By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Emma Perez has been looking for some big news to help her become a famous reporter. Javier’s wormburger is perfect-people need to know what happened! Emma is ready to find witnesses, gather clues, and file her report.
I was of two minds with this one. I found Emma really engaging and fun. She’s pretty girly and likes to think about clothes and being famous, but she also learns how to be an investigative reporter/detective. Of course she’s in second grade so it’s not hard hitting news. But the process is there and she’s willing to stick with it. Was she kind of silly? Yes, but I know a number of kids exactly like her.
The story itself, again not hard hitting news, but was a funny story kids will absolutely love. A worm has found its way into Javier’s burger one day at lunch and now Emma wants to investigate. She ends up solving the mystery, interviewing a bunch of people involved and making videos to post on a school online bulletin board. Her dad, a newspaper reporter, helps her write her scripts, make the videos, and walks her through the whole process. He also encourages and cajoles her when her enthusiasm wanes when she finds becoming a famous reporter isn’t just about putting on makeup (a character trait I think was completely fitting for an eight year old).
The cover treatment, form factor, etc. of this book would certainly mean even my low third grade readers would pick this up and enjoy it. Win, win, win!
But Ida Siegal, as far as I can tell, is white. Emma is half white, half Dominican. I think that’s fantastic. Diversity, blah blah blah. But with the exception of a few descriptions of how she looks (dark brown hair, no mention of skin color) and a few Spanish phrases and words sprinkled throughout, being Dominican doesn’t feel integral to the story or the character. I know it’s important to have books where being something other than white isn’t a big deal, but I think those stories need to be coming from authors that share those cultures. It just gets at that debate of who can write what characters. And in this book it feels more like tapping into the trend of diverse characters instead of being authentic.
Will I buy this? Maybe. I have a couple other series coming from the library that feature characters of color and I want to read those first and see if they are comparable in reading level and appeal. If they are and their authors are also share the characters cultures then I would buy those first. If they don’t meet that criteria then I would buy the Emma books. I have a gaggle of second grade girls who would probably love these.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Ronald is determined to give his know-it-all older sister Latrice a run for the $50 prize when she comes home with the rules for a Kwanzaa contest at their community center, planning to win with a dance.
I like this series of books and this particular story makes a great addition to it. However, they’re a hard sell in my school. The kids they’re right for are looking for something that is a little more sophisticated. I might be able to get my second graders to pick these up toward the end of the year, but they don’t necessarily reflect the kids.
For my own school I wish we had more chapter books that featured black and African-American families that were middle to upper class. I haven’t come across a ton of them. The books in this series that I’ve read tend to feature black families that are missing a parent (or both) and they don’t have much money. That’s not to say I think my kids won’t ever read these, but if my African-American kids want to see themselves it won’t be in these books.
All that being said, The Kwanzaa Contest is a great story about Ronald who is constantly comparing himself to his sister (who is kind of a brat). He isn’t great in school, but he very talented when it comes to creating things. Particularly art. For the Kwanzaa contest at the local rec center he decides to carve an alligator and tell a story that speaks the symbolism and importance of the alligator in African lore.
Ronald is also dealing with the school bully who loves to tease him. Since his confidence is low he has a hard time standing up to the bully. His sister has no such trouble and wonders why Ronald lets him push him around. When it comes time for the contest Ronald finds a way to connect with the kid and realizes that maybe his teasing and meanness are a way to vent his own frustration and deflect attention away from himself.
I would certainly consider these books if you have readers that will read the I-Can-Read type series. The reading level on them is perfect for that second/third grade level. This book in particular is a great one for kids who have sibling rivalries and who may have talents that lay outside of school. I think there is a lot for kids to find in it and it isn’t overly long or taxing to read so you could hand it to your weaker, slower, and more reluctant readers.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Most days the best thing about being Ruby is everything. Like when she’s the star of her own backyard magic show. Or when she gives a talk at the school safety assembly on the benefits of reflective tape. Or when she rides the No. 3 bus all the way to Chinatown to visit GungGung and PohPoh.
