By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: The Donner Party expedition is one of the most notorious stories in all of American history. It’s also a fascinating snapshot of the westward expansion of the United States, and the families and individuals who sacrificed so much to build new lives in a largely unknown landscape. From the preparation for the journey to each disastrous leg of the trip, this book shows the specific bad decisions that led to the party’s predicament in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The graphic novel focuses on the struggles of the Reed family to tell the true story of the catastrophic journey.
Being a native Californian I remember studying the Donner Party. Being from Sacramento I have been to Sutter’s Fort (the destination of the Donner Party) on many occasions. At the fort they have Patty Reed’s doll, a tiny doll Patty brought with her and kept with her through the whole ordeal. The Donner Party story is incredibly grizzly and, even as an adult reading this book I learned a ton of information about it. I think being a kid I heard a much shortened and sanitized version of the story, plus it’s been years since I studied it.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, the party, consisting of several families, took a “short cut” on their way out west. It was difficult, nearly killed them and put them way behind schedule. When they reached the pass over the Sierra Nevada mountains, a pass that now bears the name Donner Pass, they became snowed in. Weather that winter was particularly harsh, but it’s also at a very high altitude which receives a lot of snow. It shuts down several times a winter even now with roads and snow machines. Stuck up in the Sierras with little food, the party loses a lot of people and has to resort to cannibalism. Only 48 of the original 87 eventually make it to Sacramento, but not after an incredibly harrowing journey.
Nathan Hale doesn’t hold back and while that might make this book not such a great fit for the faint of heart, it does make it a fantastic book. Plus, it’s a graphic novel (no, there aren’t any pictures of them actually butchering or eating people). The narrative structure has a man about to be hanged telling the story to a soldier and the hangman which adds some humor and much needed breaks from the action of the story. The story itself appears to be very well researched. There were a lot of details I didn’t know and a few I had forgotten. I was very surprised to learn how many of the party were actually eaten (the number now escapes me, but more than 10). I also didn’t realize how many rescue parties left from the camp and tried to reach the camp. And how many were really unsuccessful.
Such a tragic tale, but told in such an engaging way. Like Steve Sheinkin’s books these are historical books kids will want to read. If you have a fourth grader (the grade when you traditionally study state history) who is really interested and has a strong constitution then I would certainly say they could read it. For those chicken-hearted kids (that was me!!) save it for middle school…or adulthood. I’m kinda creeped out by it even now.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: When explorers first chipped a hole through a wall and shined a light into Tutankhamun’s tomb, everything it touched glinted with gold and gleamed with silver. The boy-king so surrounded by this treasure would become one of the most famous names in history. But it was a less-famous princess who had accumulated a lot of the wealth that was buried in that tomb. Her name was Hatshepsut. How did she make Egypt so rich? And how did she come to be buried, like Tutankhamun, in the Valley of the Kings? This book brings to life the story of a real and remarkable princess who had the nerve to declare herself Pharaoh.
First off I hate that the description from the publisher has to compare Hatshepsut to King Tut. This is supposed to be about princesses. Also Hatshepsut is pretty famous being the only female pharaoh and all. Egypt is filled with really, really amazing artifacts and history of which Tut is a tiny (albeit famous) sliver. Let’s stop making such a BFD out of him and look at some people who actually ruled and did stuff.
In terms of content the book was fine. It didn’t get into a lot of detail so I think it would be better for kids with a passing interest in Egypt (and who may simply be interested in history), kids who want to read the whole Real Princess series and aren’t looking for something in-depth about Hatshepsut, or kids who are just getting interested in Ancient Egyptian history. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Just don’t make this the focus of your Ancient Egyptian history collection or the sole book in it.
I wish there had been more about daily life and life of Egyptian royalty, maybe even religion, but it was light on much beyond a semi-fictionalized story of Hatshepsut’s life. I think there was opportunity for a little information about Egyptology and the archaeology in the region, especially as pertains to how we know all this stuff about Hatshepsut. For example, the discovery of her mummy (kind of a big deal!) was dealt with in a sentence or two with no explanation why it took so long, what the tomb she was found in was all about and why she wasn’t found in her own tomb.
What I wasn’t so happy with was the overall look of the book. To me, it screams educational publication. I don’t see any kid, besides the die-hard Egypt fan, picking this up on their own and since the content is fairly light I would say they’ll be disappointed. On the cover, why is she standing with the Sphinx and the pyramids? Those predate Hatshepsut by a thousand years and her temple is incredibly impressive, why not show pictures of that?
