By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Set in a suburb of Las Vegas, Ella and Zachary, called Z, have been friends forever, but Z has always been “the weird kid&” in their class. He collects stubby pencils, plays chess, and maintains an elaborate, and public, fantasy life, starring himself as a brave knight. Z’s games were okay back in 3rd or 4th grade, but by now their other friends have ditched them both. Z doesn’t care, but Ella longs to be part of a group of friends, even though most of the class makes fun of her. When a new boy, Bailey, moves to town, he befriends Ella, because they are now the only two black kids in class. But Bailey is popular, popular enough to make Ella cool and give her a wider circle of friends, but only if she stops hanging out with Z. Ella’s faced with a difficult decision, remain loyal to the boy who has been her best and only friend for years, or pass up the opportunity to be one of the popular kids that she has always longed to be.
Camo Girl so perfectly captures the tension of friendship and the budding awareness of social hierarchy in late elementary/early middle school. Ella and her best friend Z are what I would call young. They aren’t quite ready to join the fracas of their peers stratifying, but Ella at least isn’t immune to the pull of popularity.
Add to this that Z has a difficult home situation that has driven him into a rich fantasy world. And Ella has what sounds like vitiligo, which causes the skin to look mottled. She is biracial and, from her descriptions, it sounds like the mottling is fairly noticeable. As everyone knows, kids in middle school can be really cruel and any kind of difference is grounds for social exclusion, so Ella and Z are on the outskirts of everything.
That hasn’t really mattered though, until a new boy moves into Ella’s neighborhood and joins them at school. He’s cute and he’s nice and it seems like he wants to be Ella’s friend. He even accepts Z. But Ella is gun shy and she has a hard time trusting Bailey and is always waiting for him to realize he shouldn’t be hanging out with her. She is also torn between this new friendship (or more) with Bailey and her deep and old loyalties to Z. It also seems that Z is struggling to let Ella have other friends (understandably once you get the scoop on what has happened to him) and that makes Ella feel even more guilty and conflicted.
I absolutely loved that Ella was never willing to give up her friendship with Z. I’m not sure many kids given the chance to gain social standing at that age would be so kind or mature. That isn’t to say Ella isn’t portrayed as human though. She gets frustrated with Z and how it feels like he may be holding her back.
Camo Girl is definitely kidlit in my book. The characters are in fifth grade and there is no language or behavior that would be objectionable for that age group. It’s written in fairly short chapters and isn’t an overly long book so it would be a great read for anyone looking for a friendship book or realistic fiction.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that’s nothing but a pack of lies—after all, his father’s been murdered, his mother’s been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer.
But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory when what starts as some small-time hustling quickly spins out of control. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion—and that he can’t run forever.
X follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.
I know very little about Malcolm X. He wasn’t included in any of the history classes I took and honestly in all my US history classes we were lucky to make it past WWII. That being said, this book was still fantastic. No need to have a good grasp on who Malcolm Little went on to become.
I’m always amazed by life back in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Teens and people in their twenties seemed to have a lot more freedom and were able to go off and get jobs fairly easily. The way Malcolm was able to move to Boston and start picking up jobs, making money, and going places brought to mind Mare’s War and how Mare was able to pick up and leave her hometown and join the Women’s Army Corps, make money, and go out. The two stories are very different and take place at slightly different times, but that freedom for young people is present in both and, I think, has a lot of appeal for teen readers.
X is probably best suited to upper middle school and high school. There is a fair amount of marijuana smoking and dealing as well as drinking and some off page sex. Heads up, too, there is a fairly liberal use of the “n” word. It’s used in thoughts and memories of Malcolm who is realizing all the weight the word carries, so it’s use is not just as slang from the time, but as commentary on the status quo and how black people were (and are) kept as second rate citizens. All this makes the book sound terribly inappropriate, BUT Malcolm struggled. He makes bad decisions and he needs guidance, but doesn’t want to have to answer to any authority. This theme in the story I think would be incredibly attractive to young men (or young women) having a hard time. All teens struggle with these problems to one degree or another so Malcolm, despite how famous and active he became, is a relatable person as a teen. The book also continues into his time in prison where Malcolm makes a complete turn around. X certainly is an honest look at his younger life, but it’s set up as a lesson not an example.