And then there are the days when it’s very hard to be Ruby. Like when her mom suggests Chinese school on Saturdays. Or when her little brother, Oscar, spills all of Ruby’s best magician secrets. Or when her parents don’t think she’s old enough to drive!
Oh my god this was so funny! Especially the chapter where Ruby drives herself and her brother to Chinese school. Really the best part of Ruby Lu, though, was the functional, if a bit quirky, family. Her dad loves to knit and her mom is great at sewing. Her grandparents live nearby and she loves to visit them. But the family isn’t fraught with problems or conflict. Ruby even has a new brother and instead of struggling with jealousy or difficult feelings she thinks he’s great. That is until he starts giving away her magic trick secrets.
That’s right, Ruby runs a magic show for the neighborhood kids after school. Her mom makes her all kinds of fantastic capes and she tries out the magic tricks she learns at her magic class. Ruby is quirky and bit sassy, but not nearly as much as someone like Junie B. Jones or Dory Fantasmagory. Give this book to kids you know would like Clementine, but aren’t quite ready to tackle that reading level or want a more diverse cast of characters.
This would make a great read aloud for parents and kids (or librarians and kids) because ,while the humor won’t be lost on kids, adults will certainly appreciate it. It’s a great example of a chapter book where kids can see themselves and their families, too. Or see their friends reflected. Ruby is American and so are her parents, but they are also Chinese. And like many Chinese kids they go to Chinese school on Saturdays to learn about culture and language. Her grandparents speak Cantonese and they have a cousin come from China to live with them. I’m not Chinese so I can’t speak to it’s authenticity, although it rang true when compared to what I have had Chinese-American students relate to me about their families. Plus Lenore Look is Chinese so I hope it’s close. Especially because it was such a fun and engaging book. It’s also a series starter which is great for this reading level for keeping kids engaged.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: After the death of Mattie’s father, her mother seems to take out her frustrations on Mattie. But Mattie devises a plan to bring her family back together again.
I really enjoyed this book, largely because it was well written. The characters were believable and likable. The dialog wasn’t stilted or dated. The problems they faced were tough, but not insurmountable and probably not unfamiliar to many kids.
Mattie believes that by buying her mom a beautiful pin for Mother’s Day, it will show how much she loves her mother and will help her mother show more affection toward her. Since her father’s death, Mattie feels like there is a growing gap between herself and her mother and that her mother is unfairly harsh with her. In a lot of ways Mattie is correct, but she doesn’t understand that it all comes from a deep place of grief and that her mother needs help. The whole idea of the jewelry as a fix for their problems is both sweet, heartbreaking, and clearly not going to work the way Mattie hopes.
Probably the best part of the book was the fact that, while things are still tough in the end, there is a hopeful ending. I think I’m beginning to jump on the enough-with-the-sad-books-already bandwagon. I know there are a lot of sad kids out there and I get why they may want to read sad books, but they may also want to read happy ones as well. By the end of Circle of Gold, Mattie has learned a lesson about honesty, she has seen a bully for what she is, and her mother is getting professional help to cope with the loss of her husband and all the complications that have come with that.
I can certainly see handing it to kids who like books with a touch of melodrama. I can see kids who like relationship books, particularly friendship and family, enjoying it. But it’s still going to be a hard sell. The options for covers are pretty terrible and it just has a slightly dated feel- like putting something on lay away at a department store, do kids even know about that? I suspect the kids in my school don’t. I think I’ll hold off buying a copy until I week our beginning chapter books section and see what’s left.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Told from four-year-old Laura’s point of view, this story begins in 1871 in a little log cabin on the edge of the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Laura lives in the little house with her Pa, her Ma, her sisters Mary and Carrie, and their trusty dog, Jack.
