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Diversity

21

Jan
2015

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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20

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson

On 20, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ms. MarvelMs. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona

From GoodReads: Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City — until she’s suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts. But who truly is the new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman? Find out as she takes the Marvel Universe by storm! When Kamala discovers the dangers of her newfound powers, she unlocks a secret behind them, as well. Is Kamala ready to wield these immense new gifts? Or will the weight of the legacy before her be too much to bear? Kamala has no idea, either. But she’s comin’ for you, New York!

I picked this one up not because it was diverse (although that was a huge bonus) but because I absolutely love Willow Wilson’s writing. Love it. Ms. Marvel was, however, very different from her last two books I’ve read and a lot closer to her graphic novel Cairo. Writing a good story that doesn’t have much exposition, besides getting inside a character’s head, and relies heavily on dialog must be incredibly difficult, but Wilson pulls it off beautifully.

Kamala is kind of a dorky girl who plays games online, writes fanfic, and reads a lot of comic books. Her parents are Pakistani and hold her to some traditional values and even though she chafes against some of them because she just wants to seem like she fits in in high school. She’s a good kid and her parents are very accepting and understanding though. (Hooray for good parents!! I’m so tired of awful parents.) When sneaking out to go to a party she is not allowed to attend (there are boys and booze) a strange, thick fog rolls in and Kamala wanders off. After fainting she wakes up to Captain Marvel standing in front of her. Kamala expresses a desire to look blonde and beautiful, to wear clothes that show off her body, and to have powers, so Captain Marvel passes on her mantel to Kamala. As she is leaving, she warns Kamala that this is not going to work out how she expects and she is right.

It is up to Kamala now to figure out her powers and decide what she is going to do with them. I feel like a broken record saying this, but despite her differences from white suburban kids (who most books seem to be about) Kamala’s struggles, personal and familial, are not that far off from anyone else’s. We all wanted to fit in in high school. We all fought with, disappointed, and defied our parents. We all struggled to define ourselves and thought about who we wanted to be. I think most people even decided they want to be good people. Kamala wrestles with the same issues. She does decide to keep her new identity secret from everyone but her best friend which of course will set up some good tension between her and her parents. Certainly that tension isn’t unrealistic. We may not all have super powers, but we all kept secrets from our parents.

I can’t place this book in a larger context of the Avengers stories or even within the context of Captain Marvel. Until I read this I didn’t know that Captain Marvel was a woman. To some extent this felt limiting when I first started reading. I was a little confused that her world was not actually ours even though it’s essentially the same. Within the book super heroes are real and they have powers. I don’t know why I was confused, but I was. I chalk it up to never having read comic books like this before.

Not only is the story a universal one, but the art of the book is really wonderful. I’ve read a few graphic novels where the art has really detracted from what might otherwise be a good story. I’ve also read graphic novels where the art just doesn’t seem very good. Not so here. Alphona can really draw people. Facial expressions are easy to read and characters look consistent across the book. Even when the art pulls back and the characters become less distinct you can still tell who is who.

I especially loved Kamala and how she dresses. She’s clearly very pretty, but she doesn’t fit that high school ideal. She dresses kind of creatively and she has these really cute facial expressions. Alphona also does a great job with the settings. You get a real sense of place, like you could visit this Jersey City even though it’s drawn. And there are some funny little details and asides in the background (i.e. a cereal called GM O-s). It’s these little bits that enhance the story and make all the dialog come together to form a cohesive whole.

I really love this cover. I know it’s been said before that publishers, when they do put a POC on a cover, often hide their face and that’s exactly what’s going on here. But it works in context of the story. Kamala is struggling to figure out who she is and who she wants to be and then has this added complication of being given super powers that put her in a position to defend those who need help. It isn’t clear either who she is as Kamala or who she is as Ms. Marvel and I think hiding her face emphasizes this question. Not to mention as a super hero she seems to want to protect her identity.

A great story about a girl who is figuring out who she is. It just so happens that she has super powers. The beauty of the story, at least for me, was how she figures out that although her powers technically make her special she doesn’t need them to. They don’t define her or make her a better person. They certainly force her to really think about that, but she makes the conscious decision to do that.

Give this book to kids who like good super hero stories with character development, not action (although there is some of that and there are hints of action to come). It would also be a good choice for kids who are looking for stories about coming into your own.

