By Elizabeth Wroten
On 16, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In moving verse, Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis gives new voice to seventeen heroes of civil rights. Exquisitely illustrated by five extraordinary artists, this commanding collection of poems invites the reader to hear in each verse the thunder that lies in every voice, no matter how small. Featuring civil rights luminaries Coretta Scott King, Harvey Milk, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Sylvia Mendez, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mamie Carthan Till, Helen Zia, Josh Gibson, Dennis James Banks, Mitsuye Endo, Ellison Onizuka, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Yunus, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
This is definitely for older audiences. The poems are unflinching in what they look at- KKK murders (Freedom Summer), racially motivated murders (Emmett Till), deep seated hatred (Harvey Milk, Sylvia Mendez, Japanese Internment)- and the back matter includes more information.
I am reminded a bit of Rad American Women by this book, I think simply because it’s a book of activists and probably by the broad range of people examined. But the format it completely different. These are poems introducing children to people who have fought for civil rights all across the globe and for different groups of disadvantaged people. I didn’t personally click with a lot of them, but that’s just me. I think they will give kids exposure to a lot people they are probably not familiar with, but should have some awareness of- Harvey Milk and Aung San Suu Kyi to name two.
I don’t know why on my first pass through I didn’t realize that there were a number of illustrators including John Parra who I just saw in Marvelous Cornelius and who has a distinctive style. I really loved all the pictures here and I think they could serve as a good entree for reluctant poetry/nonfiction readers.
When Thunder Comes would be so worth putting on our shelves and I will add it to the collection development list, but it’s going to be a damn hard sell. It’s for older readers; it’s a picture book with picture book trim size; and it’s poetry. Those are three types of literature that do not leave our shelves all rolled into one. But I also very strongly believe that marketability can be created. I know there are teachers that would use this and with good readers advisory kids will pick it up. If you talk to your children about civil right struggles or if your school does anything with civil rights I suggest looking into adding this to your library purely for the range of people introduced here.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: From a young age, Michael was both fascinated by and afraid of his grandfather. Grandpa’s ship was torpedoed during the Second World War, leaving him with terrible burns. Every time he came to stay, Michael was warned by his mother that he must not stare, he must not make too much noise, he must not ask Grandpa any questions about his past. As he grows older, Michael stays with his grandfather during the summer holidays, and as he finally learns the story behind Grandpa’s injuries, he gets to know the real man behind the solemn figure from his childhood. Michael can see beyond the burns, and this gives him the power to begin healing some of the scars that have divided his family for so long.
This was such an interesting book. It was a very simple, but very deep. It looked at World War II from the perspective of its lasting impact on veteran’s families. Michael’s grandfather was badly burned while fighting in the Pacific and both his mental trauma, particularly how it made him feel about himself, and his physical change, make his life a struggle. People are afraid of him, his wife leaves him, and he is frequently angry. His daughter was afraid of him and at first his grandson was too.
But here is where the story really takes off. Michael, in visiting his grandfather, begins to look past the scars and taciturn attitude. He realizes they share a lot in common including a love of being together quietly. The grandfather becomes a friend to Michael and finds some redemption for the botched childhood of his daughter and his failed marriage. He begins to share his wounds and his regrets with Michael and his mother. I wouldn’t say life becomes grand and rosy, but the two find a deep connection and love that is the star of the story.
World War II books seem popular at any level, but I would say it’s best suited to middle and high school. Even adults could enjoy it (I certainly did). There isn’t anything overly gruesome in the story, it’s just deeper than I think most young readers are going to read and I don’t think they’ll find it particularly interesting.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
The 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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Fefa struggles with words. She has word blindness, or dyslexia, and the doctor says she will never read or write. Every time she tries, the letters jumble and spill off the page, leaping and hopping away like bullfrogs. How will she ever understand them? But her mother has an idea. She gives Fefa a blank book filled with clean white pages. “Think of it as a garden,” she says. Soon Fefa starts to sprinkle words across the pages of her wild book. She lets her words sprout like seedlings, shaky at first, then growing stronger and surer with each new day. And when her family is threatened, it is what Fefa has learned from her wild book that saves them.
