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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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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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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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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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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Monthly Author: Jewell Parker Rhodes

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

This month I chose to read several books by Jewell Parker Rhodes. I had two reasons for picking her. First, she was at KidLitCon back in October and I really enjoyed hearing her speak about her books and was really interested in reading them. She has written primarily for adults, but she recently jumped into kidlit. The second reason was I picked up an ARC of her newest book and I read it over the holidays (and loved it).

I was also drawn to her novel Ninth Ward because my husband and I visited New Orleans three years after Katrina. One of my husband’s good friends is a homicide detective there (that is a job that takes a good sense of humor and stomach of steel). He actually stayed in the city through the hurricane and while we were there he drove us all around to see the devastation, which was still very visible three years later. I remember him driving us down streets saying he boated over them or near them since he couldn’t actually see landmarks at the time. There were still a lot of houses boarded up and painted with signs from rescue crews that indicated if a home had been searched for survivors. But the most heart breaking was seeing the Ninth Ward. It looked like undeveloped land. He explained that it had been a typical residential neighborhood with homes and streets and sidewalks, albeit a poverty stricken one. But there was nothing there. Not even foundations. Occasionally you’d see a set of concrete steps leading nowhere and the streets were pocked with huge potholes and overrun with weeds. There were still a few structures standing, but I don’t think they had survived the flood. It was horrifying to think of all these people’s homes just gone with not even a concrete slab to mark where they once stood.

As I said, Rhodes only has a few kidlit/middle grade novels. Rather the opposite of Joseph Bruchac who I choose last month. I was able to read all three and I really enjoyed them. Rhodes is very good at creating unique voices for her characters, but still maintaining a style that rings true to her. I was going to try and get through one of her adult mystery novels, but I just didn’t have time. The schedule for the week will be as follows. I will link up once the posts are live:

  • Monday: Bayou Magic
  • Tuesday: Sugar
  • Wednesday: Ninth Ward

Here is a link to her website for her children’s books: Jewell Parker Rhodes. There are a few videos on her site, including a trailer for the book Sugar. She also has a link to a video on YouTube of a group of people touring the Ninth Ward four years after Katrina. It looks pretty much like it did when we visited. Sad. Just sad.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Lulu and the Duck in the Park by Hilary McKay

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

LuluLulu and the Duck in the Park written by Hilary McKay, pictures by Priscilla Lamont

Lexile: 740L

From GoodReads: Lulu can’t understand people who don’t like animals – people like her teacher, Mrs Holiday. When Lulu tries to help Mrs Holiday to find her perfect pet, she is banned from bringing an animal to school ever again! Then Lulu rescues an abandoned duck egg. She’s going to have to take it to school to keep it safe.

Hooray! Another book with incidental diversity. A chapter book for younger readers, no less. Nothing said here about what Lulu looks like, but Lamont has drawn her as African American. Fabulous. But I was of two minds with this one.

Lulu was awesome. She loves animals, she applies kid logic to her situation (an egg isn’t an animal, so it’s okay to bring it to school), and she always jumps off swings. Her best friend and cousin, Mellie, is the cautious kid who is always losing things. She was a great pair with Lulu and also a true blue friend. When Lulu told her about the duck egg, she took it in stride and helped her keep it safe and secret.

But their teacher Mrs. Holiday was such a grouch*. When the children are in the park on the way back from swimming, they witness two dogs scattering a bunch of duck nests. The ducks are terrified, the ducklings are terrified, and a lot of the eggs end up cracked. The kids are crying and obviously upset. What does their teacher do to help them process it? She gives them a speech about how they have to just move on. She has also told the kids that she doesn’t like animals and if any of the kids make good on their offers to bring a friend for the class guinea pig, she’ll swap Class Two for their stick insects. Plus she’s constantly snipping at the children.

I know there are terrible teachers out there, and I know Mrs. Holiday isn’t an example of the worst, but for a beginning chapter book I thought she was awfully mean and insensitive. She was also very two-dimensional. And I think the story would have worked even if she was a lot nicer. Maybe this characterization bothered me because I am a teacher and don’t like negative portrayals. Maybe it bothered me because it was not exaggerated enough to make it clear that it was a trope (think Mrs. Gorf in Sideways Stories from Wayside School). I have no idea if this will bother kids who read this book. I suspect not. Certainly they will love Lulu and the predicament she finds herself in, but I don’t want kids to come away thinking teachers are bad or rude and expect that behavior in their own. Something about it makes me uncomfortable.

