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2015 May

28

May
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle

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

House of Purple CedarHouse of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle

From GoodReads: “The hour has come to speak of troubled times. It is time we spoke of Skullyville.” Thus begins Rose Goode’s story of her growing up in Indian Territory in pre-statehood Oklahoma. Skullyville, a once-thriving Choctaw community, was destroyed by land-grabbers, culminating in the arson on New Year’s Eve, 1896, of New Hope Academy for Girls. Twenty Choctaw girls died, but Rose escaped. She is blessed by the presence of her grandmother Pokoni and her grandfather Amafo, both respected elders who understand the old ways. Soon after the fire, the white sheriff beats Amafo in front of the town’s people, humiliating him. Instead of asking the Choctaw community to avenge the beating, her grandfather decides to follow the path of forgiveness.

I take back everything I said about Tim Tingle. He is an incredible writer. I wish I had read this book before I read his others. It’s now very clear that the other books show his skill, but are still hi-low books and don’t showcase the full range of his abilities. I also don’t think I can do the book justice with this review. I certainly can’t without giving a lot of it away and I think it’s better to read and savor it just knowing it will be worth the time.

In all honesty, this is probably an adult novel with YA appeal. Rose is telling the story as someone preparing to die, nearly 60 years after the events happened. Rose, in the story of Skullyville, is eleven or twelve, but it’s clearly from a reflective standpoint looking back over the events that lead to her crossing out of childhood.

The story focuses around Rose’s grandfather being hit by the town marshal. Amafo decides he is going to take the path of forgiveness in hopes that others in the town will see the marshal for who he is. This seems to anger the marshal even more and he decides he wants to hurt Amafo again by hurting Rose. This sets more events into motion that drag Rose’s best friend and her family into the violence and danger. Others also fall victim to the marshal’s temper and anger and are sucked into events our of their control.

House of Purple Cedar is definitely a serious book, but it’s not without its humor either. There are plenty of scenes (the attempted bank robbery especially) that lighten the mood. The book meanders a bit in a lovely sort of way, but Tingle does a beautiful job of tying it up perfectly at the end. Which isn’t to say there’s a Disney ending, just that all the pieces come together and you realize nothing he’s told you, no matter how off topic or slow it seemed, was extraneous. You get a very clear picture of life at the time and an excellent sense of place. The characters are all beautifully crafted and you even get glimpses into many of the secondary and tertiary characters.

There is also a bit of magical realism introduced through Choctaw mythology. The panther on the cover arrives almost at the end of the book and is a protector not a danger. Rose also begins by sharing a dream she has had since this period in her early life. And as she prepares to die Rose sees the end to her vision and learns to let everything that happened, to let all the fear, anger and hatred she’s held onto, go.

Being historical fiction it has the feel of an old west novel, but this isn’t plup fiction. This is a beautiful novel about forgiveness, everyday life, and how there is not one thing that leads to an event, just a series of interconnected lives. The setting, some of the people, and certainly some of the themes remind me of True Grit.

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27

May
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle

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

Crossing Bok ChittoCrossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom written by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges

From GoodReads: Martha Tom, a young Choctaw girl, knows better than to cross Bok Chitto, but one day—in search of blackberries—she disobeys her mother and finds herself on the other side. A tall slave discovers Martha Tom. A friendship begins between Martha Tom and the slave’s family, most particularly his young son, Little Mo. Soon afterwards, Little Mo’s mother finds out that she is going to be sold. The situation seems hopeless, except that Martha Tom teaches Little Mo’s family how to walk on water to their freedom.

The story of friendship here between Martha Tom and Little Mo is really sweet, but the addition of the beautiful illustrations really bring the story to life. Bridges does an excellent job creating suspense and atmosphere to make the story jump off the page.