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14

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Allison Levy

On 14, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Family FletcherThe Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Allison Levy

From GoodReads: Meet the Fletchers. Their year will be filled with new schools, old friends, a grouchy neighbor, hungry skunks, leaking ice rinks, school plays, wet cats, and scary tales told in the dark!

There’s Sam, age twelve, who’s mostly interested in soccer, food, and his phone; Jax, age ten, who’s psyched for fourth grade and thinks the new neighbor stinks, and not just because of the skunk; Eli, age ten (but younger than Jax), who’s thrilled to be starting this year at the Pinnacle School, where everyone’s the smart kid; and Frog (not his real name), age six, who wants everyone in kindergarten to save a seat for his invisible cheetah. Also Dad and Papa.

WARNING: This book contains cat barf, turtle pee, and some really annoying homework assignments.

Oh no! This was a DNF (did not finish) for me. I wanted to like the book and I can’t say I didn’t, I just wasn’t clicking with it right now for some reason. (I suspect it’s the time of year as I read this just before Christmas and had a to-do list a mile long.)

Even though I put it down I think it’s got great appeal. The story follows the four boys in the Family Fletcher. Four very different boys, in appearance and personality, who are all adopted by two dads. The book really captures a loving, functional family which is so refreshing. The family is also very  much the picture of suburban families- they play sports, attend private school (and public school), they camp, they have traditions, they have a cat and a dog, the list goes on. If anything this book goes overboard in making the family both diverse and normal. But can you really go overboard with that?

Each chapter switches perspective and is narrated not by, but from the perspective of, one of the boys. They each have something going on such as a new school or changing friendship. The Fletcher’s live next door to a crotchety old man who is always yelling at them about too much noise and various pieces of sports equipment, but even he isn’t painted with a broad villain brush. He slowly evolves in the eyes of the boys as they have a variety of interactions with him where he becomes a lot more human.  The best part of the book is how quirky the whole family is when taken as a whole. And I think this is so relatable for kids at that upper elementary level. They’re just starting to become aware of how they look as a family to people outside looking in and it can be so embarrassing!

This would make a fantastic read aloud to a third or fourth grade class (or kid), but the youngest brother has just started kindergarten so there is certainly something there for younger readers to connect with and make this book good read aloud for a mixed-age group. The langauge and length definitely make it more suitable to older readers who want to tackle it alone. Although not quite as sweet and pastoral as The Penderwicks I think this is a good place to go for kids who liked sibling relationships and friendship elements of that book.

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13

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Non-fiction Review: The Noisy Paint Box & The Right Word

On 13, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Biographies

I have really mixed feelings about the picture book format used as a biography. On the one hand I think they can breath life into a genre that can be incredibly dry. They are also great a piquing interest. On the other hand they can be rather sparse and if the life of the person isn’t handled properly (giving it a plot of sorts and telling a story) it can fall very, very flat. I also think a lot of kids tend to get into biographies when they are out of the picture book stage. While picture books often have more difficult text than chapter books they get a stigma of being for little kids and upper elementary kids, who many picture book biographies are aimed at, don’t want to be seen with them.

Noisy Paint BoxThe Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kadinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPre

From Goodreads: In this exuberant celebration of creativity, Barb Rosenstock and Mary Grandpre tell the fascinating story of Vasily Kandinsky, one of the very first painters of abstract art. Throughout his life, Kandinsky experienced colors as sounds, and sounds as colors–and bold, groundbreaking works burst forth from his noisy paint box.

While I really enjoyed how this book brought Kadinsky to life and made him very relatable to kids I came away wanting to know more. Kadinsky apparently had a condition (is that what it is?) called synesthesia where your brain crosses your senses and you might taste words or hear colors as Kadinsky did. Since it’s a book for younger audiences I think the amount of information is appropriate, but don’t be surprised if you are asked to help them seek out more information.

Rosenstock does a wonderful job describing sounds and colors together as they blend in Kadinsky’s mind. Children reading the book will have no problem hearing the colors along side the artist. The illustrations are also a wonderful blend of realistic pictures of people and places, but as soon as the colors start swirling tiny details, like instruments, appear as mixed media or collage in picture.

The book is very interesting and gets points for talking about Kadinsky and his different way of sensing the world (a diversity of sorts). I also really like when these types of books show artists as children. Kadinsky really didn’t paint until he was much older despite having been given a paint box as a child. No one believed that he could hear the colors and it certainly wasn’t proper. When he actually painted pictures they came out as abstracts, representing the music he was hearing, making them difficult for his family to appreciate. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of kids have artistic aspirations and will find comfort in the long path it took for Kadinsky to finally become recognized and appreciated.

