giving her little room to breathe.  And things get even trickier when Sunny and her brother are caught sneaking into the local swimming pool — where they bump into a mystery boy whose life is going to become tangled up in theirs.

So as an introduction this is the second book in the Sixties Trilogy. The first was Countdown which was a story about Franny. In Revolution we meet Sunny, a young, white girl. While the two books are part of a trilogy they are really companion novels. Franny’s older sister was getting involved with the Civil Rights movement in Countdown. In Revolution she shows up in Mississippi for Freedom Summer working with various organizations that were getting African American citizens registered to vote in a very contentious area. She does not play a major role in the story exactly, but she is here and Franny is mentioned. You do not have to read these books in order.

I found Countdown to be very successful in integrating the ephemera and the story and in telling the story of Franny and her family and friendship struggles set against a turbulent historical time. My first thought upon seeing Revolution was, wow that’s long. And sadly I think that will be most kids reaction to this as well. Even though there are pictures that technically cut down the 495 pages I have a hard time believing most middle school kids will be willing to look past that page count.

It wasn’t nearly as successful with using photos, clips, and quotes as Countdown. Here many of the snippets were overly long and felt tangential at best. Often times it felt like Wiles was trying to make a point with them and a connection to the story, but it was only truly successful a few times. More often than not I found myself skimming them and feeling like I was missing something if I would only dig deeper. For a book that is this long I think you will be hard pressed to find a student who would sit down and puzzle out the connections.

All of this isn’t to say the story itself wasn’t good. It’s definitely a character-driven book and follows Sunny through a difficult time in her life as she adjusts to family drama and changes and learns to look outside herself. Sunny is rather selfish but she grows as the story moves along which makes her infinitely more likable. Sunny has a non-traditional family, but they are supportive and loving which is refreshing.

The story also squeezes in bits about an African American boy who becomes linked to Sunny and wants to get involved in the Freedom Summer movement. In a lot of ways I wished the story was more about him simply because this is still a book about a white girl and her white girl problems. The book does get points for having a diverse cast of characters, including central ones. Wiles also gets major points for the research she put into the story. She has a long note at the end about Freedom Summer and an extensive bibliography.

I know the book was a finalist for the National Book Award, but it kind of feels like it could be one of those books where it’s a good book grown-ups push on kids. I guess I just can’t get past the length and not plot driven enough to entice kids to read it in droves.

This isn’t to say the story wasn’t enjoyable- rereading this review it sounds like I hated the book, which I didn’t at all. You’re just going to have to find the right reader for this one. I’m sure they are out there. Personally I stuck with the book because of a family connection. My father in law grew up in the delta region of Mississippi. He remembers this time, and especially this summer, and told me the events really changed his mind about the Jim Crow laws he grew up with.

If this is a time period/topic that interests your readers I would also suggest The Watsons Go To Brimingham- 1963. For friendship and race relations I cannot recommend The Lions of Little Rock enough. That one is also a lot shorter. For a nonfiction suggestion try Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement.

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18

Dec
2014

In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Notes From the Makerspace: Project Roundup

On 18, Dec 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

As the new year approaches the Makerspace is looking at a new space opening up. Well, new to us at least. I’m super excited that we won’t be living out of boxes and bins anymore and think it will encourage the kids to dive more deeply into their projects and interests. To celebrate our first trimester I wanted to include some pictures of a few of the awesome projects the kids have made over the last couple months.

I also just wanted to share that I had a new girl join last week and she came in with no idea of what she was going to do. By the time she left she had designed and made a dress. She wore it home!!!!! Makerspace for the win!!!! It was simple and made from a fleece fabric that didn’t really need any hems made, but she dreamed it up, cut it out, and learned how to use the sewing machine so she could pull it together. Did I mention she is in third grade?

Sadly I can’t include any pictures of the kids. When we did the marshmallow challenge we got a slow motion video of one of my boys smashing a structure. He was thrilled to be allowed to break something. Here is the structure he smashed:

And here is a picture of my three-year-old daughter visiting the Makerspace and learning to use a tool herself. Don’t underestimate the abilities of kids!

IMG_2542

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17

Dec
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Little Elliot Big City by Mike Curato

On 17, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Little ElliotLittle Elliot, Big City written and illustrated by Mike Curato

From GoodReads: Amid the hustle and bustle of the big city, the big crowds and bigger buildings, Little Elliot leads a quiet life. In spite of the challenges he faces, Elliot finds many wonderful things to enjoy—like cupcakes! And when his problems seem insurmountable, Elliot discovers something even sweeter—a friend.

We just got this book out of the library yesterday and I loved it so much I felt I had to write a review of it. As the description says it’s a sweet little friendship story. A story about how there is always someone who needs more help than you and how friends can help each other. Two heads are better than one, or, in this case, two friends are tall enough to order a cupcake at the bakery counter.

