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2018 September



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

On 14, Sep 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Vine BasketFrom Goodreads: Things aren’t looking good for fourteen-year-old Mehrigul. She yearns to be in school, but she’s needed on the family farm. The longer she’s out of school, the more likely it is that she’ll be sent off to a Chinese factory . . . perhaps never to return. Her only hope is an American woman who buys one of her decorative vine baskets for a staggering sum and says she will return in three weeks for more. Mehrigul must brave terrible storms, torn-up hands from working the fields, and her father’s scorn to get the baskets done. The stakes are high, and time is passing. A powerful intergenerational story of a strong, creative young artist in a cruelly oppressive society.

I previously wrote this about the book:

“This was an interesting one to compare to A Girl Called Problem as they were both written by people who were not from the culture they were writing about but had traveled to the region and were taken by the people. But the writing in this one was so polished. It was such a beautiful story that focused less on the historical event of what was going on, although it did emphasize the plight of the Uyghr people (I’m sure I spelled that incorrectly, but they are an ethnic group in Western China), and more on developing the characters, the relationships, the setting, and the story. It was a quiet story without a lot of dramatic plot points, but it was beautiful and hopeful.”

I have new thoughts about the book, but I want to first say that I’m rerunning this because China is currently cracking down on Uyghurs, sending them to “re-education camps” (sound like something the US and Canada did to the Indigenous people here?) and imprisoning them. They are even reaching out to Uyghurs living in different parts of the world including the US and threatening to do things to family still in China. It’s an ugly, ugly situation that is not getting enough media attention.

The Vine Basket is a very problematic book, but it’s also the only one I’m aware of that introduces kids to this minority. My recommendation is to educate yourself on the Uyghurs, their history and their current plight, and then read this book with your kids and use it as a tool to open up conversations.

To start with the good, this was a beautiful, quiet story. As I said before it really develops the characters and their relationships. You also get a good feel for the region the Uyghrs live in and a glimpse into their culture. The writing did a really good job of invoking the place where the story takes place and the author had visited so I get the sense that she drew on her experience there. I think that despite all the problems you can come away from the book with a feel for the Uyghurs homeland and a sympathy for the people. The other really key piece to notice here is the Mehrigul’s brother is said to be a part of the resistance to the Chinese government. We don’t really meet him in the book, but he comes up on several occasions. This opens up the conversation about how the Uyghurs are fighting for their rights and engaging in activism, meaning they aren’t passively needing white ladies to come save them *ahem*.

So this is certainly a hopeful story, but it’s also a story with a white savior. It doesn’t give all the power to the white woman who comes in and discovers the baskets as the story centers Mehrigul, but it’s a white savior nonetheless. I also don’t think it’s untrue that Mehrigul’s family might need to send her off to work in a factory to help them make money, but the framing around that sets it up so Mehrigul needs to seek help from the white lady who comes along. I also don’t know how accurate the relationships are within the context of the culture. Mehrigul’s father is not interested in supporting her making baskets to sell and isn’t particularly kind to her and that may be the lack of an #ownvoices story giving the relationship an outsider, Western view. I can’t say how the Uyghurs truly feel about girls, it’s entirely possible that there are father-daughter relationships like this, but it’s also equally easy to find those same relationships here in the US, so it’s hard to blame this distance and lack of support solely on the Uyghur culture. I also really despise that fact that the book description calls it a “cruelly oppressive culture”. That sounds like an outsider’s opinion and it sounds inappropriate given the source.

I don’t really think buying this book sends the right message, but if your library has it you should hand sell it to your activist parents noting the timeliness of the topic. If you’re a parent or classroom teacher, see if your library already has a copy and use that to discuss what’s currently happening around the Uyghurs now. Share the problems with this book while reading the story. Learn about the Uyghurs (from Uyghur sources and more open Western sources) and compare what you learn to what the story shows. Again, I’m recommending not buying the book, but using it to carefully bring attention and sympathy to what is shamefully happening right now.

If you want a book that is more #ownvoices (as much as book written from the perspective of a dog can be) and set in Western China, check out Black Flame which is an incredible book.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Mystery of the Troubled Toucan by Lisa Travis

On 10, Sep 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Troubled ToucanThe Mystery of the Troubled Toucan: A Pack-N-Go Girls Adventure by Lisa Travis

From Goodreads: Nine-year-old Sofia Diaz’s world is coming apart. So is the rickety old boat that carries her far up the Rio Negro river in Brazil. Crocodiles swim in the dark waters. Spiders scurry up the twisted tree trunks. And a crazy toucan screeches a warning. It chases Sofia and Júlia, her new friend, deep into the steamy rainforest. There they stumble upon a shocking discovery.

