By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Ten-year-old Frederika (Fred for short) doesn’t have much faith that the new teacher in town will last very long. After all, they never do. Most teachers who come to their one-room schoolhouse in remote, Alaska leave at the first smell of fish, claiming that life there is just too hard.
But Miss Agnes is different — she doesn’t get frustrated with her students, and she throws away old textbooks and reads Robin Hood instead! For the first time, Fred and her classmates begin to enjoy their lessons and learn to read and write — but will Miss Agnes be like all the rest and leave as quickly as she came?
So my first read of this book was that it was a beautiful story about the transformative power of a good teacher, a teacher who respects her students and cares. And it certainly is a story about that, but there are also some really problematic elements.
To begin with the story very much follows the white savior storyline. The kind white teacher arrives and helps all the poor native kids (and some adults) assimilate more fully into Western culture by teaching them to read and do math and love music. I will say Miss Agnes does have an appreciation for the children’s culture and she never belittles it or forces them to give it up, but she is teaching them foreign ways.
There is also the underlying issue of the Indian boarding schools that is not addressed here, but looms over the story if you know about them (which most non-native school children don’t). I’m not sure this was the story to bring them up in, but this story stands in contrast to them, but still doesn’t completely get away from the ideas that they were founded on, namely to Westernize native children.
My suggestion: read it in class and pair it with Fatty Legs. There would be a great opportunity to discuss the differences in theses experiences and talk about how things could still have been better in Miss Agnes’ class. Certainly the kids needed to learn to read and write to survive a changing world, a world that was knocking on their door and encroaching further every year, but they also needed their culture respected further.
I also took issue with Frederika’s voice. There were times it felt purposely stilted and silly to drive home the point that she was native.
Is this an essential book for a library collection, no not by any means, but I think there is a lot of good here and a great conversation starter for non-native kids about the horrors of education of native populations. I do also firmly believe that many kids will connect with the theme of finding a transformative adult or teacher.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Eight-year-old EllRay Jakes is sick of getting picked on. But every time he tries to defend himself against class bully Jared Matthews, EllRay is the one who winds up in trouble. It’s just not fair! Then his dad offers him a deal: If EllRay can stay out of trouble for a week, they’ll go to Disneyland! But being good for one whole week is not so easy. . . .
So I will be buying several of the books in this series for my library. It was funny and true to life and my kids like realistic fiction. Also, EllRay is black and middle class with two parents- a professor father and an author mother. He is also one of the few black kids in his school (and one of the few black families in his Southern California neighborhood). I need more books like this that reflect the African American kids in my school. So often books that feature black families feature them as poor, or single parent, or living in a bad neighborhood or sports (i.e. stereotype!) and by and large those are not my students of color. I work in a very wealthy private school and my kids aren’t really seeing themselves in the few novels that do feature characters of color.
Now, I was of another mind about the actual story for the majority of the book. EllRay is being bullied by a kid in his class for some reason, a reason he isn’t sure about until the end. EllRay’s plan to avoid the bully isn’t particularly good nor is it effective and he won’t share with an adult that it’s going on. I think this is exactly how a kid in second grade would handle this. In fact I know it is, because we had an issue with a bully last year in the third grade and it went down in much the same way. But! But, I wish there had been some sympathetic adults. EllRay’s parents are more concerned about his behavior at school because of a progress report that went home. And his teacher is clueless as to how her actions affect the class and home dynamics. I find that really frustrating as an adult. On the other hand I don’t want a didactic story. The final page, though, explains that everything isn’t gravy but things are better and I think that made the rest go down easier.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Jade never ventures beyond the walls of her family’s Inner Court; in seventeenth-century Korea, a girl of good family does not leave home until she marries. She is enthralled by her older brother’s stories about trips to the market and to the ancestral grave sites in the mountains, about reading and painting, about his conversations with their father about business and politics and adventures only boys can have. Jade accepts her destiny, and yet she is endlessly curious about what lies beyond the walls.