Another excellent part in the book is the relationship Malcolm has with his murdered father. He really struggles with not having a father figure around and he is angry both at the people who murdered him and at his father for stirring the pot and getting killed for it. Shabazz and Magoon really capture the angst and emotional logic of kids in their mid teens. Malcolm also tries to shake all the teachings his father believed in about black power. You can see the tension of Malcolm wanting to believe in it, but also struggling to see how it can work and wanting to reject the teachings simply because he’s so angry with his father.
As a side note, I’m a little confused as to who wrote what in the book and how Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon wrote this together. If they alternated writing sections it’s incredibly seamless. And however they did it, it doesn’t really matter. The book is really well written and incredibly compelling.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
In the aftermath of Tariq’s death, everyone has something to say, but no two accounts of the events line up. Day by day, new twists further obscure the truth.
Tariq’s friends, family, and community struggle to make sense of the tragedy, and to cope with the hole left behind when a life is cut short. In their own words, they grapple for a way to say with certainty: This is how it went down.
How It Went Down is certainly (and unfortunately) a timely book with all the police brutality cases that are coming to light in the mainstream. The story is more like the Treyvon Martin case as the police are not actually involved in what went down, but it’s reflective of all the current turmoil over race relations.
Each chapter of the book moves further and further from the actual shooting. A whole cast of characters from the guy who lives down the street to Tariq’s best friend, to the girl who tried to resuscitate him at the scene. All their lives intertwine through the events set in motion that day.
I think the flap copy is a little misleading. It’s pretty clear what happened with the shooting, although there is some question about whether or not Tariq had a gun. But even that isn’t too unclear. What most of the book wades through is everyone figuring out who Tariq was or who they thought he was. Was he a guy on the straight and narrow undeserving of being shot? Was he thinking about joining the local gang? Was he already in it and had it coming? The questions go on. Even more interesting is that through their perceptions of Tariq and through their reflections on the shooting, on the neighborhood, and on the aftermath, what the reader really learns is what the people who surrounded Tariq were like.
What makes the book really shine is that nothing is black and white, except maybe the tragedy of the shooting. The people in particular are portrayed as people. People who often have few, if any, choices and who try to make the best of things any way they can. Sometimes they make poor decisions, but that doesn’t mean they are bad people. Just people trying to survive. I can’t speak to how well Magoon captures living in a poor neighborhood, but it certainly felt like a real place. One character in particular, who was lucky enough to get out of the neighborhood and thrust into a new, wealthier, more privileged life, does a really good job of showing just how hard it is to make it out of the low income neighborhoods and how the political, social and cultural systems are set up to both keep people there and are prejudiced against them. His story juxtaposes well with those still in the neighborhood hoping to, trying to, and dreaming of getting out, getting a better life.
There is some drinking and drug use (marijuana) and the violence makes this better suited to high school readers. The book deals with controversial political ideas as well as race which may make some readers uncomfortable or angry. It is, though, an important book that looks at some very important issues we’re facing as a nation today. It would be interesting to see this used either in a history or current events type class or even an English class. Reluctant readers might even enjoy it for the sensation of the story and because it’s an extremely compelling read. But be warned it isn’t short and there are a lot of characters so I wouldn’t call it an easy read.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Apr 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
This month I choose Kekla Magoon as my monthly author. Several years ago (maybe 5?) I read her debut novel The Rock and the River and thought it was fantastic. Clearly the woman could write! If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you pick it up. Although I hate these types of comparisons, because obviously the novel stands on its own, it’s a more mature One Crazy Summer (another fantastic book). One of the most interesting things about it is the time period and history it uses as a backdrop. The novel is really about family and brother relationships, but Magoon has couched them in the Black Panther movement. It’s a piece of history you don’t see all that often and see even less in young adult literature.
By the time the companion novel came out I was reading other things (and may have been a new mother) so I didn’t get around to reading it. I also didn’t get around to reading it this month either, but Magoon had two other novels come out in the past few months that I was really interested in reading. It’s always, so many books so little time, right?
Here’s a link to her website. Definitely check it out, it’s awesome and has a lot of info: http://keklamagoon.com/
Schedule for the week:
Tuesday: How It Went Down
Thursday: Camo Girl
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: When his father Tarl is captured and enslaved to work in Deep Salt, Hari vows to rescue him. This is a forbidding task: no one returns from Deep Salt. But Hari was born and raised in Blood Burrow. He’s tough and smart–and he has a secret gift: he can communicate with animals.
