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09

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Mikis and the Donkey by Bibi Dumon Tak

On 09, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Mikis and the DonkeyMikis and the Donkey written by Bibi Dumon Tak, illustrated by Philip Hopman, translated by Laura Watkinson

From Goodreads: One day, Mikis’s grandfather has a surprise for him: a new donkey waiting! Mikis falls in love with the creature, but his grandparents tell him that the donkey is a working animal, not a pet. However, they still let Mikis choose her name — Tsaki — and allow the two of them to spend their Sundays together. Mikis and Tsaki soon become fast friends, and together the two have some grand adventures. Eventually, both Mikis and his grandfather learn a bit more about what exactly it means to care for another creature.

Mikis and the Donkey is such a sweet gentle story. Mikis is completely captivated with the donkey his grandparents buy to help with some work around their property.

Mikis seems to understand the donkey and loves her from the start. He speaks up for her health and her happiness. His grandparents are rather baffled by his affinity for the animal, but with some cajoling from Mikis, they support his doting on her. The funniest part is Mikis and his friend’s idea to introduce Tsaki to another donkey who lives just outside their small village. Adults will see what comes next, but Mikis’ total and utter surprise at the baby donkey who results from this donkey friendship is hilarious and sweet.

In addition to the story line about Mikis and Tsaki, there is a friendship story between humans too. One of Mikis’ classmates, a quite girl, is captivated with Tsaki. Over their love of the donkey Mikis and this little girl become close friends. Mikis discovers that though she is quiet the little girl has a lot to offer.

I think the book would make a great read aloud and it’s certainly one for any animal lover. The book does have a slow pace which might make it less popular. I see it as one you would book talk to specific kids instead of one that will fly off the shelf at every opportunity. The book isn’t too long, but I suspect the reading level is a little bit higher. It would probably go in our tiny “mellow yellow” section which is a transition from our red chapter books to our higher yellow fiction books (things that are usually called middle grade). I still think it would be fine for kids who are working their way up through chapter books.

Updated 7/10/2016: I forgot to note, since the summary from Goodreads doesn’t say, the book is set in a small village on the Greek island of Corfu. In someways I think this might be an interesting way to make the connection between the Syrian (and others) migrant crisis, as many of them are washing up and landing on the Greek islands. It might be a little contrived, but you could certainly talk about other events in this part of the world in conjunction with looking at the story of Mikis.

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07

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding by Linda Liukas

On 07, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Hello RubyHello Ruby: Adventures in Coding by Linda Liukas

From Goodreads: Meet Ruby—a small girl with a huge imagination, and the determination to solve any puzzle. As Ruby stomps around her world making new friends, including the Wise Snow Leopard, the Friendly Foxes, and the Messy Robots, kids will be introduced to the fundamentals of computational thinking, like how to break big problems into small ones, create step-by-step plans, look for patterns and think outside the box through storytelling. Then, these basic concepts at the core of coding and programming will be reinforced through fun playful exercises and activities that encourage exploration and creativity.

Hello Ruby is an interesting hybrid of chapter book and activity book. Oddly, though, the activities are included in the back half of the book and not in or at the end of each chapter. The introduction also says that the book is designed for a parent to read the story to their child(ren) and work through the activities together.

The story is cute and simple with a pretty easy reading level (with some help a second grader could manage), however it jumps from something realistic into what I think is Ruby’s imagination. Ruby’s dad has hidden gems and left her some cryptic messages as clues to finding them. I was a little confused as to how Ruby managed to create a map for a world that I thought was supposed to be around her house, but ended up with a river and a forest. I stuck with it and the story eventually made more sense, it just required accepting that this was not our world. I’m not sure kids will be thrown by the leap into Ruby’s imagination since they are less familiar with genres and rules about worlds and stories. Some of the chapters were a little confusing unless you looked at and did the activities with them.

I did appreciate that the activities built on each other, getting more difficult as the book went on. One helps kids understand Booleans which I might have to use in the library when we talk about them.