This is a Tingle book that I don’t have any mixed feelings about. While I think Crossing Bok Chitto makes a great story of friendship, history, and kindness for any picture book reader I think it would make an excellent classroom read aloud. There are a lot of Underground Railroad/slave escape books out there, many of which are excellent, but this one is particularly good because of the inclusion of the Choctaw community. In my experience the books about people helping runaway slaves tend to be white, which can lean toward the white savior complex. Here we see others helping runaway slaves. There’s a lot to the story that could stimulate good discussion. Also, importantly the book is written by a Choctaw author and is illustrated by a native artist.

My only regret about the book is that Little Mo and Martha Tom won’t get to see one another again.

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26

May
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle

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

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How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle

Summary: Issac and his family live in Mississippi Choctaw territory on the edge of a swamp. When there is news of Treaty Talk his family decides it will be time to move. That time comes much sooner than they expected, though, when men ride through their town that night burning down all the Choctaw houses. Forced to flee into the swamp the Choctaw endure the harsh beginnings of winter. As the swamp freezes over white men again appear, this time bringing blankets which Issac’s family wisely refuses. The blankets carry smallpox and soon his family leaves the swamp to escape the sickness. They join up with the Choctaw walking the Trail of Tears to their new land. Here they befriend another family and Issac is drawn into rescuing their older daughter. Issac is fortunate, however. He can see into the future and see ghosts and they help keep him safe on the dangerous mission to rescue Naomi as does his new friend Joseph who can shift into a panther. 

I have such mixed feelings about Tingle’s books. They always seem like they are written for young audiences, in the case of How I Became a Ghost I feel a fourth grader or fifth grader could pick it up, but he tackles some really heavy subjects with a rather heavy hand. That’s not to say he’s pedantic. There is just a lot of difficult history packed into a slim novel.

Lest I sound too negative, there was a lot to like about the story. It was exciting, especially once the rescue storyline picked up. It has ghosts and a shape shifter. Issac is a great hero and a nice kid. And he isn’t kidding when he tells the reader he will become a ghost. Issac does actually die in the book, but not in an especially tragic way. He becomes a ghost that helps inspire, motivate, and help his people know that they are stronger than the soldiers forcefully relocating them, they are stronger than the sorrow and pain that befalls them on this difficult journey.

Importantly How I Became a Ghost exposes readers to Choctaw history, culture, and thinking. It’s an excellent example of windows and mirrors. While you might call the book magical realism with its ghosts and shape shifting kid (that panther on the cover is actually one of the main characters in animal form), I think that’s giving it a non-native label. It taps into the Choctaw mythology and world view which makes the ghosts feel less like magic and more like a natural way of looking at this world and the next.

The book is the first in a trilogy and if they are as compelling as this one, I’ll be looking forward to them. As I said earlier the audience for the book might be a little tough. Kids who like suspense, ghosts, adventure and history will like the book, but it’s a pretty easy book to read (in terms of reading level). In that regard it would be good for fourth and fifth graders. But be aware it deals with a lot of death and cruelty which might be better suited to sixth and seventh graders. As a parent, teacher or librarian you’ll have to use your judgement about whether it’s right for any particular reader. There’s enough action and excitement to keep a reluctant or struggling older reader engaged and the cover doesn’t look too young which will help.

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24

May
2015

In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Monthly Author: Tim Tingle

On 24, May 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

I didn’t know much about Tim Tingle except that his books were getting a lot of recognition for being both good and for being written by a native author. Tingle is an Oklahoma Choctaw and he writes about the history of his people. According to his bio he is a storyteller (I suspect much like Joseph Bruchac is).

Sometime last year I read one of Tingle’s newer books Danny Blackgoat: Navajo Prisoner and I was a little confused. Turns out it’s a hi-low book. A book with a high interest story and low reading level. The story wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t super impressed. My GoodReads review wasn’t especially complimentary, but having read some more of Tingle’s work and realizing the book is a hi-low I clearly missed the point of the book. The fist book I picked up to review this week was How I Became a Ghost which also read a lot like a hi-low and again I was a little hesitant to keep going. Were all his books like this?