Linda Sue Park writes the most beautiful books and she is so good about weaving in parts of Korean history and culture into the stories without making it feel didactic or like an info dump. On the other hand, these are books that strike me as good classroom reads. They are short, but harder (see the Lexile rating) and the stories are gentle and quiet and make you think. My current group of kids would be hard pressed to pick this up on their own. They don’t read a lot of contemplative stuff (although there are some who will!) and they don’t tend toward historical fiction.
That being said, this book is so worth a read. It’s fascinating to see a girl restricted by social mores break them and discover the consequences. She also begins to strive to find a way to work within the system instead of rebelling constantly. There is a really poignant conversation Jade has with her mother about making what she has enough instead of always wanting more.
As the story unfolds the reader comes to realize that Jade will never see her best friend again and will eventually have to give up her mother and family. It’s a tough realization and makes you think about life for these girls. The tedium of washing clothing, sewing clothing, needle point, and food serving are very vividly brought to life. But so is the beauty of a life well and simply lived.
Well worth having on the shelf as is Park’s A Single Shard which gives the male peasant perspective on a similar (same? I can’t remember exactly) time period.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 16, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Danny Bigtree’s family has moved to Brooklyn, New York, and he just can’t seem to fit in at school. He’s homesick for the Mohawk reservation, and the kids in his class tease him about being an Indian—the thing that makes Danny most proud. Can he find the courage to stand up for himself?
Another great story from Bruchac. He has worked in a legend about peace and history that weaves perfectly into a modern tale of bullying. The chapters are short and the story pretty universal. Not only is Danny homesick for his old life he is being picked on at school by a couple kids and needs to learn how to navigate that situation. It would be the perfect book for any new student who is having trouble fitting in or for a class that’s having trouble accepting their new classmate.
In terms of my collection, I bought a copy because we need to diversify, but this one might be hard sell for a couple reasons. The first is the quiet tone of the book. Personally I love that about Bruchac’s books, but I have readers right now that like action, adventure, and drama. More importantly I think it’s a bit dated largely by the pictures in it. The haircuts and the clothes. Kids can be finicky and often won’t pick up books that look “old”. What does all this mean? I just need to hand sell the book, read it aloud, or have a teacher take it on in the classroom.
The reading level is a bit high for beginning readers, but it would work well for the higher second grade readers and on into third grade. It would also work well for fourth and fifth grade struggling readers and being realistic fiction it might appeal more to those readers as well. I wish I had gotten it in hardback, but I’ll settle for having to replace it in a few years if I can get some kids into it.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 14, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Ray Halfmoon prefers hightops, but he gladly trades them for a nice pair of moccasins for his Grampa. After all, it’s Grampa Halfmoon who’s always there to help Ray get in and out of scrapes — like the time they are forced to get creative after a homemade haircut makes Ray’s head look like a lawn-mowing accident.
This collection of interrelated stories is heartwarming and laugh-out-loud funny. Cynthia Leitich Smith writes with wit and candor about what it’s like to grow up as a Seminole-Cherokee boy who is just as happy pounding the pavement in windy Chicago as rowing on a take in rural Oklahoma
Another book I absolutely loved (and have bought a copy for our chapter book collection). As the description says the chapters are more like short stories. There isn’t an overarching story except the concept of Ray and his grandfather living in Chicago. I love stories about children and their relationships with their grandparents and I think many kids do too. Especially those that have special relationships with their grandparents and are seeing that reflected and validated in stories.
The lexile is fairly high on this one, but it has larger print, short chapters, and pictures interspersed into the stories so it felt younger than that number. If any of the vocabulary is hard I would say the format makes it appropriate to be a book a child stretches to read. The format of short story-chapters makes it easy to pick up and put down (great for SSR time at school or even a reading log *shudder*).
Some of the stories are bittersweet. Some are funny (the haircut!). And others are just fun. A good read for any age, really.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 09, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Donavan is fascinated by words. They seem to leap out at him from books, signs, even the back of cereal boxes. He savors each word as he learns to say it and discovers its meaning. He keeps the words he collects on slips of paper in a big glass jar. But one day the jar is almost full and Donavan has a dilemma. How can he make room for new words without giving up all the terrific words already in his jar? A visit to his grandmother provides the unexpected solution in this heartwarming story about how important words can be.