The story about Lulu is very funny though and it would be great for kids who love animals, which is most kids at this level. In the end I doubt my own personal reservations would prevent me from handing this book out to beginning chapter book enthusiasts. It’s also the first in a series with Lulu and other animals which is great.

*Actually, I wanted to use a stronger word.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Delta Legend by Kellan O’Connell

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

Delta LegendDelta Legend by Kellan O’Connell

From GoodReads: When 16-year-old Oakland teenager, Calvin Pierce, makes a bad decision and winds up getting arrested, his mother is quick to take action. Determined not to lose a second son to the drug and gang violence of the inner city, she sends Calvin to spend the summer working for his great uncle in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

There in the predominately white region of agriculture and recreational boating, Calvin’s a fish out of water with a chip on his shoulder. But when severed body parts are discovered floating in a slough, his summer of proving himself takes on new meaning.

Something deadly is lurking in the deep, murky waterways of the Delta. Now the daunting task of containing the living incarnation of a mythical creature falls to Calvin and his ragtag posse of oddball characters.

I picked up a copy of Delta Legend for two reasons. The first was that I met Kellan O’Connell at the KidLitCon back in October and she was wonderful. I really enjoyed talking to her. The second was that it takes place nearby in the Delta region. It also features a diverse cast, so it fit with what am reading this year.

I’m really glad I found out about the book because I absolutely loved it. The pacing was excellent and action was mixed with character development (most notably Calvin). There was plenty of suspense and a lot of humor. The characters, and there were quite a few, had unique voices and I found them incredibly believable. I will note that O’Connell is white and she tackles writing from the perspectives of old and young, African-American and Chinese, and male and female.

The setting paired with the humor and to some extent the initial mystery of what is killing people brought Carl Hiaasen’s books MG to mind (Chomp especially) . Although those are clearly middle school books, this felt more in-line with high school. There is no sex and only some kissing, but there is quite a bit of language (but not in a way that felt unnecessary or out of place), some drinking and one incident of drug use at a party (minor characters take ecstasy) and murder (with descriptions of the bodies). Plus the kids are older. I would send fans of Hiaasen’s books to this when they hit high school. Anyone who likes a good suspenseful mystery would also appreciate Delta Legend.

O’Connell worked in the film and television industry for years and that comes through in her writing in the best possible way. The book is so cinematic. I could clearly see everything playing out. Not to mention the way she build suspense both within chapters and across the book felt very movie-like. Reading a chapter often felt like watching a scene from a movie, especially those where you suspect you know what’s going to happen and still have that “OH!” reaction when it does. One of the blurbs on the back of the book says something about this being adapted from a screenplay and if that’s the case O’Connell did an incredible job fleshing this out into an actual novel and, while it retained it’s cinematic quality, it was a well-written and well-crafted novel.

I also found the setting incredibly compelling. The first few chapters with Calvin take place in Oakland and the rest of the book is set in the Sacrament0-San Joaquin Delta. An Oakland setting would have been fine, but the Delta is an incredibly beautiful and vital region that doesn’t get a lot of attention. It was enjoyable to read a book set somewhere both close to home and relatively unknown. Plus it made for some excellent suspense having the murky waters of the rivers hiding a creature!

I had a few thoughts about the mythical beast part of the story. In both looking at the cover and in reading the blurb the readers know that there is a creature of some sort lurking in the waters of the Delta, but the characters don’t learn what it really is or even put together that it’s a creature until about half way through the story. This is not a big reveal to the reader, but it is to the characters and it’s handled so well that it still feels suspenseful. It’s rather like the “don’t go in there!” moments of horror movies. I was also expecting Calvin to follow a “chosen one” story arc and that, thankfully, is not what happens at all. In fact the creature ties into the Chinese history of the region which gives readers another fantastic glimpse into the richness of the Delta area. For a book with such a cast of characters and pieces of plot to tie in (a throw back to history, Calvin’s troubles and his brother’s death, his uncle’s history, etc., etc.) the book could have bogged down, or even just been too unwieldy, but it wasn’t in the slightest. O’Connell managed all the pieces beautifully and wove them into a coherent and compelling story.