My next two books totally changed my opinion of his writing and storytelling. Tingle can really write! And he manages to write for a variety of audiences.

Schedule for the week:

Tuesday: How I Became a Ghost

Wednesday: Crossing Bok Chitto

Thursday: House of Purple Cedar

Check out Tim Tingle’s website here. It has a bio, a list of his books and more information.

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21

May
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

TBT: Good Bye, Bunny Bangs by Dorathea Dana

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

Bunny Bangs

Good Bye, Bunny Bangs by Dorathea Dana

One morning as Dean and Delia are out playing they notice that the neighbor’s dog is pointing at a bush. As the day wears on the dog is still there and the children are increasingly intrigued. When they finally check on him they discover a tiny baby rabbit with a gash on his shoulder. Even though their mother protests, the children bring the bunny home to help rehabilitate him. As the bunny begins to feel better he starts thumping everyone with his back feet, earning the name Bunny Bangs. The family cares for him and as he grows he moves out into a small pen around a hollow tree in their yard. Finally it’s time to let Bunny Bangs return to the wild and the children are sad to see him go, but there’s a surprise waiting for them the next morning.

My mom read this to me when I was a little girl and she read it when she was a little girl. I remember loving it when I was a child and when I reread it about 10 years ago. This time through I wanted to see if it held up looking at it with a more critical eye and for the most part it does.

I certainly don’t recommend getting advice on pet care from the book, nor do I recommend listening to it for information on rabbit behavior. The family is woefully ignorant in those regards. They have a parrot who they give coffee to every morning and they think the rabbit thumping is his temper (rabbit thumping is often a sign of fear and they use their powerful back legs to get away). If you set this stuff aside (which I found easy to do, as I wasn’t looking for a guidebook to rabbits) it’s really a darling story. The children clearly love animals. Their mother laments all the “pets” they have found in the woods and brought home. This time she insists the rabbit won’t remain a pet. And yet everyone is rather subdued when Bunny Bangs is released into the woods.

The setting is rather idyllic with the children playing in the woods and yard everyday. They change into their play clothes, take naps in the afternoon, and spend the weekend building a hutch with their father. It’s all very 1950s (right down to the family being white), but it doesn’t feel weird. Just happy and gentle. No one is dysfunctional and there isn’t anything overtly or covertly sexist. The mother is a stay at home mom, but that in and of itself isn’t sexist. Even when the mother suggests that the children build a hutch with their father, she contributes supplies and it sounds more like she’s setting up time with the dad than implying women can’t build. The illustration actually shows the little girl more involved helping the father than the older brother. So looking for those things that can crop up in books from this era, I couldn’t find anything that was objectionable, even if it was a tiny bit dated.

Spoiler alert: The end has a funny and sweet twist to it that I think is really wonderful for new readers. It turns out there was a hole in the back of the tree and Bunny Bangs was always free to get in and out of his pen. When the children wake the morning after releasing him, there he is back in his pen waiting for breakfast. It’s such a happy ending to a sweet story about helping wildlife. The kids decide he’s back because he now trusts that they didn’t want to keep him locked up.

The book isn’t particularly long, but it’s more of an early reader than picture book. The illustrations are darling. Try not to coo over the picture of baby Bunny Bangs stretched out in a strawberry basket. There are plenty of pictures, but there is a fair amount of text as well. It would be perfect for early second grade, but it can serve as a read aloud down into Kindergarten and up into third grade. Kids love animals stories and this is a sweet one. I’m so glad it help up.

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21

May
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Graphic Novel Review: Sita’s Ramayana

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

Sita's RamayanaSita’s Ramayana written by Samhita Arni, illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar

From GoodReads: This version of The Ramayana is told from the perspective of Sita, the queen. After she, her husband Rama and his brother are exiled from their kingdom, Sita is captured by the proud and arrogant king Ravana and imprisoned in a garden across the ocean. Ravana never stops trying to convince Sita to be his wife, but she steadfastly refuses his advances. Eventually Rama comes to her rescue with the help of the monkey Hanuman and his army. But Rama feels he can’t trust Sita again. He forces Sita to undergo an ordeal by fire to prove herself to be true and pure. She is shocked and in grief and anger does so. She emerges unscathed and they return home to their kingdom as king and queen. However, suspicion haunts their relationship, and Sita once more finds herself in the forest, but this time she is pregnant. She has twins and continues to live in the forest with them.