Margartia Engle writes the most beautiful novels in verse. In The Wild Book she draws on her family history to tell the story of Fefa who is dyslexic. I think this alone makes the book worth having on the shelf for the one or two kids who struggle with dyslexia and need to see themselves and their struggles in the pages of a book. Fefa is bound and determined, but constantly discouraged by her lack of progress, and I think she could be a very relatable character. I can’t speak to how accurately the disability is presented, but Engle does appear to have drawn directly out of family stories about her so I suspect she is pretty close to accurate in depicting her great aunt.
The story beyond Fefa is interesting, but fairly quiet. Fefa is growing up in a small village with a large family. They are squabbles and mean sisters. One brother ends up injured in a pretty severe accident and becomes Fefa’s teacher. He isn’t particularly sensitive to Fefa’s difficulty reading, but he pushes her and eventually she comes to appreciate how he is helping her. There is some sense of danger in the book precipitated by historical events that might pique kids’ interest, but the tension is fairly low in the book itself. Kids who like quite books will enjoy this story.
I don’t see the kids picking these up off the shelf on their own too often (I like the cover, but I’m not sure it appeals to kids), but to me that means we need to do a better job of talking them up and drawing attention to them. I’ve said many times, novels in verse (and graphic novels) are good alternative formats that work well for reluctant readers. This one even more so because some of those reluctant readers may be struggling with a learning disability that makes reading difficult.
I think I put this on the summer reading list for fourth grade, but I can’t quite remember. I’m hoping some kids read it and it hooks them into the format and the author. We actually have two copies of the book in the library. I recommend it if you have kids who like this format and if you have reluctant readers you are looking at hooking. I also suggest it if you have students that like slice of life, realistic fiction. It’s fairly inexpensive so I think it would be well worth giving a try if for no other reason than to have more representation of learning disability on the shelves. If you hand sell it, it will get read.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: The lovable trio from the acclaimed Lowriders in Space are back! Lupe Impala, Elirio Malaria, and El Chavo Octopus are living their dream at last. They’re the proud owners of their very own garage. But when their beloved cat Genie goes missing, they need to do everything they can to find him. Little do they know the trail will lead them to the realm of Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the Underworld, who is keeping Genie prisoner! With cool Spanish phrases on every page, a glossary of terms, and an action-packed plot that sneaks in science as well as Aztec lore, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth is a linguistic and visual delight. ¡Que suave!
I love, love, love these books. They are so much fun. The first book featured themes of friendship, culture, adventure, and perseverance and the second also has these. They make for a really enjoyable story. It’s not necessary to have read the first book, but kids should read it anyways because it’s is also such a great story.
In this one there is a lot of Aztec mythology worked into the story. The culture is so fluidly written in (not surprisingly, but it’s refreshing to read that). This would make Lowriders a great suggestion for kids who want to read mythology, but are not ready for the task of Percy Jackson (plus I’m really bored with Greek mythology, it’s everywhere). Camper has even thrown in a bit about rock science by using some pretty silly, pun-ny jokes.
The art. Oh my gosh, the art! Raul the Third is incredible. I believe, as with the first book, the pictures are done with ball point pens! I can’t even. How does he turn out such amazing illustrations with just three or four colors? And ball point pens? Not exactly fine artistic tools, but his art is incredible. Each picture and panel is full of interesting details, little jokes, and humor.
An added bonus, this is a bit science fiction-y and we need more of that in our collection. The graphic novel format is a great way to hook in reluctant readers, as are the subjects of adventure and cars. I’ve already bought a copy for the library and highly recommend it for anyone with students third grade and up.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Manuela had imagined that killing a manatee would be like killing a very big fish, just more exciting. But when her father successfully harpoons one, leaving its baby orphaned, she finds that her feelings have changed. She vows to rescue the baby manatee and return it to the river. But she soon realizes what an enormous task she’s taken on. Will she be able to save the baby manatee—and protect him from being hunted in the future, too?
