monthly author 2015
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Ashley’s autobiography is full of art, photographs, and the poignant never-say-never tale of his rich life, a life that has always included drawing and painting. Even as a boy growing up during the Depression, he painted — finding cast off objects to turn into books and kites and toy and art. Even as a solder in the segregated Army on the beaches of Normandy, he sketched — keeping charcoal crayons and paper in his gasmask to draw with during lulls. Even as a talented, visionary art student who was accepted and then turned away from college upon arrival, the school telling Ashley that to give a scholarship to an African American student would be a waste, he painted — continuing to create art when he could have been discouraged, continuing to polish his talents when his spirit should have been beaten. Ashley went on to become a Hans Christian Anderson Award nominee, a May Hill Arbuthnot lecturer, and a multiple Coretta Scott King award winner.
Another winner of a book from Ashley Bryan. I liked this so much I ordered my own copy. Bryan grew up during the Depression Era, but his family was happy and seemed to make the most of their circumstances. His parents, born in Antigua on the island of St. John, immigrated to Brooklyn and lived in a small apartment with their six kids and three orphaned nieces and nephews. The way Bryan describes his home and his parents is almost magical. His mother sang from morning until night. His parents encouraged Ashley’s artistry and all their kids. They were able to take free WPA music and art classes. His mother also grew plants where ever there was light in their apartment and made paper flowers to brighten darker spaces. Who wouldn’t want to grow up there and who wouldn’t find inspiration in that? When Bryan was older his parents bought the house across the street from their apartment building and made a home there.
When Bryan was 19 he was drafted into the army during WWII. Because he was black he was stuck doing service work, but was present at the D-Day invasion on a supply boat. After traveling to Scotland, England, and then France, Bryan returned to the US, but was haunted by questions of war. He decided, after a summer art scholarship, to study philosophy and got an undergraduate degree from Columbia. (I have to note biographies of this time period make it seem that it was considerably easier to get an education back then, especially a college education). After that he decided to use the GI bill to continue his education and went to France where he painted and studied French. He was even able to see Pablo Casals in concert! Bryan also got a Fulbright scholarship and studied in Germany.
Bryan did not set out to be a children’s book author/illustrator. He was a practicing artist and taught at the college level. He was approached by Pantheon books, who ultimately did not use his work, and then later by Atheneum. He has published a ton of books since then!
The interesting thing about the layout/format of Words is that it could have gone very wrong. It’s chock full of pictures of his drawings and paintings over the year, photographs of Bryan as a child and young man, pictures of his letters and photos of the places he grew up, as well as pictures of the Cranberry Isles where he lives now and his studio there. There is also the story of his life, his autobiography, and a parallel story of him inviting the reader along to see his island home and how he draws inspiration from it. The three pieces, pictures and two stories, could have felt jumbled, disjointed, and incongruous, but nothing interrupts anything else. It all flows so beautifully together and is so inspiring and lovely. At the end you feel as though you have spent a relaxing day chatting with an amazing artist who has led a full and interesting life.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Mar 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I was first introduced to Ashley Bryan a few months ago through the amazing Ashley Bryan’s Puppets. I saw the book on a blog and thought it looked intriguing so I got it out of the library. I was taken with it, but my daughter was really taken with it, so I thought I would look into Bryan a bit more. You can read my review of Puppets here on this blog and here on my mommy blog (I take a slightly different, more personal angle with the later).
Schedule for the week:
- Monday: Words to My Life’s Song
- Tuesday: Sing to the Sun
- Wednesday: African Tales, Uh-Huh
- Thursday: Who Built the Stable?: A Nativity Poem
Links of interest:
- Ashley Bryan Center, a center dedicated to celebrate and share his art
- A video interview in nine short parts on Reading Rockets
- Update 8/20/2015: An interview with Roger Sutton of the Horn Book and Ashley Bryan focusing on his new book Sail Away
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Young Sacajawea has been asked to join Lewis and Clark in their exploration of the American West. As a translator, peacemaker, caretaker, and guide, Sacajawea alone will make the historic journey of Lewis and Clark possible. This captivating novel, which is told in alternating points of view — by Sacajawea herself and by William Clark — provides an intimate glimpse into what it would have been like to witness firsthand this fascinating time in our history.
