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Middle Grade



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

On 14, Sep 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Vine BasketFrom Goodreads: Things aren’t looking good for fourteen-year-old Mehrigul. She yearns to be in school, but she’s needed on the family farm. The longer she’s out of school, the more likely it is that she’ll be sent off to a Chinese factory . . . perhaps never to return. Her only hope is an American woman who buys one of her decorative vine baskets for a staggering sum and says she will return in three weeks for more. Mehrigul must brave terrible storms, torn-up hands from working the fields, and her father’s scorn to get the baskets done. The stakes are high, and time is passing. A powerful intergenerational story of a strong, creative young artist in a cruelly oppressive society.

I previously wrote this about the book:

“This was an interesting one to compare to A Girl Called Problem as they were both written by people who were not from the culture they were writing about but had traveled to the region and were taken by the people. But the writing in this one was so polished. It was such a beautiful story that focused less on the historical event of what was going on, although it did emphasize the plight of the Uyghr people (I’m sure I spelled that incorrectly, but they are an ethnic group in Western China), and more on developing the characters, the relationships, the setting, and the story. It was a quiet story without a lot of dramatic plot points, but it was beautiful and hopeful.”

I have new thoughts about the book, but I want to first say that I’m rerunning this because China is currently cracking down on Uyghurs, sending them to “re-education camps” (sound like something the US and Canada did to the Indigenous people here?) and imprisoning them. They are even reaching out to Uyghurs living in different parts of the world including the US and threatening to do things to family still in China. It’s an ugly, ugly situation that is not getting enough media attention.

The Vine Basket is a very problematic book, but it’s also the only one I’m aware of that introduces kids to this minority. My recommendation is to educate yourself on the Uyghurs, their history and their current plight, and then read this book with your kids and use it as a tool to open up conversations.

To start with the good, this was a beautiful, quiet story. As I said before it really develops the characters and their relationships. You also get a good feel for the region the Uyghrs live in and a glimpse into their culture. The writing did a really good job of invoking the place where the story takes place and the author had visited so I get the sense that she drew on her experience there. I think that despite all the problems you can come away from the book with a feel for the Uyghurs homeland and a sympathy for the people. The other really key piece to notice here is the Mehrigul’s brother is said to be a part of the resistance to the Chinese government. We don’t really meet him in the book, but he comes up on several occasions. This opens up the conversation about how the Uyghurs are fighting for their rights and engaging in activism, meaning they aren’t passively needing white ladies to come save them *ahem*.

So this is certainly a hopeful story, but it’s also a story with a white savior. It doesn’t give all the power to the white woman who comes in and discovers the baskets as the story centers Mehrigul, but it’s a white savior nonetheless. I also don’t think it’s untrue that Mehrigul’s family might need to send her off to work in a factory to help them make money, but the framing around that sets it up so Mehrigul needs to seek help from the white lady who comes along. I also don’t know how accurate the relationships are within the context of the culture. Mehrigul’s father is not interested in supporting her making baskets to sell and isn’t particularly kind to her and that may be the lack of an #ownvoices story giving the relationship an outsider, Western view. I can’t say how the Uyghurs truly feel about girls, it’s entirely possible that there are father-daughter relationships like this, but it’s also equally easy to find those same relationships here in the US, so it’s hard to blame this distance and lack of support solely on the Uyghur culture. I also really despise that fact that the book description calls it a “cruelly oppressive culture”. That sounds like an outsider’s opinion and it sounds inappropriate given the source.

I don’t really think buying this book sends the right message, but if your library has it you should hand sell it to your activist parents noting the timeliness of the topic. If you’re a parent or classroom teacher, see if your library already has a copy and use that to discuss what’s currently happening around the Uyghurs now. Share the problems with this book while reading the story. Learn about the Uyghurs (from Uyghur sources and more open Western sources) and compare what you learn to what the story shows. Again, I’m recommending not buying the book, but using it to carefully bring attention and sympathy to what is shamefully happening right now.

If you want a book that is more #ownvoices (as much as book written from the perspective of a dog can be) and set in Western China, check out Black Flame which is an incredible book.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold

On 27, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Boy Called BatA Boy Called Bat written by Elana K. Arnold, pictures by Charles Santoso

From Goodreads: For Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed Bat), life tends to be full of surprises—some of them good, some not so good. Today, though, is a good-surprise day. Bat’s mom, a veterinarian, has brought home a baby skunk, which she needs to take care of until she can hand him over to a wild-animal shelter.
But the minute Bat meets the kit, he knows they belong together. And he’s got one month to show his mom that a baby skunk might just make a pretty terrific pet.