Inside the graphics are not especially appealing. They look like a cross between educational fare and a picture book. Many of the photographs are not labeled or are poorly labeled, which is too bad. For the wealth of Egyptian temples and artifacts there could have been both more and better pictures of those things. There was one especially confusing family tree that needed better indications of relationships, better flow, and better explanation of who every one was since there were second and third wives listed and people with the same name. Finally, going back to the cover, did they really use papyrus font for the title? Ugh. Such a cliche and such an ugly font.
I do, however, applaud the author and publisher for putting together a series of real princesses who are not those vapid Disney ones that need men to save them.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 11, Nov 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: At the heart of the story is Wanda Petronski, a Polish girl in a Connecticut school who is ridiculed by her classmates for wearing the same faded blue dress every day. Wanda claims she has one hundred dresses at home, but everyone knows she doesn’t and bullies her mercilessly. The class feels terrible when Wanda is pulled out of the school, but by that time it’s too late for apologies. Maddie, one of Wanda’s classmates, ultimately decides that she is “never going to stand by and say nothing again.”
What a beautiful story for young children. The Hundred Dresses is a book about bullying, such a timely topic, and felt very before it’s time in addressing this. I think the fact that Wanda was a poor immigrant, picked on by her peers could easily be relatable to many kids, even if they aren’t white immigrants. It also has a good call to action in the form of Maddie who regrets not sticking up for Wanda. She feels terrible knowing that she felt the teasing was wrong and yet never said anything.
Maddie was cowed by her friend and knowing she could be the next target, for even though she wasn’t as poor as Wanda, who only had one dress, she still wore hand-me-downs. This felt so realistic, the desire not to draw attention to yourself or stick your neck out for fear of being hurt and ostracized. I think all kids experience this to some degree.
For those cynical readers out there, this isn’t for you. It has a relatively happy ending with a satisfying resolution. The mean girl is, if not transformed, humbled and Maddie, who tells the story, decides never to be a bystander again. Wanda writes to her former class and essentially forgives them.
The edition I read had a foreword by Eleanor Estes daughter which, as an adult at least, I found very interesting and enlightening. I would suggest, as a parent, reading the foreword (and story) and using this as a discussion starter with your child. Maddie is actually Eleanor who had a girl like Wanda in her elementary school class. The girl left after a lot of teasing and Eleanor regretted not saying anything. She never found the girl again and, as her daughter points out, it seems she uses this story to make things right in a way. I think knowing the Wanda was a real girl who never got an apology from her class and knowing this story is at least in part true could be a very powerful message for kids.
Give this to kids in second and third grade, even up into fourth. It isn’t a chapter book, but it’s a much longer book with fewer pictures. It’s such an important issue to discuss and think about because it can be so easy to not say anything when bullying happens. I’ve said it before, but kids are very attuned to justice and injustice and I think we as educators and parents can tap into that in a positive way.
Not exactly a read-alike considering it’s a much shorter picture book, but Crow Boy by Yashima Taro is another fabulous book about bullying and kids who are different.
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 29, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: In 1960s Toronto, two girls retreat to their attics to escape the loneliness and isolation of their lives. Polly lives in a house bursting at the seams with people, while Rose is often left alone by her busy parents. Polly is a down-to-earth dreamer with a wild imagination and an obsession with ghosts; Rose is a quiet, ethereal waif with a sharp tongue. Despite their differences, both girls spend their days feeling invisible and seek solace in books and the cozy confines of their respective attics. But soon they discover they aren’t alone–they’re actually neighbors, sharing a wall. They develop an unlikely friendship, and Polly is ecstatic to learn that Rose can actually see and talk to ghosts. Maybe she will finally see one too! But is there more to Rose than it seems? Why does no one ever talk to her? And why does she look so… ghostly? When the girls find a tombstone with Rose’s name on it in the cemetery and encounter an angry spirit in her house who seems intent on hurting Polly, they have to unravel the mystery of Rose and her strange family… before it’s too late.
I read this one just in time for Halloween. It was, ultimately, a rather sad ghost story. There is a lot going on here, although I never felt the plot lines got tangled or hard to follow. But several of the plots were quite sad for various reasons.
The narrative switches back and forth between Polly and Rose with each girl getting a section in each chapter. Rose always follows Polly and sometimes recounts what Polly has told or picks up where Polly left off. The two girls and their families could not be more different and I enjoyed seeing their perspectives on these things when it was their turn to narrate. So while this is a ghost story with all the requisite twists and turns, it also became a wonderful story about friendship and family.