Heads up! Not all of these feature diverse settings and girls. Some are set in Austria. That being said the Pack-n-Go Girls adventures are a lot of fun. The main character, in this book, travels to Brazil with her dad. Her parents are getting a divorce and it’s a trip for her father to get away and spend some time with Sofia. As in all the books in the series I’ve read, Sofia quickly makes a friend when she arrives at the hotel they’ll be staying in. Together the two girls uncover a poacher trapping pink dolphins and they decide to try and discover who it is and bring them to justice.

These are definitely wish-fulfillment books to some extent. The girls get themselves into situations that, in real life, would be incredibly dangerous and difficult for them to resolve. But that’s okay! I think girls are looking for those types of stories, the ones where they can be the heroes even though they are young and female. I think it also encourages girls to stand up when they see things that are not right. Often the girls are scared and eventually they loop adults into what they’re doing to get back up when needed.

Libraries should absolutely have these books on their shelves. They’re quick chapter book reads, not to easy and not too difficult, great transitional reads. If kids like the conservation efforts in this book they can move on to Manatee Rescue and Carl Hiassen. There are several different places visited by different girls including Mexico, Thailand, and Austria so if readers aren’t ready to move on they can stay with the series. I will say proceed with caution with the others. I haven’t read them and cannot vouch for how well they handle other cultures and countries. Still, they are well worth looking into if you would like to build up your chapter book collection.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book: Ilyas and Duck Search for Allah by Omar Khawaja

On 07, Sep 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ilyas and DuckIlyas and Duck Search for Allah written by Omar Khawaja, illustrated by Leo Antolini

From Goodreads: Ilyas and Duck search for Allah is an adorable storybook for kids about a boy’s quest to find God. “Where is God?” is a question that any muslim parent teaching their kids will one day have to answer. This book helps parents answer that question from an Islamic perspective while conveying the profound mystery of it all in a fun way. In this story, lovable Ilyas pairs up with Duck to ask the one question repeatedly in different scenarios. With whimsical and poetic replies, Ilyas slowly begins to realize what his question truly means. 

This was a beautiful book gifted to us by some friends. I saw it at their house and was amazed at how simply and beautifully it took a very deep and complex idea and distilled it down into something children can easily understand without taking away the majesty of the concept. Plus the illustrations are adorable.

Ilyas and Duck wonder exactly where they can find God and they head out on a rather silly search. In every place they look the pair encounters an animal who clearly knows, but is rather cryptic about answering their question. Slowly, Ilyas comes to realize that God is all around, reflected back in the places and things they meet, and not person to be found in one place.

Children will really appreciate this book for not speaking down to them. It merely puts the idea of God into a form they can grasp. They’ll be drawn in and kept entertained by the silliness of the hunt, especially once they’ve read through it once and heard the punchline (so to speak). The pictures, with darling little Ilyas and cute Duck, will also keep them interested in turning the pages and returning to them.

You should definitely include this in your collection if one of two things is true for your library or classroom. One, if you have Muslim children or families that you serve. This book is written for them to help families explain a complex and abstract concept that is fundamental to monotheistic religions, but can be incredibly difficult for children to grasp. Two, if you have Christian themed books on your shelf. Now be aware these books can be subtle and you may have a blindspot for them in you were raised Christian or are white. Remember, although highly commercialized and nationalized respectively, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day are Christian holidays. Chances are good you have books that take a Christian perspective, so balance that out by having books available for your non-Christian families to use.

I’ll admit school libraries may have a harder time making the case to add this kind of book to their collection, but I think it’s also important to point out that while the book uses the Arabic word for God, it doesn’t feel exclusive to Islam. If you have families wanting to explain the concept of God or god or a higher power this book does a phenomenal job of doing just that. The book is probably meant for younger preschool/Kindergarten age kids, but I think because it does such an incredibly job explaining a difficult subject you should consider it for collections that serve older students and children as well, say up into third grade.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Mother of the Sea by Zetta Elliott

On 05, Sep 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Mother of the SeaMother of the Sea written by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: When her village is raided, a teenage girl finds herself on a brutal journey to the coast of Africa and across the Atlantic. Her only comfort is a small child who clings to her for protection. But once they board the slave ship, the child reveals her rebellious nature and warns that her mother—a fierce warrior—is coming to claim them all.