Elliot 3However, I think there is a huge subtext here that will really resonate with kids. Elliot is a little elephant who struggles to fit in in an adult, human-sized world. He has to stack books up to sit at the table. He’s so much shorter than the people who rush around the city and gets a bit lost in the crowds. But he’s happy for the most part. Until one day he struggles to be seen at the bakery counter where he really wants a cupcake. When the woman at the counter doesn’t notice him he leaves feeling frustrated and discouraged. On his way home he notices a small mouse who is even more disadvantaged than Elliot and the two pair up to get the cupcake and share it.

Does this sound like the life of a child to anyone? Too small for an adult-sized world. They are expected to fit in with giant, towering cabinets, mile-high chairs, and mile-high people. I know my own daughter often becomes anxious in large crowds and asks to be picked up. In my arms, or her father’s, she is at the right height to see out and not feel smothered. We do a lot to help her feel capable around the house (mini fridge with snacks and drinks, step stools everywhere, toys on low shelves). But as soon as we step outside she is so small compared to everything. More often than not people will ask me questions about her that they could (and should) direct to her. Elliot is a child in a grown-up world and his frustration is that of a child who is tired of being ignored, pushed aside, and made to feel incapable.

I think the art in the book, which is absolutely beautiful, does an incredible job emphasizing this theme. Elliot looks oddly like he was inserted into some other piece of art. While the city he lives in, New York in the 1940s or 50s I presume, and the people around him look like something out of an Edward Hopper painting,Elliot 2 Elliot looks a little cartoonish and his polka-dots are reminiscent of outfits I have seen kids pick out for themselves. His out-of-place quality makes it more obvious that he doesn’t exactly fit in with this world. But like most kids it doesn’t seem to bother him most of the time. He’s resilient and with a new friend the two can work together to find their way.

I don’t know if there will be more books with the charming Little Elliot and his rodent friend, but the little badge on the top right of the cover makes me think there will be. I certainly hope there will be.

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16

Dec
2014

In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Notes From the Makerspace: Warm Fuzzies

On 16, Dec 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

I just had to share this conversation. It took place between one of the girls who is in the Makerspace and her mom.

On the way to school this morning, my daughter said, “I don’t want to go to school today, mom.”
When I asked her why not, she replied, “Like, there’s no Makerspace today. So, what’s the point?”
This is coming from a kid who LOVES school, by the way.
Well, I couldn’t agree more. That sure made my day. :)

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10

Dec
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Guest Post: September Girls by Bennett Madison Review

On 10, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

So today I have the very first guest post on my blog. My best friend Alexis and I share similar (read: excellent) taste in books. She is always very thoughtful and insightful when we talk about literature so I love suggesting titles for her to read that I have found intriguing. A few months ago I read and reviewed September Girls by Bennett Madison and loved it. I was surprised to find there were a lot of people who thought it was sexist, so I asked Alexis if she would read it and see what she thought. Alexis kindly agreed to share her thoughts on the book with me and here on the blog. Thanks, Lex!

September GirlsIt took me a long time to get into this book. It took me weeks, and two tries. But I’m glad I stuck with it, because it was so worth it. Overall, the book was beautiful, lyrical, and thought-provoking. I found myself mulling over this story long after I had finished it, turning plot points and ideas over in my head in a way I haven’t had cause to do in a long time.

I had a hard time starting out because the narrator is rather obnoxious at the beginning. He’s a typical teenage kid, spewing snarky, apathetic nonsense about dicks and boobs and how fed up he is with his family. And while I recognized a lot of my own obnoxious teenage attitude in Sam, I knew that if I had to read a whole book of it I would throw it across the room. Luckily, this was not the case. As Sam arrives at the beach and begins to experience its beauty, its dilapidation, and its strangeness, his narrative voice begins to change. As he begins to accept what is going on around him, begins to think for himself, and allows the people he meets to affect him, he matures (as we all do). Sam’s slow growth is a joy to experience as he allows others to see who he truly is rather than what he thinks society expects him to be. He begins to be honest with himself, with others, and with the reader.

The other characters have wonderful arcs as well. Sam’s brother starts off even more obnoxious than Sam (he is clearly where Sam gets many of his misguided ideas of what it is to “be a man”) but slowly calms down and matures throughout the story. DeeDee, one of The Girls that Sam meets and gets to know well, undergoes a similar journey to Sam; finding herself and becoming true to who she is and what she wants rather than succumbing to the expectations of her community. Even the more peripheral characters such as Sam’s parents and a few of the other Girls don’t stay one-dimensional, even if their arcs aren’t as clear-cut or fleshed out as those of the main characters.