I was surprised by the author on this one. I am familiar with her picture books and wondered how she would handle a chapter book. I was a little worried about a white author writing about a rural population in Colombia. And then it’s about conservation which can be contentious with poor, rural people. I wasn’t sure if it would read like someone denigrating the people trying to survive or imposing white values on a society that sees the world differently. I would love to hear someone who has a better sense of these things chime in, but I thought Davies did a fine job telling the story.
The writing was good and the story well told. She tackles the idea that the people are poor and reliant on the land, but that they would have reasons to want to join conservation movements. The story is actually based partially on a true story and a real manatee conservation organization. Airuwe is a real manatee who was rescued. I think that lends the story some authenticity that might have otherwise been hard to capture. Davies never made the people seem backwards or ignorant. She didn’t dwell on their poverty. While Manuela cares for the manatee baby she is watched by her village. She respectfully tries to teach them about why they might want to save Airuwe and manatees in general. Moreover, most of the villagers come to the conclusion that they shouldn’t hunt manatees on their own.
I liked that Manuela was not a hero per se. She did what felt right to her. The first scene where she and her father hunt and kill the mother manatee is not graphic, but it changes her. She realizes what it means to take the life of an animal and she decides she needs to save the baby.
Manatee Rescue reminds me of Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins. If that one is popular in your library you should definitely purchase this one. Both are great books about animal conservation. This would make a good addition to a library that has kids interested in animals and conservation. There is a bit of back matter in this one that discusses manatees and their precarious situation across the globe. It also shares a bit about conservation efforts along the Amazon.
There are some sweet black and white water color pictures sprinkled into the book. They don’t add a whole lot to the book, but they are charming. I am not wild about the cover and I am curious if that is the correct kind of manatee. There are three kinds apparently and that one looks like the ones I’ve seen in Florida and it appears to be missing the distinctive white chest patch of Amazonian manatees.
I will definitely be buying this one for out mellow yellow section. It’s the transition from chapter books into the honest-to-goodness fiction section. We have books like The One and Only Ivan shelved there. In theory it could probably go in our transitional chapter book section. It isn’t terribly difficult and it clocks in at just under 100 pages. It would be one of our harder chapter books which is why I think I would bump it up. Either way it’s a good addition to those kids working their way into harder fiction books.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In the northern Ooni Kingdom, fear of the unknown runs deep, and children born dada are rumored to have special powers. Thirteen-year-old Zahrah Tsami feels like a normal girl—she grows her own floral computer, has mirrors sewn onto her clothes, and stays clear of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle. But unlike other children in the village of Kirki, Zahrah was born with the telling dadalocks. Only her best friend, Dari, isn’t afraid of her, even when something unusual begins happening—something that definitely makes Zahrah different. The two friends determine to investigate, edging closer and closer to danger. When Dari’s life is threatened, Zahrah must face her worst fears alone, including the very thing that makes her different.
The world building in this book was incredible. Okorafor is so clever in the things she weaves into new worlds. There isn’t just a layer of magic or technology laid over our own world. And it isn’t some vaguely medieval setting. In the Ooni Kingdom plants are an integral part of their world. They are used to make technology (the old ebooks are a special kind of leaf), they are used to make buildings (they are literally hollowed out or shaped as they grow to create skyscrapers and libraries), and then there is the Greenie Jungle that lurks just on the outskirts of their world.
When Zahrah’s best friend falls into a coma she has to face both who she is and the Greenie Jungle to save him. I loved that Zahrah was not necessarily brave and she is fighting a lot of her demons, but her voice was never irritating. She is afraid, but she doesn’t throw up her hands and whine about how she can’t do it. She has been picked on at school and people think she’s strange for her hair. This has hurt her, but she doesn’t throw up her hands and let other people tell her who she is. It was refreshing, first to have a girl saving a boy, but also to watch a girl who come into her own without being a “chosen one”. The story is really about Zahrah finding her inner strength. She does have a special power, but she really only draws on it in a major way at the very end, and even then not in a deus-ex-machina way.
