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22

Mar
2015

In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Monthly Author: Ashley Bryan

On 22, Mar 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

I was first introduced to Ashley Bryan a few months ago through the amazing Ashley Bryan’s Puppets. I saw the book on a blog and thought it looked intriguing so I got it out of the library. I was taken with it, but my daughter was really taken with it, so I thought I would look into Bryan a bit more. You can read my review of Puppets here on this blog and here on my mommy blog (I take a slightly different, more personal angle with the later).

Schedule for the week:

  • Monday: Words to My Life’s Song
  • Tuesday: Sing to the Sun
  • Wednesday: African Tales, Uh-Huh
  • Thursday: Who Built the Stable?: A Nativity Poem

Links of interest:

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18

Mar
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Dog Days by Karen English

On 18, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Dog Days

Dog Days written by Karen English, pictures by Laura Freeman

Lexile: 710L

From GoodReads: It’s tough being the new kid at Carver Elementary. Gavin had lots of friends at his old school, but the kids here don’t even know that he’s pretty good at skateboarding, or how awesome he is at soccer. And when his classmate Richard comes over and the boys end up in trouble, not only does Gavin risk losing his one new friend, he has to take care of his great aunt Myrtle’s horrible little dog as punishment.
   To make matters worse, Gavin seems to have attracted the attention of the school bully. Will he be able to avoid getting pounded at the skate park? And how is he ever going to prove he’s cool with a yappy little Pomeranian wearing a pink bow at his side?

Dog Days nails the kid perspective. Gavin is an all around nice kid, but a kid nonetheless. While sneaking into his sister’s room to eat her candy with his friend they manage to break Danielle’s prized snow globe. Gavin is worried, but more for himself than for his sister who he sees as a pain. His punishment, walking his aunt’s dog, seems so unfair and he gripes about in exactly the way a kid would.

His new friend Richard is not the best friend around, but again Gavin uses his kid logic and doesn’t seem to mind too much. He gets irritated, but most of the issues roll off his back and even when he is mad he is quick to forgive.

The book would be perfect for kids who love realistic fiction and while it has a message in it that comes through Gavin’s realization that he might care for his aunt’s silly dog, it never feels heavy handed. This is the first in a series too, which makes it a good fit for the third/fourth grade crowd. The reading level is a bit high, but manageable and Freeman’s cute illustrations break up the story perfectly.

As an adult reading the story you can see where it’s going and you can tell that Gavin isn’t seeing the whole picture. This is particularly funny when his Aunt comes to stay and his mother is suddenly not home nearly as much. From her sighs and body language, which Gavin notices, but doesn’t understand, it’s clear that his mother is not happy about Aunt Myrtle’s visit. Gavin just sees her absence as abandonment and doesn’t think much past himself (not in an annoying way), which is totally something a kid would do. This second layer would make it a good bedtime read aloud for parents and kids to share together.

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17

Mar
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Nona and Me by Clare Atikins

On 17, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Nona and MeFrom GoodReads: Rosie and Nona are sisters. Yapas.

They are also best friends. It doesn’t matter that Rosie is white and Nona is Aboriginal: their family connections tie them together for life.

Born just five days apart in a remote corner of the Northern Territory, the girls are inseperable, until Nona moves away at the age of nine. By the time she returns, they’re in Year 10 and things have changed. Rosie has lost interest in the community, preferring to hang out in the nearby mining town, where she goes to school with the glamorous Selena, and Selena’s gorgeous older brother Nick.

When a political announcement highlights divisions between the Aboriginal community and the mining town, Rosie is put in a difficult position: will she be forced to choose between her first love and her oldest friend?

Nona & Me was absolutely perfect in terms of story, characters, and in capturing the struggle of trying to fit in and be yourself as a teen. I picked the book up with the lure of diversity and there certainly is diversity- Nona is Yolnu and Rosie has grown up on what is essentially a Yolnu reservation. I guess what made this the kind of book I wasn’t looking for was that it was told entirely from the perspective of the middle class white girl. I don’t think that detracts from the book per se, but know that you never hear Nona’s voice. Actually hearing Nona’s story would be both a book in it’s own right and incredibly interesting.