RogetThe Right Word: Roget and His Thesuarus by Jennifer Bryant , illustrated by Melissa Sweet

From GoodReads: For shy young Peter Mark Roget, books were the best companions — and it wasn’t long before Peter began writing his own book. But he didn’t write stories; he wrote lists. Peter took his love for words and turned it to organizing ideas and finding exactly the right word to express just what he thought. His lists grew and grew, eventually turning into one of the most important reference books of all time.

The book for kids who love to make lists. There’s a lot here: the illustrations are busy and charming; the story of Roget’s life is interesting; the author’s note and timeline at the end provide a bit more information for those who are curious.

As interesting as Roget’s biography is, it’s the illustrations that make this book. Sweet draws charming people, but adds tons of collaged details that will have readers poring over the pages. In keeping with Roget’s lists, words cover many of the pages charmingly grouped together with hand-drawing fonts and brackets.

I’m not sure I can add much more to the discussion of this book. It seems to be very popular with librarians, and considering their love of order and words (not stereotyping at all!) I can’t say I’m surprised. I wonder if kids will connect with it, but I certainly think the right kid will. Give this to kids who like lists, who love words and writing, and to kids who are interested in biographies. Especially that last group. The format of the book is so engaging you might even be able to convince kids who don’t normally go for biographies to pick this one up.

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08

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Ashley Bryan’s Puppets

On 08, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

PuppetsAshley Bryan’s Puppets: Making Something From Everything by Ashley Bryan

From GoodReads: Daily, for decades, Ashley has walked up and down the beach, stopping to pick up sea glass, weathered bones, a tangle of fishing net, an empty bottle, a doorknob. Treasure.

And then, with glue and thread and paint and a sprinkling of African folklore, Ashley breathes new life into these materials. Others might consider it beach junk, but Ashley sees worlds of possibilities.

Ashley Bryan’s two-foot-tall hand puppets swell with personality and beauty, and in this majestic collection they make their literary debut, each with a poem that tells of their creation and further enlivens their spirit.

What an incredible book!

I could see that some of these puppets might look a little creepy to kids and I was fully prepared to do damage control with my daughter, but she was totally enthralled with them. Just reading the introduction where Bryan talks about finding bits and bobs on the beach that he uses to make puppets had her asking to make her own puppets from recycled materials around the house. She was really captivated by the poems that accompany each puppet and the close-up pictures of each puppet only made her more interested in making her own. They are incredibly charming from the frog to the elephant, they have amazing clothing and are composed of all sorts of objects.

The book is laid out with a series of two page spreads that show a line up of several puppets. Each spread is followed by pages featuring a portrait of each puppet and a poem about them. The poem titles are the names of each puppet and are a variety of African gods, goddesses, and words. A few of the puppets shown do not have their own poems which Bryan had done deliberately. He encourages readers to write their own poems for the characters. These puppets are amazing and paired with the lovely little poems that bring them to life and highlight some of the objects used to make them (e.g. a glass for a hat or bird bones) really makes for a striking composition. I am not normally one to enjoy poetry, but children’s poetry is usually pretty good. This is even better because of how it works with the puppets.

This is definitely a book for savoring and poring over again and again. The puppets really invite many closer looks. Every time it seems you notice something new about their construction. While I think kids will really enjoy the short poem format with the gorgeous pictures, I think this will make a great classroom resource. It’s easy to see how this can provide inspiration for using recycled materials, for looking at materials in a new way, for writing poems, and for making puppets.

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07

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Dancing Home by Alma Flor Ada

On 07, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Dancing HomeDancing Home by Alma Flor Ada & Gabriel M. Zubizarreta

From GoodReads: Mexico may be her parents’ home, but it’s certainly not Margie’s. She has finally convinced the other kids at school she is one-hundred percent American- just like them. But when her Mexican cousin Lupe visits, the image she’s created for herself crumbles.

Things aren’t easy for Lupe, either. Mexico hadn’t felt like home since her father went North to find work. Lupe’s hope of seeing him in the United States comforts her some, but learning a new language in a new school is tough. Lupe, as much as Margie, is in need of a friend.

Little by little, the girls’ individual steps find the rhythm of one shared dance, and they learn what “home” really means.