In case you were wondering about the diversity tag on this book, I considered it diverse because Ruby is involved in computer science, something that is not traditionally assumed to be a girl’s activity.

I’m going to spend next week going through the chapters and exercises with my daughter to see how engaging it is for kids (I realize she’s a little younger than this is probably gear toward, but it will give me a sense). Considering it needs a parent to go through it with the child (not a bad thing! I wish more parents of older kids were still reading and working with their kids), it’s probably not the kind of book that would be popular in my library. It should work for a public library or a home collection if coding is popular. What I think I might do is buy it to have in the makerspace I run.

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04

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill

On 04, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Toothpaste MillionaireThe Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill

From Goodreads: Sixth-grader Rufus Mayflower doesn’t set out to become a millionaire. He just wants to save on toothpaste. Betting he can make a gallon of his own for the same price as one tube from the store, Rufus develops a step-by-step production plan with help from his good friend Kate MacKinstrey. By the time he reaches the eighth grade, Rufus makes more than a gallon — he makes a million! This fun, breezy story set in 1960s Cleveland, Ohio contains many real-life mathematical problems which the characters must solve to succeed in their budding business.

Happy Fourth of July. Here’s a book about the entrepreneurial spirit of the US for today. Considering the original publication date of this book, 1972, it’s surprising that one of the primary characters is African American. Kate MacKinstrey tells the story of how she and Rufus, two kids who didn’t quite fit in with their peers, became friends over making things and then started a business. Kate is new to town and is having trouble making friends until Rufus helps her clean up her spilled backpack one day on the way to school. She’s intrigued by his messenger bag he made for himself (and he offers to make her one as well).

This story has awesome all over it. It features a boy-girl friendship. Rufus is black and Kate is white. Kate isn’t into “girly” things and she starts up the business with Rufus. She helps make toothpaste, pack it up, and helps find a tube supplier and a factory to ramp up production. Rufus may have had the toothpaste formula idea, but Kate is as much of an entrepreneur as he is handling practical logistics. The kids also get to run around town by themselves! On bikes! I think it will seem extraordinary to kids these days, but also very enticing. I do wish that the story was more about Rufus. For example, I wish we knew why he choose Kate as a friend. He helps her and their friendship just starts up. It didn’t feel forced, but he just sort of assumes that after that point they are friends. Kate is grateful and takes it in stride. I am glad that on this cover Rufus is front and center.

I loved Rufus, he is so practical and straight forward. He starts the toothpaste production because he is convinced toothpaste companies are charging way too much and he could do it just as well for less and still make a profit. I do wonder if he falls into any stereotypes. Not only is he African American, but he also strikes me that he could have Asperger’s. I am not certain about that, but I wonder if he was supposed to be like one of those kids and if he is too much of a stereotype.

For a chapter book this one is on the higher end. In terms of interest I think kids from second to seventh grade would enjoy the story. I would recommend it for any elementary school library, but consider it if you have middle schoolers who are into inventing or need some lower reading level, high interest stories.

 

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03

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: My Life in Pictures by Deborah Zemke

On 03, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

My Life in PicturesMy Life in Pictures written and pictures by Deborah Zemke

From Goodreads: Bea Garcia is an artist. She draws anywhere and everywhere—but mostly in her own notebook. When Bea’s first and only best friend Yvonne moves to Australia, not even drawing makes Bea feel better. And things only get worse when a loud, rambunctious boy moves in next door. He’s nothing at all like Yvonne! But with a little imagination and a whole lot of doodles, Bea Garcia might just make a new friend.

Poor Bea! Her best friend has just moved away to Australia, all the way across the globe. Bea is heartbroken. To make matters worse, a weasel of a kid has moved next door into Yvonne’s old house and he’s ruining everything.

This was an interesting book to read as an adult and a teacher. I got how upset Bea was and how she didn’t know how to process her feelings. I think we’ve all felt the heartbreak of a good friendship splitting up, either because someone moves or because people change. I knew that feeling as a kid, but as an adult I thought about how tough it is to keep in touch with far away friends when you are so young. I also saw Burt, the annoying new neighbor boy, from both perspectives. To the kid mourning the loss of her best friend, Burt was obnoxious and forced on her by well-meaning adults. As an adult I saw that Burt was struggling too. He was new to the neighborhood and school and didn’t know how to insert himself in a constructive way into the class dynamic and to ask for friendship.

