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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
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
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 09, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Corinne La Mer isn’t afraid of anything. Not scorpions, not the boys who tease her, and certainly not jumbies. They’re just tricksters parents make up to frighten their children. Then one night Corinne chases an agouti all the way into the forbidden forest. Those shining yellow eyes that followed her to the edge of the trees, they couldn’t belong to a jumbie. Or could they?
When Corinne spots a beautiful stranger speaking to the town witch at the market the next day, she knows something unexpected is about to happen. And when this same beauty, called Severine, turns up at Corinne’s house, cooking dinner for Corinne’s father, Corinne is sure that danger is in the air. She soon finds out that bewitching her father, Pierre, is only the first step in Severine’s plan to claim the entire island for the jumbies. Corinne must call on her courage and her friends and learn to use ancient magic she didn’t know she possessed to stop Severine and save her island home.
This book is perfect for the fall/Halloween season coming up. Or really any season in which you like to read spooky stories. Baptiste does an incredible job setting the tone in the book, contrasting the dark forest with the bright sunny towns and beaches of the island. There’s plenty of action and suspense too.
Corinne is a fun heroine to follow even if her independence gets her into some tight spots both with the jumbies and with her friends. I particularly liked the sweet relationship she had with her father. Her mother died many years earlier and, unlike many books, her father doesn’t retreat into himself or stop parenting. He steps up and fosters a close, loving relationship with Corinne. A relationship she treasures and knows she needs to fight for when Severine, the disguised jumbie pushes her way into their home.
I also enjoyed the addition of Malik and Bouki. They were great comic relief, but they were also clearly more. Not only did they make excellent friends and allies for Corinne, but they had a backstory that made them unique. Corinne’s other new friend, Dru, I just found exasperating. She was so afraid of everything and had no convictions. But my objection really was me looking at her as an adult, not as an intended reader, so I don’t think it detracts from the book at all.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge chicken when it comes to horror and while I was creeped out by the book it wasn’t so scary I was thinking about it days later at night. Give this book to kids who want something for Halloween or want to try out scary stories, but aren’t sure they want to be terrified. I think this is technically a sixth through eighth grade book, I would certainly give it to a strong fourth or fifth grade reader. It’s got mostly short chapters and is exciting and suspenseful enough that the pages will keep turning.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Anikwa and James, twelve years old in 1812, spend their days fishing, trapping, and exploring together in the forests of the Indiana Territory. To Anikwa and his family, members of the Miami tribe, this land has been home for centuries. As traders, James’s family has ties to the Miami community as well as to the American soldiers in the fort. Now tensions are rising–the British and American armies prepare to meet at Fort Wayne for a crucial battle, and Native Americans from surrounding tribes gather in Kekionga to protect their homeland. After trading stops and precious commodities, like salt, are withheld, the fort comes under siege, and war ravages the land. James and Anikwa, like everyone around them, must decide where their deepest loyalties lie. Can their families–and their friendship–survive?
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. novels in verse are good books for reluctant readers. They’re shorter and faster to read and often feel more immediate.
Salt was a really interesting novel in verse. The War of 1812 was our real war for independence and yet it hardly gets covered in history class. Add to this that, while Salt has a white settler perspective, it also features the Native American perspective equally. It also looks at the War of 1812 not as a battle or from somewhere densely populated. It takes place at Fort Wayne, a small trading and defense outpost far from any large cities or even small ones.
Personally I love books that cover time periods in history that are neglected, but interesting and often important. Salt does this admirably. Most of the book is spent wondering and worrying about the war coming to Fort Wayne and heightening tensions between the settlers and the native population. When it does come, it isn’t with a bang. At least not the bang of war you expect. Frost examines the impact the war (and 5,000 ignorant and careless soldiers) have on the land and how that impacts everyone’s ability (native and white alike) to live and carry on.
Frost also tackles a really interesting gray area: caring white settlers. James’ mother has lived in the trading post for years and she has great care and respect for the local Miami people. She treats them with respect and kindness and requires that her family does too. And yet, after the soldiers leave, Anikwa’s grandmother points out that this is a turning point for them. Their way of life is endangered and the white settlers will encourage others to move to Fort Wayne and its outlying areas displacing the Miami tribe. James’ mother does exactly this, writing to her sister asking her and her family to join them. Despite being a caring person she still lives in that place of oblivious privilege and still sees the land as hers (and her family’s) for the taking.