Dancing Home was such a sweet, gentle story about family, identity, and embracing your culture. Margie is struggling because the kids at school pick on her for being Mexican. Except she’s as American as they are having been born in Texas. She’s finally gotten to a point where she has some friends, has her hair right, and goes by Margie instead of Margarita, when her cousin shows up from Mexico. This seems to remind the kids that Margie is still different and they start picking on her again.

Despite this theme I wouldn’t call the book a bullying book. The kids poke fun at her, but the real focus is on Margie learning to accept her cousin (who has a difficult backstory of her own) and accept her heritage. Lupe’s presence in her home brings a lot of their culture back that Margie has asked her parents to give up. Her mother begins cooking more Mexican food again, they speak in Spanish, and they put out a nativity scene instead of a Christmas tree. Margie begins to realize she wishes she was more a part of this culture. She also realizes she likes a lot of it despite wanting so desperately to feel “normal”.

Margie also is lucky to have a new girl arrive in class who sits next to her and strikes up a friendship. Camille is one of those totally confident kids who is also a little bit nerdy and she manages to bring Margie along showing her that it’s okay to be different. Margie is surprised to discover that Camille, despite being pale and blonde, is actually part Cuban and Panamanian and she totally embraces it. This adds another chink in the armor Margie has built around herself.

One aspect I really appreciated about the story was the piece about Lupe’s father. He illegally came to the US years before and stopped sending money or letters home. Lupe’s mother finally moved on, got a job, remarried, and had twins. Life wasn’t easy. They were sad and then her mother had to work long hours to support them and letting go hasn’t been as easy for Lupe who never wanted accept that she would never see her father again. While she didn’t have a plan for how to contact her father she hopes that he may track her down. He does eventually turn up with a broken leg much to the surprise of everyone. He confirms the rumor that he has a new family and is living in Texas. A lot of kidlit books make these plot lines happy and syrupy sweet: Lupe would have been joyously reunited with her father who just wasn’t able to return home but still loves the family dearly. While the book skips anything lurid, it isn’t the happy, fantasy ending you might expect and is probably a lot closer to the reality of what might happen in that situation. And Lupe and Margie handle the situation well.

My only complaint was that the book could feel a little didactic. The girls were more introspective than fifth graders usually are and sometimes sounded more like they were thirty year olds visiting their therapists in how they talked through their issues and came to conclusions about their feelings. Because of this I think it might make a better book for classes to read together. There are plenty of themes about teasing, culture, being new, and straddling cultures, but I would also give it to kids who like gentle stories. When I added it to my TBR pile I thought it was middle grade (meaning for middle school) and while a middle schooler, especially a sixth grader, might enjoy this, its length and language make it better suited to upper elementary.

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22

Dec
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Revolution by Deborah Wiles

On 22, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

RevolutionRevolution by Deborah Wiles

From GoodReads: It’s 1964, and Sunny’s town is being invaded.  Or at least that’s what the adults of Greenwood, Mississippi, are saying. All Sunny knows is that people from up north are coming to help people register to vote.  They’re calling it Freedom Summer.
 
Meanwhile, Sunny can’t help but feel like her house is being invaded, too.  She has a new stepmother, a new brother, and a new sister crowding her life, giving her little room to breathe.  And things get even trickier when Sunny and her brother are caught sneaking into the local swimming pool — where they bump into a mystery boy whose life is going to become tangled up in theirs.

So as an introduction this is the second book in the Sixties Trilogy. The first was Countdown which was a story about Franny. In Revolution we meet Sunny, a young, white girl. While the two books are part of a trilogy they are really companion novels. Franny’s older sister was getting involved with the Civil Rights movement in Countdown. In Revolution she shows up in Mississippi for Freedom Summer working with various organizations that were getting African American citizens registered to vote in a very contentious area. She does not play a major role in the story exactly, but she is here and Franny is mentioned. You do not have to read these books in order.

I found Countdown to be very successful in integrating the ephemera and the story and in telling the story of Franny and her family and friendship struggles set against a turbulent historical time. My first thought upon seeing Revolution was, wow that’s long. And sadly I think that will be most kids reaction to this as well. Even though there are pictures that technically cut down the 495 pages I have a hard time believing most middle school kids will be willing to look past that page count.

