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2015 January

30

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

On 30, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Killer of EnemiesKiller of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

From GoodReads: Years ago, seventeen-year-old Apache hunter Lozen and her family lived in a world of haves and have-nots. There were the Ones — people so augmented with technology and genetic enhancements that they were barely human — and there was everyone else who served them. Then the Cloud came, and everything changed. Tech stopped working. The world plunged back into a new steam age. The Ones’ pets — genetically engineered monsters — turned on them and are now loose on the world. Lozen was not one of the lucky ones pre-C, but fate has given her a unique set of survival skills and magical abilities. She hunts monsters for the Ones who survived the apocalyptic events of the Cloud, which ensures the safety of her kidnapped family. But with every monster she takes down, Lozen’s powers grow, and she connects those powers to an ancient legend of her people. It soon becomes clear to Lozen that she is not just a hired gun. As the legendary Killer of Enemies was in the ancient days of the Apache people, Lozen is meant to be a more than a hunter. Lozen is meant to be a hero.

Well, Bruchac has done it again. Another fantastic book that beautifully blends character- and plot- driven elements. And again he’s seamlessly woven Native American (Apache and Chiricahua in this case) lore and beliefs into the story. I’m always impressed with the vocabulary Bruchac uses. Maybe I don’t read lots of literary YA or maybe I read especially crappy YA, but his books have seemed so well written and use a wide range of descriptive vocabulary.

Killer of Enemies was certainly exciting with lots of close calls, fights, and tension. I flew through it’s 360 pages. However, while the story is about Lozen trying to survive and find a way for her family to escape the “settlement” (a former prison that is still pretty prison-like) they have been taken to, it’s also about her coming to accept her skills as a fighter and the destiny that may lay before her. While the skills she has are gruesome she wants to use them for the good of humanity. She really struggles to square the idea that killing and fighting maybe necessary to help those she cares about and the other decent people she knows live within Haven.

As a heads up, Lozen fights and kills a lot of monsters that are genetically modified animals- a gigantic cross between a tiger and porcupine, a massive eagle, and an immense snake to name a few. These scenes are violent and Bruchac doesn’t shy away from describing them. This book is not for your faint-of-heart.

Hand this book to kids who liked the latter parts of the Hunger Games trilogy. It brought to mind several other post-apocalyptic dystopias such as The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey, In the After by Demetria Lunetta, and Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. Give this book to kids who liked those or send them there after they finish this one and want more.

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29

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac

On 29, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Dragon CastleDragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac

From GoodReads: Young Prince Rashko is frustrated with his family – no one does any thinking but him! The kingdom and castle seem to be in the hands of fools. So when Rashko’s parents mysteriously disappear and the evil Baron Temny parks his army outside the castle walls, it is up to the young prince to save the day. But there is more to this castle and its history than meets the eye, and Rashko will have to embrace his ancestry, harness a dragon, and use his sword-fighting skills to stop the baron and save the kingdom. Along the way, he realizes that his family is not quite as stupid as he always thought.

My initial, gut reaction to this: OMG, OMG, OMG! THAT WAS SO GOOD!

To begin with the book is beautifully written. It has a sense of humor, a good vocabulary and an exciting plot. Bruchac does a masterful job of working in Slovak phrases and words to add authenticity to the story. Reading the author’s note it appears he did his research into Slovakian folklore and culture, both for the book and out of curiosity about his own heritage.

The story alternates between the story of Rashko and his ancestor, Pavol. It seems likely that at some point the two stories will meet or at the least begin to parallel each other. They don’t quite do either, but they entwine with each other in such a compelling way. Pavol’s story becomes a lesson for Rashko and place for him to find answers about the situation he finds himself in and advice about how to handle it. In Pavol’s adventures and legend you can really see Bruchac’s gift for storytelling and interest in folklore. The fantastic storytelling is there in Rashko’s story too, but it really shines in the details of the legend. Bruchac obviously drew on Slovak legends and the way he weaves details into his own legends is wonderful.

Rashko’s story is incredibly written with perfect pacing, suspense, and excitement. Rashko is such a likable character. While he feels like he has to tolerate his family and their lack of intellect he never sounds like a jerk. He has a great sense of humor that’s a little bit sarcastic and snarky, but not so much that he’s exasperating. However through the course of events he learns that maybe he doesn’t quite have the world as figured out as he thought, especially his family.