This was such a sweet story! Donovan loves to collect words. He writes them down on slips of paper and keeps them in a jar. But when the jar fills up he needs to find a solution for storing the words. He realizes that even if he gets a larger jar or switches to a notebook or file those will eventually fill up too and he doesn’t want that.
On a visit to his grandmother’s apartment he accidentally leaves his jar in the rec room where all the residents find the words and begin to talk and interact and laugh. Donovan had been resistant to the idea of sharing his words, but he realizes the power that words can have to do good and decides he likes giving them away.
In theory the story is didactic, but it never feels like it’s hitting you over the head with a message. Instead Donovan reads like a typical kid with a problem he wants to solve. Particularly when he keeps rejecting ideas that people offer him (we all know that kid- the one who wants you to fix their problem but doesn’t like any of your solutions). Despite the slightly dated cover and simplicity of the story I think it would appeal to most kids who are into chapter books. It has a few pictures in it, the chapters are short and it’s clearly realistic fiction so I suppose it isn’t the best book for every child, but I think the story is enjoyable enough that most kids will appreciate it.
If you have it in your collection promote it. If you don’t I suggest getting a copy.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Hector Fuller is a wumblebug. A more likeable bug you’ll never find. But you’ll also never find a wumblebug anywhere other than the pages of a book — this book, to be exact.
One morning Hector Fuller is playing the piano in his wumblebug hole, as content as a bug can be when his home is taken over by a hopping flea circus! Fleas are everywhere, hanging from the ceiling and bouncing off the walls. To make matters worse, Hector’s allergic to fleas — all six of his legs are itching like crazy! There’s only one thing for poor Hector to do: He’ll have to find a new home.
On his search, Hector meets new creatures and sees amazing sights, but will he ever find a home as perfect as his snug little hole?
I found this one tucked away on our chapter book shelves and thought it looked like a cute read. Our second grade does an insect study in the spring and I thought it might be a fun story to read then, but I decided to read it now and the kids are loving it. The story is an adventure story, but it’s also about finding home and where you fit in best, a message I think kids can relate to.
Is it an essential book to have in a collection? No, but it would make a nice addition particularly if you have kids who like gentle stories that feature animals (or bugs). If you happen to have it, pull it out and see if you can get it to circulate. It’s well worth the effort.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Dec 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Lola loves writing in her diario and playing soccer with her team, the Orange Smoothies. But when a soccer game during recess gets “too competitive,” Lola accidentally hurts her classmate Juan Gomez. Now everyone is calling her Mean Lola Levine!
Lola feels horrible, but with the help of her family and her super best friend, Josh Blot, she learns how to navigate the second grade in true Lola fashion–with humor and the power of words.
This would make a great addition to any chapter book collection! Lola is a great character with an awesome family. I’m trying to add more girl sports books to our collection and this ticks that box perfectly too (I had some requests for books about soccer and Alex Morgan from a couple of my second grade girls a few weeks ago).
What I liked best about the sports aspect was that while it drove the plot with Lola accidentally hurting a classmate’s ankle during a recess game of soccer, the real focus of the story was not on playing soccer. It was a friendship story and a getting-along story. Lola’s classmates start to tease her for being too into soccer and too competitive and she has to navigate that situation.
Lola is also Peruvian (I don’t think we have any books with Peruvian characters in our collection yet!) and her heritage plays a role in her home life. It felt very organic instead like the culture was tacked on or being trumpeted in order to check off a diversity box.
Did I mention she has an awesome family? Lola’s parents get her. They understand her and they love her. It’s like Clementine’s parents. Which is especially refreshing when the teachers and principal at school clearly don’t understand her, expect her to fit into a box they think all girls should fit, and punish her for being who she is (a huge pet peeve of mine in books and real life). Lola is also by turns irritated and tolerant of her brother. They have what appears to be a healthy sibling relationship.
The book doesn’t have a Lexile level assigned to it, but it’s not too difficult of a book. I would say it would work for late second grade and third grade. It’s about 90 pages with pictures sprinkled in. None of the vocabulary stuck out as really difficult. Give this to kids who you know would like Clementine, but can’t handle the reading level yet and to kids who are into sports, particularly soccer.