By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Max wants to visit a beautiful boutique that sells handmade dolls, but he worries that other children will tease him. When he finally finds the courage to enter the store, Max meets Senor Pepe who has been making dolls since he was a boy in Honduras. Senor Pepe shares his story with Max and reminds him that, “There is no shame in making something beautiful with your hands. Sewing is a skill–just like hitting a baseball or fixing a car.”
I love, love, loved this book. Despite having read the blurb, something about the cover and the title gave me a different impression of what the story would be about. I thought it would be more about Max and him wanting to play with dolls. Instead it’s an inspirational story about Senor Pepe and how he learned to sew and how he grew up in Honduras and then New York with a difficult, but not insurmountable, childhood. And Elliott accomplishes this in just a little over 100 readable pages for third and fourth graders.
I appreciated the story because of my connection to the makerspace. I think it’s important for us not to gender activities. Sewing, dolls, crafts, art, cooking, you name it. Max is struggling with his desire to examine the dolls in Senor Pepe’s shop, afraid the other kids will tease him. He may want to play with them, that’s not really touched on, but his interest is in the technical aspects. He loves their jewelry and their clothes, wonders about how they are made and wants to make them himself.
The ability to create this stuff is not girly, it’s an art form and a difficult one at that. I find it sad that by the time my second graders get to makerspace the girls do the crafts with glitter and the boys make weapons. Why not the other way around? I have had only two boys learn to use the sewing machines and that was once they realized to finish the invention they were working on they needed to sew something. Huh. Sewing machine as tool. Not badge of womanhood. Weird.
While I want my kids to read this story, the illustrations and title might make it something that I will have to hand sell (not a problem). I decided, though, to give it first to one of the second grade teachers. Our second grade studies various cultures through the year as part of their social studies curriculum and the final unit is Latinos. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to have the book read aloud to the students so they can discuss and appreciate the story.
I also want to point out that the story ends happily. It’s not free of sadness and distress (Pepe is orphaned fairly early on and lives for awhile in fear that he will be turned out onto the street), but it’s not so maudlin that kids will leave it feeling depressed.
An excellent addition to any school or public library collection.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: When Gannon and Wyatt arrive in Botswana for an African safari, they find themselves tangled up in much more than a family vacation. After receiving word that a poacher has shot and wounded a lioness, they set off into the wild in the hopes of saving the mother and her cubs before the poacher finishes the job. While on this amazing journey, they encounter Africa’s Big Five — elephants, rhinos, cape buffalos, leopards, and lions — only to discover that the most dangerous predator in the African bush is not the king of beasts, but man himself.
I picked this one up because our principal scheduled one of the authors to come visit our fourth and fifth grade. I figured I should read at least the first book in the series just to see what they were all about. The book was at best problematic. No joke, the first section of the book is called “The Dark Continent”. I know they’re trying to give the impression of the “great” explorers of the African continent, but this is 2016. We should not be calling it that. The name implies that the countries there are backward and ignorant, which is not true and I don’t think we should be encouraging kids to think they are. The narrators, Gannon and Wyatt, two white American twins, also repeatedly refer to Botswana as Africa. Africa is not a country, let’s get away from that idea. And those “great” explorers were symbols of some pretty serious oppression and exploitation and weren’t really discovering anything new to boot.
The book also buys into the white savior narrative and the narrative that paints Africans as poor but happy. They aren’t great narratives to say the least. Again I think it paints countries in Africa as backward and ignorant. The purpose of the books is said to help educate kids about other places, but this is not what I would want my daughter learning about Africa (or Botswana).
What really got me, though was when the family went to visit the Bushmen (is this really the term they prefer??) they talk about how their land is being taken away and their lifestyle has had to change as a result. But the boys are more concerned about an injured lioness. I get that wildlife is important, but placing more value on African wildlife than on the people is a huge issue. (Please see this article or think back to the whole hullabaloo over the lion killed by the dentist.) True, Gannon and Wyatt’s mother decides to help the tribe build its school for a week, but that’s just an teeny tiny footnote in the whole story as is the plight of these people and is again part of the larger white savior narrative.
Still, I enjoyed the story. It was exciting and suspenseful. The other librarian and my principal were hoping the series would hook our reluctant readers, but it won’t. The book is way too hard for struggling fourth and fifth graders. Even ours who read well above grade level. I think it would work for struggling seventh and eighth graders, but not lower school
This book is part of a larger series and they go other places that may be handled better. More specifically the ones set in Western countries. I don’t want to say I don’t recommend the book, but reading back in my review it sounds like I don’t. So there you have it. I may read the Ireland title, but I can tell you our library does not need more books about white kids in white countries. We need really, truly diverse books. Books that show Africa as a vibrant continent with lots of countries and cities and people who are rich and poor and not in need of saving from us, but needing structures taken down that oppress them. Books that have diversity as a matter of course, not as part of some narrative.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Twelve-year-old Emily is on the move again. Her family is relocating to San Francisco, home of her literary idol: Garrison Griswold, creator of the online sensation Book Scavenger, a game where books are hidden all over the country and clues to find them are revealed through puzzles. But Emily soon learns that Griswold has been attacked and is in a coma, and no one knows anything about the epic new game he had been poised to launch. Then Emily and her new friend James discover an odd book, which they come to believe is from Griswold and leads to a valuable prize. But there are others on the hunt for this book, and Emily and James must race to solve the puzzles Griswold left behind before Griswold’s attackers make them their next target.