While I love all books by Zetta Elliott, the cover alone on this one would have convinced me to buy it if I hadn’t known who she was. It is gorgeous. You will draw readers in just by placing it cover out on the shelf (you do do that, right?).

This is the kind of book that should be read in history classes and English classes. Elliott is a world class author and her language is beautiful. There is no reason not to study the book from that angle. There is also an important perspective and piece of history that is not typically studied in social studies curriculums. The slave trade is mentioned in history class, but in a very clinical, sterile kind of way. A way that ignores the humanity of the people captured and forcibly brought here. That’s probably to make white students, families, teachers, and text book authors more comfortable with their white guilt, but it is neither fair nor wise. White students need to look at their own complicity in a system that was built on that trade and students of color, particularly black students, need to see people like them in books depicted as human. Elliott does that here in a way that we don’t often see in traditional publishing or school.

The subject matter is difficult here and rape is referenced in an oblique way. Mother of the Sea brought to mind two other books, one a picture book and the other another YA novel. In the Time of the Drums by Kim Siegelson deals with slaves drawn into the water to return home. Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun begins in the same brutal way with the Middle Passage.

While you could hand this to just about anyone who enjoys historical novels or magical realism, Mother of the Sea is perfect for reluctant readers. Suspense, beautiful language that draws you in, short, and captivating readers won’t want to put it down. High school libraries or libraries with high school age populations absolutely must have this on their shelves. These stories are important and Elliott is a top-notch writer. While a brutal story, she lulls you with the beauty of her words and her craft as a storyteller. Middle school libraries, well, your mileage will vary. I personally don’t see a problem with having this on your shelves. Most middle school American history classes discuss slavery and the slave trade, so clearly it isn’t a taboo subject (and it shouldn’t be anyway, preserving innocence of students only protects white privileged students, no one else). But I also recognize that it could be an uphill battle if this book gets challenged by a disgruntled parent. You as a librarian will have to make that call.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Rerun: Rumplepimple by Suzanne DeWitt Hall

On 03, Sep 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

RumplepimpleRumplepimple written by Suzanne DeWitt Hall, illustrated by Kevin Scott Gierman

From Goodreads: Life isn’t easy when your big sister is an annoying cat and your moms can’t understand a word you say. But that doesn’t stop Rumplepimple from saving the day in a most unusual way. Find out how a car ride transforms a naughty terrier into a grocery store hero.

I bought this earlier in the year to put in my Read-T0-A-Dog basket in the library. I bought my own copy a week or two ago and my daughter has been asking to read it frequenly ever since.

I love that this book has a lot to talk about in it. The most obvious is how Rumplepimple stands up to a bully. When a little boy has snatched his sister’s blanket from her in the grocery store, Rumplepimple hears her cry and rushes in to give the blanket back. When I read this with my daughter we talked about how Rumplepimple saved the day and did a good thing by intervening when something wrong was happening.

Of course this is not what his mom sees. After he slips out the car door and rushes into the store he loses his mom. She ultimately finds him peering in the meat department case licking his lips and assumes he has been up to no good. This is also a great conversation starter about doing the right thing even when no one is looking and even if you don’t get recognized for it. It can also lead to discussing doing the right thing even if you get in trouble for it.

While all this is well and good, my daughter and students loved it because Rumplepimple is a cute dog. The story sounds like the thoughts that go through a dog’s head and are quite funny. Or at least what I imagine does. :) I love the nod to The Farside comics with the “Blah, blah, blah, Rumplepimple” line when he’s being scolded in the car after being recaptured.

I have a few design issues, but they’re minor and neither my students nor my daughter noticed them. I wish more of the illustrations filled the page instead of the spot illustrations. There’s a lot of white space in the book and it feels sparse. I think it could have been a couple pages shorter too, but again it’s all minor.

If you want a cute dog story (don’t all kids?), then this book is well worth adding to your collection. It’s paperback so get the book tape out. Rumplepimple has two moms and, while their relationship is not specified, I think it’s implied that they are in a relationship. This is a great book to get some incidental diversity into your storytimes and collections!

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