I actually think this one is on the cusp of middle grade and chapter book. It looked a lot longer than it actually was because it had large spacing between the lines and larger font size, but the content wasn’t predictable in the way that chapter books usually are. Which, of course, makes it a good fit for kids moving out of chapter books and into the regular middle grade section of the library.

The story itself will be familiar to nearly all kids. Bat wants to keep the animal his mom has found (it just so happens to be a skunk) and he needs to figure out how to convince her to let him keep it. The fact that Bat loves animals will also resonate with many readers. Bat is lucky enough to have a veterinarian for a mom and she is able to keep the skunk kit for a little while. Bat knows he’ll have an uphill battle getting his mom to come around to at least letting him raise the skunk until it’s ready for release back into the wild, let alone allowing him to keep it as a pet. The book moves not slowly, but it’s a slice-of-life type story so there aren’t any fast paced scenes or major excitement.

Bat’s sister gets a shout out (or call out) here. She has her moments of being a fine human being, but most of the time she was kind of a jerk. Maybe it’s her age? Maybe it’s because I’m an only child and don’t get the sibling dynamic? She’s just sort of an all around twit and she wasn’t overly kind to Bat. Sometimes she seems to barely tolerate him. I don’t expect her to be a saint, but on the other hand she was just a straight up mean. I suspect that family dynamic will resonate with a lot of readers, though.

It also bears mentioning that Bat’s parents are divorced. They don’t share equal custody, but Bat and his sister do spend a weekend with their dad. There isn’t any drama around the parents or the divorce or the custody. It was refreshing to see a split family like that in a book. At some point families do get on the with the business of living after a divorce and not all families have drama around new spouses or children (a common trope of divorced families I’ve noticed in children’s literature). As a kid from a divorced family I can say my own experience matched this much more closely than most depictions I have seen in kidlit.

Bat is supposed to be nonneurotypical. He isn’t great at reading social cues and facial expressions. He can be pretty literal and he stims sometimes. To me he outwardly seemed like a handful of nonneurotypical children I have worked with over the years. Does that mean he’s a perfect representation of someone who is? No. I felt like it was fairly nuanced, more so than other books I’ve read, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking directly to that representation. Especially since the book is narrated by and seen from the perspective of Bat. Certainly we need representation, but not at the expense of accurate representation. I can say it didn’t seem to veer into the inspiration porn kind of narrative that books like Wonder do.*

The story itself is a lot of fun and will be recognizable to many a pet-desperate kid, but if it doesn’t give a full and correct picture of autistic kids then it doesn’t matter how good the story is. I would cautiously recommend this to libraries.

*The blog Disability in Kidlit reviewed the book with an eye toward the representation of ASD. You can and should read that here.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Bad Hair Day by Adrienne Vincent Sutton

On 17, Aug 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Bad Hair DayBad Hair Day by Adrienne Vincent Sutton

From Goodreads: Gabby McGee is a 12-year-old girl trying to shed her “bad hair,” her parent’s strict rules, and her insecurities—all at the same time. If only she could change her hair from nappy, kinky, and unruly, to straight, long, and flowing, she could finally fit in. But she soon learns that going behind her mother’s back to get a chemical hair relaxer isn’t the way to do it. After a failed trip to the hair salon leaves her in debt, she devises a hair-brained scheme to pay it off, which involves her crush, a French kiss, and a bake-off. Is it just crazy enough to work? Is changing her hair really what she wants? Or, could the money troubles of a classmate at her snooty private school cause her to change her attitude instead?

So hair and hair angst is a theme I see a fair amount of in books written for black girls and it unfortunately stems from girls feeling a need to conform to white beauty standards. A lot of picture books tackling this issue work hard to show girls that their hair is fine exactly as it is. But that’s not going to work in a chapter book. It’s not nuanced enough.

Bad Hair Day was an incredibly fun read and added that nuance needed to flesh out a middle grade novel dealing with how girls feel about natural hair. I had a hard time putting it down as Gabby worked herself deeper and deeper into a silly, and poorly thought out, plan to straighten her hair. It rang so true for the shenanigans that middle schoolers get themselves into as they try to act more adult than they are.