Pioneer life is sometimes hard for the family, since they must grow or catch all their own food as they get ready for the cold winter. But it is also exciting as Laura and her family celebrate Christmas with homemade toys and treats, do the spring planting, bring in the harvest, and make their first trip into town. And every night they are safe and warm in their little house, with the happy sound of Pa’s fiddle sending Laura and her sisters off to sleep.
I really didn’t want to like this book. I also really thought I read these as a kid, but if I did I have zero recollection of them. I think this, in some ways is a good thing, because most of the people I know who still recommend the book remember it very fondly from their childhoods. I don’t have those warm fuzzies about it so I felt like I could be a little more objective. Still, despite myself, I did enjoy it. That being said, the book has issues.
I was totally prepared to find all kinds of jabs at the Indians in this book, but by and large they weren’t there. I marked each place they were mentioned (or not) and there were only two. I think the biggest mistake and injustice the book makes is in the second line:
“The great, dark tress of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more tress. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.”
I seriously doubt there were no houses or people. What that really means is there were no white people or white houses. And actually that’s not exactly true. Later in the book they travel to their grandparents’ house as do many other people for a gathering and dance. I suppose the Native populations that lived near the Ingalls family never made contact so I suppose from a four year old’s perspective they didn’t exist, but Wilder wrote this as an adult and knew better.
Native Americans come up exactly two more times. First in a story told about the father as a boy where he’s playing in the woods: “‘I began to play I was a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians.'” This both equates Indians with wild animals and seems to imply it’s okay to hunt them. Then we have: “She baked salt-rising bread and rye’n’Injun bread, and Swedish crackers, and a huge pan of beans, with salt pork and molasses.” This is a slur for starters, but what is rye’n’Injun bread anyways?
The real kicker though, is a song Pa plays on the fiddle. It begins (I kid you not): “There was an old darkey, And his name was Uncle Ned.” It goes on to talk about his wooly hair, missing teeth and his shovel and hoe. This makes me want to pitch the book. What the hell? Why are we still printing that? Oh wait, I think I can guess. I would see nothing wrong with just striking that from further editions, if we are going to insist on keeping this book in print. And I think we are keeping it in print for better or worse.
What I did like about the book was the picture of settler life. Sure it left out the nasty bits. How hungry they may have been at times. The lack of *ahem* indoor plumbing. But it really shows how the seasons dictated life. In a culture that’s obsessed with connection and being outside the home, particularly with children, it’s refreshing to see a family spend so much time together. Happily. I also think this taps into the current zeitgeist of farm to fork, zero waste, eating seasonally, and all that. Our family personally buys into a lot of that (we have chickens and ducks and a large vegetable garden and eat seasonally) so I know I really connected with that and think others would too.
In terms of keeping the book on the shelf, I have mixed feelings. I think with a letter home warning parents about the issues they may not know about or may not remember being in the book this particular book is not great, definitely problematic, but a good conversation starter. A conversation I know our second grade teachers open up. Furthermore, I would recommend parents read Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House which is wonderful and would give a fuller picture of the area.
My bigger concern is that this book opens up the series and in just skimming the contents of the second book I am alarmed and disheartened. It clearly puts Native Americans in a bad light to say the least. I am currently trying to read through that second book and I’ll address it in another post, but I am having such a hard time with it. I think with a letter home I would feel, if not great, at least better about Little House in the Big Woods. I know the other librarian I work with is not on board yet with weeding the series so I’m going to work on it. I would leave just this book in and ditch the rest in a heartbeat. If families want to continue reading it after hearing the concerns, then let them find it at the bookstore or online.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Oct 2015 | In Uncategorized | By Elizabeth Wroten
Sorry for the language, but I’m about to rant. Recently a few colleagues have come to me wanting me to limit types of books kids can check out (in particular I Spy, Where’s Waldo and Elephant and Piggie books). In lieu of these I’m supposed to push them into chapter books. And while I was gracious and conciliatory I didn’t give them a definite “yes, I will do that”. Because I’m not the fucking book police.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all about helping kids find all kinds of books they like. From chapter books to picture books, from non fiction to fiction, from classics to new releases. The way I see it our kids come to library NOT to learn how to read, but to learn to want to read. One factor in this is that the other librarian is, by training and practice, a reading specialist. She has no other library experience and has in no way been immersed in library culture. That’s not a bad thing. Quite the contrary, she’s an incredible teacher and she knows her stuff. Plus she doesn’t get mired down in some of the library crap there is. The kids like her and she gets books in their hands. But it does mean she sees the library as the place to teach reading, not literacy. She has the same end goal as I do, life-long readers, but our approaches are vastly different.
