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Middle Grade



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Ten Days a Madwoman by Deborah Noyes

On 05, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ten DaysTen Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes

From Goodreads: Young Nellie Bly had ambitious goals, especially for a woman at the end of the nineteenth century, when the few female journalists were relegated to writing columns about cleaning or fashion. But fresh off a train from Pittsburgh, Nellie knew she was destined for more and pulled a major journalistic stunt that skyrocketed her to fame: feigning insanity, being committed to the notorious asylum on Blackwell’s Island, and writing a shocking exposé of the clinic’s horrific treatment of its patients.
Nellie Bly became a household name as the world followed her enthralling career in “stunt” journalism that raised awareness of political corruption, poverty, and abuses of human rights. Leading an uncommonly full life, Nellie circled the globe in a record seventy-two days and brought home a pet monkey before marrying an aged millionaire and running his company after his death.

I actually picked this up to see if it might work for our lower school biography collection and I think it might. The length isn’t bad (we have longer, drier biographies on the shelf) and there isn’t anything particularly shocking in it (Bly is asked at one point if she is a nightwalker, but it’s such a brief mention that it will probably pass most younger kids by). Really, though, the book is just so gripping I can totally see some of my older students getting sucked in. We have a picture book biography of Nellie and she’s a fascinating female character that rather broke with convention in her time. I think this would be a good place to go from that picture book if the kids are interested in learning more.

There is the issue of the care of the “insane”. This is Nellie’s reason for becoming a madwoman. She wanted to write an expose on how female patients were treated in the facilities that “cared” for women that were deemed insane. These women were abused. Many were not insane at all, but did not fit within societal expectation. It’s not a pretty scene that Nellie shows the world and while this is clearly written for children, it’s not a pretty scene that readers will discover. Kids will love to feel the outrage that Nellie felt over the conditions she reported on. Lucky for Nellie she was always going to get out. The book could certainly open up a lot of conversations about treatment of the mentally ill (something we are better at to be sure, but are still sadly lacking in) and unfair restrictions and expectations placed on women.

There is a lot about Nellie Bly in this book. Information about her childhood and her career. Nellie herself struggled with the low expectations for women of her era. She chaffed against them, but she was also able to rise to the challenge and find ways to make a living and buck convention. She was really quite interesting and I’m sure her story will fascinate any reader who picks this book up. A good one for an upper elementary and middle school biography collection.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Botswana by Patti Wheeler and Keith Hemstreet

On 24, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

BotswanaBotswana written by Patti Wheeler and Keith Hemstreet

From Goodreads: When Gannon and Wyatt arrive in Botswana for an African safari, they find themselves tangled up in much more than a family vacation. After receiving word that a poacher has shot and wounded a lioness, they set off into the wild in the hopes of saving the mother and her cubs before the poacher finishes the job. While on this amazing journey, they encounter Africa’s Big Five — elephants, rhinos, cape buffalos, leopards, and lions — only to discover that the most dangerous predator in the African bush is not the king of beasts, but man himself.

I picked this one up because our principal scheduled one of the authors to come visit our fourth and fifth grade. I figured I should read at least the first book in the series just to see what they were all about. The book was at best problematic. No joke, the first section of the book is called “The Dark Continent”. I know they’re trying to give the impression of the “great” explorers of the African continent, but this is 2016. We should not be calling it that. The name implies that the countries there are backward and ignorant, which is not true and I don’t think we should be encouraging kids to think they are. The narrators, Gannon and Wyatt, two white American twins, also repeatedly refer to Botswana as Africa. Africa is not a country, let’s get away from that idea. And those “great” explorers were symbols of some pretty serious oppression and exploitation and weren’t really discovering anything new to boot.

The book also buys into the white savior narrative and the narrative that paints Africans as poor but happy. They aren’t great narratives to say the least. Again I think it paints countries in Africa as backward and ignorant. The purpose of the books is said to help educate kids about other places, but this is not what I would want my daughter learning about Africa (or Botswana).