I love that Bea learns that Burt isn’t so bad. I love that her teacher doesn’t humiliate her for doodling some rather unkind things. She realizes Bea knows she was being unkind and unfair to Burt and puts an incredibly positive spin on her drawing while still making a subtle point to Bea, and Bea only, that she needs to write in her school notebook not her doodling book.

Bea is Latina, maybe biracial? The thing is, the story doesn’t make a big deal out of it and I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. I appreciate that, once again, we don’t have a book that makes being something other than white seem other and doesn’t focus the story on that. But I’m also wondering if it was a little shallow? Her name and a handful of Spanish words are just about the extent of her cultural identity in the book. There is the fact that this is a pretty simple book for readers who are just getting into chapter books so the need to keep the story short and more to the point was probably a big factor. I can’t find much information about Zemke either so I can’t tell if she’s writing as an insider (considering the state of children’s publishing I would guess not).

This really brings up another issue for me, which is, I bought the book for my library and is that a step in the right direction toward telling publishers I want books with diversity? Once they see diversity sells will they be more willing to get more of it on their lists, including diverse authors? I don’t know. I worry it encourages them to have their white authors write diverse content and we end up with a glut of shallow diversity. Things to think about.

In the end, the book is wonderful. Bea is like a lot of kids I have known over the years and I think a lot of readers will connect with her and want to follow her adventures (this is a planned series). Good addition to a chapter book collection.

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24

Jun
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Magid Fasts for Ramadan by Mary Matthews

On 24, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Magid FastsMagid Fasts for Ramadan written by Mary Matthews, illustrated by E. B. Lewis

From Goodreads: It is the first day of Ramadan, the month when good Muslims eat nothing and drink nothing all day, every day, from sunrise to sunset. Mama and Baba have told Magid he isn’t old enough to fast, but even Magid’s sister, Aisha, is fasting, and Magid doesn’t want to wait.

I thought this was a nice little story about honesty and also feeling left out of something “grown up”. Magid is your typical kid. He finds a way to get around the restrictions placed on him without really thinking through the consequences. I thought Matthews nailed that. The illustrations dated the book somewhat, but it was nice to see an average looking, modern Egyptian family (as in, the family doesn’t look like they lived 300 years ago). The story is about Magid wanting to fast for Ramadan and to be a devout Muslim. But it’s also about honesty and how something that is meant well and done with good intentions can still be dishonest.

Aaaaand then I read the reviews on Amazon. It seems like a fair number of Muslim parents have chimed in on it. Some like the story, others don’t. Most didn’t like that Magid was actively discouraged from fasting even though he wanted to and that his sister was such a pill. All valid points. On the other hand many liked the story for its message about honesty and weren’t perturbed by Magid being discouraged from fasting. I can’t find much about the author and I’m not sure where she got the idea for the story. I’m also relatively sure that she isn’t Muslim so there is very much the issue of authenticity here.

I think in the end, it has a Message with a capital “m” (it didn’t bother me, but that was my personal opinion) and if you don’t want a book that explicitly teaches something, you don’t want this book. I think it’s worth buying for library collections as there are obviously Muslim families that like it, but if you’re looking at it for your family see if the public library has it first and see if it fits with your conception of Ramadan and Islamic values.

The book itself is an odd hybrid of chapter book (it has chapters) and picture book (most pages have an illustration spread much like a picture book). The text is longer, like a chapter book, but the amount of illustrations make it feel younger. I would encourage you to share it with many age levels, as the story is worthwhile. I wish the publisher would reissue it in a small, chapter book trim size. I think it would fit better in the collection and would circulate better. We do have chapter books that have lots of pictures, but they need that seemingly more grown-up size to appeal to those readers who are moving up.

