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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Taking Flight by Michaela DePrince

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

Taking FlightTaking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela DePrince with Elaine DePrince

From GoodReads: The extraordinary memoir of Michaela DePrince, a young dancer who escaped war-torn Sierra Leone for the rarefied heights of American ballet.
Michaela DePrince was known as girl Number 27 at the orphanage, where she was abandoned at a young age and tormented as a “devil child” for a skin condition that makes her skin appear spotted. But it was at the orphanage that Michaela would find a picture of a beautiful ballerina en pointe that would help change the course of her life.
At the age of four, Michaela was adopted by an American family, who encouraged her love of dancing and enrolled her in classes. She went on to study at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre and is currently a member of the Dutch National Ballet’s junior company. 

Michaela DePrince is probably one of the most upbeat, positive and, therefore, inspiring people I’ve read about in a long time. She was born in Sierra Leone during the civil war there and was orphaned early. While much of what she recounts is from the perspective of a three year old, it’s still quite brutal. It’s horrifying to think what such a small child saw and experienced. The first quarter of the book was absolutely heart wrenching.

I am always impressed by people who know from very early on what they want to do. Michaela wanted to be a ballerina and, considering her early-life circumstances, was incredibly lucky to make it. But none of it came easily. She had to work very, very hard to achieve her dream. It’s a little mind-boggling that some one so young was willing to stick with all the training, time, and effort it took to make it as a professional dancer. Clearly she had a passion and the drive.

In Taking Flight her voice comes across as genuine and sincere. She openly talks about her struggles through the years without over sharing. But she also doesn’t dwell on all the bad things that have happened to her. She takes them, examines them and weaves them into the fabric of who she is. I was particularly struck by her discussion of her first year in high school, away from her family. She is taken in by some older teens that introduce her to some really bad habits (drinking, smoking, and eating disorders). She freely admits to trying all those things, with the exception of the eating disorders. However she also says she was disappointed in herself for doing things she knew were not good for her, were not going to help her career in the long run, and ran counter to the values her parents instilled in her. Her early experiences with starvation and dysentery convinced her that she would not use an eating disorder to stay thin.

The obvious audience for this book is girls and boys interested in ballet, but if you can get other kids to pick up a “ballet book” I don’t see why it’s audience has to be limited by anything. Her story, while not universal, is incredibly inspiring. She keeps hope when it seems there is none. She works astonishingly hard at both school work and at ballet. I think best of all, though, she wants to be a good person and that shows through in her sincerity. She tries very hard to keep true to herself, her goals, and her beliefs and she does a remarkable job of it. In sharing that story it would seem incredibly didactic and lecture-y, but it never is. I think she buys into it so whole-heartedly that everything she writes comes from an deeply genuine place. Any kid would do well to see how far you can go with luck and determination.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Martin and Mahalia by Andrea Pinkney

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

Martin and Mahalia

Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

From GoodReads: On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and his strong voice and powerful message were joined and lifted in song by world-renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. It was a moment that changed the course of history and is imprinted in minds forever. Told through Andrea Davis Pinkney’s poetic prose and Brian Pinkney’s evocative illustration, the stories of these two powerful voices and lives are told side-by-side — as they would one day walk — following the journey from their youth to a culmination at this historical event when they united as one and inspiring kids to find their own voices and speak up for what is right.

A beautiful picture book that looks at the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from a different angle. Andrea Pinkney has chosen a moment in history and examines the relationship and path that led up to it. Interestingly, she uses the idea of a path or journey in both a literal and metaphorical way. The book begins and ends with signposts and directions. Brian Pinkney’s illustrations illuminate this by showing a swirling path- sometimes an artistic flourish, sometimes a swath of road with words directing the reader- through each spread.

The story jumps between Martin and Mahalia and how the two were almost destined to meet and have an impact together. His words were powerful and he had a gift for oratory. Her song was powerful and she had a gift for singing. Their early years set them on their paths to speech and song. Together they worked tirelessly for equal rights. At the Lincoln Memorial Mahalia quieted the crowd and prepared them to listen to Martin by singing. She prompted him as he spoke by saying “Tell them about your dream, Martin.”