That aside, this book was brilliant. Rosie is in Year 10 and has established a friendship with Selena, a girl who brings a certain amount of social capital. Rosie also has a huge crush on Selena’s brother Nick. When Nick returns her affections the two begin dating and everything seems just about perfect. Until Nona shows back up in Rosie’s life. Nona is Rosie’s Yolnu sister and until they were 9 or so the two were inseparable. The narrative is primarily focused on the present, but short chapters that go back to Rosie and Nona’s childhood are interspersed and give a picture of how Rosie used to be and how Nona came to leave for several years.

At school, Rosie denies ever having been close with Nona to her new friends. When her mother gets wind of this she is incredibly upset with Rosie because the Yolnu community is a huge part of their lives and her parents have intentionally raised her in the community. Atkins so perfectly captures Rosie’s conflicting feelings over wanting to have friends in school and a cute boyfriend and accepting her Yolnu family which makes her decidedly uncool. It turns out Nick is incredibly racist, probably a learned behavior from his father, and Rosie slowly realizes that Selena is pretty shallow.

Rosie really struggles with squaring her the two pieces of her life and ultimately needs to make a choice. I think teens will really click with that struggle. Reflecting back on my own teen years I can’t say I would have made better choices than Rosie. Popularity and acceptance in those years is so powerful and it can be incredibly difficult to make the right choice when the right choice isn’t the popular one. It’s the kind of story where you just want to hug her, tell her her friends are terrible people, and that once high school is over they will seem so petty and insignificant.

When Rosie eventually accepts the Yolnu community back into her life, sadly after a tragedy, the transition back into both the community and it’s impact on her school life was pitch perfect. She spends several weeks at funeral ceremonies and she really uses the time to reflect on who she wants to be. When she returns to school this momentous event puts a lot into perspective for her. She also feels tension between the pull of her old life and the new meaning she has found in her community.

I especially liked the addition that Rosie is artistic. She aspires to be an artist when she is older. Her art class, although it only is mentioned a few times, is a touch point for her. The end of year project she begins working on helps her work through her conflicting emotions and I think that will resonate with a lot of teens too, artistic or not.

This book was very interesting to read after having read about Native Americans and their struggles with reservation life and the history of how they came to be on reservations. It sounds as though the Yolnu have gone through many of the same struggles (both historically and in the present), but the system is different too and may allow for . Certainly the stereotypes and blatant racism towards them are not unique to Native Americans.

Reading some of these amazing Australian authors (I’m thinking back to The Midnight Dress) I desperately want to visit Australia! It sounds like such an incredible place.

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12

Mar
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Women of Steel and Stone by Anna Lewis

On 12, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Women of Steel

Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers by Anna M. Lewis

Women of Steel and Stone is a really good introduction to women in fields that are traditionally dominated by men. The mix of engineers, architects and landscape architects was really interesting and there was a lot of additional information beyond the 22 main women about other women and about the fields themselves.

There is still such a stigma of women in math and science fields so it’s really important that we give young girls examples of women who have gone into these fields. And these women are an impressive set of examples! Here, though, is where my professional opinion of the book (kids will like this!) and my personal opinion (it wasn’t the best fit) diverge.

As far as the intended age, it’s definitely a book for older readers based on length and difficulty of text. However, it’s really wonderful because each profile is a fairly short, quick read. I could see kids in middle and high school picking this up and putting it down as they have the time to read about the women. Books like that are so important for all these busy kids.

The women and their lives were really interesting and I can see kids connecting with the subjects. I, personally, wanted way more information and would have preferred that the author chose fewer profiles so she could focus more. But  I really think that is coming from someone who is interested in how women have broken into male-dominated fields and someone who wanted to see more of how they balanced their personal (marriage and motherhood) lives with their professional lives that appeared to be very demanding. Will kids want to know all about that? Highly unlikely. I think for kids the book will pique their interest in the fields of architecture, engineering, and landscape design and in the women themselves. They might seek out more information beyond this book.