What really got me, though was when the family went to visit the Bushmen (is this really the term they prefer??) they talk about how their land is being taken away and their lifestyle has had to change as a result. But the boys are more concerned about an injured lioness. I get that wildlife is important, but placing more value on African wildlife than on the people is a huge issue. (Please see this article or think back to the whole hullabaloo over the lion killed by the dentist.) True, Gannon and Wyatt’s mother decides to help the tribe build its school for a week, but that’s just an teeny tiny footnote in the whole story as is the plight of these people and is again part of the larger white savior narrative.

Still, I enjoyed the story. It was exciting and suspenseful. The other librarian and my principal were hoping the series would hook our reluctant readers, but it won’t. The book is way too hard for struggling fourth and fifth graders. Even ours who read well above grade level. I think it would work for struggling seventh and eighth graders, but not lower school

This book is part of a larger series and they go other places that may be handled better. More specifically the ones set in Western countries. I don’t want to say I don’t recommend the book, but reading back in my review it sounds like I don’t. So there you have it. I may read the Ireland title, but I can tell you our library does not need more books about white kids in white countries. We need really, truly diverse books. Books that show Africa as a vibrant continent with lots of countries and cities and people who are rich and poor and not in need of saving from us, but needing structures taken down that oppress them. Books that have diversity as a matter of course, not as part of some narrative.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: The Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

On 17, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Book ScavengerThe Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

From Goodreads: Twelve-year-old Emily is on the move again. Her family is relocating to San Francisco, home of her literary idol: Garrison Griswold, creator of the online sensation Book Scavenger, a game where books are hidden all over the country and clues to find them are revealed through puzzles. But Emily soon learns that Griswold has been attacked and is in a coma, and no one knows anything about the epic new game he had been poised to launch. Then Emily and her new friend James discover an odd book, which they come to believe is from Griswold and leads to a valuable prize. But there are others on the hunt for this book, and Emily and James must race to solve the puzzles Griswold left behind before Griswold’s attackers make them their next target.

I really enjoyed this book and it was a recommendation from one of my students who also enjoyed it. There was a lot to enjoy in the book from puzzles, to literature, to San Francisco. The mystery itself was a lot fun to solve along with Emily as the solution couldn’t be solved until she discovered each of the pieces and I think that made it more interesting of a story for an adult to read.

As a native of Northern California I was familiar with many of the places mentioned in the book and Chambliss made a point to make the places real. That was a really fun element to the book and kids who have been to the City or live in it may find that appealing.

Emily’s new (and really only) friend in San Francisco is a boy (hooray for boy-girl friendships). He is also Asian. I’m rather tired of books with the diverse characters as secondary characters and wish Emily’s family hadn’t been white. I also wish there had been more than just James as a diverse character. Your mileage may vary with that, but it’s better than the vast majority of our chapter book collection so I’ll give it some credit there.

I had one gripe with the book that can really be chalked up to my being an adult (meaning it wouldn’t have even registered with me as a kid). At one point in the story the villain contacts Emily’s school saying she has a book of his and he needs it back or he will lose his job. For some reason her history teacher gets wind of this and talks to the guy and then to Emily, extracting the book from her with lots of guilt and shaming for not wanting to give it back. First of all, I don’t know why exactly Emily doesn’t spill the beans about being followed and threatened by two goons who work for this villain (I mean she does have a reason, and as a kid I would have found it acceptable, but given the circumstances as an adult I think she needed to tell someone). More importantly though, why did this condescending teacher not check this story out? I know a lot of adults take other adult’s word over children, but it is highly suspicious that this person calls the school to contact Emily and raises even more red flags that this teacher didn’t fact check and call her parents before talking with Emily. Or better yet that he didn’t just pass the information along to Emily’s parents to let them deal with the situation. I take issue with teachers that are jerks and this teacher really was, but on his moral high ground he endangered Emily and that’s not realistic or okay.

If you have kids that like mysteries, literature, San Francisco, and puzzles definitely a worthy purchase.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis

On 07, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Hundred Penny BoxThe Hundred Penny Box written by Sharon Bell Mathis, pictures by Diane and Leo Dillon

Lexile: 700L

From Goodreads: Michael loves his great-great-aunt Dew, even if she can’t always remember his name. He especially loves to spend time with her and her beloved hundred penny box, listening to stories about each of the hundred years of her life. Michael’s mother wants to throw out the battered old box that holds the pennies, but Michael understands that the box itself is as important to Aunt Dew as the memories it contains.