The structure of the book (alternating between legend and the present) and to some extent the plot reminded me a lot of The Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud. I also saw similarities in their situation with missing parents and Baron Temny taking over, in the role of magic and the role of the castle with Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George. The book would be totally appropriate for upper elementary, although it’s reading level might be a bit high. Certainly middle schoolers, especially those that love fantasy and folklore, will enjoy this. But it could extend up into high school too. Just an all around good book for most ages.

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29

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac

On 29, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Skeleton ManSkeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac

From GoodReads: Ever since the morning Molly woke up to find that her parents had vanished, her life has become filled with terrible questions. Where have her parents gone? Who is this spooky old man who’s taken her to live with him, claiming to be her great-uncle? Why does he never eat, and why does he lock her in her room at night? What are her dreams of the Skeleton Man trying to tell her? There’s one thing Molly does know. She needs to find some answers before it’s too late.

Well this one seriously creeped me out. In a good way, of course. It’s part folktale retelling, part ghost story, and part mystery. Molly’s parents have gone missing and she is taken in by a man who claims to be her uncle. Molly knows they have no relatives except a few cousins out in California, but unfortunately all the important adults seem to be totally taken in. Molly is convinced her parents are still alive and will return, but she’s forced to move in with the uncle until she can save herself.

Bruchac does a really good job of creating a spooky atmosphere subtly. There are bars on Molly’s window. Her uncle locks her in her room every night. She eventually discovers that there are hidden cameras watching her. She is pretty sure the food is drugged. Bruchac also makes her seem really isolated. Molly is seriously creeped out, but if she shares her suspsicions she’ll sound paranoid. The one time she does tell the social worker that he locks her in at night the uncle hides the evidence making her look like a liar. The only person who believes her is her teacher, but there is very little she can do to actually help especially after the lock incident.

Then there’s the ghost story about the hungry uncle who eats, first his own flesh then his family one by one. Ultimately his niece is the one to outwit him and bring everyone back to life. Bruchac does an amazing job retelling this story with Molly while connecting her more closely to the story through her Mohawk heritage. Molly, who has always had lucid dreams, is able to rely on them to help her outwit Skeleton Man and rescue herself and her parents. The dream elements of the story never feel contrived and didn’t pull me out of the story the way a lot of magical realism can. It’s also not hokey, although it could have been with a rabbit advising and helping Molly, because it draws on the original story which is shared early on.

Don’t give this to kids who are easily scared. It’s super spooky. This is one for the kids who read Goosebumps or who read ghost story collections and can’t get enough of them. The chapters are short and the language is fairly straight forward as is the structure of the story so it’s good for upper elementary, but I could see early middle school enjoying it too. This would pair nicely with Ying Chang Compestine’s A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts. For kids who really like this one, there is a sequel too.

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28

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac

On 28, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Arrow Over the DoorThe Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac

Lexile: 810L

From GoodReads: A powerful novel of the Revolutionary WarTo fourteen-year-old Samuel Russell, called “coward” for his peace-loving Quaker beliefs, the summer of 1777 is a time of fear. The British and the Patriots will soon meet in battle near his home in Saratoga, New York. The Quakers are in danger from roaming Indians and raiders — yet to fight back is not the Friends’ way.

To Stands Straight, a young Abenaki Indian on a scouting mission for the British, all Americans are enemies, for they killed his mother and brother. But in a Quaker Meetinghouse he will come upon Americans unlike any he has ever seen. What will the encounter bring? Based on a real historical incident, this fast-paced and moving story is a powerful reminder that “the way of peace…can be walked by all human beings”.

This was an interesting book. I really enjoyed the story as it was a story about history, friendship, and people coming together in peace, but it was so simply and beautifully told. Bruchac has a wonderful way of telling stories that builds tension and excitement without killing you with suspense. For me, who gets so nervous I flip ahead to be sure everything will be okay, this style helps keep me in the story. I think it can work really well for younger readers too.