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04

Jun
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Museum Mysteries by Steve Brezenoff

On 04, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Museum MysteriesMuseum Mysteries written by Steve Brezenoff, pictures by Lisa Weber

The Haunted History Museum

The Case of the Missing Museum Archives

The Case of the Portrait Vandal

The Case of the Stolen Sculpture

I bought and read three of these little mysteries. It’s such a tricky balance to strike in these early chapter books, trying to get enough story and character in there that it’s well written without making it too complex and long for kids who are just beginning to read. I personally am fine with books that lack a bit in an involved mystery and character development. I know kids who read these types of stories and enjoy them. I also happened to be one of those kids. I think these mysteries really do a good job of striking that balance. The diversity in ethnicity of the kids comes off as a little shallow, but I think for this type of books it’s just fine. Kids in my library are just happy to see themselves on the cover and read about a kid that they can picture looking like them.

Book number two (the one pictured at the left) is especially important right now. It’s a girl in a hijab who is not a terrorist. She also happens to love space travel and math. STEM girl for the win. The story is wee bit far fetched as the father is about to be fired for something that he didn’t do and the evidence that he lost some important documents is shaky at best. But the characters are likable and the story is fun if you put aside your grown up sensibilities.

When I bought these there were only four that I found on Amazon. On Goodreads it appears there are a few more that feature the same kids in new mysteries which if you have a population that likes mysteries I highly recommend getting. The original Nate the Great was pretty easy, but some of the later chapter books he is in get a lot longer and more wordy. I would say these could replace those longer Nate the Greats of be a place to move to afterward.

I highly recommend these for beginning chapter book collections. They’re a fun introduction to mystery novels and they feature a diverse cast of characters.

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03

Jun
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The City Kids by Zetta Elliot

On 03, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

PhoenixThe City Kids series by Zetta Elliot

The Phoenix on Barkely Street

From Goodreads: Best friends Carlos and Tariq love their block, but Barkley Street has started to change. The playground has been taken over by older boys, which leaves Carlos and Tariq with no place to call their own. They decide to turn the yard of an abandoned brownstone into their secret hang-out spot. Carlos and Tariq soon discover, however, that the overgrown yard is already occupied by an ancient phoenix! When the Pythons try to claim the yard for their gang, the magical bird gives the friends the courage to make a stand against the bullies who threaten to ruin their beloved neighborhood.

Dayshaun’s Gift

From Goodreads: Summer vacation has just begun and Dayshaun wants to spend Saturday morning playing his new video game. But Dayshaun’s mother has other plans: she volunteers at a nearby community garden and that means Dayshaun has to volunteer, too. When Dayshaun puts on his grandfather’s grubby old gardening hat, something unexpected happens-the hands of time turn backward and Dayshaun finds himself in the free Black community of Weeksville during the summer of 1863! While helping the survivors of the New York City Draft Riots, Dayshaun meets a frail old man who entrusts him with a precious family heirloom. But will this gift help Dayshaun find his way back to the 21st century?

So far this is a great series for readers who are ready for a little more text, but aren’t ready for full blown chapter books yet. In other words, they’re transitional. And totally engaging. I’m not normally one for science fiction/fantasy in my books, but I know a lot of kids who are and, as I’ve found this year, there aren’t a lot of those books out there for them unless they are strong readers (most fantasy books seem to be damn thick books with small print, even in the middle grade section). Even fewer of the books available across the beginning chapter book market feature diverse kids or kids who live in urban settings (we didn’t all grow up on a farm or in a large house, myself included). There is a lot here to appeal to kids at the second/third grade level.

In The Phoenix on Barkley Street kids who are all about being green will love that the kids clean up and repurpose a vacant building’s yard. The bullying theme will resonate with many children who, at the beginning chapter book age, are very attuned to social justice. Parents looking for a book that promotes community and friendship will appreciate the themes in the book as well.