Lastly, the ending was perfect. I don’t want to spoil it, but the ending as a whole is exactly how I like my endings.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit: Princeless by Jeremy Whitley

On 11, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

PrincelesPrinceless: The Arduous Business of Getting Rescued written by Jeremy Whitley, illustrated by M. Goodwin

From GoodReads: Adrienne Ashe never wanted to be a princess. She hates fancy dinners, is uncomfortable in lavish dresses, and has never wanted to wait on someone else to save her. However, on the night of her 16th-birthday, her parents, the King and Queen, locked her away in a tower guarded by a dragon to await the rescue of some handsome prince. Now Adrienne has decided to take matters into her own hands!

A princess book for those kids and parents who want an alternative to the passive princess. Adrienne is one of those girls who questions everything and she’s a bit confused as to why she needs a prince to come save her- this is shown beautifully in the first scene with her mother reading a vapid fairy tale before bedtime. Unfortunately Adrienne’s parents don’t quite see it the way she does and at 16 she ends up locked in a tower.

I absolutely loved the characters in this book. Adrienne finds her situation silly and exasperating so she sets out to do something about it. She enlists the help of the dragon protecting her and she getting out isn’t quite so hard as she thought, so she decides to save her sisters. That proves more difficult, especially because she doesn’t really have a plan, she just flies by the seat of her pants. This makes for a lot of funny situations. Her quest puts her in a lot of danger, but she takes it in stride and thinks fast. What’s not to like about a pragmatic princess, one that is going to rely on herself instead of other people?

Then there is her new-found ally Bedelia, the blacksmith’s daughter. She’s hilarious and while she helps Adrienne out, outfitting her with armor and helping her fight off palace guards, she’s overly-enthusiastic and kind-of-silly. Her goofiness makes her a nice foil to the more serious and focused Adrienne. She’s not so silly, though, that she’s useless. She has skills as a blacksmith and she’s clearly physically strong and willing to help out Adrienne. She also makes an interesting comment toward the end about how Adrienne has been locked in a tower, but she has too. She’s been stuck covering for her alcoholic father by being the blacksmith of the town and hasn’t had a lot of choice in her situation either. It’s an interesting point about the different ways women can get stuck in towers.

Adrienne’s brother, Devin, introduces the idea of men who are not traditionally manly. He isn’t interested in fighting and shows some interest in poetry much to the disappointment of his father. He is the heir to the throne and the father worries he won’t be fit to rule. He, like Adrienne, questions the status quo, suggesting that maybe one of his sisters could rule. Their traditional father doesn’t agree and continually makes disparaging remarks about the son’s lack of interest in traditional manly things. I hope the father is fleshed out a bit more as the series continues. He’s awfully two dimensional.

I was particularly pleased to note that Adrienne and her parents could have been any color, but the illustrator chose to draw them as black. Of course there are no physical descriptions in graphic novels because you see the characters, but that’s true in picture books as well and yet how many times do we see a characters defaulted to white?

My one complaint is that quote at the top of the book about the story Disney should have been telling- a quote not from the author or illustrator, but a reviewer. I read a recent blog post by Liz Burns about princess shaming that I totally agreed with. It’s definitely food for thought, and it addresses exactly why I’m uncomfortable with this quote. I personally am not a princess person. I was always way more interested in talking animals. My daughter is the same and also likes fairies. But we’ll watch a princess movie and enjoy it for what it is- a bit of light entertainment. I think the pinkification of girlhood is troubling, but because it can over sexualize young girls, not because some girls like pink and like princesses. And for those girls that do, I don’t feel comfortable invalidating their interests simply because they aren’t mine. I encourage you to read Liz’s post.

As for who would like this book, I would say anyone. You don’t have to be looking for a kick-butt princess. You don’t have to be a feminist. You don’t have to be looking for diversity. It’s just a fun read that happens to have all those elements. It’s also totally appropriate for all ages. Sure older kids (high school) might find it a bit young, but the characters are so appealing and the story so much fun that they’ll get into it too. Middle schoolers will probably catch on to the girl saving herself theme and lower school kids will see a great role model in Adrienne. I hope future additions to the series touch on girl friendships with Adrienne and Bedelia.

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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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