By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Dec 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
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”.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Nov 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I came across a Kickstarter campaign through one of my non-library blogs. I’ll just quote you their about page, because they do a better job explaining their mission than I will:
“In one Lagos bookshop in 2008, there were no children’s books with African children on them.
I couldn’t believe it. At the time I was working for Tamarind Books, a bastion of multicultural children’s book publishing in the UK. Unfortunately their books weren’t reaching a global audience. Neither were many other great, high-quality multicultural and multilingual children’s books published by the best trade publishers. So I decided to join the dots.
Kio exists to serve schools, governments, charities and families with educational resources that reflect cultures and languages globally. At Kio, we believe education should reflect and celebrate the global village we live in.
Many organisations working in Africa, Asia, South America and beyond don’t know that there are resources which reflect the children they serve. As a consequence, those children grow up seeing images of success, opportunity and education that exclude them. By shopping with Kio, you are enabling us to change this.”
Here is the blog post I found them through: What If We Publish Children’s Books African Kids Could Relate To. This just hit home the point for me that we all need diverse books and that, sadly, the story of the whitewashing of US publishing is a story you can find all around the world.
Their Kickstarter campaign can be found here: The Wedding Week. It looks to publish a book called The Wedding Week which, led by gecko, takes you through a week of weddings all over the world. They chose weddings because they are a great entree into food, clothes, and culture. The collage/cut paper illustrations look beautiful. I gave 30 pounds, which is about $50. Please give if you can. They have about a week left and need about 2,000 pounds more. The money goes to paying the author and illustrator and to printing and distributing the book to African kids.
Update: 11/3/2014, 10:15 They just passed their initial funding goal!! Any additional money they raise now will go toward making the book into an interactive ebook with audio (read in the languages it is published in), extra content, and animation.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Finally, Amira is twelve. Old enough to wear a toob, old enough for new responsibilities. And maybe old enough to go to school in Nyala– Amira’s one true dream.
But life in her peaceful Sudanese village is shattered when the Janjaweed arrive. The terrifying attackers ravage the town and unleash unspeakable horrors. After she loses nearly everything, Amira needs to dig deep within herself to find the strength to make the long journey– on foot– to safety at a refugee camp. Her days are tough at the camp, until the gift of a simple red pencil opens her mind– and all kinds of possibilities.
The Red Pencil was by turns beautiful and heartbreaking. I picked it up because it sounded good and because I heard Davis speak about it at the ALSC Institute. This is a novel in verse, a choice she explained saying poems can insulate the reader from the horrors of the story. I felt quite the opposite. Poems, to me, are very impactful and accentuate the story. I think her point was there weren’t long expository sections where you give great detail about the awful things going on. I agree with that.
It is definitely a book for older readers, I would say fifth and sixth grade, even seventh despite the lower reading level. Davis avoids any sexual violence and any discussion of female circumcision, both of which are issues that often come up in books about conflict in Sudan and other African countries. I think these kinds of books are really, really important for introducing kids to the wider, often cruel and unfair, world. Kids need to know what is going on around them and I think we both do them a disservice and seriously underestimate them by shielding them from it. I also think these books can and should be conversation starters about, well, all kinds of issues, but post colonialism, race, women’s issues, etc. Davis handles the subject so delicately and so deftly that despite the horror and sadness of the story and situation I wouldn’t hesitate to share it. Still, recommend it with caution, even I got weepy over parts of the book. It may be overwhelming for some kids.
Spoiler alert. Amira’s family is really wonderful which was refreshing but her father is killed in the attack by the janjaweed. Fortunately, they have a neighbor who is also a wonderful friend. He steps in to help mend the family. They also take Amira’s sister’s friend in when he is orphaned. I think this theme of family being who you make it really resonates with the upper elementary and middle school students who are beginning to become more absorbed by friends and are becoming more aware of the flaws in their families.
The Milk of Birds is a more difficult book, in terms of subject matter and reading level, but would be a good place to go after this as would The Good Braider which is also more difficult for the same reasons. Both are wonderfully written. The Good Braider is also another novel in verse and weaves in immigration and straddling two cultures.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion rocked the segregated Navy base at Port Chicago, California, killing more than 300 sailors who were at the docks, critically injuring off-duty men in their bunks, and shattering windows up to a mile away. On August 9th, 244 men refused to go back to work until unsafe and unfair conditions at the docks were addressed. When the dust settled, fifty were charged with mutiny, facing decades in jail and even execution. This is a fascinating story of the prejudice that faced black men and women in America’s armed forces during World War II, and a nuanced look at those who gave their lives in service of a country where they lacked the most basic rights.