Where the book really shines is in sharing a very different perspective on the familiar history of the Revolutionary War. We are told, especially in elementary school when history tends to be simplified, that a bunch of plucky colonists stood up to big, bad King George and established our own country on principles of freedom and equality. We all know as adults that this isn’t quite the whole truth and that it was a lot more complicated than that. The Arrow Over the Door presents the Native perspective in which they are sucked into a war that is not their own with two sides they are not fond of. This isn’t to say that the book bashes the colonists and the British. It simply offers a very different narrative from what we normally hear.

The story also reveals that, at least for a number of tribes, they were not wild people living in the forests. They were settled in villages with churches (introduced here by the French) often wearing Western clothing and had been for two generations or more. There is also the exposure to the Quakers, a religious movement that is not often seen in elementary history books. All around an interesting bit of history couched in an exciting story.

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27

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac

On 27, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

LonghouseChildren of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac

From GoodReads: When Ohkwa’ri overhears a group of older boys planning a raid on a neighboring village, he immediately tells his Mohawk elders. He has done the right thing, but he has also made enemies. Grabber and his friends will do anything they can to hurt him, especially during the village-wide game of Tekwaarathon (lacrosse). Ohkwa’ri believes in the path of peace, but can peaceful ways work against Grabber’s wrath?

Children of the Longhouse is a lovely, quiet story. While there is some drama most of the action and plot focus around everyday life in the Mohawk village. Ohkwa’ri is struggling with some older boys that he overheard plotting a raid, which is where the drama comes from, but he is also working on being more cautious and is building a lodge to stay in by himself as preparation for coming of age. The story also follow Ohkwa’ri’s twin sister, Otsi:stia, a bit as she worries and frets over her brother and thinks about her future.

The book is full of small details about everyday life, which would be a big draw for outdoorsy kids and kids interested in historical life. Bruchac also weaves in stories within stories, sharing some folklore of the tribe. If you read his picture book The Great Ball Game (or my review of it the other day) you might be, you’ll recognize one of the stories told by Ohkwa’ri’s uncle. The narrative meanders with the thoughts of Ohkwa’ri and Otsi:stia, but in a pleasant way, not in an unfocused or boring manner. The language is beautiful and Bruchac does a great job conjuring the picture of where they live as well as how they live.

There is plenty of excitement with the Tekwaarathon game, which is played on an enormous “field”. The goal posts are so far apart that to reach them you have to run through the forest and a couple meadows. Ohkwa’ri is honored to be asked to play for an older man, but he is also worried that Grabber and his cronies will try to harm him. This makes for some excellent tension during the game. Sports fans will like the small details about the strategy of the game and the actual plays.

This would make a fabulous bedtime read aloud. Certainly the right fifth or sixth grader could read it, it just has that feel of a book you could read at bedtime. It’s a quiet story with enough action that your kids will be disappointed that you have to put it down and will want to hear more the next night. The chapters vary in length so you might have do a little planning and make breaks where there aren’t chapters.

If I had one complaint about the book, it’s a minor one. There is a glossary with pronunciation guide that was incredibly helpful. However, it’s tucked at the back of the book so I didn’t realize it was there until about half way through the book when I came across a word and wondered if there was a pronunciation guide. It would have been better to put it up front so the reader knows it’s there and so you first see how to pronounce the names Ohkwar’ri (Oh-gwah’-li) and Otsi:stia (Oh-dzee-dzyah).

In terms of length and difficulty it straddles upper elementary and middle school, although Ohkwa’ri is on the young side which might turn middle schoolers off. It’s also a good place for fans of The Birchbark House to come when they are bit older.

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26

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Joseph Bruchac Picture Book Reviews

On 26, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Strawberries

The First Strawberries: A Cherokee Story retold by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Anna Vojtech

From GoodReads: A captivating re-telling of a Cherokee legend, which explains how strawberries came to be. Long ago, the first man and woman quarreled The woman left in anger, but the Sun sent tempting berries to Earth to slow the wife’s retreat.

This is a picture book that’s been in my personal collection for years. I first found it when teaching in second grade and it’s a great book for that age. Bruchac’s story telling is really superb here and paired with the luminous illustrations The First Strawberries in a wonderful book. I especially like the wordless two-page spreads that add a little more depth to the story.