Lewis was really good about including a section at the end of each profile that gave the reader places to go to find more information. And it’s quite the mix of resources. Within the chapters there were boxes that added little bits about other women who had impacts, but didn’t get entire profiles. I found their placement (in the middle of paragraphs) very distracting and found myself skipping them. I think a side bar would have been better or even a chapter at the end of each section that had these brief asides aggregated. I know that’s a design, not author issue, but that kind of stuff drives me nuts and if I am skipping it then kids probably will too.

My only other complaint is that I wanted a lot more pictures. There weren’t very many (I’m guessing for space?) and the ones that are there have terrible captions that offer little to no information about how they link up with the women’s careers, with their profession, or why they are important. Often buildings were talked about in the text, but there were no pictures to accompany it. Nonfiction for kids has to be engaging and it has to have more pictures than adult nonfiction. Kids are likely not to go out of their way to find pictures of the buildings and structures these women have created. Pictures give an entry point for younger readers into the book and the topic.

The exclusion of women from these professions early on will really appeal to kids’ sense of justice and I think it will hit home how far women have come and how far they need to go. Lewis includes a range of women from the early years of the professions to much more recent and contemporary women (both in terms of design and age). Many of the women she profiles are still alive and some are still working. By including this range you can really see how the professions have developed both in broad terms and in terms of including women and taking them seriously.

The introductions to each section were very interesting. Lewis details the history of the profession (most of them were not formalized until the late 1800s) and what it takes to get a degree or certification in each profession. She also includes lists of colleges that have highly regarded undergraduate and graduate degree programs. All in all a great book to dip in and out of and to whet the appetite of budding architects and engineers.

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10

Mar
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Non-Fiction Review: Sacajawea by Joseph Bruchac

On 10, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Sacajawea

From GoodReads: Young Sacajawea has been asked to join Lewis and Clark in their exploration of the American West. As a translator, peacemaker, caretaker, and guide, Sacajawea alone will make the historic journey of Lewis and Clark possible. This captivating novel, which is told in alternating points of view — by Sacajawea herself and by William Clark — provides an intimate glimpse into what it would have been like to witness firsthand this fascinating time in our history.

Lexile: 840L

I’m fudging a little here as this is a fictionalized account of Sacajawea and her part in the Lewis and Clark expedition. However, Bruchac did extensive research and drew very heavily on journals of the expedition as well as consulting Native sources, including modern relatives of Sacajawea. So I’m going to count it.

I feel very foolish reading this book. I knew next to nothing about the Lewis and Clark expedition and even less about Sacajawea. She was captured around 12 years old and taken captive with a tribe who lived further east of her Shoshone tribe. After a few years Charbonneau purchased her and another woman she was captured with. (I was always kind of curious how she met and married Charbonneau.) While she was pregnant with her son, Jean Baptiste, the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived and Charbonneau was signed on as was Sacajawea who would help as a guide and interpreter. After Jean Baptiste was born and the spring arrived the party set off for the West Coast.

While I wouldn’t call the book action packed, which is due in part to the way the story is told, it’s an incredibly interesting look at the expedition. It’s packed with facts and information and because of Bruchac’s skill with storytelling the history really comes to life. It was a hard journey, and while they were often incredibly lucky (only one person died on whole expedition), there were a lot of challenges and lean times. It’s absolutely amazing to think Sacajawea was 16 or 17 years old and a brand new mother when she took this trip. Her strength and her age make her a very interesting character, one I think kids will enjoy hearing her voice brought to life.

I found the parts about the language barriers and translation particularly fascinating. Because the group encounters so many tribes they needed people who spoke different languages. They would pick people up along the way who could help and sometimes they encountered French trappers who spoke local languages. However, they were often translating from English into French into Shoshone (or Numi, which is what Sacajawea spoke) or Mandan into another language. Talk about complicated! Otherwise they would use some kind of universal sign language.

