monthly author 2015
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Martha Tom, a young Choctaw girl, knows better than to cross Bok Chitto, but one day—in search of blackberries—she disobeys her mother and finds herself on the other side. A tall slave discovers Martha Tom. A friendship begins between Martha Tom and the slave’s family, most particularly his young son, Little Mo. Soon afterwards, Little Mo’s mother finds out that she is going to be sold. The situation seems hopeless, except that Martha Tom teaches Little Mo’s family how to walk on water to their freedom.
The story of friendship here between Martha Tom and Little Mo is really sweet, but the addition of the beautiful illustrations really bring the story to life. Bridges does an excellent job creating suspense and atmosphere to make the story jump off the page.
This is a Tingle book that I don’t have any mixed feelings about. While I think Crossing Bok Chitto makes a great story of friendship, history, and kindness for any picture book reader I think it would make an excellent classroom read aloud. There are a lot of Underground Railroad/slave escape books out there, many of which are excellent, but this one is particularly good because of the inclusion of the Choctaw community. In my experience the books about people helping runaway slaves tend to be white, which can lean toward the white savior complex. Here we see others helping runaway slaves. There’s a lot to the story that could stimulate good discussion. Also, importantly the book is written by a Choctaw author and is illustrated by a native artist.
My only regret about the book is that Little Mo and Martha Tom won’t get to see one another again.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle
Summary: Issac and his family live in Mississippi Choctaw territory on the edge of a swamp. When there is news of Treaty Talk his family decides it will be time to move. That time comes much sooner than they expected, though, when men ride through their town that night burning down all the Choctaw houses. Forced to flee into the swamp the Choctaw endure the harsh beginnings of winter. As the swamp freezes over white men again appear, this time bringing blankets which Issac’s family wisely refuses. The blankets carry smallpox and soon his family leaves the swamp to escape the sickness. They join up with the Choctaw walking the Trail of Tears to their new land. Here they befriend another family and Issac is drawn into rescuing their older daughter. Issac is fortunate, however. He can see into the future and see ghosts and they help keep him safe on the dangerous mission to rescue Naomi as does his new friend Joseph who can shift into a panther.
I have such mixed feelings about Tingle’s books. They always seem like they are written for young audiences, in the case of How I Became a Ghost I feel a fourth grader or fifth grader could pick it up, but he tackles some really heavy subjects with a rather heavy hand. That’s not to say he’s pedantic. There is just a lot of difficult history packed into a slim novel.
Lest I sound too negative, there was a lot to like about the story. It was exciting, especially once the rescue storyline picked up. It has ghosts and a shape shifter. Issac is a great hero and a nice kid. And he isn’t kidding when he tells the reader he will become a ghost. Issac does actually die in the book, but not in an especially tragic way. He becomes a ghost that helps inspire, motivate, and help his people know that they are stronger than the soldiers forcefully relocating them, they are stronger than the sorrow and pain that befalls them on this difficult journey.
Importantly How I Became a Ghost exposes readers to Choctaw history, culture, and thinking. It’s an excellent example of windows and mirrors. While you might call the book magical realism with its ghosts and shape shifting kid (that panther on the cover is actually one of the main characters in animal form), I think that’s giving it a non-native label. It taps into the Choctaw mythology and world view which makes the ghosts feel less like magic and more like a natural way of looking at this world and the next.
The book is the first in a trilogy and if they are as compelling as this one, I’ll be looking forward to them. As I said earlier the audience for the book might be a little tough. Kids who like suspense, ghosts, adventure and history will like the book, but it’s a pretty easy book to read (in terms of reading level). In that regard it would be good for fourth and fifth graders. But be aware it deals with a lot of death and cruelty which might be better suited to sixth and seventh graders. As a parent, teacher or librarian you’ll have to use your judgement about whether it’s right for any particular reader. There’s enough action and excitement to keep a reluctant or struggling older reader engaged and the cover doesn’t look too young which will help.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, May 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I didn’t know much about Tim Tingle except that his books were getting a lot of recognition for being both good and for being written by a native author. Tingle is an Oklahoma Choctaw and he writes about the history of his people. According to his bio he is a storyteller (I suspect much like Joseph Bruchac is).
Sometime last year I read one of Tingle’s newer books Danny Blackgoat: Navajo Prisoner and I was a little confused. Turns out it’s a hi-low book. A book with a high interest story and low reading level. The story wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t super impressed. My GoodReads review wasn’t especially complimentary, but having read some more of Tingle’s work and realizing the book is a hi-low I clearly missed the point of the book. The fist book I picked up to review this week was How I Became a Ghost which also read a lot like a hi-low and again I was a little hesitant to keep going. Were all his books like this?
