By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Aref Al-Amri does not want to leave Oman. He does not want to leave his elementary school, his friends, or his beloved grandfather, Siddi. He does not want to live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his parents will go to graduate school. His mother is desperate for him to pack his suitcase—but he refuses. Finally, she calls Siddi for help. But rather than pack, Aref and Siddi go on a series of adventures. They visit the camp of a thousand stars deep in the desert, they sleep on Siddi’s roof, they fish in the Gulf of Oman and dream about going to India, they travel to the nature reserve to watch the sea turtles. At each stop, Siddi finds a small stone that he later slips into Aref’s suitcase—mementos of home.
This is a beautiful, simple story. Aref is such a change averse kid and he is so introspective without coming across as precocious. Adding to his not wanting to face the change of moving from Oman to the US, Aref is also such a homebody. He loves routines and the special places that come with having routines.
Besides being a story about a kid resisting change, The Turtle of Oman felt very much like a story about an only child. There was something about Aref that just felt like he was an only child. I mean sure, there weren’t any siblings around. That was my first clue. But it was something in the way he saw the world and how he interacted with the adults and friends in his life that felt very true to the only child experience. That isn’t to say kids with siblings won’t find Aref a sympathetic narrator, just that only children (particularly those that don’t like change and are a bit quiet and thoughtful) might really find someone special in him.
Aref’s special relationship with his grandfather was also a really beautiful part of the story. His grandfather understands Aref (maybe because they are not so different) and he tries very hard to help Aref see the perspective the adults in his life have about the big move to the US. They know he will make friends, he will learn to like his new home, and that it isn’t forever. They also know it will change him profoundly, but he will still remain the same wonderful boy he is despite the change (if that makes sense). He’s afraid of all these things and doesn’t have the years of experience and perspective to know that it will all work out and while he may feel discombobulated for awhile he will fall into routines in his new surroundings and will also be able to return to Oman in three years to fall back into his old ones. While Aref’s mother stays upbeat and comforting, his grandfather really knows how to help Aref come to terms with leaving. The two spend a good part of the book having simple, quiet adventures that show Aref the beauty of Oman but also help him see that it will be here when he gets back. His grandfather helps him say goodbye not by packing and actually saying that word, but through finding tokens and memories to take with him and treasure. One final scene in the book has the grandfather break his positive outlook on Aref leaving, which was incredibly touching. While his grandfather is clearly helping him say goodbye and come to terms with the change he admits to Aref that he will miss him very much. It’s such a beautiful sentiment that he shares just so Aref knows that he will always be tied to his home.
Of course the fact that this is such a simple, character driven story means it could be a tough sell. It’s definitely one you should hand sell to the right kid (or better yet to the right teacher, this could make a great classroom read). While Aref is so much like I was as a kid (part of the reason I loved him) I would not have read this as a kid and enjoyed it. It’s slow and meandering, although short, which would have been maddening to a weak reader like I was. If you think a student might like this, but they are a reluctant reader, tell them to keep with it and encourage them to savor it. The effort will be worth it.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 14, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Dancers are young when they first dream of dance. Siena was six — and her dreams kept skipping and leaping, circling and spinning, from airy runs along a beach near her home in Puerto Rico, to dance class in Boston, to her debut performance on stage with the New York City Ballet.
This is a pretty straight forward graphic novel of Siena’s early life as a dancer. While not nearly as in-depth a look at life as a ballerina, especially a young one, as Michaela DePrince’s Taking Flight, it’s perfect for young dancers interested in what it takes to dance.
Dance for Siena filled a space in her life. She talks about how she felt compelled to dance and I think this draw and this longing will really appeal to kids interested in ballet, or really any kind of dance. Siena is also Puerto Rican and she worries about her body developing into a curvy woman’s body (the picture of her staring at her relatives large breasts is hilarious). I thought this was an interesting flip of the normal tween girl mentality. Usually they stare longingly at relatives breasts wishing they could have their own pair. She doesn’t get much into how being Puerto Rican might have hindered her or made her feel like an outsider, but that was fine. Just the simple fact that she is not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed ballerina made her story more inspiring.
Siena’s story is also important and inspiring because ,while she did preprofessional ballet for years, she quit at 18 due to an injury. Instead of dancing into the sunset she made a major change and went to college. However, she took up dance again a few years later simply as a hobby because she still felt she needed it. I think this was refreshing because many girls will not make it as professional ballet dancers and this doesn’t preclude keeping up with dance and having a life beyond it. That isn’t to say young dancers shouldn’t dream, but I think it’s good for them to see that professional dance doesn’t have to be the endgame.
As an adult reading this To Dance really hits home how expensive ballet is as a hobby. Siena’s family had to come to New York many times for camps and classes and ultimately she and her mother moved there so she could be close to the ballet school. That isn’t to mention the cost of tuition, costumes, and the special school she had to attend to get an education and be able to dance pre-professionally.
Just one last thought, especially arresting are the endpapers first with her dancing as a child on the beach then as mother dancing on the beach with a baby in her arms with husband in tow. A great book for aspiring dancers in elementary school.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 09, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Home might be a house in the country, an apartment in the city, or even a shoe. Home may be on the road or the sea, in the realm of myth, or in the artist’s own studio. A meditation on the concept of home and a visual treat that invites many return visits, this loving look at the places where people live marks the picture-book debut of Carson Ellis, acclaimed illustrator of the Wildwood series and artist for the indie band the Decemberists.