The beautiful Pearl, born into the privileged world of the ruling class known as Company, has learned forbidden things from her mysteriously gifted maid Tealeaf. Now her father has promised her in marriage to the powerful and ambitious Ottmar. But Pearl will never submit to a subordinate life, so she and Tealeaf must flee.
When their paths cross, Hari and Pearl realize that together they must discover the secrets of Deep Salt. Their long journey through the badlands becomes far more than a quest to save Tarl–their world is on the brink of unspeakable terror.
I read this book probably five years ago, maybe more, and absolutely loved it then. But I think I loved it even more re-reading it. Salt has it all. Incredible story telling, good writing, amazing characters, fantastic world building, and it subtly tackles some interesting issues like colonialism, racism, poverty, privilege, environmentalism, and coming of age.
I’m not sure how Gee manages to do this, but Salt is both character and plot driven. The story is incredibly exciting and full of action and suspense. However you are also let in on the history of Hari and Pearl and then see them grow immensely as their stories intertwine. I especially liked that not only does it take time for them to shed their old, terrible lives, they don’t do it completely by the end of the story. They retain vestiges of those lives that may never completely leave. Hari often hears the call of violence and hatred while Pearl often feels the pull of privilege that came with wealth. By the end though the two have heard a higher call and they strive to follow that instinct instead of their old ones.
The world is, I believe, based on the colonialism of Australia and the marginalization and impoverishment of the Yolnu. There might also be shades of New Zealand and the marginalization and impoverishment of the Maori. I don’t think you need much if any understanding of what happened in those places, but it’s a place and situation you don’t hear much about in traditional American education which I think makes it all the more interesting. Thankfully there is a map at the beginning of the book to help those of us who have a hard time picturing the lay of the land. Descriptions are spare, but detailed enough to create a clear picture in your mind what the world looks like. And the descriptions of the Burrows, the slums, and the life in them are very vivid. Be forewarned, this is not for the faint of heart. There is a lot of violence in those places.
In my second reading the relationship between Tarl and Hari really stuck out to me. When Tarl is taken to work in the Deep Salt mine Hari vows to save him and this puts Hari’s storyline into motion. Hari spends some time, both before leaving the city on his journey and while on his way to Deep Salt, reflecting back on his early memories of growing up as Tarl’s son. The two were close and Tarl was surprisingly tender with Hari. However as the two have very different experiences through the book, Tarl in the mine and Hari on his travels, they diverge. Once reunited Hari discovers the bond between them is no longer founded on shared experiences but on the relationship they shared in the past. The bond is still strong and certainly important, but the two have changed and they meet on different footing. Interestingly, Tarl appears to lament the new distance between them as much as Hari does, but he also understands that Hari is getting a chance at a much better life than Tarl has had or expects to ever get and this is something he very much wants for Hari. Their relationship and its changes, I think, will really resonate with teens who are separating from their parents and becoming more independent, but also feel that longing for the simpler time of childhood.
I won’t get into all the themes I listed above here, but know there is a lot to this story. There are also two more books in the series. They could in theory all be read as stand alone novels and they are all good. I liked this one best of all, but I think that was because I read it first and loved it so much. The next book, Gool, follows the children of Hari and Pearl in their quest to rid their world of the evil that still lingers. That one is interesting to see how Pearl and Hari have grown and how they have passed their legacy on to the next generation and tried to build a new world for their children. The third book, The Limping Man, follows another character entirely in the next generation after Gool. I would say give this to kids who like dystopian fantasies, and that is probably a good recommendation, however I read the Hunger Games after this series and Hunger Games pales in comparison. This is so much better and I’m not sure kids who loved Hunger Games style dystopia will connect in the same way with this one.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: In Chinese, peng you means friend. But in any language, all Anna knows for certain is that friendship is complicated. When Anna needs company, she turns to her books. Whether traveling through A Wrinkle in Time, or peering over My Side of the Mountain, books provide what real life cannot—constant companionship and insight into her changing world. Books, however, can’t tell Anna how to find a true friend. She’ll have to discover that on her own.
This is a really great book about friendship. Anna is a bit of a bookworm and almost always has her nose in a book. I wasn’t quite sure if Anna actually was lonely and wanted to be in more with a few of her friends or if she was just an introvert and was fine not being too close with the girls in her class. At some points she was clearly uncomfortable, but at others she seemed fine just reading and being left alone.