Pinkney’s words are incredibly poetic and lyrical, almost like a song. She breaks out important words into short sentences and blocks that bring to mind choruses of songs. While the book is clearly best for older readers (say, 7 0r 8 and up) the rhythm of it still made it engaging for my three year old. The pictures too are so flowing they seem to be musical. Swirls of color, movement, words and arrows march you along with the protesters and keep time with the music of the words. Each illustration also uses a color palette for the background and that tints the people and objects in them- rosy pinks, cool blues, fresh greens. That, too, plays into the musicality of the pictures.

I was surprised to notice race and racism were really not explicitly brought up. There were two mentions , one of Jim Crow laws and what that meant and another in using King’s words from his speech. And there are some key places, like in talking about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that she doesn’t use the words “black” and “white” to delineate the “us” and “them” groups. That seemed like an interesting choice and while the story is clearly about the black experience, it made it feel even more universal.

Pair this amazing book with Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport for a good look at why we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. More broadly, there are tons of excellent titles about the Civil Rights Movement available to all ages.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Mare’s War by Tanita Davis

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

Mare's WarMare’s War by Tanita S. Davis

From GoodReads: Octavia and Tali are dreading the road trip their parents are forcing them to take with their grandmother over the summer. After all, Mare isn’t your typical grandmother. She drives a red sports car, wears stiletto shoes, flippy wigs, and push-up bras, and insists that she’s too young to be called Grandma. But somewhere on the road, Octavia and Tali discover there’s more to Mare than what you see. She was once a willful teenager who escaped her less-than-perfect life in the deep South and lied about her age to join the African American battalion of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.

The week I read this was kind of busy so my reading stretched out over almost five days. And I’m really glad it did. This was a great book to savor.

The story alternates between the road trip and Mare’s time in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and that structure was really compelling. First, you see Mare as a young, more naive woman and as a more mature woman. Davis did a phenomenal job keeping her consistent across the time, but giving grandmother Mare more world knowledge and just a generally more mature outlook on life. It was also very interesting to see the parallels between Tali and Octavia and Mare, both in their personalities and in their stories. You can really see two sides of Mare in the girls, which isn’t to say they are less complex, just that they are clearly family.

The theme of family, a common one in books for this age group, is very strong. The girls are building a relationship with Mare that they never had and are learning that she’s more than just their grandmother and their father’s mother. She had an impressive and difficult life prior to that (and even during that). They think she’s a bit eccentric, but come to realize that it stems in part from her childhood and adolescence. Mare knows how to live and knows how to appreciate the time she’s given. Her family was rather dysfunctional growing up. Her widowed mother had a series of bad boyfriends, including one that molested Mare and her sister and then beat Mare nearly to death when she got in his way. When her sister was sent away to live with a relative, Mare ran off to join the WAC. With the exception of her sister Mare doesn’t feel much like she has family. Her mother refuses to speak to her after the incident with the boyfriend and Mare struggles to not feel gutted by her mother’s silence, both while she’s still home and after she leaves. The WAC, however, provides her with girls who become her family. They endure their training, homesickness, and good times together and it builds a very strong bond.

The theme of finding yourself and your inner strength was also strong in both story lines. Octavia is overly cautious and also insecure. The road trip puts her out of her element, but makes her confront some of her fear and learn that she can push through the uncomfortable parts. It isn’t a cure-all though and she’s clearly still working on coming into her own. Tali also learns some valuable lessons about how far she can push boundaries and that when she pushes too far it doesn’t feel right to upset, hurt, and disappoint people she loves. Mare’s story shows her development from a passive, but determined young girl to a woman who knows how to be independent and that she has reserves of strength (mental and physical) that she never knew she had. Her story also teaches the girls some valuable lessons without feeling didactic. (It runs chronologically with little left out or glossed over, not like pieces of story chosen to highlight a specific lesson.) The interplay between the present and past is really well done.