I’m fudging a little here as this is a fictionalized account of Sacajawea and her part in the Lewis and Clark expedition. However, Bruchac did extensive research and drew very heavily on journals of the expedition as well as consulting Native sources, including modern relatives of Sacajawea. So I’m going to count it.
I feel very foolish reading this book. I knew next to nothing about the Lewis and Clark expedition and even less about Sacajawea. She was captured around 12 years old and taken captive with a tribe who lived further east of her Shoshone tribe. After a few years Charbonneau purchased her and another woman she was captured with. (I was always kind of curious how she met and married Charbonneau.) While she was pregnant with her son, Jean Baptiste, the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived and Charbonneau was signed on as was Sacajawea who would help as a guide and interpreter. After Jean Baptiste was born and the spring arrived the party set off for the West Coast.
While I wouldn’t call the book action packed, which is due in part to the way the story is told, it’s an incredibly interesting look at the expedition. It’s packed with facts and information and because of Bruchac’s skill with storytelling the history really comes to life. It was a hard journey, and while they were often incredibly lucky (only one person died on whole expedition), there were a lot of challenges and lean times. It’s absolutely amazing to think Sacajawea was 16 or 17 years old and a brand new mother when she took this trip. Her strength and her age make her a very interesting character, one I think kids will enjoy hearing her voice brought to life.
I found the parts about the language barriers and translation particularly fascinating. Because the group encounters so many tribes they needed people who spoke different languages. They would pick people up along the way who could help and sometimes they encountered French trappers who spoke local languages. However, they were often translating from English into French into Shoshone (or Numi, which is what Sacajawea spoke) or Mandan into another language. Talk about complicated! Otherwise they would use some kind of universal sign language.
As the expedition goes through the land they encounter a lot of different native groups. A lot. There are a ton of names and Clark uses different names from Sacajawea. This gets a little confusing and I would keep it in mind if you are reading this with or to younger audiences that might be pushing the reading level. I found this awesome map of the tribal nations that a Cherokee map maker created. It has the tribe name in the area where they lived (pre-European contact) and lists both names given to them by Europeans and what they called themselves (this is incredibly helpful in keeping the tribes straight between Sacajawea’s and Clark’s narrations). Here is the link to the NPR article that tells the story of how and why the map was created.
Heads up, Merriwether Lewis meets an unfortunate end at his own hand and it’s mentioned how he commits suicide. If you’re reading this aloud you might skip over that bit. If you’re having your class read this or are handing it to students, just be aware that it’s in there. It isn’t graphic, but it’s sad and in there.
I had a couple complaints about the book that are very minor. As the story switches between Sacajawea and Clark they address the person they are telling the story to- Jean Baptiste, Sacajawea’s son. I found it pulled me out of the story a bit to have them asking and answering imagined questions from the boy, but it wasn’t a big deal. I also don’t like the cover on this. It screams required reading to me although it gets major points for having a person of color on it. It also feels young when the text is really geared higher. Also each chapter has either a folktale or excerpt from an expedition diary. These were awesome inclusions and did a lot to elucidate the story as well as show how Bruchac wove the fact into the fiction. But! The font for the diaries was so hard to read and if I struggled with it I can only imagine that kids are going to skip them entirely.
Definitely worth a read for kids who are interested in the expedition, this time period, or native voices. It is certainly well worth looking at including in curriculum because of Sacajawea’s perspective. Plus it really brings this important and fascinating exploration to life.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
From GoodReads: Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. She doesn’t have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya’s visions show a powerful hurricane–Katrina–fast approaching, it’s up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm.
Well, I feel absolutely gutted after reading this. It’s like watching Titanic, you know what’s going to happen, but it still punches you in the gut anyway. The story is absolutely beautiful. It celebrates family, even if that family isn’t blood. It celebrates community and how that can be like extended family. But it really shines in celebrating Lanesha and her rebirth as someone who knows that she can weather the storms, physical and metaphorical, that life brings.
Lanesha is such a wonderful character. She’s lonely and kids at school pick on her because she was born with a caul and was birthed by Mama Ya-Ya and not in the hospital. Usually she tries to keep her head down in school, but she finally decides to reach out to a few of the other students who are picked on and this leads to a life-saving friendship with TaShon. She also discovers she is good at math and wants to become an engineer through some interactions with her new teacher.