I enjoyed reading a book that featured primarily black characters with a black girl as the main character that was funny, not tragic. While I think Gabby is clearly black, I also think we see stories like these featuring white girls all the time. As always, it’s refreshing to see black girls taking the lead in a light-hearted, fun read.

I do have two complaints about the book. There are a fair number of typos in it. They’re minor, but they’re there. The other is that, while I like the idea behind the design on the cover, the font in the hair is kind of hard to read which might deter readers who are choosing purely on seeing the cover. I think these are minor and shouldn’t deter you from putting this one on your shelves.

A final thoughts, before you write this off as a book for black girls only (I see you librarians and teachers out there skimming over on this review!), it’s not. Besides giving non-black girls a window into this particular issue their peers are struggling with, it also gives them a mirror. The beauty standard doesn’t fit most girls, black or not. And even girls who technically do fit the narrow standard often have a lot of hatred for their own hair and looks. Everyone will enjoy the book for its message of self acceptance and for the hilarity that ensues when Gabby makes a mistake and has to find a way out. Be sure to purchase this one for girls who like light reads about funny social situations.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Rerun: The Monkey King’s Daughter written by T. A. DeBonis

On 11, Jul 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Monkey King's DaughterThe Monkey King’s Daughter written by T. A. DeBonis

From Goodreads: The Monkey King’s Daughter isn’t about Sun Wukong, the Monkey King – it’s about his daughter, Meilin. Only, Meilin doesn’t know she’s the Monkey King’s daughter. In fact, she doesn’t know she’s half-monkey at all. As far as Meilin knows, she’s an ordinary 14 year-old high school freshman from Midland Hills, California, facing all the problems that bright young girls face at that age- flakey girlfriends, zits, too much homework, bad hair, obnoxious boys… But all of that changes when her ancient past catches up with her. (And she thought high school was gonna be easy…)

Today I have another great self published series. I said in another recent review that I am getting rather tired of Greek mythology. Because of Percy Jackson it seems to be everywhere. As a kid I went through a phase where I was into Greek mythology and I still enjoy it, but there is a lot of really interesting mythology out there (I was always way more fascinated with Egyptian mythology) and I wish I had been able to discover it as a young reader. The Monkey King’s Daughter is based in Chinese stories of the Monkey King. If you’ve read Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese you will be familiar with the myth this book draws on. Plenty of it is explained in the course of the story and will make sense to kids unfamiliar with it.

Despite Melin’s age and the fact that she’s in high school, the book is totally appropriate for upper elementary. It’s perfect for kids who like to age up. I would also highly recommend it for lower readers in middle school. The story is exciting enough, but the reading level isn’t particularly difficult.

The pacing was off in a few places. Most of the time the story plugged along, but there were a couple places where things happened a little quickly, felt rushed, and were glossed over. I think this has less to do with it being self published and more to do with the reading level it’s intended for. I don’t know exactly where it falls, but it’s a little more difficult than beginning chapter books, but not nearly as difficult as Percy Jackson (or as long).

My only other complaint is that when Meilin meets her father for the first time she isn’t awkward or angry or anything. She runs into his arms and they spend an evening star gazing together, enjoying each other’s company. I just had a hard time believing that a kid who hasn’t met her father would feel overwhelming love for a man who was never around. Will most kids care about this? The only kids who might are ones who have not met their fathers or who have experienced meeting them later in life. Does that make the book unworthy? I don’t think so. I doubt most kids who will tear through the adventure in this will mind that it isn’t totally authentic. Just be aware it may fall a little flat for some readers.

I really hope this story leads kids to the original Monkey King stories from the different parts of Asia. They’re very exciting and funny. Meilin takes some things in stride, but she was a very realistic kid. She didn’t suddenly become good at everything when she discovered her heritage and fell into her adventure. This is the first in a series and I’ll be buying the rest (I bought the first to try it out). It’s well worth having on our library shelves, particularly if you have kids who love mythology (we all have Riordan fans) and kids who like action.