At first blush this may seem like an odd story to share with children, it is about a marital spat, but I actually think kids will recognize the snippy argument. Kids often expect things done on their timeline without thinking about what others may be doing at the time. Here the woman didn’t have dinner prepared because she was picking flowers to share with her husband. When he arrives home he is upset because he is hungry and doesn’t appreciate the small gesture of the flower bouquet. I think the story draws their attention to the fact that others may have a different, but no less important, agenda than the child. Plus it never hurts to emphasize being apologetic, especially if you have been hurtful to some one you love.

The book never feels preachy despite it’s didactic nature, which is a relief. Kids can smell that this-will-teach-you-something stuff a mile away and they usually don’t connect with it. While second grade is a good age for this book even my daughter, who is three, enjoyed it. It has a fairly low reading level so it would be a great early reader too. And it makes a fantastic read aloud.

SquantoSquanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Greg Shed

From GoodReads: In 1620 an English ship called the Mayflower landed on the shores inhabited by the Pokanoket people, and it was Squanto who welcomed the newcomers and taught them how to survive in the rugged land they called Plymouth. He showed them how to plant corn, beans, and squash, and how to hunt and fish. And when a good harvest was gathered in the fall, the two peoples feasted together in the spirit of peace and brotherhood.
Almost four hundred years later, the tradition continues. . . .

Finally a Thanksgiving story I feel comfortable reading to my daughter! As Bruchac points out in the author’s note the Native American side of this story is rarely told and a good deal of the first Thanksgiving story told from a European perspective is inaccurate or wrong (from foods eaten to clothing worn).

The text is longer in this so it’s probably better suited to older readers, but personally I would read it aloud to my daughter. There are some hard pieces to this story, like the fact that Squanto is kidnapped and sold into slavery or that the majority of his people are wiped out by illness, but Bruchac handles these parts of the story beautifully. He mentions them matter of factly and never dwells on it. He also doesn’t stoop to painting all Europeans with the villain’s brush nor does he fall back on Native American stereotypes of the nobel savage or the naive, gentle Indian (I would have been appalled if he had!).

The story itself is quite interesting. Despite the unfortunate circumstances Squanto lived a well-traveled and interesting life. He also must have been incredibly intelligent as he spoke several languages. He was also able to move between cultures with some ease, although I’m sure there was great prejudice.

I have yet to find a good Thanksgiving book that gives the European side of the story, which is not covered here. I’m sure there is one out there, but I will have to do more research. Instead pair this with The Perfect Thanksgiving which celebrates families that aren’t perfect and Molly’s Pilgrim, a great take on what it means to be a pilgrim and immigrant.

Ball GameThe Great Ball Game: A Muskogee Story by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Susan L. Roth

From GoodReads: With characteristic action and wit, renowned Native American storyteller Bruchac retells the amusing and rousing folktale of an epic ball game between the Birds and the Animals, which offers the explanation as to why birds fly south every winter.

Children in the kindergarten through second grade age range love folk and fairy tales and stories that explain why something is they way it is (a type of folktale). This is one of those stories. Bruchac is clearly a masterful story teller. With fairly simple language he really captures the excitement of the ball game.

The birds and animals are fighting over who is better and they decide to have a lacrosse game to decide. When the birds and the animals divide up their teams, they use wings and teeth as criteria for determining if something is a bird or animal. However bat has both and he has to ask to join both sides. The birds don’t want him because he is so small and the animals rather grudgingly accept him. I know this is all part of the story, but this is exactly the kind of exception a child would come up with. Having it become such an integral part of the story is perfect.

I really loved the art in this one because it has the feel of something a child could recreate. It would make a great project to have kids illustrate other myths, legends or folktales using the cut/torn paper technique seen here. The birds are a little zany looking which makes them really appealing and the teeth on the animals really jump out as little white paper zigzags. The rumpled paper backgrounds are used to great effect showing the waning light of the day and how it makes things hard to see at the end of the ball game.

Boy Called SlowA Boy Called Slow by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Rocco Baviera

From GoodReads: Anxious to be given a name as strong and brave as that of his father, a proud Lakota Sioux grows into manhood, acting with careful deliberation, determination, and bravery, which eventually earned him his proud new name: Sitting Bull. Being named Slow and growing up in the shadow of a great warrior hardly dwarfed the prospects of this protagonist.