I also appreciated that things don’t turn out perfectly in the end. The girls still bicker, they still have their quirks and insecurities. Mare is still a little weird and distant. But they have grown through being together and through Mare’s history. Mare by sharing it and reliving it. The girls by hearing it and taking away lessons from it.

I was surprised, as was Octavia, to learn more about women’s, especially African American women’s, contributions and participation in WWII. I will almost never read WWII books. I think it’s over done and don’t find the time period terribly interesting. However I make exceptions for these types of stories that tackle it from angles that we don’t usually hear about. I really enjoyed Mare’s story about leaving home and ultimately shipping over to Europe (Scotland, England, then France) which would have been quite the experience for many of those girls.

Heads up, Mare calls the Japanese Japs and Italians Dagos. It’s definitely the right terminology in the 1940s story, but if that’s a trigger for you or your students be aware that it’s in there. At the very least it should open up a discussion about racial slurs and how people used to use them, but we don’t anymore.

It’s definitely a book for middle school kids, but I would think fifth grade could handle it. There isn’t any sex or violence, but one of Mare’s mother’s boyfriends is molesting her younger sister and tries to make a few passes at Mare. Mare does defend her and her sister one night, but the scene isn’t graphic, just jarring. For anyone who loved this pick up a copy of Flygirl by Sherri Smith which was also fabulous and about the WAC. That story looks at girls stateside and at passing as white.


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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

On 30, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Killer of EnemiesKiller of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac

From GoodReads: Years ago, seventeen-year-old Apache hunter Lozen and her family lived in a world of haves and have-nots. There were the Ones — people so augmented with technology and genetic enhancements that they were barely human — and there was everyone else who served them. Then the Cloud came, and everything changed. Tech stopped working. The world plunged back into a new steam age. The Ones’ pets — genetically engineered monsters — turned on them and are now loose on the world. Lozen was not one of the lucky ones pre-C, but fate has given her a unique set of survival skills and magical abilities. She hunts monsters for the Ones who survived the apocalyptic events of the Cloud, which ensures the safety of her kidnapped family. But with every monster she takes down, Lozen’s powers grow, and she connects those powers to an ancient legend of her people. It soon becomes clear to Lozen that she is not just a hired gun. As the legendary Killer of Enemies was in the ancient days of the Apache people, Lozen is meant to be a more than a hunter. Lozen is meant to be a hero.

Well, Bruchac has done it again. Another fantastic book that beautifully blends character- and plot- driven elements. And again he’s seamlessly woven Native American (Apache and Chiricahua in this case) lore and beliefs into the story. I’m always impressed with the vocabulary Bruchac uses. Maybe I don’t read lots of literary YA or maybe I read especially crappy YA, but his books have seemed so well written and use a wide range of descriptive vocabulary.

Killer of Enemies was certainly exciting with lots of close calls, fights, and tension. I flew through it’s 360 pages. However, while the story is about Lozen trying to survive and find a way for her family to escape the “settlement” (a former prison that is still pretty prison-like) they have been taken to, it’s also about her coming to accept her skills as a fighter and the destiny that may lay before her. While the skills she has are gruesome she wants to use them for the good of humanity. She really struggles to square the idea that killing and fighting maybe necessary to help those she cares about and the other decent people she knows live within Haven.

As a heads up, Lozen fights and kills a lot of monsters that are genetically modified animals- a gigantic cross between a tiger and porcupine, a massive eagle, and an immense snake to name a few. These scenes are violent and Bruchac doesn’t shy away from describing them. This book is not for your faint-of-heart.

Hand this book to kids who liked the latter parts of the Hunger Games trilogy. It brought to mind several other post-apocalyptic dystopias such as The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey, In the After by Demetria Lunetta, and Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. Give this book to kids who liked those or send them there after they finish this one and want more.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac

On 29, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Skeleton ManSkeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac

From GoodReads: Ever since the morning Molly woke up to find that her parents had vanished, her life has become filled with terrible questions. Where have her parents gone? Who is this spooky old man who’s taken her to live with him, claiming to be her great-uncle? Why does he never eat, and why does he lock her in her room at night? What are her dreams of the Skeleton Man trying to tell her? There’s one thing Molly does know. She needs to find some answers before it’s too late.