My next two books totally changed my opinion of his writing and storytelling. Tingle can really write! And he manages to write for a variety of audiences.
Schedule for the week:
Tuesday: How I Became a Ghost
Wednesday: Crossing Bok Chitto
Thursday: House of Purple Cedar
Check out Tim Tingle’s website here. It has a bio, a list of his books and more information.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Set in a suburb of Las Vegas, Ella and Zachary, called Z, have been friends forever, but Z has always been “the weird kid&” in their class. He collects stubby pencils, plays chess, and maintains an elaborate, and public, fantasy life, starring himself as a brave knight. Z’s games were okay back in 3rd or 4th grade, but by now their other friends have ditched them both. Z doesn’t care, but Ella longs to be part of a group of friends, even though most of the class makes fun of her. When a new boy, Bailey, moves to town, he befriends Ella, because they are now the only two black kids in class. But Bailey is popular, popular enough to make Ella cool and give her a wider circle of friends, but only if she stops hanging out with Z. Ella’s faced with a difficult decision, remain loyal to the boy who has been her best and only friend for years, or pass up the opportunity to be one of the popular kids that she has always longed to be.
Camo Girl so perfectly captures the tension of friendship and the budding awareness of social hierarchy in late elementary/early middle school. Ella and her best friend Z are what I would call young. They aren’t quite ready to join the fracas of their peers stratifying, but Ella at least isn’t immune to the pull of popularity.
Add to this that Z has a difficult home situation that has driven him into a rich fantasy world. And Ella has what sounds like vitiligo, which causes the skin to look mottled. She is biracial and, from her descriptions, it sounds like the mottling is fairly noticeable. As everyone knows, kids in middle school can be really cruel and any kind of difference is grounds for social exclusion, so Ella and Z are on the outskirts of everything.
That hasn’t really mattered though, until a new boy moves into Ella’s neighborhood and joins them at school. He’s cute and he’s nice and it seems like he wants to be Ella’s friend. He even accepts Z. But Ella is gun shy and she has a hard time trusting Bailey and is always waiting for him to realize he shouldn’t be hanging out with her. She is also torn between this new friendship (or more) with Bailey and her deep and old loyalties to Z. It also seems that Z is struggling to let Ella have other friends (understandably once you get the scoop on what has happened to him) and that makes Ella feel even more guilty and conflicted.
I absolutely loved that Ella was never willing to give up her friendship with Z. I’m not sure many kids given the chance to gain social standing at that age would be so kind or mature. That isn’t to say Ella isn’t portrayed as human though. She gets frustrated with Z and how it feels like he may be holding her back.
Camo Girl is definitely kidlit in my book. The characters are in fifth grade and there is no language or behavior that would be objectionable for that age group. It’s written in fairly short chapters and isn’t an overly long book so it would be a great read for anyone looking for a friendship book or realistic fiction.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that’s nothing but a pack of lies—after all, his father’s been murdered, his mother’s been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer.
But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory when what starts as some small-time hustling quickly spins out of control. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion—and that he can’t run forever.
X follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.
I know very little about Malcolm X. He wasn’t included in any of the history classes I took and honestly in all my US history classes we were lucky to make it past WWII. That being said, this book was still fantastic. No need to have a good grasp on who Malcolm Little went on to become.
I’m always amazed by life back in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Teens and people in their twenties seemed to have a lot more freedom and were able to go off and get jobs fairly easily. The way Malcolm was able to move to Boston and start picking up jobs, making money, and going places brought to mind Mare’s War and how Mare was able to pick up and leave her hometown and join the Women’s Army Corps, make money, and go out. The two stories are very different and take place at slightly different times, but that freedom for young people is present in both and, I think, has a lot of appeal for teen readers.
X is probably best suited to upper middle school and high school. There is a fair amount of marijuana smoking and dealing as well as drinking and some off page sex. Heads up, too, there is a fairly liberal use of the “n” word. It’s used in thoughts and memories of Malcolm who is realizing all the weight the word carries, so it’s use is not just as slang from the time, but as commentary on the status quo and how black people were (and are) kept as second rate citizens. All this makes the book sound terribly inappropriate, BUT Malcolm struggled. He makes bad decisions and he needs guidance, but doesn’t want to have to answer to any authority. This theme in the story I think would be incredibly attractive to young men (or young women) having a hard time. All teens struggle with these problems to one degree or another so Malcolm, despite how famous and active he became, is a relatable person as a teen. The book also continues into his time in prison where Malcolm makes a complete turn around. X certainly is an honest look at his younger life, but it’s set up as a lesson not an example.