This was the first book by Steve Sheinkin I’ve read and I picked this particular one up because he talked about creating it at his keynote at the ALSC Institute. This is how middle grade nonfiction should be. It was such an interesting story made more approachable by Sheinkin’s storytelling. The book read a lot more like a novel than a dry, factual recounting of events. Which isn’t to say he embellished the story, just that he relayed it in a way that felt organic like a story. I think that probably says a lot about the state of most nonfiction.
I don’t usually use quotes, but I think the following line from the book illustrates so well why kids will click with this book and this story and why they connect with the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. “The whole trial gave Albert Williams the unsettling feeling of being a kid and being accused by an adult of something he hadn’t done.” Kids are finely attuned to injustice. They despise it because it is one of those things that makes childhood and adolescence so difficult. They live it every day- “because I said so”, “do it this way”, etc. They are told by their parents and teachers how to think, how to behave, how to feel and how to be even, when it isn’t their truth. To see this happening to others, kids connect with that and feel the injustice personally.
Add to this an interesting and rather scandalous story and Sheinkin’s skilled storytelling and I think this book will have appeal for kids who have learned about the Civil Rights Movement and kids who love nonfiction. I think you could even hand sell it to kids who don’t normally read nonfiction, but are interested in history. The writing is certainly engaging enough.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: A boy alone in his room.
Sketchbook in hand.
What would it be like to on safari?
A boy named Leonardo begins to imagine and then draw a world afar; first a rhinoceros, and then he meets some monkeys, and he always has a friendly elephant at his side. Soon he finds himself in the jungle and carried away by the sheer power of his imagination, seeing the world through his own eyes and making friends along the way.
I had a really emotional reaction to this book. It is such an incredible story and told entirely without words. It reminds me of some of the best visual storytelling you see in movies (the opening credits of Watchmen and the tear-jerker montage in Up to name two) which is not easy to do well.
While in his room a young boy, possibly Colon, sits on his bed reading a book. The mood strikes him and he picks up his sketch pad. As you leave the world of his bedroom for the African continent the art style changes and the new style, a more lush, layered and colorful style, comes into view through a series of panels that grow in size indicating how they slowly fill the room and the boy’s mind. The effect is done in reverse when the boy returns from his adventure. In the fantasy you see small details included from the room. The backpack of bread slowly empties as the boy shares it with the creatures he meets. He wears the same clothes. It becomes apparent that the elephant is his guide through the savannah. It’s these subtle details that really make the story effective and more complex and therefore interesting.
The story, while about a boy drawing, is really about how art can transport you. And not just drawing but books as well. It’s the book the boy was reading that inspired him to pick up paper and visually represent what he had been reading. I think this book is great for quietly perusing, but is also a great inspriration for kids who love to draw, paint, and create. It would also be a good discussion starter for classes learning about art and inspiration. I know a lot of parents think picture books are for young children, but this book would be wonderful for any age as the story is so timeless and universal.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Sep 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
When I was at the ALSC Institute about a week and half ago I attended a breakout session about diversity in children’s publishing. It was a really great discussion and I’m hoping to talk more about the issues when I attend the Kidliosphere blogging conference in a couple weeks.
While we were talking at this breakout session, though, I had a question that I’m not sure how to answer. Our discussion never really steered in that direction so I didn’t bring it up, not wanting to derail the whole session, but it definitely pertains to diversity in children’s literature. I’m wondering what you should/could/would do with problematic books that are already in a collection? Books that have stereotypes or racist over/undertones.
Specifically the Little House on the Prairie come to mind, but so do the TinTin comic books and I’m sure there are many more out there (especially some of the classics). I like to think that there books make for good discussion starters with kids, but I think the reality is that kids check them out, their parents don’t know that they have these issues, the kids read them, and bring them back. No discussion. The Little House books are pretty ubiquitous, at least at my school. They’re in several classrooms, they are in the library and a lot of kids read them. The teachers and librarian also hand them out/recommend them without making note of or even knowing about the racism in them. In fact I know many of them have fond memories of reading the books when they were young. I think it’s a problem if kids read this stuff and internalize the stereotypes and rhetoric and I really think it’s a problem if we don’t talk about it with kids. I don’t think the answer is to not let kids read the books, though. They have value, but how do you balance that with their issues?
So, what do you do with these books? Do you leave them in the collection? Do you weed them? Do you ask that kids present their parents with a note when they check the books out that details concerns with the book? Do you educate the teachers? Do you remove them and find better alternatives? Do you start the conversation with the kids? Does this cross boundaries that the parents may not want crossed?
I’m sure there is no one perfect answer or solution, but I think it’s really important that we don’t let the label of “classic” or our own nostalgia get in the way of being sensitive to the very dark issues that these books have.