Being off in her own world, though, Anna misses that Laura is really trying to reach out to her. Laura’s family is a mess and she needs someone she can lean on and she wants that person to be Anna. By the end of the book Anna has come to accept Laura and enjoy her company. (This is what makes me think that she might actually want a friend after all.) I actually think this book has a great message in it with a lot for kids in the target age to think about when it comes to being and making friends. However it doesn’t beat them over the head with this message.
I am also not sure why this is the year of the book. It should be the year of books! Anna is always plowing through another title. They are all classics and for any parents reading this aloud to their kids they will remember these titles. And it might inspire a new generation to pick some of these books up.
The book is not especially hard and it’s a good length. I would say third graders and fourth graders could tackle this and appreciate the story. The social aspects of it make it feel like a better fit with that age group than for, say, a strong second grade reader. This is also the first in a series of four books so far (the illustrator changes with the second book) which is great for that age group.
As a final note, Anna is Chinese American and although this plays into the story here a bit, it really isn’t the focus or point of the story. I wouldn’t quite call it incidental ethnicity, but it’s certainly not about the Chinese American experience.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Ling and Ting are two adorable identical twins, and they stick together, whether they are making dumplings, getting their hair cut, or practicing magic tricks. But looks are deceiving–people can be very different, even if they look exactly the same.
This is such a darling early chapter book! Ling and Ting are absolutely adorable and they are FUNNY. The chapters weave together with jokes about Ting’s forgetfulness, Ling’s magic trick, and the idea that they are not the same (despite being twins). A mishap at the barbershop in the first chapter both sets the humorous tone and helps the reader figure out which twin is which.
The book really shines as an ode to sisterhood. Ling and Ting, as the title suggests, are not exactly the same. They have different interests, are good at different things, and don’t look exactly alike. The final chapter has them bickering over a story Ting is telling which mixes up all the previous chapters. The only point that isn’t contentious is the ending about how they stay together always. Try not to have your heart squish at that.
The book is perfect for kids just starting to read longer books. The illustrations support the text perfectly and are also wonderful. Although not part of a series, it’s similar to the longer I Can Read or Step Into Reading books. The format and reading level (and the humor to some extent) bring to mind the Little Bear series of books. Kids in the first and second grade range will really appreciate the humor of the stories and parents will too. There are four more Ling and Ting books, although I’m not sure they’re all chapters like this one, but that’s another plus for this age group.
One final note, I think the chapter about chopsticks is a bit of a nod to How My Parents Learned to Eat. I’m not sure if that’s actually true, but it sure seemed like it. That was one of my favorite books growing up so I like to think it is.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet — he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck: Communist. Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her. . . . Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then?
Although a different type of story, Caminar reminds me of The Red Pencil and even Inside Out and Back Again. Like The Red Pencil and Inside Out, it is a story of a refugee told in verse, but this is more than just a story about conflict. It’s a coming of age novel. Carlos is on the cusp of leaving childhood when the Guatemalan army arrives in his village. They return a few days later and massacre the villagers. Fortunately for Carlos he is in the woods collecting mushrooms. In desperation he heads for his grandmother’s village higher up the mountain.
Carlos spends his time in the woods reflecting back on the people he knew and fears are dead, including one of the village elders, Santiago. Santiago tells stories from long ago, traditional stories including ones about nahuales, spirit animals meant to guide and aid their people. As a child living in the comfort of his village, Carlos rejects this idea as silly and old. But, Carlos keeps coming back to this idea as he finds his spirit guide, an owl, in the forest and comes to read signs in its behavior.
It isn’t, however, this that truly makes his transition to manhood and this is what makes this book so wonderful. Certainly there is the surface story of Carlos going into the woods, losing his home and mother, and then saving his grandmother’s village. While on his journey Carlos comes to accept the old folklore, language, and ways of his people and after the attack by the army on his grandmother’s village Carlos realizes he can be a go-between for his people and the broader world. It’s his acceptance of this role and rejection of being vengeful that makes him truly a man.
There is plenty of action and suspense in the novel which would make it a great pick for a reluctant reader. The fact that it’s in verse would too. It’s very impactful and a quick, but deep read. While it covers violent events I think the combination of verse and things happening off page make this fine for middle schoolers. In fact it would be a great history lesson, introducing a place and time American education rarely touches.