Well this one seriously creeped me out. In a good way, of course. It’s part folktale retelling, part ghost story, and part mystery. Molly’s parents have gone missing and she is taken in by a man who claims to be her uncle. Molly knows they have no relatives except a few cousins out in California, but unfortunately all the important adults seem to be totally taken in. Molly is convinced her parents are still alive and will return, but she’s forced to move in with the uncle until she can save herself.

Bruchac does a really good job of creating a spooky atmosphere subtly. There are bars on Molly’s window. Her uncle locks her in her room every night. She eventually discovers that there are hidden cameras watching her. She is pretty sure the food is drugged. Bruchac also makes her seem really isolated. Molly is seriously creeped out, but if she shares her suspsicions she’ll sound paranoid. The one time she does tell the social worker that he locks her in at night the uncle hides the evidence making her look like a liar. The only person who believes her is her teacher, but there is very little she can do to actually help especially after the lock incident.

Then there’s the ghost story about the hungry uncle who eats, first his own flesh then his family one by one. Ultimately his niece is the one to outwit him and bring everyone back to life. Bruchac does an amazing job retelling this story with Molly while connecting her more closely to the story through her Mohawk heritage. Molly, who has always had lucid dreams, is able to rely on them to help her outwit Skeleton Man and rescue herself and her parents. The dream elements of the story never feel contrived and didn’t pull me out of the story the way a lot of magical realism can. It’s also not hokey, although it could have been with a rabbit advising and helping Molly, because it draws on the original story which is shared early on.

Don’t give this to kids who are easily scared. It’s super spooky. This is one for the kids who read Goosebumps or who read ghost story collections and can’t get enough of them. The chapters are short and the language is fairly straight forward as is the structure of the story so it’s good for upper elementary, but I could see early middle school enjoying it too. This would pair nicely with Ying Chang Compestine’s A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts. For kids who really like this one, there is a sequel too.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac

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

Arrow Over the DoorThe Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac

Lexile: 810L

From GoodReads: A powerful novel of the Revolutionary WarTo fourteen-year-old Samuel Russell, called “coward” for his peace-loving Quaker beliefs, the summer of 1777 is a time of fear. The British and the Patriots will soon meet in battle near his home in Saratoga, New York. The Quakers are in danger from roaming Indians and raiders — yet to fight back is not the Friends’ way.

To Stands Straight, a young Abenaki Indian on a scouting mission for the British, all Americans are enemies, for they killed his mother and brother. But in a Quaker Meetinghouse he will come upon Americans unlike any he has ever seen. What will the encounter bring? Based on a real historical incident, this fast-paced and moving story is a powerful reminder that “the way of peace…can be walked by all human beings”.

This was an interesting book. I really enjoyed the story as it was a story about history, friendship, and people coming together in peace, but it was so simply and beautifully told. Bruchac has a wonderful way of telling stories that builds tension and excitement without killing you with suspense. For me, who gets so nervous I flip ahead to be sure everything will be okay, this style helps keep me in the story. I think it can work really well for younger readers too.

Where the book really shines is in sharing a very different perspective on the familiar history of the Revolutionary War. We are told, especially in elementary school when history tends to be simplified, that a bunch of plucky colonists stood up to big, bad King George and established our own country on principles of freedom and equality. We all know as adults that this isn’t quite the whole truth and that it was a lot more complicated than that. The Arrow Over the Door presents the Native perspective in which they are sucked into a war that is not their own with two sides they are not fond of. This isn’t to say that the book bashes the colonists and the British. It simply offers a very different narrative from what we normally hear.

The story also reveals that, at least for a number of tribes, they were not wild people living in the forests. They were settled in villages with churches (introduced here by the French) often wearing Western clothing and had been for two generations or more. There is also the exposure to the Quakers, a religious movement that is not often seen in elementary history books. All around an interesting bit of history couched in an exciting story.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac

On 27, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

LonghouseChildren of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac

From GoodReads: When Ohkwa’ri overhears a group of older boys planning a raid on a neighboring village, he immediately tells his Mohawk elders. He has done the right thing, but he has also made enemies. Grabber and his friends will do anything they can to hurt him, especially during the village-wide game of Tekwaarathon (lacrosse). Ohkwa’ri believes in the path of peace, but can peaceful ways work against Grabber’s wrath?