As the expedition goes through the land they encounter a lot of different native groups. A lot. There are a ton of names and Clark uses different names from Sacajawea. This gets a little confusing and I would keep it in mind if you are reading this with or to younger audiences that might be pushing the reading level. I found this awesome map of the tribal nations that a Cherokee map maker created. It has the tribe name in the area where they lived (pre-European contact) and lists both names given to them by Europeans and what they called themselves (this is incredibly helpful in keeping the tribes straight between Sacajawea’s and Clark’s narrations). Here is the link to the NPR article that tells the story of how and why the map was created.

Heads up, Merriwether Lewis meets an unfortunate end at his own hand and it’s mentioned how he commits suicide. If you’re reading this aloud you might skip over that bit. If you’re having your class read this or are handing it to students, just be aware that it’s in there. It isn’t graphic, but it’s sad and in there.

I had a couple complaints about the book that are very minor. As the story switches between Sacajawea and Clark they address the person they are telling the story to- Jean Baptiste, Sacajawea’s son. I found it pulled me out of the story a bit to have them asking and answering imagined questions from the boy, but it wasn’t a big deal. I also don’t like the cover on this. It screams required reading to me although it gets major points for having a person of color on it. It also feels young when the text is really geared higher. Also each chapter has either a folktale or excerpt from an expedition diary. These were awesome inclusions and did a lot to elucidate the story as well as show how Bruchac wove the fact into the fiction. But! The font for the diaries was so hard to read and if I struggled with it I can only imagine that kids are going to skip them entirely.

Definitely worth a read for kids who are interested in the expedition, this time period, or native voices. It is certainly well worth looking at including in curriculum because of Sacajawea’s perspective. Plus it really brings this important and fascinating exploration to life.

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05

Mar
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Everyone Prays by Alexis York Lumbard

On 05, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Everyone PraysEveryone Prays: A Celebration of Faith Around the World by Alexis York Lumbard

From GoodReads: Christians, Jews, and Muslims all pray. So do Hindus and Buddhists. Many others pray too. So begins Everyone Prays, a bright and colorful concept book celebrating the diverse ways that people pray. In a vibrant yet accessible manner, young readers are transported on a visual tour across the globe. They will discover the Native American sun dance ceremony, visit the sacred sites in Jerusalem, behold the Shinto shrines in Japan, watch Maasai dances in Kenya, see pilgrimages to the river Ganges in India, and much, much more.

I have to add a personal spin to this review, especially since I read some of the reviews on GoodReads and was surprised by the criticism. We’re a pretty a-religious family. The holidays we celebrate are tied to cultural tradition and significance rather than religion for us. That being said I don’t want my daughter to think religion isn’t okay if she’s interested and I want her to know about other faiths beyond our vaguely Christian one. I also think you need some conception of religion to really be culturally literate. So, I often seek out books that share religious stories, figures, and other religions (especially Islam since one of my closest friends is Muslim) to share with my daughter so she is exposed to the idea of religion. That is why I picked up this book.

I know this type of book, one that presents religion, can be really hit or miss. Some people on GoodReads complained that it was too didactic. I agree the book is didactic, but it’s essentially seeking to do what I am seeking to do with my daughter: expose her to religion and how it’s similar and different across faiths and cultures. Nonfiction is, at its heart, didactic. I did not get the impression here that there was a Message with a capital ‘m’, nor did it feel like there was some agenda underlying the text.

The other complaint I saw was that the text within the book was sparse and there wasn’t much information except in the back matter. This is true, but I didn’t see it as a downside. In fact, it made it the perfect book to share with my three-year-old. I love nonfiction books, but the more text heavy they become the less interested my daughter is and I think this is true for younger audiences in general.

We both liked the bright simple illustrations and I thought they complimented the text nicely. I was relieved to see that the pictures have a white field and modern feel rather than the bland, watery or cutesy illustrations that seem to plague religious picture books. It’s also refreshing to see a mix of people in a book, a mix of people that are primarily brown, not white.