Here’s why I refuse to become the book police:
Making reading a chore, something where you are told to choose something else or handed a book by the teacher with little to no input from you, does not make life-long readers. It makes kids who don’t want to read. It makes reading feel like something they have to do. Or worse yet, something they need to pretend to do to get the grade, make the teacher happy, or get by. I don’t want to teach kids to dissemble. I want them to love to read.
Moreover, limiting and saying no to their choices invalidates those kids. They like those books. That’s why, of their own volition, that have sought them out on the shelf and brought them to me (or the self-checkout station) to check out. They have sat down with them and started reading them. WITH ABSOLUTELY NO INTERVENTION OR ENTICEMENT on my part. None. Far be it from me to tell them they shouldn’t like that. Or that their choices suck. They probably think that about the books I choose to read. Every book its reader, right?
Also, what if a student is choosing a particular book because they see them self in it? When we tell them it’s not good enough, we invalidate that child. And let’s face it, the large majority of books that are deemed “good” and “worthwhile” are white, middle to upper class, heteronormative, with a traditional family structure. Even in my very wealthy private school these books reflect a small part of our population.
Policing kids reading also underestimates motivation. My colleagues don’t just want me telling kids they can’t read books that are “too easy”. I’m also supposed to stop kids from reading books that are “too hard”. Kids are really good at self censoring, both when it comes to content and when it comes to difficulty. I don’t want to tell the kid who loves mythology he shouldn’t be reading Percy Jackson if it’s a stretch. Especially if he really wants to. That desire is going to do a lot more for advancing his ability to read and his success than me giving him a book he’s not interested in. One thing I do, do when kids bring books that are really hard is tell them it’s okay to put it down and come back to it or ask a parent to help them read it.
I have been that reluctant, struggling reader. That was me. And guess what I learned to pretend to read the book that was handed to me by my parents and my teachers. There was stuff I wanted to read (god awful crap, looking back as an adult), but I was told it wasn’t good enough and that it I shouldn’t want to read it. The result? I read a total of 5 books for pleasure between high school and the start of graduate school. Five books in in ten years. Five books. Ten years. That’s not what we want for our students, is it? And let’s face it, the kids I’m supposed to get all book nazi on are the reluctant readers. The weak readers. Forcing them into books they haven’t chosen will do exactly this. Actually I probably read so many books in those ten years because my parents were readers and it was part of the family culture.
What happened in graduate school, you ask, that made me start reading again? Oh, just that it was library school and I was suddenly given permission to read all the YA, MG, and Kidlit I wanted. And no one batted an eye. It was “for work” and “for school”. Except I love that stuff. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE IT! I wish I could just read all day. Sometimes I do. Oops. I found myself as a reader. I found what I love (most things, especially if they are for younger audiences) and what I don’t like (adult fiction about sad women in bad marriages, tedious and dry nonfiction). And that’s (one of) my goals in the library- to help kids find themselves as readers. I can’t do that if I’m the one selecting their books for them. That’s them learning they don’t know themselves and I do. Which is completely false.
Sure, I’m happy to do reader’s advisory with them. I will make all kinds of suggestions and ask them questions. I may even put a book in their hand and say “try it”. But when I do that I tell them my feelings won’t be hurt if they try it and hate it or even if they don’t want to try it. My ego isn’t on the line. I know they like what they like and I like what I like. It’s not up to me to make that call for them and when they make it, it’s not a rejection of me. Just the book they didn’t like.