Children of the Longhouse is a lovely, quiet story. While there is some drama most of the action and plot focus around everyday life in the Mohawk village. Ohkwa’ri is struggling with some older boys that he overheard plotting a raid, which is where the drama comes from, but he is also working on being more cautious and is building a lodge to stay in by himself as preparation for coming of age. The story also follow Ohkwa’ri’s twin sister, Otsi:stia, a bit as she worries and frets over her brother and thinks about her future.

The book is full of small details about everyday life, which would be a big draw for outdoorsy kids and kids interested in historical life. Bruchac also weaves in stories within stories, sharing some folklore of the tribe. If you read his picture book The Great Ball Game (or my review of it the other day) you might be, you’ll recognize one of the stories told by Ohkwa’ri’s uncle. The narrative meanders with the thoughts of Ohkwa’ri and Otsi:stia, but in a pleasant way, not in an unfocused or boring manner. The language is beautiful and Bruchac does a great job conjuring the picture of where they live as well as how they live.

There is plenty of excitement with the Tekwaarathon game, which is played on an enormous “field”. The goal posts are so far apart that to reach them you have to run through the forest and a couple meadows. Ohkwa’ri is honored to be asked to play for an older man, but he is also worried that Grabber and his cronies will try to harm him. This makes for some excellent tension during the game. Sports fans will like the small details about the strategy of the game and the actual plays.

This would make a fabulous bedtime read aloud. Certainly the right fifth or sixth grader could read it, it just has that feel of a book you could read at bedtime. It’s a quiet story with enough action that your kids will be disappointed that you have to put it down and will want to hear more the next night. The chapters vary in length so you might have do a little planning and make breaks where there aren’t chapters.

If I had one complaint about the book, it’s a minor one. There is a glossary with pronunciation guide that was incredibly helpful. However, it’s tucked at the back of the book so I didn’t realize it was there until about half way through the book when I came across a word and wondered if there was a pronunciation guide. It would have been better to put it up front so the reader knows it’s there and so you first see how to pronounce the names Ohkwar’ri (Oh-gwah’-li) and Otsi:stia (Oh-dzee-dzyah).

In terms of length and difficulty it straddles upper elementary and middle school, although Ohkwa’ri is on the young side which might turn middle schoolers off. It’s also a good place for fans of The Birchbark House to come when they are bit older.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Joseph Bruchac Picture Book Reviews

On 26, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten


The First Strawberries: A Cherokee Story retold by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Anna Vojtech

From GoodReads: A captivating re-telling of a Cherokee legend, which explains how strawberries came to be. Long ago, the first man and woman quarreled The woman left in anger, but the Sun sent tempting berries to Earth to slow the wife’s retreat.

This is a picture book that’s been in my personal collection for years. I first found it when teaching in second grade and it’s a great book for that age. Bruchac’s story telling is really superb here and paired with the luminous illustrations The First Strawberries in a wonderful book. I especially like the wordless two-page spreads that add a little more depth to the story.

At first blush this may seem like an odd story to share with children, it is about a marital spat, but I actually think kids will recognize the snippy argument. Kids often expect things done on their timeline without thinking about what others may be doing at the time. Here the woman didn’t have dinner prepared because she was picking flowers to share with her husband. When he arrives home he is upset because he is hungry and doesn’t appreciate the small gesture of the flower bouquet. I think the story draws their attention to the fact that others may have a different, but no less important, agenda than the child. Plus it never hurts to emphasize being apologetic, especially if you have been hurtful to some one you love.

The book never feels preachy despite it’s didactic nature, which is a relief. Kids can smell that this-will-teach-you-something stuff a mile away and they usually don’t connect with it. While second grade is a good age for this book even my daughter, who is three, enjoyed it. It has a fairly low reading level so it would be a great early reader too. And it makes a fantastic read aloud.

SquantoSquanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Greg Shed

From GoodReads: In 1620 an English ship called the Mayflower landed on the shores inhabited by the Pokanoket people, and it was Squanto who welcomed the newcomers and taught them how to survive in the rugged land they called Plymouth. He showed them how to plant corn, beans, and squash, and how to hunt and fish. And when a good harvest was gathered in the fall, the two peoples feasted together in the spirit of peace and brotherhood.
Almost four hundred years later, the tradition continues. . . .

Finally a Thanksgiving story I feel comfortable reading to my daughter! As Bruchac points out in the author’s note the Native American side of this story is rarely told and a good deal of the first Thanksgiving story told from a European perspective is inaccurate or wrong (from foods eaten to clothing worn).

The text is longer in this so it’s probably better suited to older readers, but personally I would read it aloud to my daughter. There are some hard pieces to this story, like the fact that Squanto is kidnapped and sold into slavery or that the majority of his people are wiped out by illness, but Bruchac handles these parts of the story beautifully. He mentions them matter of factly and never dwells on it. He also doesn’t stoop to painting all Europeans with the villain’s brush nor does he fall back on Native American stereotypes of the nobel savage or the naive, gentle Indian (I would have been appalled if he had!).

The story itself is quite interesting. Despite the unfortunate circumstances Squanto lived a well-traveled and interesting life. He also must have been incredibly intelligent as he spoke several languages. He was also able to move between cultures with some ease, although I’m sure there was great prejudice.

I have yet to find a good Thanksgiving book that gives the European side of the story, which is not covered here. I’m sure there is one out there, but I will have to do more research. Instead pair this with The Perfect Thanksgiving which celebrates families that aren’t perfect and Molly’s Pilgrim, a great take on what it means to be a pilgrim and immigrant.

Ball GameThe Great Ball Game: A Muskogee Story by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Susan L. Roth

From GoodReads: With characteristic action and wit, renowned Native American storyteller Bruchac retells the amusing and rousing folktale of an epic ball game between the Birds and the Animals, which offers the explanation as to why birds fly south every winter.

Children in the kindergarten through second grade age range love folk and fairy tales and stories that explain why something is they way it is (a type of folktale). This is one of those stories. Bruchac is clearly a masterful story teller. With fairly simple language he really captures the excitement of the ball game.

The birds and animals are fighting over who is better and they decide to have a lacrosse game to decide. When the birds and the animals divide up their teams, they use wings and teeth as criteria for determining if something is a bird or animal. However bat has both and he has to ask to join both sides. The birds don’t want him because he is so small and the animals rather grudgingly accept him. I know this is all part of the story, but this is exactly the kind of exception a child would come up with. Having it become such an integral part of the story is perfect.

I really loved the art in this one because it has the feel of something a child could recreate. It would make a great project to have kids illustrate other myths, legends or folktales using the cut/torn paper technique seen here. The birds are a little zany looking which makes them really appealing and the teeth on the animals really jump out as little white paper zigzags. The rumpled paper backgrounds are used to great effect showing the waning light of the day and how it makes things hard to see at the end of the ball game.

Boy Called SlowA Boy Called Slow by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Rocco Baviera

From GoodReads: Anxious to be given a name as strong and brave as that of his father, a proud Lakota Sioux grows into manhood, acting with careful deliberation, determination, and bravery, which eventually earned him his proud new name: Sitting Bull. Being named Slow and growing up in the shadow of a great warrior hardly dwarfed the prospects of this protagonist.

I really wish there had been more pictures with this story. It was pretty text heavy, which considering the interesting biography of Sitting Bull wasn’t a bad thing, I just think more pictures would have given readers more entry points into the story. The chalk pastels (?) used in the illustrations were really great for showing shadow and light and made the story pop off the page in a magical way. In terms of interest, telling the story of childhoods is always a good way to help kids make a connection with historical figures.

As you might be able to tell by my lack of commentary on this one I connected the least with this book. It’s a good picture book biography though and would make a great classroom resource.