Zahrah’s journey also includes elements of discovering the world around her and questioning everything she has been taught. She comes to realize that maybe her people have been closed minded and afraid. I think a lot of adolescents go through this kind of discovery process where their worlds open up around them, at least in an intellectual sense. Zahrah’s transformation from timid girl to confident young woman is one a lot kids will want to relate to and watch. As an introvert I appreciated that, although she gains confidence in herself and discovers how to use her new skill, she doesn’t become a different person. She is still quiet and thoughtful, she just now has an inner strength.
The reading level and length make this much more of a book for middle school age kids, which is too bad because it was awesome and I would have loved to put it in my library. I may still. Buy this if you have fantasy fans in your library. Buy it if you are in an elementary library that has really strong readers. We need more variety in our fantasy and not another book set in a thinly disguised Europe.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: One of 12 siblings growing up in depression-era Baltimore, Edith isn’t quite sure of who she is. Between working at her father’s diner, taking care of her younger siblings, and living in the shadow of her more mature sisters, Edith feels lost in a sea of siblings. When a kind teacher encourages Edith to be a teacher herself one day, Edith sees prospects for a future all her own.
Looking For Me was such an enjoyable book. Edith is a really likable girl who seems to get short shrift in her family. It’s a memoir in verse of Betsy’s mother’s childhood growing up in a very large Jewish family. Edith really struggles to find her place and make her parents see her. There are also a lot of expectations put on her. She helps care for all the younger children because she is “the little mother”. This is a role she doesn’t necessarily mind, but she also resents having it be expected of her and having it be the only role her family sees her in. She also must work in the family restaurant after school everyday until nearly midnight. But she’s usually a happy kid with good perspective.
I am always looking for books that feature Jews, but not the holocaust. Why are all books with Jews about the holocaust?! Here the family is loud and boisterous and always short on money. They run a diner and barely keep a lid on all their children in the best possible way (I sort of imagine my dad’s childhood was a little like this, actually, running a bit feral with all his siblings). Their faith doesn’t play into the book too much, which I appreciated in that I am not looking for Jewish Books, but books with people who happen to be Jewish. Where the Judaism infuses their lives, but isn’t front and center.
A warning, one of Edith’s younger brothers dies. It’s a bit dramatic, but not detailed or gory. He comes down with what, at the time, was a fairly common childhood disease (I’m sorry I can’t remember what it is right now) and is whisked off to the hospital.
While appropriate for an elementary library, it seems better suited to middle schoolers who are really grappling with who they are. I think I have a few fifth graders who might enjoy this and they could certainly read it, I just worry that these glimpses into everyday life are not quite what they willingly pick up. I would give it to fans of Marilyn Nelson’s How I Discovered Poetry. Both are memoirs in verse and feature themes of self discovery. This would make a great addition to a classroom library as well. And I hate to give it the kiss of death, but it would be a good class read. I’m still undecided on whether or not I will purchase for our library.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: George Washington Carver was born a slave in Missouri about 1864 and was raised by the childless white couple who had owned his mother. In 1877 he left home in search of an education, eventually earning a master’s degree. In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to start the agricultural department at the all-black-staffed Tuskegee Institute, where he spent the rest of his life seeking solutions to the poverty among landless black farmers by developing new uses for soil-replenishing crops such as peanuts, cowpeas, and sweet potatoes. Carver’s achievements as a botanist and inventor were balanced by his gifts as a painter, musician, and teacher.
This was an incredible and eye-opening book. Unsurprisingly I learned nothing about Carver in my history classes and I’m pretty sure no one is explicitly studying him in any of our current social studies curriculums. Such a shame because he was a fascinating figure. While relegated to terrible jobs on chicken farms because of the pervasive racism at the time he did some incredible research into soil science and farming. All of it was inspired by a desire to help poor black people raise themselves out of poverty and do a better job farming. Carver is best known for peanut butter, I think, but there was SO much more to his studies.
I love novels in verse and this was an wonderful way to open up the history here. Carver really came to life on the page as did the times he lived in. Nelson’s work is always worth reading, but especially this book.