I can’t speak to how well the book portrays the Miami people. For more on this perspective see Debbie Reese’s review on her blog and the essay review guest written on the same blog. I take her points and agree that the story is more a feel-good one with a lack of historical context due in large part to the form of novel. I also agree it’s problematic since most kids aren’t going to seek out more context. This is neither a time period or place or population you see much if anything of in children’s literature. While the lack of historical context is problematic, I would like to see more students learning about more native populations and if they have to do it through books that aren’t perfect (not through egregious books) then I think that’s the way it will have to be until we can get native authors writing lots of quality literature for children.
Interestingly Frost has included a handful of poems that look at salt and how it’s formed and how nature needs it. The poems feel off topic in some ways, but she points out in her notes at the end that they are there to provide pause between events. I felt like they were palate cleansers, allowing the reader a moment to think about the setting and leave the drama of the story behind.
Give this book to your readers who like historical fiction and friendship stories, but I would also encourage history teacher to look at working it into their curriculum. It provides excellent perspective on an important historical event, but needs some extra context to bring in the true history of the Miami people. The book ends on a questioning note, but with some resolution. There is no death and the soldiers are more slovenly than violent, so the book could certainly be read down into upper elementary school.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Aug 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Today are all the kidlit/middle grade books I read this summer.
It took me a little while to get into this one, but ultimately I enjoyed it. I love how they go around San Francisco together, but with a magical twist. Actually, the more I think about it the more I like this one because it tackles mourning and death of a close friend from a really different angle. I know kids aren’t necessarily all about sad books, but it made the pain relatable without being maudlin. The dragon’s friend (the girl’s aunt) has died and while she mourns through the book the story isn’t hyper focused on the death. There is certainly excitement and action and magic. Plus the dragon learns to accept the girl as her new companion and comes to understand what lies underneath the girl’s insistent need for a friend.
This one reminded me a lot of Cleopatra in Space and even more so of Zita the Space Girl. It’s a more difficult chapter book, but it has some pictures. It was really more the story line of a young girl ending up far from home in outer space and going on adventures. I came across the book while weeding our collection in the library. There are about ten of these books in the series so I thought I would read the first. Lots of action and space pirates and gladiator games. Fun characters, too.
Another I picked up off the shelf while reading. I haven’t read much Avi and this one sounded the most interesting to me out of all his others. It was okay. I would give it to kids who like more realistic talking animal stories. Poppy was a bit too insipid for my tastes, but I can totally see kids getting into this series. It reminds me of the Mouseguard books and a bit of The Rescuers.
DNF. I picked this one up because I realized it’s book three and the only one in the series we own. I wanted to see if we needed the others. It makes enough sense on its own, but I think kids will have an easier time if they’ve read the others. I found it kind of tedious which is why I put it down. I wasn’t sure if it was the writing or if it was because I hadn’t read the other books. Fairy fantasy.
Another mouse story and another DNF. This must be British because one of the characters meets a very untimely and horrific death (off page) in the first chapter or so. That’s so like the British. Dark children’s literature. I would actually have read it all, and maybe the other two in the series, if I wasn’t pressed for time. I picked it up more because I’m trying to get a sense of what we have in the collection so I can hand-sell some of these books and series. I loved the world building and the magical, mystical qualities of the story. A more grown up (and probably better written) Gregor the Overlander which the librarian read to the third grade last year.
Our middle schoolers used to read this, but it’s in our lower school library too. I really enjoyed it, but it seemed like it would make a much better class book. The story moved slowly and was a bit introspective, so I could see most kids getting bored with the story. It might also require a more mature reader.
This was hilarious and it incorporated a mythology (Viking) you don’t see all that often despite it being European. Thor and Loki cross dress to trick the giant king into giving back Thor’s hammer which he has stolen. The narrator, Thialfi the goat boy, is rather bumbling and also has to cross dress. This leads to a situation with a young giant who wants to make out with him. Kids will love the humor.
This was an ARC I got at ALA and I really liked it. It’s history woven into a narrative about growing up and finding your inner strength wrapped into a road trip story with a grandfather. It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. The chapters are short and easy and it’s on the cusp of chapter books and kidlit, so I think it would be great for late third grade and into fourth. It’s written by a native author and it’s about a famous Native American. Well written and engaging, an excellent book to get into kids’ hands.