The relationship between Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya is especially poignant. Mama Ya-Ya gives Lanesha life again and again. First she births her; then cuts her caul giving her air; then raises her when her mother dies in childbirth. She loves Lanesha as a mother and grandmother, showing her what family means despite the rejection of Lanesha by her mother’s Uptown family. Finally Mama Ya-Ya imparts her strength through her love and knowledge to Lanesha. By drawing on the memory of that love Lanesha is able to dig deep and find an inner strength when her survival is at stake.
It’s the ending that really makes the book though. Lanesha, with the help of TaShon, Mama Ya-Ya and the ghost of her mother survives the storm and flood. The last line “I’m Mama Ya-Ya’s girl” shows Lanesha taking Mama Ya-Ya into her, making her a part of her that cannot be lost or forgotten or washed away. It’s Mama Ya-Ya giving Lanesha the last, but most important, part of her. Despite the horrific situation Lanesha is in (the aftermath of Katrina was far from over three days after the storm) you know she will continue to survive and thrive.
The scenes of the neighborhood are also really lovely. Rhodes doesn’t focus on the run down aspects or danger of the Ninth Ward, which is incredibly refreshing. Lanesha never seems like she’s pulling herself out of poverty and Rhodes doesn’t sound like she’s trying to get some message across. We see the Ninth Ward through Lanesha’s eyes and she sees her neighbors, who sound a lot like mine. Some friendly. Some not. Some willing to help out. Others only out for themselves. People with homes they care about. People who work hard and come home at night to their families.
The book may be a hard sell to a lot of kids, but I think readers who like friendship stories and stories about family will be taken with the book. Kids who like magical realism will find that here too. Lanesha was born with a caul, she has second sight and sees ghosts. It would be a fabulous story to use in an English class or even a history class that covers current events. Certainly it would reflect kids who live in working class neighborhoods and might appeal to them simply for that mirror, but I think it’s got broader appeal for anyone who likes well written characters and stories about finding inner strength and strong family ties.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Ten-year-old Sugar lives on the River Road sugar plantation along the banks of the Mississippi. Slavery is over, but laboring in the fields all day doesn’t make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar has a knack for finding her own fun, especially when she joins forces with forbidden friend Billy, the white plantation owner’s son.
Sugar has always yearned to learn more about the world, and she sees her chance when Chinese workers are brought in to help harvest the cane. The older River Road folks feel threatened, but Sugar is fascinated. As she befriends young Beau and elder Master Liu, they introduce her to the traditions of their culture, and she, in turn, shares the ways of plantation life. Sugar soon realizes that she must be the one to bridge the cultural gap and bring the community together. Here is a story of unlikely friendships and how they can change our lives forever.
Sugar is a lovely story about acceptance and friendship in the Reconstruction South, but what it’s really about, as you might suspect from the title, is Sugar, the girl. Jewell Parker Rhodes really shines, and probably delights, in creating these spunky and smart girls.
Sugar is a trickster like Br’er Rabbit in the stories she so loves. She’s also curious and impulsive. These characteristics continually get her into trouble, but they also make her a trailblazer. She brazenly accepts the offer of friendship from Billy, the plantation owner’s son. They lead her to befriend the Chinese workers brought to the plantation. She often speaks her mind even when she knows she shouldn’t, although when she speaks up it’s to make a valid point that really needs saying.
I think Sugar is an incredibly relatable kid. She never tries to get in trouble, but her impulsivity and her need to question often irritates the adults in her life and she ends up disappointing and frightening them. She’s the kid you ask “what were you thinking” and they can’t exactly articulate it because they were acting from their heart and gut, not from a clear place of logic. And really, that’s most kids. The book also shows those kids that good things can come of those “bad” behaviors. It’s Sugar who makes Billy open his eyes to the reality of the situation on the plantation. It’s Sugar who proves she is a true friend to Billy when he’s sick and she tries to help him hold on. It’s Sugar who first bridges that gap between the Chinese workers and the former slaves. She helps build their family and community. You can’t help falling for Sugar and wishing she lived in better times, under better circumstances.
This book would be an awesome addition to fifth or eighth grade curriculum when students study the Civil War. I really dislike how most traditional school programs approach history, particularly American history. There is often such a focus on several major events (primarily The War for Independence, the Civil War, and WWII) and the rest in between is seen as filler. There isn’t a focus on the often important changes and developments that take place, the people who were important, and everyday lives that happen between those wars. Maybe because we’d have to focus less on dead white men? And yet, it’s those things that made our nation. In my school career Reconstruction was covered in less than a day if it was covered at all. And yet, it’s an interesting and important part of history.