It wasn’t nearly as successful with using photos, clips, and quotes as Countdown. Here many of the snippets were overly long and felt tangential at best. Often times it felt like Wiles was trying to make a point with them and a connection to the story, but it was only truly successful a few times. More often than not I found myself skimming them and feeling like I was missing something if I would only dig deeper. For a book that is this long I think you will be hard pressed to find a student who would sit down and puzzle out the connections.

All of this isn’t to say the story itself wasn’t good. It’s definitely a character-driven book and follows Sunny through a difficult time in her life as she adjusts to family drama and changes and learns to look outside herself. Sunny is rather selfish but she grows as the story moves along which makes her infinitely more likable. Sunny has a non-traditional family, but they are supportive and loving which is refreshing.

The story also squeezes in bits about an African American boy who becomes linked to Sunny and wants to get involved in the Freedom Summer movement. In a lot of ways I wished the story was more about him simply because this is still a book about a white girl and her white girl problems. The book does get points for having a diverse cast of characters, including central ones. Wiles also gets major points for the research she put into the story. She has a long note at the end about Freedom Summer and an extensive bibliography.

I know the book was a finalist for the National Book Award, but it kind of feels like it could be one of those books where it’s a good book grown-ups push on kids. I guess I just can’t get past the length and not plot driven enough to entice kids to read it in droves.

This isn’t to say the story wasn’t enjoyable- rereading this review it sounds like I hated the book, which I didn’t at all. You’re just going to have to find the right reader for this one. I’m sure they are out there. Personally I stuck with the book because of a family connection. My father in law grew up in the delta region of Mississippi. He remembers this time, and especially this summer, and told me the events really changed his mind about the Jim Crow laws he grew up with.

If this is a time period/topic that interests your readers I would also suggest The Watsons Go To Brimingham- 1963. For friendship and race relations I cannot recommend The Lions of Little Rock enough. That one is also a lot shorter. For a nonfiction suggestion try Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement.

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02

Dec
2014

In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

The Place of Information

On 02, Dec 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

This is going to be a little friend-of-a-friend-y due to the nature of a post I recently read, but please bear with me. This post was about teaching informative Arabic novels and I was especially drawn to an idea that the author calls the “place of information”:

“I realize that I go there — to that place of “information” — more times in a week than I’d care to admit. I, too, have written and taught about “current events,” and made literature the handmaiden of hot-button discussion.”

The author elaborates quoting another article, by Miral al-Tahawy, (I’m quoting a quote!) explaining what the place of information means in the context of both the classroom and using translated books:

“So that kind of novel, sometimes I choose to include it. It’s there to inform people about the Middle East, to inform the students about something they care about…But when you speak about literature… I feel it to be something magical, it’s something different, which is really hard to be translated, first, because it’s very connected to the language, the Arabic tradition, the symbols, the smells, the human beings that live.”

What particularly interested me was that I think this idea really applies to the discussions librarians (and parents and the general public) are having about a lack of diversity in children’s publishing. I think a lot of the books that are considered diverse fall into that place of information in that they are there to show kids diversity.

I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, although I worry they can make diversity seem exotic and “other” as well as exoticise other cultures and people. But we need books that just are diverse. Not more books that, as the blog post says, make “literature the handmaiden of hot-button discussion”.

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26

Nov
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: The Greenglass House by Kate Milford

On 26, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

GreenglassThe Greenglass House by Kate Milford

From GoodReads: A rambling old inn, a strange map, an attic packed with treasures, squabbling guests, theft, friendship, and an unusual haunting mark this smart middle grade mystery in the tradition of the Mysterious Benedict Society books and Blue Balliet’s Chasing Vermeer series.

It’s wintertime at Greenglass House. The creaky smuggler’s inn is always quiet during this season, and twelve-year-old Milo, the innkeepers’ adopted son, plans to spend his holidays relaxing. But on the first icy night of vacation, out of nowhere, the guest bell rings. Then rings again. And again. Soon Milo’s home is bursting with odd, secretive guests, each one bearing a strange story that is somehow connected to the rambling old house. As objects go missing and tempers flare, Milo and Meddy, the cook’s daughter, must decipher clues and untangle the web of deepening mysteries to discover the truth about Greenglass House-and themselves.

This book totally knocked my socks off. I love a good solid mystery, but this had so much more.

