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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Feb 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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:
- Is not actually broken into chapters.
- Has such a boring and dated cover.
- 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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From 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.
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 04, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
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.