Another excellent part in the book is the relationship Malcolm has with his murdered father. He really struggles with not having a father figure around and he is angry both at the people who murdered him and at his father for stirring the pot and getting killed for it. Shabazz and Magoon really capture the angst and emotional logic of kids in their mid teens. Malcolm also tries to shake all the teachings his father believed in about black power. You can see the tension of Malcolm wanting to believe in it, but also struggling to see how it can work and wanting to reject the teachings simply because he’s so angry with his father.
As a side note, I’m a little confused as to who wrote what in the book and how Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon wrote this together. If they alternated writing sections it’s incredibly seamless. And however they did it, it doesn’t really matter. The book is really well written and incredibly compelling.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
In the aftermath of Tariq’s death, everyone has something to say, but no two accounts of the events line up. Day by day, new twists further obscure the truth.
Tariq’s friends, family, and community struggle to make sense of the tragedy, and to cope with the hole left behind when a life is cut short. In their own words, they grapple for a way to say with certainty: This is how it went down.
How It Went Down is certainly (and unfortunately) a timely book with all the police brutality cases that are coming to light in the mainstream. The story is more like the Treyvon Martin case as the police are not actually involved in what went down, but it’s reflective of all the current turmoil over race relations.
Each chapter of the book moves further and further from the actual shooting. A whole cast of characters from the guy who lives down the street to Tariq’s best friend, to the girl who tried to resuscitate him at the scene. All their lives intertwine through the events set in motion that day.
I think the flap copy is a little misleading. It’s pretty clear what happened with the shooting, although there is some question about whether or not Tariq had a gun. But even that isn’t too unclear. What most of the book wades through is everyone figuring out who Tariq was or who they thought he was. Was he a guy on the straight and narrow undeserving of being shot? Was he thinking about joining the local gang? Was he already in it and had it coming? The questions go on. Even more interesting is that through their perceptions of Tariq and through their reflections on the shooting, on the neighborhood, and on the aftermath, what the reader really learns is what the people who surrounded Tariq were like.
What makes the book really shine is that nothing is black and white, except maybe the tragedy of the shooting. The people in particular are portrayed as people. People who often have few, if any, choices and who try to make the best of things any way they can. Sometimes they make poor decisions, but that doesn’t mean they are bad people. Just people trying to survive. I can’t speak to how well Magoon captures living in a poor neighborhood, but it certainly felt like a real place. One character in particular, who was lucky enough to get out of the neighborhood and thrust into a new, wealthier, more privileged life, does a really good job of showing just how hard it is to make it out of the low income neighborhoods and how the political, social and cultural systems are set up to both keep people there and are prejudiced against them. His story juxtaposes well with those still in the neighborhood hoping to, trying to, and dreaming of getting out, getting a better life.
There is some drinking and drug use (marijuana) and the violence makes this better suited to high school readers. The book deals with controversial political ideas as well as race which may make some readers uncomfortable or angry. It is, though, an important book that looks at some very important issues we’re facing as a nation today. It would be interesting to see this used either in a history or current events type class or even an English class. Reluctant readers might even enjoy it for the sensation of the story and because it’s an extremely compelling read. But be warned it isn’t short and there are a lot of characters so I wouldn’t call it an easy read.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Apr 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
This month I choose Kekla Magoon as my monthly author. Several years ago (maybe 5?) I read her debut novel The Rock and the River and thought it was fantastic. Clearly the woman could write! If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you pick it up. Although I hate these types of comparisons, because obviously the novel stands on its own, it’s a more mature One Crazy Summer (another fantastic book). One of the most interesting things about it is the time period and history it uses as a backdrop. The novel is really about family and brother relationships, but Magoon has couched them in the Black Panther movement. It’s a piece of history you don’t see all that often and see even less in young adult literature.
By the time the companion novel came out I was reading other things (and may have been a new mother) so I didn’t get around to reading it. I also didn’t get around to reading it this month either, but Magoon had two other novels come out in the past few months that I was really interested in reading. It’s always, so many books so little time, right?
Here’s a link to her website. Definitely check it out, it’s awesome and has a lot of info: http://keklamagoon.com/
Schedule for the week:
Tuesday: How It Went Down
Thursday: Camo Girl
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Who built the manger where Mary and Joseph found shelter? The answer is conveyed in this beautifully crafted picture book that envisions a young boy, a shepherd and carpenter both who, out of love and kindness, cleared the way for another shepherd and carpenter to be born on Christmas day.