I especially loved Dayshaun’s Gift. It was such a great time travel book and it took him back to a period of history that, despite taking American History three times in my school career, I never even heard mentioned. Dayshaun is such a kid, though, and he will feel very real and inviting to kids, even ones who might not pick up a books if there is a whiff of anything educational about it. This is one of the brilliant things about all Elliot’s books. She manages to open your eyes to something new and teach you about it without the books feeling didactic or breaking the story. Spoiler alert: Dayshaun does make it back to the present and he returns to the outhouse of the Weeksville historical village. Kids will LOVE that tiny detail.

It’s times like these I feel very grateful that I am in charge of what books we buy and where we buy them from for our library. Elliot has self published many of her books and that makes it difficult for some libraries to buy her books. If you have any say, these would make an incredible addition to any library collection that serves kids starting out in chapter books.

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07

Mar
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Room in My Heart by Zetta Elliott

On 07, Mar 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Room in my heartRoom In My Heart by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: It took some time for Nikki to adjust to her parents’ divorce, but now she and her little sister Natalie enjoy their new routine. Daddy comes over for dinner on Tuesday nights and the girls spend each weekend with him. But everything changes when Daddy picks them up for their weekend visit and introduces the girls to his new friend Sylvia. Nikki feels invisible when Sylvia’s around and so she decides not to spend the weekend with Daddy anymore. Only after talking about her feelings with her aunt does Nikki learn that her father’s love is unchanging, and that there is room in his heart to love many different people.

Another Zetta Elliott that I bought for my library and love, love, loved. I have to say I connected with this book on a personal level as much as I saw it being a good book for the right kid. Forgive me, but I’m about to get a bit personal in this review. My parents divorced when I was young but this was not something I often saw reflected either in my reading or other pop culture I consumed. My mom remarried a couple times and my dad dated a lot. Although I don’t remember struggling in quite the way Nikki does here, I related to so many of her feelings and her situation. It’s hard going between two households and it’s weird when you introduce new people into the family. I am so glad to see a book that reflects that and talks about it without feeling forced or as if it is telling a child how to feel or respond.

I also think the book does a beautiful job allowing Nikki to have her feelings without casting them as something awful or something she shouldn’t have. We often don’t allow children their emotions. We’re always shushing them and telling them they’re okay when they cry, etc. I think this is best seen when Nikki is upset with her father and decides not to spend the weekend with him, her mother says her father is disappointed:

I just shrugged and went upstairs to unpack my overnight bag. I told myself I didn’t care if my father was disappointed in me. I was disappointed in him!

The father in Room In My Heart puts manners and politeness and his own feelings before Nikki’s. Elliott gets at the ridiculousness of this. Sure, Nikki learns something by the end of the book, but Elliott doesn’t invalidate her feelings. She makes all the characters acknowledge them and address them. All this is to say that Elliott really hit the nail on the head in conveying many of the feelings and troubles of kids whose parents are divorced and at some larger issues for children.

As with Max Loves Munecas I worried that I would have to hand sell this to the kids, that they wouldn’t pick it up on their own. I don’t mind hand selling books and I think those hand sells are very important especially for reluctant readers, however I just don’t have nearly enough time to do it often enough or well enough. So I worry that the books won’t get read after the first few months they’ve been in the library. But Zetta Elliott put this post up on her blog* and in her first part of the conversation she totally speaks to why that doesn’t matter. I am so glad she framed it this way and I feel silly for not having thought of it that way before.  I am not going to worry about that any more. Thank you, Zetta Elliott, for assuaging my anxiety about this and for making books that are perfect for giving to the right reader at just the right time. (Update: I put the book out on our new arrivals shelf and lo and behold a kid checked it out with zero prompting from me. I was totally wrong about it.)

*This is not at all the point of her whole post, by the way. I do recommend reading the whole thing. There is so much there to think about and reflect on and Elliott and Kwaymullina are great people to be learning from.

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29

Feb
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Max Loves Munecas by Zetta Elliott

On 29, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Max Loves MunecasMax Loves Munecas by Zetta Elliott, illustrations by

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.

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28

Dec
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Year of Miss Agnes

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

The Year of Miss AgnesThe Year of Miss Agnes by Kirkpatrick Hill

Lexile: 790L

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.

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