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Kidlit

26

Feb
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

TBT: The Rescuers by Margery Sharp

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

The Rescuers

The Rescuers by Margery Sharp, pictures by Garth Williams

From GoodReads: Miss Bianca is a white mouse of great beauty and supreme self-confidence, who, courtesy of her excellent young friend, the ambassador’s son, resides luxuriously in a porcelain pagoda painted with violets, primroses, and lilies of the valley. Miss Bianca would seem to be a pampered creature, and not, you would suppose, the mouse to dispatch on an especially challenging and extraordinarily perilous mission. However, it is precisely Miss Bianca that the Prisoners’ Aid Society picks for the job of rescuing a Norwegian poet imprisoned in the legendarily dreadful Black Castle (we all know, don’t we, that mice are the friends of prisoners, tending to their needs in dungeons and oubliettes everywhere). Miss Bianca, after all, is a poet too, and in any case she is due to travel any day now by diplomatic pouch to Norway. There Miss Bianca will be able to enlist one Nils, known to be the bravest mouse in the land, in a desperate and daring endeavor that will take them, along with their trusty companion Bernard, across turbulent seas and over the paws and under the maws of cats into one of the darkest places known to man or mouse. It will take everything they’ve got and a good deal more to escape with their own lives, not to mention the poet.

With these Throwback Thursday posts this year I’m revisiting books I read in my youth and previewing a few classics I might want to share with my daughter. Mostly I’m curious how the books I read when I was young hold up over the years and to see how I like other classics as read alouds. This time I stumbled upon this gem of a classic through the Disney movie The Rescuers, which we watched the other night with my daughter.

I was unaware that the movie was based on a book, let alone a series of books, so being the librarian I am I requested it from the library. The two are fairly different and while the book was incredibly enjoyable, I see why they made the changes they did for the movie. For example the book has the mice as part of the Prisoners’ Aid Society where they comfort and aid prisoners. The movie has them form the Rescue Aid Society where they help people in need of assistance. I think this made the story a bit more modern, less grim, and required less exposition. The movie also combined at least two of the books from the Rescuers series, which again, I’m not sure this story, although good, is exactly box-office-hit material. Some stories adapt better to the visual narrative than others.

Here is where I admit I am an animal-story person. I never clicked with the princess movies or books about people. When given the choice I pick animal books over people books all the time. This is actually why reading diverse kidlit, particularly picture books, has been difficult for me. I am drawn to the stories with wee animals. And those are certainly the books I buy when building our home library. (This is NOT to say that’s an excuse for not reading diverse stories or for not buying them. I just have to make a conscious effort to pick up a book with people and I am doing just that.) My daughter is the same way and I know there are tons of kids out there like that. This is a book for those kids. It’s full of suspense and action, friendship and humor and mice. Garth Williams has drawn darling illustrations to go with the story. I will say Bianca is portrayed as a bit of wimp and silly girl used to creature comforts, but while she never really overcomes that part of herself, she does discover a braver, pluckier side and I think that’s a good message. One that acknowledges that you might be a girly girl, but still have it in you to do what duty requires of you and find an inner strength when necessary.

The Rescuers has quite the vocabulary and syntax in it which makes it great for upper elementary (fourth or fifth grade). It would also make an incredible read aloud. The chapters are each divided into sections (something I don’t think I’ve seen before) and make breaking off very easy. The Lexile for the book is 880L which is high, but not nearly as high as I expected. The length, 150 pages, is also perfect. Give this to fans of adventure and animals. It appears that many of the books in the series are readily available, my library has several copies of each and this first book was republished by The New York Review Children’s Collection. Being a classic, albeit maybe a bit forgotten one, it reminds me of other books from that era like Ben and Me and Charlotte’s Web.