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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Rerun: The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina written by Fatima Sharafeddine

On 05, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ibn Sina

This one appears to have gone out of print or is at least not available through Amazon. If you wouls like a copy you can buy it here through Kitaab World. I highly recommend ordering through them anyways. They have an amazing selection of books dealing with Islam and South Asian culture. Again, I can’t recommend enough getting more books about Muslims into all parts of your collection. This is a particularly lovely biography with wonderful illustrations and good information.

The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina written by Fatima Sharafeddine, illustrated by Intelaq Mohammed Ali

Form Goodreads: Born in Persia more than a thousand years ago, Ibn Sina was one of the greatest thinkers of his time — a philosopher, scientist and physician who made significant discoveries, especially in the field of medicine, and wrote more than one hundred books. As a child, Ibn Sina was extremely bright, a voracious reader who loved to learn and was fortunate to have the best teachers. He memorized the Qur’an by the age of ten and completed his medical studies at sixteen. He spent his life traveling, treating the sick, seeking knowledge through research, and writing about his discoveries. He came up with new theories in the fields of physics, chemistry, astronomy and education. His most famous work is The Canon of Medicine, a collection of books that were used for teaching in universities across the Islamic world and Europe for centuries.

So I wasn’t totally captivated by the text in this one. It was in first person which I understand brings the reader closer to the subject, but it also made for a few awkward places. In looking further at the book I discovered that it was originally published in Arabic, which might explain the awkwardness. Things lost in translation.

Otherwise, Ibn Sina made me feel totally inadequate. NBD. He just finished his medical studies at 16. I mean I know it wasn’t like medical school these days, but still. 16. Clearly the man was a genius. The story of his accomplishments was really fascinating. He did a lot and was very interested in life long learning. He studied philosophy, education and even advocated for what we might today consider respectful parenting and teaching.

I wish there had been a little more historical context. He moved around a lot as an adult, but there was only a brief mention that one of the cities he lived in was frequently fighting with another. I think kids in the US will not be particularly familiar with the geography or history of the area or era and need more information. But I also understand that it could potentially make the book unwieldy and boring. A longer more detailed author’s note might have sufficed. I did appreciate that Sharafeddine noted that Islamic contributions to the world are rarely taught in US schools and that was a driving factor in bringing out this book.

I really like the illustrations. They’re done on a speckled brownish paper that makes the colors pop and is different from the usual white paper. The lines are so soft and the shading is spectacular. Everyone has these huge half moon eyes that make them kind of darling and friendly. The illustrations were done in colored pencil and are so saturated and rich.

I’ll definitely be buying this as our budget allows this year. We need more Islamic biographies and I don’t think we have anything on the Islamic Golden Age. The illustrations will entice my students to pick it up. My complaints about the text aren’t significant enough for me to not purchase it.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Rerun: Fatty Legs written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

On 13, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Fatty Legs

I bought Fatty Legs awhile back for the library and was able to hand sell it to several readers (and one parent looking for something that was #ownvoices and a historically accurate treatment of First Nations people. I didn’t get feedback from all the students who read it, but the ones I checked in with did enjoy the book (as much as you can enjoy a book about bullying and residential schools). I have edited the review below just a little bit because I think I see even more merit in this book than I originally did and I wanted the review to reflect that.

Fatty Legs: A True Story written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, pictures by Liz Amini-Holmes

From Goodreads: The moving memoir of an Inuit girl who emerges from a residential school with her spirit intact.

Eight-year-old Margaret Pokiak has set her sights on learning to read, even though it means leaving her village in the high Arctic. Faced with unceasing pressure, her father finally agrees to let her make the five-day journey to attend school, but he warns Margaret of the terrors of residential schools.

I was pleasantly surprised by Fatty Legs. I expected a depressing book about the hardships of a boarding school meant to strip children of their language, culture and family. Certainly the school tried to do that. But they were in a for a run for their money with Margaret. She would not be dominated or crushed, although the two years she spent in school were damaging and depressing, it made her more determined.

I’m not opposed to sharing with children, even younger ones, the terrible things that have been done to native populations (North American and other places).  I also feel depressing and disheartening books have their merit. Fatty Legs shows the despicable nature of these boarding schools, but it gives kids get a strong girl to identify with and root for. Margaret’s ability to be upbeat while telling a story that is, at heart, difficult, unjust, and upsetting is felt like a good balance for the age group the book is aimed at.