I stumbled upon this one in the library about a week ago. I’m not a big browser at the public library (long enough to read list already!), but there was a screw up with the library my book request was sent to and it went to the library my daughter knows. She insisted on showing me around the children’s section and there it was calling to me on the shelf.

I am only familiar in passing with the Ramayana. I knew it was part of Indian folklore and I know a few of the characters, Hanuman mostly, but look at that cover! It’s lovely. And then I opened it up.

Sitas Ramayana 1The art is stunning and, it turns out, done by a traditional artist as a Patua scroll. The Patua scrolls would be used much as we use picture books for storytelling. The storyteller holds the it and uses it to jog their memory of the story and to show the listeners parts of the story that are illustrated. The publisher broke up the scroll and put it into the left-right format Westerners use for books.

I actually read aloud the first 30 pages or so to my three-and-a-half year old and she was into it. The art pops beautifully and the story is incredibly exciting. Kidnapping a princess, an honorable prince (well, until later), a trickster monkey, battles, an excellent villain. My only complaint would be that Sita does a lot of telling. It’s primarily narrated with little dialog, but ultimately I think it works. The pictures support the story where it might drag and it allows there to be a lot more reflection and commentary made by Sita than we would get otherwise. And she often has wise things to say.

The story, as the title implies, is told by Sita and this gives is a very feminist bent. You see how she is expected both to remain pure and is doubted by her husband later. She shows how wrong it is that she can be used as a pawn in the war, but she is also incredibly sensitive to other’s pain and suffering, even the enemy. Many times she remarks that all this war takes loved ones from everyone. Apparently the Ramayana usually focuses on Rama being the hero and the man protecting his honor by rescuing his wife, but that isn’t the focus in this story. This isn’t a new approach, according to the notes at the back, and dates back at least as far as the 16th century.

As far as audience I don’t see why anyone should be excluded. It would fabulous for reluctant readers who like the graphic novel format. There are a couple breasts in one or two of the illustrations, but they’re not super prominent and I think if you approach them frankly and as if they are no big deal (they aren’t) kids will too. (But I know some parents may object.) The reading level is a little high and some of the narration does a story within a story which might make it a little difficult, but I would say fourth grade and up can handle it. The book would be awesome for a folklore study or for kids looking beyond the traditional German fairy tales. I would even hand sell it to kids who are into fairy tales and don’t know they can branch out from the western tradition.

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20

May
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best

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

ZulayMy Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay written by Cari Best, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

From GoodReads: Zulay and her three best friends are all in the same first grade class and study the same things, even though Zulay is blind. When their teacher asks her students what activity they want to do on Field Day, Zulay surprises everyone when she says she wants to run a race. With the help of a special aide and the support of her friends, Zulay does just that.

This would make an excellent book for the classroom or library to be read aloud. The title is a bit misleading since the story doesn’t really focus around her friends or their frienship. It’s really a story about practice makes perfect. Zulay really wants to run in the foot race on Field Day, but she’s blind and not familiar with the track. She’s been working with Miss XX on how to move around on her own using a cane, but running in a foot race poses a new challenge. With the help of her aide and a lot of practice (and she isn’t the only student to practice, many of her sighted classmates practice too) she is able to complete the race with her friends cheering her on.

Some pieces of the story, although good, felt disjointed. She talks about her friends and how they help each other but beyond cheering for one another on Field Day and linking arms to help Zulay move around the playground you don’t see much beyond that. I would have liked more of their friendship. There were the lessons with Miss XX on how to use a cane for feeling her way on the street and around unfamiliar places. Zulay is frustrated by them and feels a little embarrassed that she is the only one using a cane. But she doesn’t end up using the cane in her foot race (understandably) or at any other time in the story. I guess my point is, I liked Zulay enough that I want to see more of her and learn more about her.