I really wish there had been more pictures with this story. It was pretty text heavy, which considering the interesting biography of Sitting Bull wasn’t a bad thing, I just think more pictures would have given readers more entry points into the story. The chalk pastels (?) used in the illustrations were really great for showing shadow and light and made the story pop off the page in a magical way. In terms of interest, telling the story of childhoods is always a good way to help kids make a connection with historical figures.

As you might be able to tell by my lack of commentary on this one I connected the least with this book. It’s a good picture book biography though and would make a great classroom resource.

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25

Jan
2015

In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Monthly Author: Joseph Bruchac

On 25, Jan 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

Welcome to the first post in my 2015 monthly author series. For January I chose to read several works by Joseph Bruchac. He’s someone I have been wanting to read because of his Abenaki heritage and the fact that he writes about native protagonists. But more pressingly, he’s coming to speak in Sacramento at the beginning of February! I’m really excited to go to that event as he’ll be talking about diversity in children’s literature.

Bruchac is quite the Renaissance man when it comes to storytelling. He’s published a bajillion books (that’s an exact number), he sings and writes songs, and he does traditional oral storytelling. He is also involved with working to preserve Abenaki culture and language and traditional native skills. According to his biography, in addition Abenaki heritage he is also Slovokian and English. On a personal note this interested me because my husband, and therefore my daughter, are also part Slovak.

The schedule for this week will be reviews of several of his books. Bruchac has an extensive backlist that spans many genres and reading levels, which is fabulous for librarians. It also meant I couldn’t possibly tackle all his books. I think rather appropriately Multicultural Children’s Book Day falls on Tuesday (January 27th) and what better way to celebrate. Here’s the schedule for the week:

I will link to the posts once they are live.

Also here are a few links of note that you may be interested in:

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22

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

TBT: Fire-Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard

On 22, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Fire-HunterThe Fire-Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard

Originally published 1951

From GoodReads: Fire-Hunter is the story of Hawk, a pre-historic man who is banished from his tribe for breaking the tribal law by inventing a spear-launching tool. He is left behind with Willow, an injured young woman abandoned by the tribe because of her inability to travel in the nomadic lifestyle they employ.

So, I read this book in either fifth or sixth grade and despite the fact that I can’t remember exactly when I read it, the story and enjoyment of it has stuck with me for all these years. I don’t know why it popped into my head a few weeks ago and I don’t know why this time around I decided I wanted to find a copy, but I thought it would be interesting to see if it held up after all these years. It took a bit of Googling around to find the title, but I knew if I saw a picture of the cover I would know it and sure enough I found it. I was more surprised to find that my library system still had a copy! I’m a big proponent of weeding, but I’m glad that despite it’s age this one hadn’t been pulled from the shelf (I can’t attest to how much it’s checked out, but the book is in great shape so maybe it should still be on the shelf).

I was even more surprised by the fact that I liked this book as much, if not more, now as I did all those years ago in elementary school. I still remember when the teacher handed out copies of the book. There were two options and it seemed everyone wanted this book over the other (whose title I cannot remember). There were not enough copies for everyone in the class to have one and I was lucky to get one of the last few. I must have devoured this book because I remember it only took a few days of in-class reading to finish it. I certainly read in elementary school, but I was not strong reader (I have talked about this in other blog posts) so to plow through a book like I did with this one was unusual.

The story itself is very well written. It’s got a surprisingly complex vocabulary and syntax, but it wasn’t hard to read. Again, I’m surprised I clicked with this in elementary school knowing that I was not a great reader. However, I think that attests to the fact that the story is incredibly compelling, even if it’s not plot driven. In fact, it does a great job blending plot and character development. There’s quite a bit of suspense both within the overarching plot (will Hawk and Willow survive on their own?) and within smaller incidences (will they be able to evade the hunters they run into? will they be able to kill the cave bear and use his cave? etc.). Hawk, though, is an inquisitive boy/man (he’s a man by his tribes standards and because people didn’t live long, but he’s only 16) and he spends a good deal of time coming up with new ideas that help them survive, such a stick that helps him throw his spear much further which puts him out of harm’s way. He also invents a bow and arrows.