This was a charming book, from the darling illustrations to the examination of all the places creatures live. It wasn’t revolutionary in it’s selection of homes, although it certainly was creative. There are no mobile homes or low income housing, but there is an apartment building and a shoe.
I don’t think the book is striving to be diverse with a capital D, although there is plenty of incidental ethnicity. It isn’t just a bunch of white children and adults frolicking through twee little houses with a few animals thrown in. The group scenes certainly feature children of all colors and even some of the adults are not white and this is why I ended up buying a copy (that and I was taken with the illustration style). The Middle Eastern scene looks like something out of Scheherazade, but I didn’t think it was offensive (correct me if I’m wrong) and it’s in keeping with the whimsical feel of the book.
Especially charming was the end where the artist, Ellis, is seen sitting at her work table. So many of the objects found surrounding her on the floor, on the table, and on the shelves can be found back in the illustrations. From a flag to a piece of cloth. This seek-and-find element really makes this a great book to pore over. My only wish was that the skep seen on the cover was inside. But that’s a beekeeper’s preference, not a genuine complaint.
To be honest, I don’t sound overly thrilled by the book, but I am. Enough that I bought my own copy. I just can’t put my finger on why I found it so charming. I think it’s the atmosphere created by the illustrations (they’re just so darn cute) paired with the sparse language that really makes you look at what a home is.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: In the mountains of Northern China ancient custom demands that every man have a wife to keep him company in the afterlife. Deshi Li’s brother is dead–and unmarried. Which means that Deshi must find him an eligible body before the week is up.
Lily Chen, sweet as a snakebite, needs money and a fast ride out of town.
Haunted by the gods of their ancestors and the expectations of the new world, Deshi and Lily embark on a journey with two very different destinations in mind. They travel through a land where the ground is hard and the graves, where marriage can be murder and where Lily Chen is wanted–dead and live.
I would have eaten this book up as a teen. It’s dark, it’s darkly funny, Lily is both spoiled and silly but also just young and naive and vulnerable, and it’s ultimately a love story. A love story that revolves around murder. Also, it’s a graphic novel, perfect for the reluctant reader I was.
Lily is too big for her small town not to mention her parents are in some financial trouble and may marry her off to a creep of a government official. When Deshi shows up, surreptitiously looking for a woman’s body to bury with his brother, Lily sees a way out. As they travel through the remote regions of China, Lily and Deshi begin to fall for each other. Certainly Lily is pretty, but she’s got big ideas and this can make her abrasive. Deshi is kind of a wimp and pairs well with the spunk of Lily.
The illustration style is by turns gorgeous and silly. There will be these amazing spreads like this:
and then there will be pages of action with Lily and Deshi and their arms will look like noodles and Lily’s curves are often over emphasized. Even the man Deshi has hired to find a corpse bride has this egg-shaped head.
The book is great for high school, but I could see an upper middle school kid getting into it. For that age, it would be one I would hand sell. Lily and Deshi are somewhere between the ages of 18 and 20, I would guess, which makes them good for high school students to read about, but I think the book also falls into that new adult category (although not because it has sexytimes, I hate that definition of new adult). Lily and Deshi are trying to figure out what to do in their adult lives. Deshi has some hard choices to make and Lily is lured to Bejing by the bright lights and promise of a better life.
My one concern about the book is a quote at the very beginning from an article from “The Economist” about a problem with ghost marriages. While the story centers around this phenomenon the quote makes ghost marriages sound exotic, problematic, and like an epidemic. I don’t know the truth behind this, but it sounds awfully sensational and it also sounds a bit like applying western ideas of marriage and the afterlife to a non-western culture. I think the story stands on its own without the quote and all it does is cast a pall (no pun intended) over the story that makes it feel more salacious than it is.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Apr 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
The next two days of library time I spent with the fifth grade actually gave them time to work on their research with me and the librarian present to help. I put together a Diigo site that provided them with pre-approved website. Ideally they would be working on evaluating websites themselves, but there just wasn’t time or practice enough in place for this to happen. And you know, that was just fine.
The first day I shared the Diigo site with them and showed them how it worked. Then I explained that they would be writing notes on notecards. Watching the kids try to maneuver between Diigo and any websites they pulled up was so awkward. If you have kids that are more computer saavy, using a computer or web-based program for note taking would be fine, but I am SO GLAD we had them physically write out their notes.
We reminded them about citations and gave them a list of information that they needed to get off their site, database, or book and told them to copy it onto the notecard. Each notecard had notes from one site, article or book (at least in theory). The students got some really good practice at finding website titles and copyright dates with this.
The second day there was more time for research. We also introduced the options for presentations. The kids would be allowed to create an infographic (a glorified poster), a Prezi, or a video. Mostly we were curious about what the kids would choose (it appears they all went for the Prezi because it was familiar)
I had a few thoughts for next year. The first is that the kids need an example of each type of presentation. That was a mistake I saw coming, but just did not have the time to correct. Second, I would ultimately like them to have some experience evaluating sites and doing Google searches just to see how hard it is. This is really not the project to do that on, especially since they have no experience with it yet, but I will find a way. Third, and this is something I fixed from the first group that came in the morning to the second that came in the afternoon, don’t share the presentations ideas and tools until after giving them 20 minutes or so to research. Once you tell them they can use Prezi or Canva (the site they could use to make an infographic) they just want to spend the period tinkering around on it. It was a major head slap moment, of course they would want to and that was fine. I just wanted them to spend a little more time researching too.
Find the full lesson plan for both days here: Research Days Lesson Plan