It’s not like these kids don’t get other practice or support reading. They’re in library for an hour a week. They are in their classrooms five days a week for 6 hours. In those classrooms the teachers are reading aloud to them and having them read aloud. Choosing books that will both challenge and help them. They have books that are precisely where their reading level is. They read these several times a week. They practice reading directions, math boxes, words on the board, spelling books, and worksheets (ugh). The classroom is where reading instruction takes place. Where they look at phonics and mechanics. That’s why librarians don’t take classes on the mechanics of reading. It’s not usually part of their curriculum. It certainly isn’t in our school, nor does it need to be.
So, to the kids in third grade who want to check out a Where’s Waldo and Elephant and Piggie, to the kids in second who want to check out three Elephant and Piggie, to the kids who want all picture books, to the kid reading graphic novels and comics, to the kids who want the thickest book in the library, to the kid who reads ten books a day: do it! You go! I love those books too. I’ve read them. I haven’t read them. I hate them. What I think doesn’t matter. What you think is the only thing that matters. You are reading. Good for you! Keep going!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Oct 2015 | In Uncategorized | By Elizabeth Wroten
I had really intended to post a chapter book review each day in October. But as you can see that hasn’t happened. I’m “taking the rest of the week off” from blogging because life has gotten a little crazy around here. I’m trying desperately to balance everything that needs to be done at home, spending quality time with my daughter, and doing a good job at work. Add to this the fact that we’re buying our neighbor’s house which involves that purchase and a refinance and a to do list a mile long to get it ready to rent and a huge house fire at the house behind ours that scared the crap out of us.
I know things are okay, but I feel like I’m failing miserably and need a week to regroup. I haven’t had enough time to really read and I was surprised to find how much that bothered me and realize how much quality taking the time to read lends to my life (even if I DNF the books!). So I will be back next week with more reviews.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Description: Joan Lee and her family have just moved to a small West Virginia town to open a laundry. At first they are met with prejudice and suspicion, but through the efforts of their friendly landlady they are accepted by the town.
This one was a DNF for me. I had a really hard time getting into the story so I gave up.
From my perspective there were two things going on that made me put the book down after about 50 pages. The first was it felt really predictable. Foreign family moves to small, racist town. After struggling with a few town bullies they find some allies and the town grows in acceptance. Bullies are put in their place and their power is taken from them. This is silly, because the story is actually based on Yep’s mother’s experience growing up. And if that’s true, that makes it original and authentic. Still, it was hard as an adult reader to get past that predictability.
Second, the book read like something you would be required to read in an English class. Probably a middle school English class. The incidents and the story arc all lend themselves perfectly to discussions about history, racism, theme, overshadowing, etc. etc. I couldn’t tell if this was just Yep’s style of writing or if the book was dated, as if there was a period in the 90s when books felt stripped down and a bit didactic. Because of the origins of the story and the calibre of the author I would say this would be a great book for poring over in English class.
I don’t think I’ll keep it in our chapter book section. Largely because I don’t think it’s the kind of book a kid is going to pick up and it would take just the right reader to keep reading it if they did. We just don’t have the space to hang on to books like that. I’m rather disappointed because Joan and her siblings are American born, but get that question “Where are you from?”. This is such a timely issue right now as is racism and race.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Michael loves his great-great-aunt Dew, even if she can’t always remember his name. He especially loves to spend time with her and her beloved hundred penny box, listening to stories about each of the hundred years of her life. Michael’s mother wants to throw out the battered old box that holds the pennies, but Michael understands that the box itself is as important to Aunt Dew as the memories it contains.
I am so sad this book:
- Is not actually broken into chapters.
- Has such a boring and dated cover.
- Doesn’t have a smaller form factor.
I was totally blown away by this story as it’s a story about death. While Michael reflects back on his great Aunt’s life with her through her pennies (one for each year of her life) he also struggles with his mother who wants to toss the old box that holds the pennies. This is a big metaphor for how she feels about Aunt Dew living with them and Michael doesn’t quite understand that, but he picks up on the tension.