A heads up: the n-word appears in one (possibly two) of the poems. In context I think it makes sense, so it isn’t gratuitous use of the word. The inclusion of the word didn’t make or break my decision not to purchase the book, either. I do hesitate, however, to have materials with slurs or with stereotyped/racist content and depictions on our shelves because our students are not having conversations around that material, particularly the materials they pick up in the library (they take them home, read them on their own, and return them). Instead of learning about the power of words (or images) and how hurtful they can be and how they can be used intentionally to hurt and oppress others, they are simply internalizing those images and words. And that is insidious. It eats away at their ability to call out racism (and other -isms) and see how it truly influences our world.
More to the point, though, for buying this for an elementary school library, is the reading ability required to follow the narrative. The poems aren’t totally straight forward. It’s free verse, but the mix of narrators and settings made it a little harder to follow. This makes for a deep reading experience, but one that I think is above even my fifth grader’s heads. Sometimes I can make the case that strong fourth grade readers and fifth graders can handle a book that is more middle school (Almost Astronauts for example, or Moonbird), but with the verse format in Carver, I think they would really struggle.
I would have no hesitation buying this book for a middle or high school library, however. I would highly recommend it for an English and/or history class to use too. There is so much good information and history and writing here. So much!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Why is the land so important to Cassie’s family? It takes the events of one turbulent year—the year of the night riders and the burnings, the year a white girl humiliates Cassie in public simply because she’s black—to show Cassie that having a place of their own is the Logan family’s lifeblood. It is the land that gives the Logans their courage and pride—no matter how others may degrade them, the Logans possess something no one can take away.
Considering this won a Newbery Award I’m surprised I haven’t read it before. I was only vaguely aware of it’s presence in middle school. Such a shame because it was a fantastic book. It should be taught in more English classes instead of some of the boring, male- and white-centric novels we read in middle and high school (Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you).
Our library has one or two of the Logan series so I picked this up both because of its awards and because I was curious if we should add it to our collection. I’m sort of torn. It isn’t the longest of the Logan books and it was certainly interesting and engaging. But it was also a tough read in terms of reading level. Plus this is a much more introspective book and I think kids who aren’t already strong readers won’t have the stamina to get through it. If I had picked it up in late elementary school and even into middle school I wouldn’t have finished it, let alone appreciated and enjoyed it. It would have just been too hard.
I think if one of our classes studied Reconstruction Era and/or the Depression I would highly recommend it as a book to read as a class. With a teacher guiding fifth graders through, it’s possible. The book takes place during the Depression, but you can see threads of slavery and Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the story that would make for excellent tie-ins with history studies and bring on tough, but necessary, conversations about institutional racism and systems put in place to keep anyone who isn’t white, down.
The story was absolutely heart-wrenching and heart-warming. The Logan family faces a lot of challenges from racism, to white supremacists, to poverty, to a father being away at work. Plus a lot of hardships befall them. Their mother is fired from her teaching job for teaching black pride and history. Their father breaks his leg and is unable to go back to his job on the railroad. And payments on their land and farm are coming due because white people who don’t like them are fiddling with the system and trying to force them into foreclosure. But they also have a large close-knit family that promises to see them through. Cassie makes for a great narrator for all these events. While realistic and at times introspective about their situation, she is also optimistic. Plus she gets some AWESOME revenge on the white school’s bus and on the girl who humiliates her. The book itself is also nuanced in its look at Southern life. There are out and out racists and bigots and there are white people who support and help the Logans and other black families, overtly and covertly. There are African Americans who are afraid and timid and there are African Americans who stand up for what they believe even if it means putting themselves out there as targets. In other words there is no binary here.
Although this is technically book four in the series that chronicles the Logan family, it made perfect sense picking it up and reading it. There were a few references to events that had happened in earlier generations, but they were explained within the context of the story and didn’t leave me wondering if I needed to go back to earlier books. This may be in part due to the order the books in the series were written and published. I don’t think they necessarily came out in chronological order.
I really think that this is truly a middle grade book suited to middle school age. I don’t think elementary students can’t handle anything in it, but the reading itself might be very taxing. I’m going to have see what others we have in the series and if they need to be passed up to our middle/high school library or if I should flesh out the series a bit. I will note that the first book chronologically is The Land and clocks in at 400 pages!! Yipes, that would be a looong book for a fifth grader.