As a side note, I absolutely love this cover. Not only is beautiful and simple it really captures both the guerrilla rebels and Carlos hiding out in the jungle.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Animals smooth and spiky, fast and slow, hop and waddle through the two hundred plus pages of the Caldecott Honor artist Steve Jenkins’s most impressive nonfiction offering yet. Sections such as “Animal Senses,” “Animal Extremes,” and “The Story of Life” burst with fascinating facts and infographics that will have trivia buffs breathlessly asking, “Do you know a termite queen can produce up to 30,000 eggs a day?” Jenkins’s color-rich cut- and torn-paper artwork is as strikingly vivid as ever.
Animal books certainly aren’t hard to come by in the children’s section, but none of them have quite the interest of charm of this book. I was introduced to Jenkins style through Eye to Eye: How Animals See the World and was totally sold. I actually thought this would be a shorter book (not sure why) but when it showed up at the library it was certainly not. I would say the length alone makes it better suited to upper elementary and middle school animal and science lovers, but (but!) my three and a half year old asked to read it. And we’ve been reading it a few pages at a time for a couple weeks now and she hasn’t lost interest.
I think the combination of AMAZING cut paper illustrations and really interesting facts make this book good for a range of ages. While a sixth grader may be able to sit down and devour this in a sitting or two my daughter needs a lot longer to take it in and digest it. Even as an adult I am amazed by the information in it.
The book is laid out around several broader topics (like animal senses) that include an introductory page that defines the topic and talks generally about it. Then it delves into pages of facts about individual animals. Each two page spread will center loosely around a subtopic (like sight within animal senses). This makes the book feel cohesive and less scattered than other books of facts.There is plenty of white space around the illustrations and text making it less visually distracting (and therefore better for younger readers) than say the Eyewitness series of books (which I love, but had a hard time reading as a kid because of the busyness). Some of the information can be found in Jenkins other books, but this never feels like recycled material.
The end of the book includes a section on how he makes his illustrations. This sparked a lot of discussion with my daughter who was fascinated by the idea that the pictures were all made of paper. There is also a section on the process of making a book from idea to research to writing to illustrating to printing to distribution.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 16, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her efforts to lead women in a nonviolent struggle to bring peace and democracy to Africa through its reforestation. Her organization planted over thirty million trees in thirty years. This beautiful picture book tells the story of an amazing woman and an inspiring idea.
I originally picked this one up because of the art. It’s so lush and vibrant. It has this very modern vibe to it too, with the elongated eyes and tiny ink details on leaves, people, and textiles. Particularly striking about the two page illustration spreads are the background colors. They range from deep blues to pink to red to the yellow-green seen on the cover. It really makes even the more stripped down illustrations pop. They do a wonderful job of setting the tone of each page and passage. The pictures really draw you into the story.
I had not heard of Wangari Maathai before reading this (even grown ups can learn from picture books!), but her story is incredibly inspiring. I think it really stresses the importance of a good education, something Maathai was incredibly lucky to get. Her education exposed her to a wider world and it also inspired her to do something about the destruction of trees and the environment. Her story also shows that one person, if they use their wits, intelligence and determination plus a lot of elbow grease, can change the world. Maathai didn’t do it all on her own, but she was the flash point and she started the Green Belt Movement when she couldn’t get the government to support her or move quickly enough.
I really like the picture book biography trend. I don’t actually know if there are more being published, but I’ve certainly noticed and read a lot of them lately. They’re great for the third-fourth grade range and even really up into fifth. They can be so engaging in the way a dry chapter book is not, especially if they are well illustrated. I would encourage their use in biography projects in school because they contain good information and also because it will encourage students to use more than one resource in their reports. I’m tired of projects where kids are handed one book and write their entire report from that book. It hits a little too close to plagiarism and it isn’t exactly reflective of the real research process. And if single book research is done for the sake of time I think the project is about the product and not the learning process it should be providing (sorry for the tangential rant!) and that’s a problem too.
Head’s up, this book has a very high reading level. It’s somewhere around the sixth grade, so a younger reader might struggle to get through this on their own. Which isn’t, of course, to say a younger reader wouldn’t be interested. Just that if you push it below third grade or so it should be a read aloud with lots of discussion.