The story is so worth reading, but those three things I listed above will make it a really hard sell with kids. Also, while I loved the book, there’s something about the story that didn’t feel quite modern. It’s kind of an intellectual story and it’s very slow moving (two things I could not have gotten past as a child-reader). I think it would make an excellent read aloud either in the classroom or at home. I think a lot of kids will relate to caring for an elderly relative and the strain that can put on their family. It would also make an excellent literature study.
Oddly enough Amazon has the book available as a Puffin Picture Book. The book is pretty long and doesn’t have that many illustrations so I’m not sure why it got that reprinting treatment. It is also listed as a book for 6-9 year olds. I would say 9 is about the age where this book’s range should start. It’s a complex and nuanced story and a six-year-old may not sit through it and without some serious discussion, isn’t going to get it. Plus that reading level is pretty high.
SPOILER ALERT: Although it doesn’t say it out right on the last page, I believe Aunt Dew dies with Michael lying next to her. I think this is part of what makes the story so incredible. She passes peacefully, but Michael gains this understanding of the importance of a life well lived and in keeping your memories alive. Part of the beauty of the story is also in that Michael, a child, clearly understands the importance of the hundred penny box much better than the adults (Aunt Dew excepted) and tries very hard to fight for it and convince his mother of its power and importance.
I checked the book out of my library both to see if I can find some good diverse chapter books and hand sell them to my patrons and to see what we might weed out of the collection. I doubt this book has circulated in years (update: it looks like it hasn’t circulated since we put our catalog on the computer 15 years ago) so it should go if I can’t convince any one to read it and love it. If you have kids or students that like slow books or are dealing with older relatives then it would be worth previewing.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Melody has lived in Royal, Indiana, for as long as she can remember. It’s been just her and her father, and she’s been okay with that. But then she overhears him calling someone Honey — and suddenly it feels like everyone in Royal has a secret. It’s up to Melody and her best friend, Nick, to piece together the clues and discover why Honey is being hidden.
Meanwhile, a dog named Mo is new to Royal. He doesn’t remember much from when he was a puppy . . . but he keeps having dreams of a girl he is bound to meet someday. This girl, he’s sure, will change everything.
I was sort of ho-hum on Honey. It wasn’t a bad book by any means and the story was fun while I was reading it, if a little sad. But the ending is happy and the mystery is just mysterious enough to engage kids. In fact this makes a great elementary school read because everything at the end wraps up so nicely. Kids are obviously fine with endings that aren’t clear or mix good and bad, but I think the younger they are the more they really like tidy stories. I think that gets irritating to some as the mature, too.
Although I’m not a dog person I thought Mo’s storyline where he waits for the dream girl to come along is really fun and sweet. You just know that it’s Mel he’s waiting for and so you wait with him wondering when they’ll finally meet and if will happen they way Mo has always dreamed it would.
My only issue with the book was Mel’s best friend Nick Woo. He felt a bit like a token diverse character. No one else’s ethnicity is mentioned and everyone else has culturally ambiguous names. But Nik has an Asian last name and is the target of one unintentionally unkind, probing comment from a little girl (“Do you have a suntan or are you always that color?”). It is then quickly explained in a sentence that Nick’s mom is African American and his father was Chinese. However, this is the only mention, beyond the implication of his last name, that he is mixed race or anything other than white. And the comment sort of pops up and passes and doesn’t have much other bearing on the story. In fact, there is absolutely no reason Nick couldn’t have been white like everyone else and that comment could be wiped from the story without anyone noticing it was gone. Which makes me think he was made mixed race to ensure there was diversity, which doesn’t feel authentic at all. I’m not saying his family needs to be seen wearing dreadlocks and eating Chinese food to feel real, but those few sentences read like “here let me make sure you know there’s a person of color in this book”.
If you have readers that like stories with animals, like family stories, and like quirky little towns this is a great book to satisfy them. Just don’t go looking for diversity here.