I am so sad this book:

  1. Is not actually broken into chapters.
  2. Has such a boring and dated cover.
  3. Doesn’t have a smaller form factor.

I was totally blown away by this story as it’s a story about death. While Michael reflects back on his great Aunt’s life with her through her pennies (one for each year of her life) he also struggles with his mother who wants to toss the old box that holds the pennies. This is a big metaphor for how she feels about Aunt Dew living with them and Michael doesn’t quite understand that, but he picks up on the tension.

The story is so worth reading, but those three things I listed above will make it a really hard sell with kids. Also, while I loved the book, there’s something about the story that didn’t feel quite modern. It’s kind of an intellectual story and it’s very slow moving (two things I could not have gotten past as a child-reader). I think it would make an excellent read aloud either in the classroom or at home. I think a lot of kids will relate to caring for an elderly relative and the strain that can put on their family. It would also make an excellent literature study.

Oddly enough Amazon has the book available as a Puffin Picture Book. The book is pretty long and doesn’t have that many illustrations so I’m not sure why it got that reprinting treatment. It is also listed as  a book for 6-9 year olds. I would say 9 is about the age where this book’s range should start. It’s a complex and nuanced story and a six-year-old may not sit through it and without some serious discussion, isn’t going to get it. Plus that reading level is pretty high.

SPOILER ALERT: Although it doesn’t say it out right on the last page, I believe Aunt Dew dies with Michael lying next to her. I think this is part of what makes the story so incredible. She passes peacefully, but Michael gains this understanding of the importance of a life well lived and in keeping your memories alive. Part of the beauty of the story is also in that Michael, a child, clearly understands the importance of the hundred penny box much better than the adults (Aunt Dew excepted) and tries very hard to fight for it and convince his mother of its power and importance.

I checked the book out of my library both to see if I can find some good diverse chapter books and hand sell them to my patrons and to see what we might weed out of the collection. I doubt this book has circulated in years (update: it looks like it hasn’t circulated since we put our catalog on the computer 15 years ago) so it should go if I can’t convince any one to read it and love it. If you have kids or students that like slow books or are dealing with older relatives then it would be worth previewing.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Honey by Sarah Weeks

On 06, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

HoneyFrom Goodreads: Melody has lived in Royal, Indiana, for as long as she can remember. It’s been just her and her father, and she’s been okay with that. But then she overhears him calling someone Honey — and suddenly it feels like everyone in Royal has a secret. It’s up to Melody and her best friend, Nick, to piece together the clues and discover why Honey is being hidden.
 Meanwhile, a dog named Mo is new to Royal. He doesn’t remember much from when he was a puppy . . . but he keeps having dreams of a girl he is bound to meet someday. This girl, he’s sure, will change everything.

Lexile: 830L

I was sort of ho-hum on Honey. It wasn’t a bad book by any means and the story was fun while I was reading it, if a little sad. But the ending is happy and the mystery is just mysterious enough to engage kids. In fact this makes a great elementary school read because everything at the end wraps up so nicely. Kids are obviously fine with endings that aren’t clear or mix good and bad, but I think the younger they are the more they really like tidy stories. I think that gets irritating to some as the mature, too.

Although I’m not a dog person I thought Mo’s storyline where he waits for the dream girl to come along is really fun and sweet. You just know that it’s Mel he’s waiting for and so you wait with him wondering when they’ll finally meet and if will happen they way Mo has always dreamed it would.