One of the great things about the mystery was kids got sh*t done. Milo takes on this role in a role playing game that he and his new friend Meddy connect to real life and it turns out he’s pretty good at getting to the bottom of mysteries. But he isn’t a super genius and he doesn’t have super powers. He just thinks through things logically and notices little details. Since they’re in his house and he doesn’t like change, he notices when things have moved or been tampered with. Nothing magical here. Even better, the grown ups aren’t treated as imbeciles who need some genius kid to come in and set them straight. Most of them have secrets and Milo’s parents have their hands full of caring for 5 (and eventually 8) unexpected guests during a severe snowstorm. They’re busy or are too involved with their own agendas and don’t have time to sneak around the house solving mysteries.

Being trapped in an inn this isn’t exactly a fast-paced, high suspense mystery. In fact the mystery is really a device that leads to soul searching for a lot of the people involved. Milo is adopted and, being Chinese, looks nothing like his white parents. Milo isn’t angst-y about being adopted, but he is curious, a little confused, and feels guilty for feeling those emotions since he does love his adoptive parents. There are a lot of layers here for Milo to work through and the role playing game Meddy introduces him to gives Milo an outlet for exploring having a parent that looks like him. It also gives him permission to imagine what his biological father could have been like. It’s interesting to see how Milo takes the folklore he reads, the role playing game, the stories the guests tell, and the information about the inn that comes to light and interprets it all through the lens of a confused, adopted kid.

The adults are all also fairly fleshed out and some of them are quite the characters. All of them are not at the inn by coincidence, but arrived looking for information about its history. None of them are forthcoming with this information and it forms the basis for the mystery. As it turns out, while the information all of them are seeking is interconnected, it is still separate.

There is also a thread of friendship as the guests come together to tell stories and are brought together by the information they are seeking. Most of them do not leave friends, but do leave with a greater sense of tolerance and understanding. Milo, who was looking forward to a Christmas vacation alone with his parents, comes to accept the guests and feel for them. He also builds a friendship with Meddy and learns to work with her as a team through the role playing game.

So I have to say there is a huge twist very near to the end. I’m not going to spoil it, but I wanted to talk around it a bit. I totally did not see it coming until the last possible second. It’s a device I’ve seen employed in other mysteries so maybe people who read mysteries more than I do will see it sooner. Maybe not. However, the times I have seen it used it often feels like a really cheap trick. That was not at all the case here. It was very masterfully done. Well played, Milford, well played.

Greenglass House would be a good one for kids who enjoyed The Westing Game or even Blue Balliet’s mysteries. While its length and slower pacing make it feel more like a middle grade novel (6th-8th grade) I could certainly see a strong 4th or 5th grader loving this too.

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05

Nov
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper

On 05, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

LowridersLowriders in Space written by Cathy Camper, illustrated by Raul Gonzalez

From GoodReads: Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack, and Elirio Malaria love working with cars. You name it, they can fix it. But the team’s favorite cars of all are lowriders—cars that hip and hop, dip and drop, go low and slow, bajito y suavecito. The stars align when a contest for the best car around offers a prize of a trunkful of cash—just what the team needs to open their own shop! ¡Ay chihuahua! What will it take to transform a junker into the best car in the universe? Striking, unparalleled art from debut illustrator Raul the Third recalls ballpoint-pen-and-Sharpie desk-drawn doodles, while the story is sketched with Spanish, inked with science facts, and colored with true friendship.

This was such a fun book! The story was clever, the characters are charming and funny. There was even a fart joke. This is the book for kids who loved cars when they were little and haven’t quite lost that interest. It is so the marriage of what would traditionally be a hobby for older teens and adults to the creativity and fantasy of elementary school kids. In terms of reading level and overall length I would say this is best of upper elementary, but definitely has appeal into middle school.

When Lupe, Elirio and Chavo blast off into space on accident after souping up their old jalopy, they finish the job of detailing the car. They collect stars and rings from Saturn. They use moon rocks to enhance the hydraulics. It’s all just really clever. They make it back from space just in time to enter the car in a galactic car contest where they can win enough money to open their own garage.

The art is also amazing. It’s done with Bic pens and Sharpies and looks like the doodles you would see in notebooks and binders of kids. How Raul Gonzalez managed to do this without smudging the heck out of it all I don’t know, but it’s very impressive. I also like that this feels like art a kid could do. Obviously they won’t have the skill of a professional, but I could see some sixth grader looking at this book and looking at their notebooks and thinking, I could do that!

I read the ARC so I wasn’t able to see it in it’s full glory (the pictures were in black and white) and there were a couple quirky things that I’m hoping they’ll fix between now and the actual publication. Well worth the read, though.

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