He observes things very closely and learns from what he observes. So when, for example, they leave their original camp because of a lack of wildlife and return a few days later he notices there is game again. He thinks to begin hunting in one smaller area and rotate through smaller surrounding areas to allow wildlife to return. Willow too has ideas and has paid close attention to what others in the tribe do, so when they need to start a fire she knows how to do it. She also creates a number of baskets and containers that help them out and thinks to line a basket with tar so they can always have a large supply of fresh water in their cave. I was pleasantly surprised that the book was not particularly sexist. Considering the era it was written in and the depictions of “primitive man” I was expecting more overt sexism. There were a couple lines that I rolled my eyes at and, sure, they had defined roles as a man and a woman, but I imagine that’s pretty true to what life was like for early humans. I was also pleased that there didn’t seem to be anything that made it seem racist. I guess that may have been because it was about a hunter-gatherer not a Native American, but at its heart this is a survival story and it made all their skills and ideas seem really cool and essential, not primitive and silly.

I will note that there is a lot of hunting and while the story is never graphic there is violence. Don’t give this to your tender-hearted animal lovers. They will not like it. Do give it to your kids who wonder about life long ago. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy, but it certainly gives you a sense of what life as a nomadic hunter-gatherer must have been like and it doesn’t flinch from showing that life would have been brutal, hard and often short. There is also a brief author’s note at the beginning that explains where an author (and anthropologist) look for information about what life was like.

The long and the short of this is, I bought my own copy to keep on my shelf so my own daughter might stumble on it when she’s older. And quite frankly, I will read this one again in the future too. If your library still has a copy hand sell it to kids who like adventure and survival stories and kids who like protagonists who are clever and curious and like to invent things.

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21

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke

On 21, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Anna HibiscusAnna Hibiscus by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia

Lexile: 670L*

From GoodReads: Anna Hibiscus lives in amazing Africa with her mother, her father, her baby twin brothers, and lots and lots of her family. Join her as she splashes in the sea, prepares for a party, sells oranges, and hopes to see sweet, sweet snow.

What a great start to a chapter book series! The book begins with a hilarious story about Anna and her parents and baby brothers going on vacation. Anna’s mother is Canadian and grew up in a quiet house with only her parents and herself and it seems that she is longing to have some alone time. When they arrive at their vacation house it becomes apparent why it might be better to have all those aunties and uncles and cousins and grandparents around (they help cook, clean and care for the babies), so each day Anna’s father returns with another set of family ultimately bringing everyone along on vacation.

The chapters are each stand-alone stories rather than continuations of a longer, over-arching plot, although there are nods to events that have happened in previous chapters. In terms of length of chapters and the book as a whole I would say this is an older chapter book suited for second graders (8 year olds). It’s easier than Clementine and a step or two up from many of the Magic Tree House books and the Cam Jansen series. If only for the diversity, but also the stress on the importance of family and the fact that Anna isn’t so sassy, I would give these to my own daughter to read.

Anna is a fun little girl and her family, all packed into their beautiful, sprawling white house, provides lots of learning and entertainment for her. Each story has her learning a little more about her family or the world around her. The story about selling oranges is particularly sweet as Anna comes to realize that her actions have very real consequences for people and also shows her how fortunate she is. The story never becomes overly preachy and didactic though, making it engaging for the intended audience instead of feeling like a lesson being crammed down the reader’s throat.

If there was one thing that worried me it’s that Anna lives in “Africa”. I worry that kids, especially American children, already think Africa is a country and this isn’t helping them figure out that it’s not. According to the author’s note this is set in Nigeria where Atinuke grew up and since Anna’s city is a lagoon it’s probably Lagos, but I would be surprised if most kids (and their parents) sat down to puzzle that out. I’m guessing, though, that Atinuke did this with some purpose in mind. However it’s incredibly refreshing to see a book about Africa that doesn’t carry on the narrative of poor unfortunate souls wasting away from disease and hunger. There is poverty in Africa, but there are plenty of normal people who go about their lives just like us and I think it’s so important for young readers to see that as much as(or more than!)other narratives.

As a side note, I am always hungry when I read books about Nigeria. There is a feast in the chapter where Anna’s auntie who is living in America comes home to visit. I just want to have some pepper soup and pounded yam!

*I think I’ll start including the Lexile measure on the chapter books I review simply because these are books where having a just-right reading level is really important. I take issue with book levels, but I do think they can provide some context for comparison and help parents and teachers who need a good, quick way to put the right book in the right hands. But don’t underestimate a kid with high interest in a character or topic!