My only issue with the book was Mel’s best friend Nick Woo. He felt a bit like a token diverse character. No one else’s ethnicity is mentioned and everyone else has culturally ambiguous names. But Nik has an Asian last name and is the target of one unintentionally unkind, probing comment from a little girl (“Do you have a suntan or are you always that color?”). It is then quickly explained in a sentence that Nick’s mom is African American and his father was Chinese. However, this is the only mention, beyond the implication of his last name, that he is mixed race or anything other than white. And the comment sort of pops up and passes and doesn’t have much other bearing on the story. In fact, there is absolutely no reason Nick couldn’t have been white like everyone else and that comment could be wiped from the story without anyone noticing it was gone. Which makes me think he was made mixed race to ensure there was diversity, which doesn’t feel authentic at all. I’m not saying his family needs to be seen wearing dreadlocks and eating Chinese food to feel real, but those few sentences read like “here let me make sure you know there’s a person of color in this book”.

If you have readers that like stories with animals, like family stories, and like quirky little towns this is a great book to satisfy them. Just don’t go looking for diversity here.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Chickadee by Louise Erdrich

On 04, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

ChickadeeChickadee written by Louise Erdrich, pictures by Louise Erdrich

Lexile: 800L

From Goodreads: Twin brothers Chickadee and Makoons have done everything together since they were born—until the unthinkable happens and the brothers are separated.

Desperate to reunite, both Chickadee and his family must travel across new territories, forge unlikely friendships, and experience both unexpected moments of unbearable heartache as well as pure happiness. And through it all, Chickadee has the strength of his namesake, the chickadee, to carry him on.

This is the fourth, and as far as I can tell, final book in the Birchbark House series. You don’t necessarily have to have read the other books to enjoy and follow this one (I have read the first, but not the middle two). The ending felt like it left some ends untied so maybe Erdrich plans on writing another in the series?

Chickadee is more of an adventure story than The Birchbark House, however it features many of the everyday life scenes and thoughts that made the first book so good. At times the pacing felt uneven as it switched between following Chickadee and then his family searching for him. But these stories are not meant for readers who like plot-driven novels. They’re for readers who like quiet, realistic daily life stories. Chickadee’s story line features some really interesting history (western expansion and trade) and some great wilderness survival scenes that I can see really hooking in boys.

The “villains” Baptiste and Babiche and the scenes with them remind me so much of some of Sid Fleischman’s books (The Whipping Boy for example). I wish there had been more because they are incredibly funny despite the fact that they are rather menacing and kidnap Chickadee. There is a fair amount of humor in the story despite the fact that Chickadee is stolen from his family and struggles to reunite with them and I think that will really appeal to kids. The book also has the great message of small things and people should not be discounted. Chickadee learns that he has an inner strength despite not being a rough-and-tumble, strong boy.

As with The Birchbark House, I think Chickadee would make a great read aloud. It might move a little slowly for some readers, but kids who like books about family, daily life and historical fiction should find a lot to love about this book.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Two for Joy by Gigi Amateau

On 03, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Two for JoyTwo for Joy written by Gigi Amateau, pictures boy Abigail Marble

Lexile: 620L

From Goodreads: Eight-year-old Jenna is dreaming of playing Olympic soccer when the phone call wakes her. Great-Great Aunt Tannie has broken her ankle, and Jenna’s worried mom decides Tannie should move in with them. Tannie is no delicate old lady—she does heavy chores on her Virginia farm, drives a huge pickup, and even rides her own motorcycle. Plus she’s full of joie de vivre, given to kicking a soccer ball and teaching Jenna all about the birds she’s collected on her life list. Jenna’s excited to have her favorite aunt and cat, Butt, come to stay, but with so many changes to get used to, tempers around the house soon start to flare. Maybe with all the caring and being taken care of, they’ve forgotten what Tannie is still so good at—and neglected to have any fun.

I don’t really remember where I saw Two for Joy recommended or reviewed, but I must have seen it on some blog if I found it to read. I do know I picked it up because it features a family taking on caring for an older member. So many stories seem to feature parent-child families living together with grandparents living some distance away or not featuring at all. But I think the reality is for many children that grandparents, older aunts and uncles, etc. live with them or near by. This was especially true in the economic crisis we had- a lot of people moved in with family – and it’s nice to see that reflected in some way in this book.