I probably should have just written my own book blurb here because the book description provided by the publisher (and found on GoodReads) is not exactly accurate. Let me clarify a few plot points. Bianca is not selected to go on the mission but is asked, because she will be flying to Norway and will reach it sooner than a boat trip, to find the bravest mouse in Norway to undertake the mission of rescuing this poet-prisoner. When she arrives in Norway and finds a band of mice in the embassy where she lives she is told all mice are the bravest mouse in Norway and is given Nils who happens to be standing close to the mouse she speaks to. Nils agrees to go. Bianca’s part in the mission is done, but she thinks back to Bernard, the mouse who asked her to recruit the bravest Norwegian mouse, and decides she wants to see him again. Back at the Prisoners’ Aid Society Bernard volunteers to go with Nils in order to impress Bianca and Bianca decides she too will volunteer. The three then set off to free the prisoner kept in the Black Castle. Does it really matter for the purposes of reviewing the book? Probably not, but I hate inaccurate book descriptions.

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24

Feb
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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23

Feb
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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19

Feb
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

TBT: The Haunted House by Peggy Parish

On 19, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Haunted HouseThe Haunted House by Peggy Parish, pictures by Paul Frame

From GoodReads:“Oh, no!” said Liza. “I won’t live in a haunted house.”
The “haunted house’ is the old Blake place, and despite Liza’s protests, that’s where the Roberts family is going to live. Liza, Bill, and Jed soon realize that something weird is happening in and around their new home. Nearly every morning they find mysterious messages. Strange footprints appear, lights flash, and secret compartments pop open. Is John Blake’s ghost responsible? If not, who is?

Lexile: There isn’t a Lexile rating for this particular book, but several others in the series have them and they are all around the low 400s. My guess is, this is the same.

I picked this one up because I remember my third grade teacher reading it aloud to the class and we all loved it. It’s one in the series, Liza, Bill and Jed Mysteries, in which there are six books. The Haunted House is not the first in the series and while there were a couple references to what may have been other stories, this certainly stood alone just fine.

I really enjoyed the story in this one. The kids, when they move into their new house, are drawn into two mysteries which they think have to do with the ghost of the man who built the house. If you’re concerned about the book being too scary, rest assured there is no ghost in the end, but the mystery wraps up nicely. On the first morning Liza discovers a note on her window that begins a several-day-long scavenger hunt which leads them to several prizes. Each note in the hunt includes a code or puzzle they have to decipher before being able to read their clue. For kids who are getting into codes and mysteries this would be awesome.

They also visit their new attic and discover an old grandfather clock that has a secret compartment. When they accidentally get it open part way, they attempt to open it all the way. However their mother has asked them to clean the attic and then she sprays with insecticide so they aren’t allowed up for a day stretching the mystery out. When they finally do get upstairs and manage to open the compartment they discover blueprints of the house which shows a room that would be under Liza’s bedroom but doesn’t appear to be in the basement.

The chapters are a good length in this for early chapter book readers and while the simple text makes details a wee bit sparse, the story is still strong and the mystery suspenseful and engaging. From experience I know this makes a great read aloud and with the codes in the clues you could stop along the way to allow the kids to write down the notes (or simply write them on the board) and try their hand at solving them. My third grade class hung on every word and were sad when the book was over.

The kids get along for the most part, but there’s some bickering between siblings. The book was published originally in the early 70s and the family harmony and the fact that the mom sends the kids out to play by themselves and leaves them home while she goes grocery shopping may seem odd, but the book never felt particularly dated. There is one reference to a tape player, but there aren’t really any language or pop culture references that would make this feel old. My one and only concern was this passage:

“‘I already feel homesick for my old room.’ [said Liza]

‘That’s alright,’ said Mom. ‘To tell the truth I feel a little bit that way myself. But I’m sure we’ll both get over it as soon as we get the new house fixed up.’

‘Ah, girls,’ said Bill. ‘You never are sure of what you want.’

‘But that’s a fact of life,’ said Dad. ‘We just have to take them as they are.'”

I’m not sure if it’s a deal breaker for me, but there are a lot of other good chapter books out there (and this one is lacking in diversity too) so I might pass based on that. On the other hand if I were reading it aloud I would simply skip the sexist commentary by the brother and father. If you want to too, it’s on the second page of the fourth chapter “Moving Day”, page 23 in the copy I have.

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18

Feb
2015

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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11

Feb
2015

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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05

Feb
2015

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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29

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac

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

Skeleton ManSkeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac

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

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

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

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

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

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28

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

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

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

Arrow Over the DoorThe Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac

Lexile: 810L

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

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

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

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

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

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27

Jan
2015

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac

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

LonghouseChildren of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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