I know plenty of Native American children know of the horrors of these boarding schools and it’s incredibly important that we share that and talk about it in hopes that it doesn’t happen again. And in hopes of creating a generation of people who are more tolerant and understanding. I know I’ve said this before, but children are incredibly attuned to injustice and, for most, it’s infuriating. Fatty Legs does an excellent job of showing the injustice that will make kids angry, but without going over the top and making it a book parents (especially white parents) will balk at. In other words, kids will get it. They’ll know what happened wasn’t right and they’ll start asking questions and opening conversations.

The book includes photographs at the back of Margaret, her family, and many of the places mentioned in the story. In the text there are small notes in the margins directing the readers to these pictures which I think is unintrusive while providing some really interesting context. I’m amazed that she seems to have so many photographs of these critical moments from the story! It’s incredibly fortunate. There are also definitions of unfamiliar words down at the bottom of the page , which again is unintrusive, but provides context for kids who don’t know the words. Plus, what kid uses a glossary? The words are right there on the page, no need to flip back and forth breaking your concentration and flow.

My only complaint about the book is the format. The full color pictures and larger size of the book make it feel younger. It’s certainly appropriate for fourth graders and would make a great class read in third grade, even a strong third grade reader could pick it up on their own. But fifth grade and sixth grade, who would also make a perfect audience, might shy away from it purely based on looks. It drives me crazy when publishers do that to good books.

Excellent book for reflecting the experiences of many Inuit families and opening up discussions with non-native children who are probably ignorant of what went on less than a century ago.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Rhythm Ride by Andrea Davis Pinkney

On 07, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

rhythm-rideRhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through Motown Sound written by Andrea Davis Pinkney

From Goodreads: Berry Gordy began Motown in 1959 with an $800 loan from his family. He converted the garage of a residential house into a studio and recruited teenagers from the neighborhood-like Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross-to sing for his new label. Meanwhile, the country was on the brink of a cultural revolution, and one of the most powerful agents of change in the following decade would be this group of young black performers from urban Detroit. From Berry Gordy and his remarkable vision to the Civil Rights movement, from the behind-the-scenes musicians, choreographers, and song writers to the most famous recording artists of the century, Andrea Davis Pinkney takes readers on a Rhythm Ride through the story of Motown.

I love this book as a whole package. It’s square like a vinyl record and the cover looks like an old album cover with the font and lines. The woman on the cover is made with words that pertain to Motown and Hitsville and it looks really neat. I also love the color palette. Inside the page numbers are written on little records and the chapter titles use that same clean font you see on the front.

As far as the actual text, I’m lukewarm. It was incredibly fascinating the history and story presented and I was very engrossed in that. But Pinkney frames it as the story being told by “the groove” and the groove talks to a “child” as they drive along following the story. That narration comes with some extra text that introduces each chapter and also some stuff embedded in the chapters, like “Whenever it was time to perform, he had more than butterflies in his stomach. He was plagued with big-winged bats who had a flapping party in Marvin’s belly every time he was about to go onstage.” I can’t decide if kids will appreciate that and feel like it helps them understand the text and information more or if it’s just distracting and forced. Personally, it wasn’t my thing, but I also know kids have a hard time with dry straight facts so I think it might actually draw younger readers in. All in all, the story of Motown is incredible and an appendix lists songs young readers can look up and listen to (I highly recommend librarians and parents suggest they do this as they read!!). Only a handful of songs will be familiar to kids these days (and get off my lawn!).

So, we have this in our collection, a collection for pre-k through fifth grade. It’s definitely shelved in the more difficult nonfiction section. The book isn’t overly long and the chapters are mostly short, but it’s still a fair amount of text. It would be a handful of my fifth graders that could read this on their own. I’m of the mind, however, that we should be filling our shelves with high quality nonfiction that looks interesting, covers a range of topics, and will invite kids to at least flip through the books.I see it as the type of book you might hand to an open-minded kid who is willing to try any book you say is interesting or one who simply likes nonfiction and is open to just about any topic. In other words, I can certainly hand sell this one. I also think this is the kind of book that will appeal to a few special kids who are really interested in music and/or Motown and/or African American cultural history. Those kind of kids are also going to be motivated enough by interest that they’ll find ways to read the book despite a higher reading level. The book should certainly be on any middle school library (and even high school, those kids have less time to read for pleasure so give them some manageable stuff!) shelf where there is a music collection and it will definitely add to a nonfiction section in need of something interesting.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: How to Build a Museum by Tonya Bolden