Care for elderly relatives often falls on families. Many people (most?) can’t afford expensive nursing homes and assisted living facilities so older parents end up living with their children.Even when someone lives in a nursing home there is still a fair amount of care and involvement required from families. I know my own mother is over at my grandmother’s apartment once and twice a week delivering supplies, paying bills, checking in and driving her to doctor’s appointments. This can really take a toll on a family and Two for Joy examines this from the perspective of a child. Being a kidlit novel the ending resolves fairly easily and there isn’t the drop-down, drag-out fight over Tannie leaving her home of 50+ years which I think would have been more realistic, if not appropriate. Again, seeing this relationship and its difficulties reflected in a children’s novel is really refreshing.

In content Two for Joy reminds me a lot of Pearl Versus the World which was another fantastic, short book about caring for an aging (and in Pearl’s case, dying) relative. Give kids Two for Joy if they liked Pearl or steer them to that one next (although use your judgement because of the ending in Pearl and based on what a child’s situation might be). Also give it to kids who may have had an older relative move in with them recently and to kids who like gentle family stories where members are supportive and caring, but not without their flaws.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz

On 02, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Rad American Women

Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl

Lexile: 1040L

From Goodreads: Like all A-Z books, this one illustrates the alphabet—but instead of “A is for Apple”, A is for Angela—as in Angela Davis, the iconic political activist. B is for Billie Jean King, who shattered the glass ceiling of sports; C is for Carol Burnett, who defied assumptions about women in comedy; D is for Dolores Huerta, who organized farmworkers; and E is for Ella Baker, who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King and helped shape the Civil Rights Movement.

And the list of great women continues, spanning several centuries, multiple professions, and 26 diverse individuals. There are artists and abolitionists, scientists and suffragettes, rock stars and rabble-rousers, and agents of change of all kinds.

This is technically probably not a chapter book and it certainly has a high reading level, but the format is so close to a chapter book and it’s so perfect for those kids who are reading chapter books.

The mix of women and movements they started or supported is incredible. Kids will be exposed to all sorts of activism, from political to social to historical, and may even find a cause they can be passionate about. The book is both a great history lesson and a great lesson in fights for equality and justice that are still going on. Some of the women may be familiar to kids from curriculum, media or other picture books, but many won’t be and that’s fantastic.

The book does require a bit of outside knowledge. There is mention of types of music, historical movements, and ideas that the book doesn’t focus on defining. This isn’t a failing per se, but it will require that the reader have some exposure to these ideas or that you open up conversations with them about them. I hope it does open up those conversations in homes and in classrooms because we need to be having them and kids need to be aware of them.

I really hate to be critical of artwork because I have no talent as an artist, but some of the portraits in the book aren’t as good as others. I love the style- cut paper on a bold, single-colored background and the majority of them are great portraits of the people. And I am over the moon that it is not some pink and girly book despite it being all women. It’s just that a few of the portraits have little odd elements (odd hands or wrinkles) that make them seem off and I think that’s due in part to the style. It’s hard to capture detail with the broad swaths of cut paper. Will that bother kids reading this? I’m not sure. Many kids latch onto things like that and may be more likely to in a book that touches on some uncomfortable topics in an effort to channel their awkwardness. It’s such a minor complaint though in a book that is rad.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Fatty Legs by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

On 01, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Fatty Legs

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.

Now 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), but I think there is an appropriate way to go about it. Depressing and disheartening books have their merit, but I’m really glad this one featured a plucky, smart girl. While it shows the despicable nature of these boarding schools, 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 wonderful 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, even a strong third grade reader could pick it up. 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 Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Monthly Author: Pam Munoz Ryan

On 20, Sep 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

I’ve been aware of Pam Munoz Ryan for years now, but for whatever reason I haven’t read anything by her. I was inspired to add her to the list when I saw her speak nearly a year ago at the ALSC Institute. I hadn’t realized she was from California which was neat to me. I was also really impressed with all the things she had to say about the importance of diversity in children’s literature.

Here’s her website where she has a lists of all the books she’s written. She is a prolific author! For any teachers out there, she’s got readers theatre scripts for four of her books.

Schedule for the week:

Monday: How Do You Raise a Raisin

Tuesday: Raising Freedom

Thursday: Mice and Beans

Friday: Hello Ocean

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