The illustrations are darling. I love Brantley-Newton’s style. Zulay and her friends in their uniforms are adorable. And Zulay is reminicent of the adorable kids in the One Love, also illustrated by Brantley-Newton.

This is definitely worth having in the library collection because the story has a great message and it features Zulay who is blind. I also think it would make an excellent addition to classroom and home collections where there could be discussion and read alouds of it. The text is a little long which make it better suited to the upper picture book age range, say second grade, but my nearly-four-year-old sat through it. The back cover features the Braille alphabet which opened an excellent discussion with my daughter and I could see this being repeated in classrooms and homes.

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19

May
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Like Water on Stone by Dana Walrath

On 19, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Like WaterLike Water on Stone by Dana Walrath

From GoodReads: It is 1914, and the Ottoman Empire is crumbling into violence.

Beyond Anatolia, in the Armenian Highlands, Shahen Donabedian dreams of going to New York. Sosi, his twin sister, never wants to leave her home, especially now that she is in love. At first, only Papa, who counts Turks and Kurds among his closest friends, stands in Shahen’s way. But when the Ottoman pashas set their plans to eliminate all Armenians in motion, neither twin has a choice.

After a horrifying attack leaves them orphaned, Shahen and Sosi flee into the mountains, carrying their little sister, Mariam. Shahen keeps their parents’ fate a secret from his sisters. But the children are not alone. An eagle named Ardziv watches over them as they run at night and hide each day, making their way across mountain ridges and rivers red with blood.

I couldn’t finish this one. It wasn’t because it wasn’t any good either. It was just too depressing. Plus the youngest girl that’s on the run is five and it was just a little too close to my own daughter’s age and I couldn’t help projecting.

The book is actually a novel in verse and the author says in her note in the back that this choice was intended to place a barrier between the reader and the horror of the situations. This is exactly what Andrea Pinkney Davis said about her book The Red Pencil. And I think it is very effective. Walrath also adds in an eagle as a narrator who witness some of the most horrific parts of the story of the genocide. This too puts a bit of a space between the reader and the horror. It also allows there to be a little more history and broader perspective that sees war coming before it arrives.

Like Water on Stone is written beautifully and certainly the beginning 100 pages that focus on life before the genocide began are beautiful, featuring scenes of everyday life in the rural village. I skipped ahead and read a few of the poems much later in the book and it seems there is hope at the end of the book. I just couldn’t make it through the terrible stuff to get there. I highly recommend giving it a try and not letting my inabilty to finish it deter you if you are interested in the Armenian genocide or are looking for an excellent novel in verse.

This is clearly for high school as there is talk of rape and murder. But it would also be a good history book (despite being fictionalized). This is yet another part of history, a shameful one, that is skipped over in history classes. We often focus so much on the genocide of WWII and of the Jews that history classes lose sight of the other genocides during this century. Even prominent figures today lose sight of other genocides. The pope called the Armenian genocide the first of the 20th century and it wasn’t. The massacre of the Herrero people by the Germans a good 10 years earlier was the first. If you liked this book or want something a little less hard to take, I suggest Ruta Sepetys Between Shades of Gray. It’s a totally different time period, but it has the same feel to it.

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14

May
2015

In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Notes From the Makerspace: Hanger Catapult

On 14, May 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

Just three more classes this school year for the Makerspace. While I intend to do some reflecting once it’s over. I also will share my planning for the Makerspace summer camp.

This week, though, I was just quickly going to share a popular project that I set up for the kids a few weeks ago. It is a wire hanger catapult. It requires only a few supplies and the kids got really into it. They started to tweak the design so they could launch heavier things and so they could aim better.

Here are the instructions for making the catapult. I came across the idea on Pinterest and is on the blog A Little Pinch of Perfect.