Sugar introduces readers to how things did and didn’t change for the people, white and black, in the South. Who knew that the Chinese were brought in to work plantations? I had never heard that, but it’s fascinating. Sugar gives a glimpse into a historical period when attitudes were changing, the make up of the South was changing, and the economics were changing too. Besides being a good human interest story, it can pique interest in a rich historical period and lead to further discussion. The former slaves are technically free, but they have so few options that they are still enslaved to their jobs and the land they were brought to. Kids are so attuned to injustice and I wouldn’t be surprised if the historical aspects of this story really strike a chord.
A little bit of a spoiler alert: I was a little disappointed that the ending came the way it did. I wanted the plantation to continue on in harmony as it was, but I think it was realistic to have things change. And I think the friendships they built strengthened the people who made them, giving them a clearer sense of what they wanted out of the rest of their lives and how they wanted to be treated. You also leave, if not knowing how things will ultimately play out, knowing that Sugar has found peace with herself and that’s a great note to end on.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: It’s Maddy’s turn to have a bayou summer. At first she misses life back home in the city, but soon she grows to love everything about her new surroundings — the glimmering fireflies, the glorious landscape, and something else, deep within the water, that only Maddy sees. Could it be a mermaid? As her grandmother shares wisdom about sayings and signs, Maddy realizes she may be only the sibling to carry on her family’s magical legacy. And when a disastrous oil leak threatens the bayou, she knows she may also be the only one who can help. Does she have what it takes to be a hero?
Finally, a mermaid story that doesn’t involve some girl pining after a prince! In all seriousness, I enjoyed The Little Mermaid as a kid, but Bayou Magic puts a very different spin on mermaid lore. One where the main character has a lot of agency and power. I read this book in a day. Sure, it was a quick read but I was also so engrossed I didn’t want to put it down.
Rhodes draws on West African mermaid lore and Mami Wata. Maddy has never left New Orleans and now it’s her summer to spend with her grandmother who lives in the bayou. She is nervous, especially since her older sisters did not enjoy their summers, but she comes to discover she loves the bayou and her grandmother despite how foreign it all feels. She spends her days outside running free through the swamp with Bear, her new friend. She also meets the residents of the bayou and comes to appreciate their way of life and community. As she comes to know the bayou she also begins to see Mami Wata, someone her ancestors have been able to see, but not any recent generations. As she comes to love the bayou Maddy knows that when it is threatened by the Gulf Oil Spill she has to ask Mami Wata for help.
Rhodes is such an impactful writer. I really love how she crafts not just her plots and characters, but how she chooses to write her sentences and dialog. And her writing changes a bit from book to book (or at least between the three I’ve read so far) enough that each character has her own unique voice, but still maintains a sense of the author.
The book would be perfect for fourth, fifth, sixth, even seventh or eighth grade. It’s easy enough for upper elementary to read, but the subject and coming of age theme has broad appeal. As with Rhodes other characters, Maddy is a spunky girl, but she’s also open. Open to new experiences and open to the magic that can be found in the bayou. There is an environmental message here, but it never feels heavy-handed and I think the message that Maddy can be a hero and help makes it very accessible to young students.
My one and only complaint with this book is the cover. Specifically Maddy’s outfit. When Maddy arrives in the bayou she is given overalls to wear and she accepts them. Her city clothes don’t make a reappearance. It’s also a first, because her older sisters have all spent a summer in the bayou and balked at the experience. The magic of the bayou doesn’t speak to them the way it does to Maddy. Part of their rejection of the whole summer experience is refusing to wear or begrudgingly wearing the overalls. Maddy is skeptical, but accepts them and comes to appreciate how practical they are. So the cover has this lovely white dress, something totally counter to what Maddy would be wearing, not to mention completely ignoring the significance of her clothing choice.
Apparently this one doesn’t come out until May. I got an ARC at KidLitCon and just realized how late the publication date is. Sorry if I piqued your interest and now you have to wait. Although it will definitely be worth the wait.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Feb 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
This month I chose to read several books by Jewell Parker Rhodes. I had two reasons for picking her. First, she was at KidLitCon back in October and I really enjoyed hearing her speak about her books and was really interested in reading them. She has written primarily for adults, but she recently jumped into kidlit. The second reason was I picked up an ARC of her newest book and I read it over the holidays (and loved it).