I really enjoyed this book and it was a recommendation from one of my students who also enjoyed it. There was a lot to enjoy in the book from puzzles, to literature, to San Francisco. The mystery itself was a lot fun to solve along with Emily as the solution couldn’t be solved until she discovered each of the pieces and I think that made it more interesting of a story for an adult to read.
As a native of Northern California I was familiar with many of the places mentioned in the book and Chambliss made a point to make the places real. That was a really fun element to the book and kids who have been to the City or live in it may find that appealing.
Emily’s new (and really only) friend in San Francisco is a boy (hooray for boy-girl friendships). He is also Asian. I’m rather tired of books with the diverse characters as secondary characters and wish Emily’s family hadn’t been white. I also wish there had been more than just James as a diverse character. Your mileage may vary with that, but it’s better than the vast majority of our chapter book collection so I’ll give it some credit there.
I had one gripe with the book that can really be chalked up to my being an adult (meaning it wouldn’t have even registered with me as a kid). At one point in the story the villain contacts Emily’s school saying she has a book of his and he needs it back or he will lose his job. For some reason her history teacher gets wind of this and talks to the guy and then to Emily, extracting the book from her with lots of guilt and shaming for not wanting to give it back. First of all, I don’t know why exactly Emily doesn’t spill the beans about being followed and threatened by two goons who work for this villain (I mean she does have a reason, and as a kid I would have found it acceptable, but given the circumstances as an adult I think she needed to tell someone). More importantly though, why did this condescending teacher not check this story out? I know a lot of adults take other adult’s word over children, but it is highly suspicious that this person calls the school to contact Emily and raises even more red flags that this teacher didn’t fact check and call her parents before talking with Emily. Or better yet that he didn’t just pass the information along to Emily’s parents to let them deal with the situation. I take issue with teachers that are jerks and this teacher really was, but on his moral high ground he endangered Emily and that’s not realistic or okay.
If you have kids that like mysteries, literature, San Francisco, and puzzles definitely a worthy purchase.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
A Chicken Followed Me Home!: Questions and Answers About a Familiar Fowl written and illustrated by Robin Page
From Goodreads: Celebrated author-illustrator Robin Page leads a step-by-step, question-and-answer-style journey through the world of chickens. Along the way you’ll explore different breeds, discover different types of coops, and learn everything there is to know about chicken reproduction and hatching.
I had to pick this book up. For starters it’s about chickens, but also, that chicken on the cover could be our Rhode Island Red. I love chickens!
I seem to remember reading a review of this book that talked about the text being fairly difficult. At least for picture book nonfiction. It’s certainly not easy. Done in question and answer style, each page has a fair amount of text on it, but it’s all very clearly written. I read it to my four-year-old daughter and she had no trouble comprehending it.
The information itself is true (see my rant about that here) and interesting. And it answers some basic questions about how egg production works. I cannot tell you how many people do not understand egg production and chickens. The most common question we get is if a rooster is needed to get hens to lay eggs. No. If there was a rooster there would be babies, folks. Basic biology there. Let’s be sure our children know where eggs come from and how that whole process works.
An excellent book for schools that have units on birds and/or farm animals. It would also make a nice addition to public library collections as most children love farm animals and are curious about them (I borrowed the copy from my public library).
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Annel’s grandparents have come to stay, all the way from India. Aneel loves the sweet smell of his grandmother’s incense and his grandfather, Dada-Ji, tells the world’s best stories. This title features recipes which have useful pictures and easy-to-follow instructions.
My school is getting to be a lot more diverse, which is a great thing, but our collection (as I’ve said before) needs some help reflecting that. Many of our students of color are of Indian descent and our collection is woefully lacking in books that reflect that culture or those kids. WOEFULLY. Thus far I have found them to be hard to come by, at least ones that show Indian Americans.
Hot, Hot Roti is one I came across and immediately bought. It’s such an funny story with Aneel reminiscing about the stories his grandfather shares with him of his grandfather’s youth and Aneel basically trying to help his grandfather get his mojo back.
What I loved most about the book, besides it being a funny uplifting story, is the relationship between Aneel and his grandfather. He talks a lot about how much he admires him and enjoys the stories he shares. He also talks about his grandmother and how much he loves her too, but it’s clear there is a special connection between grandfather and grandson. There is a sweet comparison between Aneel and the grandfather and it becomes apparent that Aneel is a lot like his grandfather.