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13

May
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Black Flame by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane

On 13, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Black FlameBlack Flame written by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane, translated by Anna Holmwood

From GoodReads: A compelling novel set in Tibet, Mongolia, and China, about the adventures of a fiercely powerful yet lovable Tibetan mastiff. Kelsang is just a tiny puppy when his mother dies after a vicious fight with a snow leopard. As he grows he becomes a prize sheepdog, roaming the northern Tibetan grasslands with his master Tenzin. But one day visitors ply Tenzin with drink and convince him to sell his beautiful, purebred dog. In no time Kelsang finds himself chained up in the back of a jeep traveling far from everything he knows. A series of adventures take Kelsang from the streets of Lhasa to brief refuge with an elderly painter and finally to his new master Han Ma, who inspires his love and loyalty. Through it all Kelsang longs for the freedom of the grasslands. Black Flame proudly takes its place among much-loved classic dog stories.

I want my review of this book to just be go read this book. Everyone needs to read it, so go read it. I’m not even a dog person and I loved it and now I want a dog. Seriously. But of course not everyone will like this book and sometimes I feel like I am not nearly discerning enough when it comes to reading and I generally like everything. I think what was really different about this book was how I liked it as a reader and not as a librarian reading it. I’m a sucker for animal books (and I think this is why I often hate adult literature, not enough animals), what can I say?

Okay, what I can say about the book (besides how amazing it is) is that I think Blackcrane must actually be a dog. I don’t know how he made this book sound so true to what a dog would be thinking and how a dog would feel. The book isn’t a talking animal story. Kelsang lives in the world as we know it and the story obeys all rules of this world. But the omniscient narrator sure gets in his head and explains dog behavior and dog emotions using language in a way that felt very, very natural and realistic. There wasn’t any philosophizing. There wasn’t any twee dog talk. No dumbed-down dog here either. Kelsang was smart, but still an animal living (mostly) in a human world. Blackcrane captures Kelsang’s desire to have a master and purpose, but also his ability to live on his own and fend for himself. Through getting into Kelsang’s mind you hear why he chooses to take the actions he does, like howling or pacing or running. It’s show and tell used in an incredibly effective way.

There is violence and death. Kelsang fights and kills other dogs. He also fights wolves (to protect his flock of sheep) and kills small rodents. Primarily he does this out of survival instinct and out of a sense of duty. But all the fights are given from Kelsang’s perspective and because of the place of instinct and survival and naturalness of much of this violence the fights never seem overly gory, unnecessary, or horrifying. That may also be in part due to the fact that you become very attached to Kelsang and his story.

The book had the feel of a classic to it or a book written in English back in the 1950s or 60s, but because it was from Kelsang’s perspective it was a lot less insipid than those boy-and-his-dog-who-dies stories from that era (Kelsang survives the book and gets a happy ending). It was beautifully written and there was plenty of action and adventure, but there were also undertones of environmentalism and speaking against animal cruelty. The pace wasn’t exactly slow, but it wasn’t completely plot driven either. I managed to read it in about four hours over the course of two days. For this reason it may not be suited to reluctant and struggling readers. It’s just a little too dense. But I would highly recommend that kids interested in dogs pick it up, reluctant or not. Just don’t give it to your tenderhearted readers (or at least warn them). Boys may really click with this, although I hate to label anything a “boy book”.

Black Flame was actually originally written in Chinese (Mandarin?) and translated books can be hit or miss. This is definitely hit. Holmwood did a beautiful job translating all this into English. If you aren’t familiar with the geography of China (I’m guessing the majority of American school children are not) it’s well worth getting out a map to look at the places Kelsang goes to on his journey. Even better, do it online so you can look at pictures of these places too.

Lastly, that cover is gorgeous. Kelsang is supposed to be a massive Tibetan mastiff with beautiful black fur that shines blue in the light. He’s domesticated, but still has a feral streak running through him. I think the cover does both the book as a whole and Kelsang justice.

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