I was also drawn to her novel Ninth Ward because my husband and I visited New Orleans three years after Katrina. One of my husband’s good friends is a homicide detective there (that is a job that takes a good sense of humor and stomach of steel). He actually stayed in the city through the hurricane and while we were there he drove us all around to see the devastation, which was still very visible three years later. I remember him driving us down streets saying he boated over them or near them since he couldn’t actually see landmarks at the time. There were still a lot of houses boarded up and painted with signs from rescue crews that indicated if a home had been searched for survivors. But the most heart breaking was seeing the Ninth Ward. It looked like undeveloped land. He explained that it had been a typical residential neighborhood with homes and streets and sidewalks, albeit a poverty stricken one. But there was nothing there. Not even foundations. Occasionally you’d see a set of concrete steps leading nowhere and the streets were pocked with huge potholes and overrun with weeds. There were still a few structures standing, but I don’t think they had survived the flood. It was horrifying to think of all these people’s homes just gone with not even a concrete slab to mark where they once stood.
As I said, Rhodes only has a few kidlit/middle grade novels. Rather the opposite of Joseph Bruchac who I choose last month. I was able to read all three and I really enjoyed them. Rhodes is very good at creating unique voices for her characters, but still maintaining a style that rings true to her. I was going to try and get through one of her adult mystery novels, but I just didn’t have time. The schedule for the week will be as follows. I will link up once the posts are live:
- Monday: Bayou Magic
- Tuesday: Sugar
- Wednesday: Ninth Ward
Here is a link to her website for her children’s books: Jewell Parker Rhodes. There are a few videos on her site, including a trailer for the book Sugar. She also has a link to a video on YouTube of a group of people touring the Ninth Ward four years after Katrina. It looks pretty much like it did when we visited. Sad. Just sad.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Years ago, seventeen-year-old Apache hunter Lozen and her family lived in a world of haves and have-nots. There were the Ones — people so augmented with technology and genetic enhancements that they were barely human — and there was everyone else who served them. Then the Cloud came, and everything changed. Tech stopped working. The world plunged back into a new steam age. The Ones’ pets — genetically engineered monsters — turned on them and are now loose on the world. Lozen was not one of the lucky ones pre-C, but fate has given her a unique set of survival skills and magical abilities. She hunts monsters for the Ones who survived the apocalyptic events of the Cloud, which ensures the safety of her kidnapped family. But with every monster she takes down, Lozen’s powers grow, and she connects those powers to an ancient legend of her people. It soon becomes clear to Lozen that she is not just a hired gun. As the legendary Killer of Enemies was in the ancient days of the Apache people, Lozen is meant to be a more than a hunter. Lozen is meant to be a hero.
Well, Bruchac has done it again. Another fantastic book that beautifully blends character- and plot- driven elements. And again he’s seamlessly woven Native American (Apache and Chiricahua in this case) lore and beliefs into the story. I’m always impressed with the vocabulary Bruchac uses. Maybe I don’t read lots of literary YA or maybe I read especially crappy YA, but his books have seemed so well written and use a wide range of descriptive vocabulary.
Killer of Enemies was certainly exciting with lots of close calls, fights, and tension. I flew through it’s 360 pages. However, while the story is about Lozen trying to survive and find a way for her family to escape the “settlement” (a former prison that is still pretty prison-like) they have been taken to, it’s also about her coming to accept her skills as a fighter and the destiny that may lay before her. While the skills she has are gruesome she wants to use them for the good of humanity. She really struggles to square the idea that killing and fighting maybe necessary to help those she cares about and the other decent people she knows live within Haven.
As a heads up, Lozen fights and kills a lot of monsters that are genetically modified animals- a gigantic cross between a tiger and porcupine, a massive eagle, and an immense snake to name a few. These scenes are violent and Bruchac doesn’t shy away from describing them. This book is not for your faint-of-heart.
Hand this book to kids who liked the latter parts of the Hunger Games trilogy. It brought to mind several other post-apocalyptic dystopias such as The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey, In the After by Demetria Lunetta, and Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. Give this book to kids who liked those or send them there after they finish this one and want more.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Young Prince Rashko is frustrated with his family – no one does any thinking but him! The kingdom and castle seem to be in the hands of fools. So when Rashko’s parents mysteriously disappear and the evil Baron Temny parks his army outside the castle walls, it is up to the young prince to save the day. But there is more to this castle and its history than meets the eye, and Rashko will have to embrace his ancestry, harness a dragon, and use his sword-fighting skills to stop the baron and save the kingdom. Along the way, he realizes that his family is not quite as stupid as he always thought.