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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Monthly Author: Joseph Bruchac

On 25, Jan 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

Welcome to the first post in my 2015 monthly author series. For January I chose to read several works by Joseph Bruchac. He’s someone I have been wanting to read because of his Abenaki heritage and the fact that he writes about native protagonists. But more pressingly, he’s coming to speak in Sacramento at the beginning of February! I’m really excited to go to that event as he’ll be talking about diversity in children’s literature.

Bruchac is quite the Renaissance man when it comes to storytelling. He’s published a bajillion books (that’s an exact number), he sings and writes songs, and he does traditional oral storytelling. He is also involved with working to preserve Abenaki culture and language and traditional native skills. According to his biography, in addition Abenaki heritage he is also Slovokian and English. On a personal note this interested me because my husband, and therefore my daughter, are also part Slovak.

The schedule for this week will be reviews of several of his books. Bruchac has an extensive backlist that spans many genres and reading levels, which is fabulous for librarians. It also meant I couldn’t possibly tackle all his books. I think rather appropriately Multicultural Children’s Book Day falls on Tuesday (January 27th) and what better way to celebrate. Here’s the schedule for the week:

I will link to the posts once they are live.

Also here are a few links of note that you may be interested in:

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke

On 21, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Anna HibiscusAnna Hibiscus by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia

Lexile: 670L*

From GoodReads: Anna Hibiscus lives in amazing Africa with her mother, her father, her baby twin brothers, and lots and lots of her family. Join her as she splashes in the sea, prepares for a party, sells oranges, and hopes to see sweet, sweet snow.

What a great start to a chapter book series! The book begins with a hilarious story about Anna and her parents and baby brothers going on vacation. Anna’s mother is Canadian and grew up in a quiet house with only her parents and herself and it seems that she is longing to have some alone time. When they arrive at their vacation house it becomes apparent why it might be better to have all those aunties and uncles and cousins and grandparents around (they help cook, clean and care for the babies), so each day Anna’s father returns with another set of family ultimately bringing everyone along on vacation.

The chapters are each stand-alone stories rather than continuations of a longer, over-arching plot, although there are nods to events that have happened in previous chapters. In terms of length of chapters and the book as a whole I would say this is an older chapter book suited for second graders (8 year olds). It’s easier than Clementine and a step or two up from many of the Magic Tree House books and the Cam Jansen series. If only for the diversity, but also the stress on the importance of family and the fact that Anna isn’t so sassy, I would give these to my own daughter to read.

Anna is a fun little girl and her family, all packed into their beautiful, sprawling white house, provides lots of learning and entertainment for her. Each story has her learning a little more about her family or the world around her. The story about selling oranges is particularly sweet as Anna comes to realize that her actions have very real consequences for people and also shows her how fortunate she is. The story never becomes overly preachy and didactic though, making it engaging for the intended audience instead of feeling like a lesson being crammed down the reader’s throat.

If there was one thing that worried me it’s that Anna lives in “Africa”. I worry that kids, especially American children, already think Africa is a country and this isn’t helping them figure out that it’s not. According to the author’s note this is set in Nigeria where Atinuke grew up and since Anna’s city is a lagoon it’s probably Lagos, but I would be surprised if most kids (and their parents) sat down to puzzle that out. I’m guessing, though, that Atinuke did this with some purpose in mind. However it’s incredibly refreshing to see a book about Africa that doesn’t carry on the narrative of poor unfortunate souls wasting away from disease and hunger. There is poverty in Africa, but there are plenty of normal people who go about their lives just like us and I think it’s so important for young readers to see that as much as(or more than!)other narratives.

As a side note, I am always hungry when I read books about Nigeria. There is a feast in the chapter where Anna’s auntie who is living in America comes home to visit. I just want to have some pepper soup and pounded yam!

*I think I’ll start including the Lexile measure on the chapter books I review simply because these are books where having a just-right reading level is really important. I take issue with book levels, but I do think they can provide some context for comparison and help parents and teachers who need a good, quick way to put the right book in the right hands. But don’t underestimate a kid with high interest in a character or topic!

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