This was actually a book I got from the library back in December to read to my daughter. I didn’t think much of it growing up, but as I got older I began to wonder why the Holy Family was so white most of the time. Sure, they were Jewish, but it’s unlikely they would have been so European-looking. We’re not a religious family, but I strongly believe you need to know biblical stories to be culturally literate so I do read nativity stories to my daughter (and Easter stories, etc.). I can’t totally get away from the traditional portrait, but I want to be sure I include different depictions in a variety of books
I also think stories that link other children to the birth of Jesus are really good for helping children, especially younger ones, make the connection to the characters in the story. The boy who tells this story, of helping build a stable and then offering it to Mary and Joseph, is exactly that kind of entree into a story that is often told in an impersonal and didactic way. Who Built the Stable also treats Jesus as a baby, not a Savior with a capital S. Again, I think kids find this sort of treatment of the story relatable as they were recently babies or because they have younger siblings.
Bryan’s illustrations in the book are also incredible. They are so reminiscent of stained glass. The lush colors pop off the page and really bring the whole story to life. And the little boy is so charming! I think, too, the style of the pictures is something a child could recreate or copy. I love to use books to inspire art and creativity in kids and I think Bryan’s art is rife with that kind of opportunity.
I highly recommend the book to parents looking for a different picture of the Holy Family. I also recommend it to families like ours who are looking to share the Christmas story without lots of overt religious themes. As far as religious families liking the book, I’m not sure. Certainly more traditional religious families may not like the lack of Savior storyline and different picture of Jesus, but it treats the story with reverence and the pictures are so beautiful it may be a moot point.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Retold with rich, musical narration, and illustrated with Mr. Bryan’s distinctive paintings, these tales are full of fun and magic and a few lessons to be learned. They are tales of tricksters, chieftains, and both wise and foolish creatures. You will learn why Frog and Snake never play together, or why Bush Cow and Elephant are bad friends, or of the problems that a husband has because he likes to count spoonfuls. Although the stories come from many parts of Africa, they are full of the universal human spirit, to be shared and treasured for every generation, uh-huh.
African Tales is actually a compilation of three of Bryan’s collections of African tales. It’s one of those books that would be perfect for kids who are into reading folk tales. You know the ones, they check out all the different books of Greek, Roman and Egyptian myths and Aesop’s fables. Full disclosure, I was totally one of those kids. The reading level in this makes it maybe a bit more difficult (5th+) but younger audiences will also enjoy the tales.
Bryan’s writing style also make this an excellent read aloud. He’s really focused on retelling the stories in a way that tries to replicate the oral tradition of story telling. There has been a lot of research that says how important it is to read aloud to children until way past when they can read to themselves. (Jim Trelease argues that you should read aloud all the way through high school.) The combination of individual tales, the humor, and orality of the stories make this a perfect African Tales would be a great book to continue the tradition of reading aloud to your children.
Many of the stories are funny and a few have obvious morals or lessons in them, but, by and large, this is just a good collection of folk tales perfect for reading aloud.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: “Sing to the sun
It will listen
And warm your words.”
In this beautiful collection of art and poetry, Ashley bryan celebrates all aspects of life–from a rainshower at the seashore to a beloved grandmother gathering fruit. Perfect for reading aloud, these joyful, heartfelt poems will touch all who read them.
In his autobiography, Words to My Life’s Song, Ashley Bryan said his elementary school stressed poetry recitation. They had to memorize a poem a week and share it with their class. This practice helped focus Bryan on the sound of the spoken word. I think it also drew him to poetry as many of his books are about poets or written in poem form.
Sing to the Sun is a lovely little collection of poems perfect for reading aloud and for sharing with elementary age kids. The poems have a bit of depth, symbolism, and imagery, but are not so complex they would baffle that age group. In fact, because of this, they would probably make for a good poetry study where you can take them apart and look at them. The more I read children’s poetry the more I realize I don’t hate poetry, just contrived adult poetry that is required in high school. The poems in Sing are about a variety of topics and while not all of them are strictly for children they will appeal and be relatable to children. It’s important for children to read all types of literature (plays, poetry, fiction, nonfiction), but we need to make it good quality so they aren’t turned off by it. Choosing poetry, like Sing to the Sun, that is relatable and understandable, but also plays with language in an interesting and beautiful way is exactly what children need exposure to.
The illustrations in the book are absolutely gorgeous. They have movement to them that really brings them to life. And paired with their poems the words also come to life through the pictures. I’ve said this before with Bryan’s art, but it has a quality that makes if feel as if a child could recreate his style, despite his clear expertise with art. As with poetry, seeing art they could recreate children will want to enjoy and try their hand at it instead of being turned off by it.
If I have one complaint it was the layout and the library copy I had. The layout feels a bit dated. I think the simple poem and art that accompanies it is a good idea, simplicity will draw your eye to the picture and focus the reader on the poem, but I wonder if a child would pick the book up of their own accord. The library copy I have out is also yellowed. If the white pages and the cover were nice and bright it would seem more inviting. I also wonder if reprinting the pictures with a touch more saturation would help brighten and modernize the book.