So, the long and the short of it is, I think this is a great book for exposing kids to different religions to see how they are the same and how they differ. It’s probably best for the younger set 3-7ish (preschool up into first grade). Certainly older kids might be drawn in by the extra information at the back and it would make a good read aloud because it doesn’t get too bogged down with tons of information. There is a lot here to spark discussion about different religious ceremonies, traditions, and rituals and because it’s not all included in the picture book part of the book the audience can pick and choose what they are curious about. Return visits to the book would spark more questions and discussion.

Half way through the book my daughter asked if we could buy our own copy of the book once we returned the library copy and if that isn’t a ringing endorsement I don’t know what is.

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04

Mar
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

On 04, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Inside OutFrom GoodReads: For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family.

The more I read novels in verse the more I like them. I just haven’t had the experience of getting them into kids hands to know if they are liked by their target audiences.

Inside Out & Back Again is a lovely, but sad, story of Ha’s immigration to the US. I was particularly pleased to see the Vietnam War, a time period I don’t recall seeing tons of books on, tackled from the Vietnamese/immigrant perspective. We hear a lot about the draft and how awful the war was for American soldiers, but seem to forget it was awful and disruptive (to say the least) for the people living in Vietnam.

Lai has done an amazing job of telling Ha’s story and has apparently woven in experiences she had after escaping Vietnam. I was particularly taken with the idea that we see everything through Ha’s eyes so the reader often has to infer or guess about some of the things she describes, but doesn’t understand or comprehend. For example, the neighbors bring over wiggly food which I presume is Jell-o. The story it bookended by their Tet celebrations and both are hopeful. While the final celebration is bittersweet things are looking up and the family is holding together and beginning to make the best of their situation.

Despite the events nothing is grisly or explicit. I think it would be fine for kids in fifth grade, even possibly interested fourth graders and up into seventh and eighth grade. It’s an easy and quick book to read, but there is a lot to think about and explore in it as well. While I think kids interested in the Vietnam War era or realistic fiction will enjoy the book by itself, it would make an excellent classroom book as well for the themes and ideas it touches on through Ha’s experiences.

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25

Feb
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

On 25, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ninth Ward

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

From GoodReads: Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. She doesn’t have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya’s visions show a powerful hurricane–Katrina–fast approaching, it’s up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm.

Well, I feel absolutely gutted after reading this. It’s like watching Titanic, you know what’s going to happen, but it still punches you in the gut anyway. The story is absolutely beautiful. It celebrates family, even if that family isn’t blood. It celebrates community and how that can be like extended family. But it really shines in celebrating Lanesha and her rebirth as someone who knows that she can weather the storms, physical and metaphorical, that life brings.

Lanesha is such a wonderful character. She’s lonely and kids at school pick on her because she was born with a caul and was birthed by Mama Ya-Ya and not in the hospital. Usually she tries to keep her head down in school, but she finally decides to reach out to a few of the other students who are picked on and this leads to a life-saving friendship with TaShon. She also discovers she is good at math and wants to become an engineer through some interactions with her new teacher.

The relationship between Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya is especially poignant. Mama Ya-Ya gives Lanesha life again and again. First she births her; then cuts her caul giving her air; then raises her when her mother dies in childbirth. She loves Lanesha as a mother and grandmother, showing her what family means despite the rejection of Lanesha by her mother’s Uptown family. Finally Mama Ya-Ya imparts her strength through her love and knowledge to Lanesha. By drawing on the memory of that love Lanesha is able to dig deep and find an inner strength when her survival is at stake.

It’s the ending that really makes the book though. Lanesha, with the help of TaShon, Mama Ya-Ya and the ghost of her mother survives the storm and flood. The last line “I’m Mama Ya-Ya’s girl” shows Lanesha taking Mama Ya-Ya into her, making her a part of her that cannot be lost or forgotten or washed away. It’s Mama Ya-Ya giving Lanesha the last, but most important, part of her. Despite the horrific situation Lanesha is in (the aftermath of Katrina was far from over three days after the storm) you know she will continue to survive and thrive.