On 18, Oct 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

how-to-build-a-museumHow to Build a Museum written by Tonya Bolden

From Goodreads: The first national museum whose mission is to illuminate for all people, the rich, diverse, complicated, and important experiences and contributions of African Americans in America is opening.
And the history of NMAAHC–the last museum to be built on the National Mall–is the history of America.
The campaign to set up a museum honoring black citizens is nearly 100 years old; building the museum itself and assembling its incredibly far-reaching collections is a modern story that involves all kinds of people, from educators and activists, to politicians, architects, curators, construction workers, and ordinary Americans who donated cherished belongings to be included in NMAAHC’s thematically-organized exhibits. 

This was really fascinating, but being a museum and history nerd it isn’t surprising that I was hooked. But would a kid be?

The book is not overly long and it focuses on the entire history of the museum, from the inception of the idea way back in the early 20th century, through appointing a head, to construction of the building, to building the collections. The process for how they acquired artifacts was clever and well done. There were the typical auction acquisitions, but they ran an Antiques Roadshow style event in several cities across the US. There they had people bring three items from their family heirlooms and they would give them some historical context. Any they were interested in they asked to keep and restore (and I believe purchase). Each chapter takes on a different piece of building the museum. Some of the more technical aspects, like signing it into law and finding a director may be less interesting to kids, but it isn’t overly detailed and lengthy.

The final two-page spreads focus on a variety of the exhibitions in the museum. There are pictures of artifacts with captions and some text that gives the context behind the exhibit. There is a music collection and an athletics collection that may really pique reluctant reader interest.

I was pleased to see a shout out to Sacramento. A white couple had bought a plane to restore and it turned out to be a plane that had been used to train Tuskegee Airmen. A number of them had even signed the cockpit. The couple did restore the plane and ultimately donated it to the museum. They also flew it across the country to deliver it!

This is the kind of nonfiction I want to be curating in my older/harder nonfiction collection. It’s engaging without being too long. It has a mix of pictures and text, but isn’t so busy it’s hard to read and follow the narrative. I would say this book would work for kids in fourth grade on up into middle school (and maybe even high school for lower readers or students that are particularly interested in the topic). It’s certainly timely and important. Arguably it’s interesting in that you don’t see the creation of these spaces discussed or focused on in children’s nonfiction much. History buffs may take particular delight in this one.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: The Ash Mistry series by Sarwat Chadda

On 21, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Savage Fortress

City of Death











World of Darkness



Ash Mistry Series by Sarwat Chadda

Book 1: Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress

Book 2: Ash Mistry and the City of Death

Book 3: Ash Mistry and the World of Darkness

From Goodreads: Ash Mistry hates India. Which is a problem since his uncle has brought him and his annoying younger sister Lucky there to take up a dream job with the mysterious Lord Savage. But Ash immediately suspects something is very wrong with the eccentric millionaire. Soon, Ash finds himself in a desperate battle to stop Savage’s masterplan – the opening of the Iron Gates that have kept Ravana, the demon king, at bay for four millennia…

I really, really enjoyed this series. Growing up, like many kids, I was totally into Greek and Roman mythology. Then I found Ancient Egyptian mythology and culture. Back then there were was very little YA and MG literature that I could get my hands on that featured good Ancient Egyptian content (I eventually started reading the Elizabeth Peters mysteries, which had a lot of romance and stuff that I wasn’t all that interested in) or even really Greek and Roman mythology and history. Now that Rick Riordan has written all those Percy Jackson books there’s plenty of Greek content out there. There are also the Kane Chronicles. And now it looks like Norse mythology is catching on. I think it’s great that there is a lot out there for kids who are interested in mythology and ancient cultures, but it’s really mostly focused on the Greeks and Romans. Which is why I think series like this one are awesome.

Ash Mistry is based around Indian mythology and it’s so rich. It helps that Chadda appears to know his Indian mythology, ideology, and history inside and out. It’s so seamlessly woven into the story of Ash. From Ash’s rebirths to the Carnival of the Flesh that appears in the third book. It all plays such an important role in the story. Chadda never panders to the Western audience by having asides that explain various aspects of the mythology, but there is explaining. You don’t need to know Indian mythology to understand and follow the story.