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20

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson

On 20, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ms. MarvelMs. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona

From GoodReads: Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City — until she’s suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts. But who truly is the new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman? Find out as she takes the Marvel Universe by storm! When Kamala discovers the dangers of her newfound powers, she unlocks a secret behind them, as well. Is Kamala ready to wield these immense new gifts? Or will the weight of the legacy before her be too much to bear? Kamala has no idea, either. But she’s comin’ for you, New York!

I picked this one up not because it was diverse (although that was a huge bonus) but because I absolutely love Willow Wilson’s writing. Love it. Ms. Marvel was, however, very different from her last two books I’ve read and a lot closer to her graphic novel Cairo. Writing a good story that doesn’t have much exposition, besides getting inside a character’s head, and relies heavily on dialog must be incredibly difficult, but Wilson pulls it off beautifully.

Kamala is kind of a dorky girl who plays games online, writes fanfic, and reads a lot of comic books. Her parents are Pakistani and hold her to some traditional values and even though she chafes against some of them because she just wants to seem like she fits in in high school. She’s a good kid and her parents are very accepting and understanding though. (Hooray for good parents!! I’m so tired of awful parents.) When sneaking out to go to a party she is not allowed to attend (there are boys and booze) a strange, thick fog rolls in and Kamala wanders off. After fainting she wakes up to Captain Marvel standing in front of her. Kamala expresses a desire to look blonde and beautiful, to wear clothes that show off her body, and to have powers, so Captain Marvel passes on her mantel to Kamala. As she is leaving, she warns Kamala that this is not going to work out how she expects and she is right.

It is up to Kamala now to figure out her powers and decide what she is going to do with them. I feel like a broken record saying this, but despite her differences from white suburban kids (who most books seem to be about) Kamala’s struggles, personal and familial, are not that far off from anyone else’s. We all wanted to fit in in high school. We all fought with, disappointed, and defied our parents. We all struggled to define ourselves and thought about who we wanted to be. I think most people even decided they want to be good people. Kamala wrestles with the same issues. She does decide to keep her new identity secret from everyone but her best friend which of course will set up some good tension between her and her parents. Certainly that tension isn’t unrealistic. We may not all have super powers, but we all kept secrets from our parents.

I can’t place this book in a larger context of the Avengers stories or even within the context of Captain Marvel. Until I read this I didn’t know that Captain Marvel was a woman. To some extent this felt limiting when I first started reading. I was a little confused that her world was not actually ours even though it’s essentially the same. Within the book super heroes are real and they have powers. I don’t know why I was confused, but I was. I chalk it up to never having read comic books like this before.

Not only is the story a universal one, but the art of the book is really wonderful. I’ve read a few graphic novels where the art has really detracted from what might otherwise be a good story. I’ve also read graphic novels where the art just doesn’t seem very good. Not so here. Alphona can really draw people. Facial expressions are easy to read and characters look consistent across the book. Even when the art pulls back and the characters become less distinct you can still tell who is who.

I especially loved Kamala and how she dresses. She’s clearly very pretty, but she doesn’t fit that high school ideal. She dresses kind of creatively and she has these really cute facial expressions. Alphona also does a great job with the settings. You get a real sense of place, like you could visit this Jersey City even though it’s drawn. And there are some funny little details and asides in the background (i.e. a cereal called GM O-s). It’s these little bits that enhance the story and make all the dialog come together to form a cohesive whole.

I really love this cover. I know it’s been said before that publishers, when they do put a POC on a cover, often hide their face and that’s exactly what’s going on here. But it works in context of the story. Kamala is struggling to figure out who she is and who she wants to be and then has this added complication of being given super powers that put her in a position to defend those who need help. It isn’t clear either who she is as Kamala or who she is as Ms. Marvel and I think hiding her face emphasizes this question. Not to mention as a super hero she seems to want to protect her identity.

A great story about a girl who is figuring out who she is. It just so happens that she has super powers. The beauty of the story, at least for me, was how she figures out that although her powers technically make her special she doesn’t need them to. They don’t define her or make her a better person. They certainly force her to really think about that, but she makes the conscious decision to do that.

Give this book to kids who like good super hero stories with character development, not action (although there is some of that and there are hints of action to come). It would also be a good choice for kids who are looking for stories about coming into your own.

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