The scenes of the neighborhood are also really lovely. Rhodes doesn’t focus on the run down aspects or danger of the Ninth Ward, which is incredibly refreshing. Lanesha never seems like she’s pulling herself out of poverty and Rhodes doesn’t sound like she’s trying to get some message across. We see the Ninth Ward through Lanesha’s eyes and she sees her neighbors, who sound a lot like mine. Some friendly. Some not. Some willing to help out. Others only out for themselves. People with homes they care about. People who work hard and come home at night to their families.

The book may be a hard sell to a lot of kids, but I think readers who like friendship stories and stories about family will be taken with the book. Kids who like magical realism will find that here too. Lanesha was born with a caul, she has second sight and sees ghosts.  It would be a fabulous story to use in an English class or even a history class that covers current events. Certainly it would reflect kids who live in working class neighborhoods and might appeal to them simply for that mirror, but I think it’s got broader appeal for anyone who likes well written characters and stories about finding inner strength and strong family ties.

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24

Feb
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

On 24, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

SugarFrom GoodReads: Ten-year-old Sugar lives on the River Road sugar plantation along the banks of the Mississippi. Slavery is over, but laboring in the fields all day doesn’t make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar has a knack for finding her own fun, especially when she joins forces with forbidden friend Billy, the white plantation owner’s son.

Sugar has always yearned to learn more about the world, and she sees her chance when Chinese workers are brought in to help harvest the cane. The older River Road folks feel threatened, but Sugar is fascinated. As she befriends young Beau and elder Master Liu, they introduce her to the traditions of their culture, and she, in turn, shares the ways of plantation life. Sugar soon realizes that she must be the one to bridge the cultural gap and bring the community together. Here is a story of unlikely friendships and how they can change our lives forever.

Sugar is a lovely story about acceptance and friendship in the Reconstruction South, but what it’s really about, as you might suspect from the title, is Sugar, the girl. Jewell Parker Rhodes really shines, and probably delights, in creating these spunky and smart girls.

Sugar is a trickster like Br’er Rabbit in the stories she so loves. She’s also curious and impulsive. These characteristics continually get her into trouble, but they also make her a trailblazer. She brazenly accepts the offer of friendship from Billy, the plantation owner’s son. They lead her to befriend the Chinese workers brought to the plantation. She often speaks her mind even when she knows she shouldn’t, although when she speaks up it’s to make a valid point that really needs saying.

I think Sugar is an incredibly relatable kid. She never tries to get in trouble, but her impulsivity and her need to question often irritates the adults in her life and she ends up disappointing and frightening them. She’s the kid you ask “what were you thinking” and they can’t exactly articulate it because they were acting from their heart and gut, not from a clear place of logic. And really, that’s most kids. The book also shows those kids that good things can come of those “bad” behaviors. It’s Sugar who makes Billy open his eyes to the reality of the situation on the plantation. It’s Sugar who proves she is a true friend to Billy when he’s sick and she tries to help him hold on. It’s Sugar who first bridges that gap between the Chinese workers and the former slaves. She helps build their family and community. You can’t help falling for Sugar and wishing she lived in better times, under better circumstances.

This book would be an awesome addition to fifth or eighth grade curriculum when students study the Civil War. I really dislike how most traditional school programs approach history, particularly American history. There is often such a focus on several major events (primarily The War for Independence, the Civil War, and WWII) and the rest in between is seen as filler. There isn’t a focus on the often important changes and developments that take place, the people who were important, and everyday lives that happen between those wars. Maybe because we’d have to focus less on dead white men? And yet, it’s those things that made our nation. In my school career Reconstruction was covered in less than a day if it was covered at all. And yet, it’s an interesting and important part of history.