My initial, gut reaction to this: OMG, OMG, OMG! THAT WAS SO GOOD!
To begin with the book is beautifully written. It has a sense of humor, a good vocabulary and an exciting plot. Bruchac does a masterful job of working in Slovak phrases and words to add authenticity to the story. Reading the author’s note it appears he did his research into Slovakian folklore and culture, both for the book and out of curiosity about his own heritage.
The story alternates between the story of Rashko and his ancestor, Pavol. It seems likely that at some point the two stories will meet or at the least begin to parallel each other. They don’t quite do either, but they entwine with each other in such a compelling way. Pavol’s story becomes a lesson for Rashko and place for him to find answers about the situation he finds himself in and advice about how to handle it. In Pavol’s adventures and legend you can really see Bruchac’s gift for storytelling and interest in folklore. The fantastic storytelling is there in Rashko’s story too, but it really shines in the details of the legend. Bruchac obviously drew on Slovak legends and the way he weaves details into his own legends is wonderful.
Rashko’s story is incredibly written with perfect pacing, suspense, and excitement. Rashko is such a likable character. While he feels like he has to tolerate his family and their lack of intellect he never sounds like a jerk. He has a great sense of humor that’s a little bit sarcastic and snarky, but not so much that he’s exasperating. However through the course of events he learns that maybe he doesn’t quite have the world as figured out as he thought, especially his family.
The structure of the book (alternating between legend and the present) and to some extent the plot reminded me a lot of The Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud. I also saw similarities in their situation with missing parents and Baron Temny taking over, in the role of magic and the role of the castle with Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George. The book would be totally appropriate for upper elementary, although it’s reading level might be a bit high. Certainly middle schoolers, especially those that love fantasy and folklore, will enjoy this. But it could extend up into high school too. Just an all around good book for most ages.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Ever since the morning Molly woke up to find that her parents had vanished, her life has become filled with terrible questions. Where have her parents gone? Who is this spooky old man who’s taken her to live with him, claiming to be her great-uncle? Why does he never eat, and why does he lock her in her room at night? What are her dreams of the Skeleton Man trying to tell her? There’s one thing Molly does know. She needs to find some answers before it’s too late.
Well this one seriously creeped me out. In a good way, of course. It’s part folktale retelling, part ghost story, and part mystery. Molly’s parents have gone missing and she is taken in by a man who claims to be her uncle. Molly knows they have no relatives except a few cousins out in California, but unfortunately all the important adults seem to be totally taken in. Molly is convinced her parents are still alive and will return, but she’s forced to move in with the uncle until she can save herself.
Bruchac does a really good job of creating a spooky atmosphere subtly. There are bars on Molly’s window. Her uncle locks her in her room every night. She eventually discovers that there are hidden cameras watching her. She is pretty sure the food is drugged. Bruchac also makes her seem really isolated. Molly is seriously creeped out, but if she shares her suspsicions she’ll sound paranoid. The one time she does tell the social worker that he locks her in at night the uncle hides the evidence making her look like a liar. The only person who believes her is her teacher, but there is very little she can do to actually help especially after the lock incident.
Then there’s the ghost story about the hungry uncle who eats, first his own flesh then his family one by one. Ultimately his niece is the one to outwit him and bring everyone back to life. Bruchac does an amazing job retelling this story with Molly while connecting her more closely to the story through her Mohawk heritage. Molly, who has always had lucid dreams, is able to rely on them to help her outwit Skeleton Man and rescue herself and her parents. The dream elements of the story never feel contrived and didn’t pull me out of the story the way a lot of magical realism can. It’s also not hokey, although it could have been with a rabbit advising and helping Molly, because it draws on the original story which is shared early on.
Don’t give this to kids who are easily scared. It’s super spooky. This is one for the kids who read Goosebumps or who read ghost story collections and can’t get enough of them. The chapters are short and the language is fairly straight forward as is the structure of the story so it’s good for upper elementary, but I could see early middle school enjoying it too. This would pair nicely with Ying Chang Compestine’s A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts. For kids who really like this one, there is a sequel too.