I did find the third book moved more slowly for me. I don’t know why. It was by far the most violent in action and depiction. Otherwise the books move along at a nice clip. They are full of action, but aren’t just plot driven. Ash grows and changes through the series into a wiser character. There’s a tiny bit of romance. Ash has a crush on a girl and there is something brewing between him and Parvati, but it’s never really the focus of the story and there’s only one kiss at the very end of the series. Ash is also incredibly devoted to his family which I thought deviated from the standard YA hero story and was a nice touch.

The series is definitely for older audiences. I had originally picked up the first book to see if it was something I could get for our fifth grade students. I don’t think it’s the best fit. There is a lot of violence. A lot. And it’s a lot more graphically depicted than, say, the Riordan books. That makes me think these books are really more YA than middle grade. Darn. They’re so good. I’m mulling it all over. Since we don’t have anything else that features Indian mythology I would consider having the first book on our shelves. That one is probably the least violent or graphic. I highly recommend this for libraries with middle school and high school age patrons. It’s so engrossing and mythology is certainly a popular subject.

There is one big, big problem with the series, though. Only the first two books have been released here in the U.S. I got the first two books from my public library and had to buy the third from a British dealer on Amazon. Why would the publisher do that? It was incredibly frustrating.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Towers Falling by Jewel Parker Rhodes

On 20, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Towers FallingTowers Falling by Jewel Parker Rhodes

From Goodreads: When her fifth-grade teacher hints that a series of lessons about home and community will culminate with one big answer about two tall towers once visible outside their classroom window, Deja can’t help but feel confused. She sets off on a journey of discovery, with new friends Ben and Sabeen by her side. But just as she gets closer to answering big questions about who she is, what America means, and how communities can grow (and heal), she uncovers new questions, too. Like, why does Pop get so angry when she brings up anything about the towers?

I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of Jewel Parker Rhodes middle grade novels at this point and I have loved them all. This was no exception.

I think it would be a mistake to sell this book to kids as only a September 11th book. It needs to be about the friendships and family themes in the book. Most kids in our elementary schools are vaguely aware of 9/11. It’s important and upsetting to those of us who were alive then, but not so much to our young students. I know they can grasp the importance and we’re certainly seeing the ripples of it still with our conflicts in the Middle East, but that’s Over There and way more abstract for these kids. Deja, the main character, struggles with understanding that and it makes the book all more relevant to kids today.

So, Towers Falling is not really a story about 9/11. It’s more a story about how families cope with trauma (or don’t). It’s about how parents and adults give their baggage to children and have expectations of them they can never meet because they don’t know the rules to the game their playing. It’s a story about a family that has fallen on hard times, like so many over the past years, and how it disrupts the children’s ability to function. It all coincides nicely with the anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 and provides a way to talk about those as well, but I think in the years to come the book will have staying power because it is about teaching children to look past the surface of a person.

Deja is deep and she’s hurting and things are hard. She lashes out, she says inconsiderate things, she behaves poorly, not because she wants to or doesn’t know any better, but because there is a lot going on in her life and in her past and those things make it impossible for her not to. She’s been taught to be tough and mean and unfeeling and hurt others before getting hurt herself, but is being held to a standard that expects her to not do those things. Towers Falling is a story about how the past ripples out into the present. Again that happens to be the 9/11 attacks in this story, but it could just as easily be any other event- a shooting, an illness, a car accident. It’s also about how Deja grows through good friends, a conducive environment and learning about the root of many of her family’s troubles (which happen to be the September 11th attacks). It’s about how Deja becomes more aware of what is going on around her.

I found the book incredibly powerful. I realized I have never actually watched the footage of the attacks. I’ve seen the clips of the second plane and I remember a few photographs from the newspaper and that’s it. But I remember that day very vividly. I think it’s hard for me to say with certainly this book is an important part of collection development because I have an emotional reaction to the 9/11 attacks. I believe it’s important for kids to know about them and I think this is a good story to learn about them through. I also think the story itself is only partly about 9/11 and has a lot of value and merit on its own. Recent history is important and I can’t figure out why we’re happy to talk about things like slavery and WWII, but deem 9/11 too hard for kids to learn about.  This is a good book, but I know there will be resistance to putting it on shelves in elementary and middle school libraries. I think it should be on all library shelves and do think we need to consider putting this out there.

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