Bennett Madison’s writing is just fabulous. He manages to make even the most run-down, tacky, tawdry settings seem beautiful in their own strange way. When Sam arrives at the beach, the writing is ethereal and dream-like. Everything is rather vague, as though seen through water or through a summer haze, and not everything has quite taken shape. Characters seem to have vague and unexplainable reasons for doing things, like one has in a dream. Strange things happen and characters don’t question them as much as one would expect. Sam also starts off quite passive, allowing things to happen around him and wash over him, but not quite taking part yet. Unfamiliar things seem familiar, in a tip-of-your-tongue, memory-slipping-away sort of way. As the story and characters take shape, the writing also sharpens, reflecting the characters’ realizations of themselves and their desires. By the end, Sam is his own person rather than a collection of others’ expectations, and the other characters define themselves more honestly and definitively than they did at the start of the story. This is even more concretely exemplified in DeeDee’s transformation. She describes herself as quite literally taking shape as she discovers who she wants to be, and she learns that although we might think we want something, part of growing up is learning that things aren’t always what they seem.

I think what most surprised me as I reflected on this book, was how metaphorical it was without ever feeling metaphorical. I hate books where the author is clearly trying so hard to make metaphors, and it feels so contrived. “Oh I see, the car was a metaphor for life. How deep!” Blech. This book dealt with big themes and big ideas and never once did I feel like the author was beating me over the head with them. One of the themes that really resonated with me was the connection between growing up and going home. As we leave childhood and transition to adulthood, we often long for the simpler days when home equaled comfort and everything was simple and answers to questions were whatever Mom said they were. But as we grow up, we realize that we have to go find our own version of home, and make up our own path and our own answers along the way. Even if we return to what was once home, it can never be the same because we have changed, and it has changed in relation to us. This book dealt with that idea and its permutations so beautifully and gently.

The only thing that bugged me throughout the book were the few Little Mermaid references. So much of the story felt ethereal with just a hint of darkness lurking beneath. It was a perfect mood for the book, and pulled off so well. So the references felt jarring when they did appear. There weren’t many of them, but all the ones I noticed were, bizarrely, references to the Disney production. The reminder of that joyful, colorful, bubbly movie really clashed with the rest of the writing and took me out of the moment. I thought, if anything, there would be references to the original, and much darker, Hans Christian Anderson story. However, as complaints go, it’s really my only one and it’s rather small. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find a beach and read up on Mermaid lore and mythology.

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02

Dec
2014

In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

The Place of Information

On 02, Dec 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

This is going to be a little friend-of-a-friend-y due to the nature of a post I recently read, but please bear with me. This post was about teaching informative Arabic novels and I was especially drawn to an idea that the author calls the “place of information”:

“I realize that I go there — to that place of “information” — more times in a week than I’d care to admit. I, too, have written and taught about “current events,” and made literature the handmaiden of hot-button discussion.”

The author elaborates quoting another article, by Miral al-Tahawy, (I’m quoting a quote!) explaining what the place of information means in the context of both the classroom and using translated books:

“So that kind of novel, sometimes I choose to include it. It’s there to inform people about the Middle East, to inform the students about something they care about…But when you speak about literature… I feel it to be something magical, it’s something different, which is really hard to be translated, first, because it’s very connected to the language, the Arabic tradition, the symbols, the smells, the human beings that live.”

What particularly interested me was that I think this idea really applies to the discussions librarians (and parents and the general public) are having about a lack of diversity in children’s publishing. I think a lot of the books that are considered diverse fall into that place of information in that they are there to show kids diversity.

I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, although I worry they can make diversity seem exotic and “other” as well as exoticise other cultures and people. But we need books that just are diverse. Not more books that, as the blog post says, make “literature the handmaiden of hot-button discussion”.

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01

Dec
2014

In Uncategorized

By Elizabeth Wroten

December Vacation

On 01, Dec 2014 | In Uncategorized | By Elizabeth Wroten

I’m going to be mostly taking December off from blogging. As it is for everyone, it’s a busy time of year. I hand make almost all of my daughter’s Christmas presents and gifts for the family too. I am also madly reading through a bunch of books and need some extra time. I will be posting once a week, but I won’t be doing any book reviews. I’ll be back in January with those. Subscribe to the blog either by feed reader or using the email sign-up to the right! That way you don’t have to remember to check back and you’ll automatically see new posts when they come up.

Next year I want to limit myself to divlit and a few other projects so I’m clearing off my TBR list of books that I really want to read, but don’t fit that category. I’m sure I’ll read a few books that don’t have diversity in them, but they will be books that I really, really want to read for the sake of reading them instead of out of a sense of duty.

Happy Holidays, everyone, no matter what you celebrate this time of year.