Sugar introduces readers to how things did and didn’t change for the people, white and black, in the South. Who knew that the Chinese were brought in to work plantations? I had never heard that, but it’s fascinating. Sugar gives a glimpse into a historical period when attitudes were changing, the make up of the South was changing, and the economics were changing too. Besides being a good human interest story, it can pique interest in a rich historical period and lead to further discussion. The former slaves are technically free, but they have so few options that they are still enslaved to their jobs and the land they were brought to. Kids are so attuned to injustice and I wouldn’t be surprised if the historical aspects of this story really strike a chord.

A little bit of a spoiler alert: I was a little disappointed that the ending came the way it did. I wanted the plantation to continue on in harmony as it was, but I think it was realistic to have things change. And I think the friendships they built strengthened the people who made them, giving them a clearer sense of what they wanted out of the rest of their lives and how they wanted to be treated. You also leave, if not knowing how things will ultimately play out, knowing that Sugar has found peace with herself and that’s a great note to end on.

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23

Feb
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes

On 23, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Bayou MagicFrom GoodReads: It’s Maddy’s turn to have a bayou summer. At first she misses life back home in the city, but soon she grows to love everything about her new surroundings — the glimmering fireflies, the glorious landscape, and something else, deep within the water, that only Maddy sees. Could it be a mermaid? As her grandmother shares wisdom about sayings and signs, Maddy realizes she may be only the sibling to carry on her family’s magical legacy. And when a disastrous oil leak threatens the bayou, she knows she may also be the only one who can help. Does she have what it takes to be a hero?

Finally, a mermaid story that doesn’t involve some girl pining after a prince! In all seriousness, I enjoyed The Little Mermaid as a kid, but Bayou Magic puts a very different spin on mermaid lore. One where the main character has a lot of agency and power. I read this book in a day. Sure, it was a quick read but I was also so engrossed I didn’t want to put it down.

Rhodes draws on West African mermaid lore and Mami Wata. Maddy has never left New Orleans and now it’s her summer to spend with her grandmother who lives in the bayou. She is nervous, especially since her older sisters did not enjoy their summers, but she comes to discover she loves the bayou and her grandmother despite how foreign it all feels. She spends her days outside running free through the swamp with Bear, her new friend. She also meets the residents of the bayou and comes to appreciate their way of life and community. As she comes to know the bayou she also begins to see Mami Wata, someone her ancestors have been able to see, but not any recent generations. As she comes to love the bayou Maddy knows that when it is threatened by the Gulf Oil Spill she has to ask Mami Wata for help.

Rhodes is such an impactful writer. I really love how she crafts not just her plots and characters, but how she chooses to write her sentences and dialog. And her writing changes a bit from book to book (or at least between the three I’ve read so far) enough that each character has her own unique voice, but still maintains a sense of the author.

The book would be perfect for fourth, fifth, sixth, even seventh or eighth grade. It’s easy enough for upper elementary to read, but the subject and coming of age theme has broad appeal. As with Rhodes other characters, Maddy  is a spunky girl, but she’s also open. Open to new experiences and open to the magic that can be found in the bayou. There is an environmental message here, but it never feels heavy-handed and I think the message that Maddy can be a hero and help makes it very accessible to young students.

My one and only complaint with this book is the cover. Specifically Maddy’s outfit. When Maddy arrives in the bayou she is given overalls to wear and she accepts them. Her city clothes don’t make a reappearance. It’s also a first, because her older sisters have all spent a summer in the bayou and balked at the experience. The magic of the bayou doesn’t speak to them the way it does to Maddy. Part of their rejection of the whole summer experience is refusing to wear or begrudgingly wearing the overalls. Maddy is skeptical, but accepts them and comes to appreciate how practical they are. So the cover has this lovely white dress, something totally counter to what Maddy would be wearing, not to mention completely ignoring the significance of her clothing choice.

Apparently this one doesn’t come out until May. I got an ARC at KidLitCon and just realized how late the publication date is. Sorry if I piqued your interest and now you have to wait. Although it will definitely be worth the wait.

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