Best of all Annel does the cooking. He makes the roti. Without help. Hooray for kids cooking and especially the image of boys cooking! The only thing I would give a caveat about is being sure to have other books that show Indian American families that don’t wear traditional clothes and cook Indian foods. Many families do, but we don’t want to fall into stereotypes. When Aneel goes to make the roti the book shows his other family members (parents and sister) and they are doing very typical American things, so I think (correct me if I am off the mark here) the book does a good job of balancing a family rooted in Indian culture without focusing solely on that culture. An excellent picture book to add to any library collection. Be sure to put it out to celebrate Grandparents’ Day.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: What happens when two shy children meet at a very crowded pool? Dive in to find out! Deceptively simple, this masterful book tells a story of quiet moments and surprising encounters, and reminds us that friendship and imagination have no bounds.
I really loved this book as did my daughter. It’s very magical and the illustrations are beautiful. A little boy is alone at the pool gazing into it when a large group of boisterous people show up and jump right in. They splash and make a lot of noise (well, I assume they do, there aren’t actually any words to show they are) and generally make the boy feel out of place and more shy. As he dives down under the ruckus another swimmer sees him and follows. It’s a little girl and the two head off to see what they can under the water.
They end up in a magical, imaginative world under water where they have a good time together. As they resurface they remove their goggles and discover who each other are. Everyone else climbs out of the pool and the girl heads off with them.
It really is, as the description says, a beautiful book about friendship and imagination. I think it speaks to the experience not of lasting friendships, but fleeting ones. The ones children make on the playground at the park for an hour or at the pool.
My one thought or concern is that all the people in the pool, the ones taking up all the space and generally being obnoxious, are fat. That worries me that it’s playing into a stereotype or fat shaming. I’m not really sure, but it made me a little bit uncomfortable.
That aside, it’s a gorgeous wordless picture book well worth having if no one else chimes in chastising it for the depiction of the people in the pool.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Feb 2016 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I know there are a lot of problematic nonfiction titles out there for children in terms of race, religion, culture, etc. Unfortunately we have quite a few of them in our library collection right now. But as I am working more closely with kids in the library on research projects I am discovering that there are some deep issues with children’s nonfiction across the board. It’s not just those problematic titles that need to be reconsidered and weeded.
I guess I started noticing this a few years ago, but it’s become most apparent in the last two weeks to me with the research project I’m working on with my second graders. The vast majority…no, all of the nonfiction we have on the Underground Railroad contains incorrect information. And not just one or two insignificant facts. Big glaring untruths. I’ve noticed it in history texts about Ancient Egypt too because that’s what I studied in college and this seriously makes me wonder if it’s endemic to children’s nonfiction. (I bring this up a bit here in my review of a book about Hatshepsut.)
I’m not just finding these half truths and fairy tales (as a good friend of mine called it) in books printed for children. It’s in the database our library subscribes to. YIKES! Through another friend I know that unless you are reading peer-reviewed journal articles from a database the articles are written by copy writers, so the articles are only as good as their research. The friend I heard this from actually writes for one of the large database companies (or has in the past) and she would turn the articles out in an afternoon. That included the research and the writing. I’m not trying to be critical of her (I actually trust her), just the companies that don’t require more work and research behind the articles they put out and don’t do some due diligence and fact check them. Or better yet, pay people who are experts in the field of the article to write them.
These inaccuracies cause several problems for me. The first and most pressing is that I’m at a loss of what to use for good resources for my students. These guys are second graders so their reading skills are just coming together and they need simplified resources. That’s why we had relied on a lot of those nonfiction books and articles to begin with. I’m finding ways to get them the information they need, but it’s a lot of work on my part and isn’t ideal. Most of the resources need to be read aloud to them so they can understand the information. I will say, though, telling them about this problem and the process I’m going through is an excellent lesson for them to instill skepticism and impress on them how important thorough research is.
I’m also finding that not only do children’s nonfiction titles frequently not cite sources (another excellent lesson for my students), even when they do they aren’t always good sources. In fact a lot of these inaccuracies are perpetuated by a few sources that everyone seems to consult. Which leads to the second problem, I really just want to weed our entire nonfiction collection. Just throw every book out and start over. I already am weeding to some extent, but I think it needs to be gone over with a fine tooth comb now.
Once I’ve purged all the incorrect things though, I don’t have many, if any, places to turn to find good books to put back on the shelves, which is the third problem this raises. With all these books either not citing sources or relying on the same outdated or incorrect information sources (and in my bleak state of mind) I don’t know where to turn next to build a solid collection. I can’t fact check every book and I would need to be buying them and reading each and every one before putting it into our collection- a task that is both too time consuming and a huge hassle, but something I will probably have to do for the time being.
I do think one solution is to have a small, but incredibly well curated nonfiction collection. I would rather they had only a few places to turn than a lot of bad ones. Is anyone else noticing this or grappling with it? Thoughts, ideas, solutions? Please be careful about what you are putting on your shelves!