The synopsis above doesn’t mention that there is a historical thread to the story that connects up with the family theme and story. Rose, because she can see ghosts, sees a ghost that she quickly discovers is an aunt no one ever talks about. The aunt could also see ghosts, but because of the time she was born into the family wanted to institutionalize her. There is some mystery surrounding her death and why she is still lurking the house and Rose, with the encouragement of Polly, ultimately decides to investigate and possibly help her aunt, which requires delving into the family history and raiding the closets.
I’m one of those people who skips ahead and reads the last few pages of a book, but I don’t usually do that with these mystery/ghost stories because it can totally ruin it. I accidentally did that with this one and it spoiled the big twist at the end. The book was still well worth the read, though and I still managed to get sucked in to making mistakes and assumptions. Adults reading the story may find they can figure it all out before the big reveal simply because it’s an age-old ghost story trick, but kids who may not be familiar with the genre will be totally amazed.
I would say this is a good middle grade ghost story, but upper elementary would enjoy it as well. It’s a little on the longer side and I’m guessing the reading level is fairly high.
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 24, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: The best-selling author Ignatius B. Grumply moves into the Victorian mansion at 43 Old Cemetery Road, hoping to find some peace and quiet so that he can crack a wicked case of writer’s block.
But 43 Old Cemetery Road is already occupied–by an eleven-year-old boy named Seymour, his cat, Shadow, and an irritable ghost named Olive.
And they have no intention of sharing!
What an awesome book! The story is primarily told through letters between Ignatius Grumply, Seymour, Olive, Ignatius’ lawyer, real estate agent, book agent and a private investigator. The letters, down to the sign offs and signatures, do an incredible job conveying the personalities of each character. There are quite a few drawings mostly done by Seymour and some very clever and hilarious excerpts from the local newspaper.
The plot is not overly complex nor is the book very long, but I don’t think it suffers for it. There is plenty of character development and things come out well in the end. In terms of ghost stories this is low on the spooky factor and high on the silly scale, but in the best possible way. All of these factors make it about right for third and fourth grade, really even into fifth. I know I sound like a broken record saying this, but it would be great for low readers, especially with the picture support and engaging format. There are quite a few more books in the series 43 Cemetery Road which makes it all the more appealing for this age range.
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 15, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
-On Monday she’s sent to the principal’s office for cutting off Margaret’s hair.
- Tuesday, Margaret’s mother is mad at her.
- Wednesday, she’s sent to the principal… again.
- Thursday, Margaret stops speaking to her.
- Friday starts with yucky eggs and gets worse.
- And by Saturday, even her mother is mad at her.
Okay, fine. Clementine is having a DISASTROUS week.
Clementine is such an incredible character. First and foremost, she is one of those kids who can’t sit still, whose mind wanders, who is a complete disaster when it comes to organization. Those kinds of kids are out there. I have known those kids. And I think it is so important for those kids to see themselves in a book and see that people (in this case Clementine’s family and friends) love her exactly the way she is.
Clementine is also just a fun person. Her mind wanders, but in the most interesting of ways and often in hilarious ways (ceiling snakes?!). She notices minute details that make the world more wondrous. She is very artistic, active and inquisitive. I loved that her parents were so understanding of who she is. They are so patient with her and gentle. It was incredibly refreshing to see this.
The story itself is full of humor and hijinks. Like how she cuts Margaret’s hair to help hide the spot Margaret has snipped off. Sure, it’s a terrible idea but it makes perfect sense to a kid. Things just get worse from there, at least from an adult perspective. If left to her own devices Clementine (and her friend Margaret to some extent) would have had a great week. Neither of them seems to care too much that their hair is chopped unevenly short or that it’s been colored with permanent marker. It’s the adults stepping in and making assumptions about what has happened and seeing things from an adult perspective that make all their plots and solutions seem like maybe they weren’t so good.
My only point of confusion was that Clementine is supposed to 9 and in third grade, but she seems a little younger. I wasn’t sure if this was my bias or if she was intentionally written a bit younger. Either way this is a great read for strong second grade readers and certainly third graders. It might work for lower readers in fourth and fifth grade, although they could feel that Clementine is a bit young to relate to. I would be especially sure to recommend it to those kids who seem constantly off task, but are clearly thinking.