summer reading 2016
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Sep 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Long, long ago, like a pearl around a grain of sand, the Kingdom of Morocco formed at the edge of the great, dry Sahara. It had fountains of cool, refreshing water to quench the thirst of the desert, and storytellers to bring the people together.
But as the kingdom grew, the people forgot the dangers of the desert, and they forgot about the storytellers, too. All but one young boy, who came to the Great Square for a drink and found something that quenched his thirst even better: wonderful stories. As he listened to the last storyteller recount the Endless Drought, and the Glorious Blue Water Bird, he discovered the power of a tale well told.
Hmmm…I don’t know about this book. On the first read through I enjoyed it and despite it’s complexity so did my daughter. But now looking at it in the morning, with fresh eyes, it feels a little exoticised. Moroccans telling stories and their swirling desert landscape brings to mind a colonial era fantasy. The first paragraph in the description above is the first paragraph in the book. It’s a little flowery. Not a bad thing, I just worry that it’s drawing on a stereotype of Arab storytellers and souks and the like.
The story itself is fascinating. It’s a story within a story within a story with an incredible twist at the very end that cleverly adds yet another layer. It also draws on the Thousand and One Nights. I think it would make a great teaching tool for writing stories. Still, it doesn’t appear to be traditional, just set in a “traditional” setting and this is compounded by the fact that the author is a white man. He is drawing from a tradition of storytelling in Morocco, a tradition that is apparently dying out, as he explains in a note at the end. I do appreciate the note and sources provided and maybe it’s not a bad thing that he didn’t appropriate an actual story? See why I’m confused?
The book is probably worth it for the illustrations. Because it’s a story about the desert and water the colors are all natural sandy tones with some brownish reds and greens and purples accented with a deep, beautiful blue. Each page has a border that is vaguely North African, but lovely. There are lots of lines and angles and the people are all fairly stylized. I worried the clothing made them all see like the Other in the past with traditional clothing. However, SPOILER ALERT, the final spread features the boy of the story all grown up telling a story. When he is young the clothing is more traditional, but the people in his crowd are mixed in what they look like and are wearing giving it a more contemporary feel and bringing the story current. Quick sketchy lines and subtle patterns add details to the pages, while objects and people in backgrounds are watery splashes of color. The cover seen here doesn’t do it justice. The oranges and yellows are super saturated and the title and border are shiny gold. While the pictures are quite complex, they have the feel of childish art, art that a child could recreate. Some of it looks like it was done in marker and reminded me of Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera Williams. I love it when picture books do that. I could see it inspiring art either in the classroom or at home.
I really want to like the book. Putting aside it’s problems the story is unlike anything I’ve read (that’s not to say there aren’t other stories out there like this) and the illustrations are stunning. It would make a great language arts text for fourth or fifth grade. But it feels problematic to me. I would suggest seeing if you can get it from your public library to assess whether it’s something you would want in your collection. I think you could address some of the issues if you were using it as a classroom book and it might depend on what the Arab portion of your collection looks like. Still…hm.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 31, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: A glorious array of Allah’s never-ending bounties that will evoke a child’s feeling of gratitude for everything God, Allah in Arabic, has given – from faith and knowledge to family and health, from animals and nature to food and life itself.
Thank You O Allah is a title I purchased to diversify our collection. Being an independent school we don’t have a lot of religious books (unless you count our 2 billion Christmas books), but there are a handful. There are a couple “biographies” of saints and religious figures (Mary, Joseph, Moses), but mostly our Christian books take the same form as this book. They’re vaguely religious prayers that examine the everyday life and surroundings of a small child and thank God for them. I’m thinking most prominently about the Caldecott winner Prayer for a Child.
There are a couple places where I’m pretty sure this was originally a British release, but it won’t confuse anyone. The text takes on a repetitious form that really has rhythm to it. In some ways it brought to mind the chanting of Islamic texts. The only annoying thing about it was that each verse starts with “And let’s thank…”. I don’t think the “and” was necessary each time. That’s an incredibly minor quibble, though.
The illustrations are really beautiful. Bright and inviting they show things most children will be familiar with except for maybe the Q’aaba. I love the cover, but I am sucker for rainbows (I blame Lisa Frank!). The book is certainly Islam-centric, but I think the message in it could be shared with any child. I would consider using it around Thanksgiving, when kids are gearing up into the gimmies season, as a reminder of all the good things we already have.
I would recommend purchasing it if for no other reason than to be sure you have at least one Islamic book on your shelves. Christian books abound and end up on shelves even if a library or school isn’t religious, so I don’t see why we can’t then have Islamic books too. Plus exposure to Islam will teach children tolerance and make them less ignorant. In terms of quality this one is pretty good with nice illustrations, good text, and nice print quality. I’ve been desperate to find Islamic holiday books and I’m willing to relax my quality standards so we can have them on the shelf, but no compromises needed here.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: When young David and Mama and Papa are celebrating Hanukkah one frosty winter evening in Brooklyn, Papa sees a parakeet sitting on the window ledge. He lets the parakeet in and everyone is delighted to find that it speaks Yiddish. They name it Dreidel and it becomes part of their family. Many years later, when David is in college, he is at a party one night and tells Dreidel’s story—only to discover that Zelda, a young woman at the party, owned the bird herself as a child. Papa and Mama are worried that they will have to give their beloved pet back, but then David and Zelda decide to get married after college, and everyone agrees that they should take Dreidel with them as they start their own family.
I know this is a winter/Hanukkah story and September is hardly the time to be thinking about the holidays, but it was such a cute story I wanted to share it. In it the parakeet found by David and his family one cold Hanukkah night turns out many years later to be the escaped pet of a girl he’s been dating in college. While the two families are at odds over what to do about the bird, David and Zelda decide to get married and bring the bird with them to their new home.
The illustrations have a bit of vintage feel like those of Norton Juster. They’re very sweet and Dreidel is particularly cute. The story also has a vintage feel, like one of those stories that is trotted out during the holidays to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The ending ties together so sweetly and neatly. Which isn’t to say the book feels saccharine and like it mourns a bygone era. It’s just an all around good holiday story.
I had a couple quibbles with the book. For starters it reads a bit like a short story that was broken up and put into picture book format. Either that or Singer thought writing a children’s book would be easy. For the most part it flows nicely. Some of the vocabulary is complex, but that’s fine too. But then there are places where I think kids won’t care about the detail or would find you being oddly specific and descriptive. For example when the parakeet first arrives on the windowsill the father, who is narrating the story, says he makes preparations to let the bird in. It’s sort of a stilted series of steps where he notes what kind of climate parakeets are from and moves the menorah out of the way of the window so the bird won’t burn himself. Then, as if in acknowledgement of the stilted nature of it, he says it took only a few moments. I’ve seen writing like that before, but it seems more typical of adult literature than a picture book. It’s a place where the pictures would carry the story and show the steps he took to safely let the bird in instead of narrating it. There are a couple other places like that and it kind of pulled me out of the story.
Also, I don’t know if this is based on a true story, but I think it’s unlikely that this would be parakeet. It would probably be a conure. Parakeets tend not to live very long and this one is at least 15. They also aren’t talkers. They can sort of mimic, but actual words (and the parakeet here learns a lot of words) are not very common and are hard to understand unless you know what you’re listening for. I know this is splitting hairs in terms of complaints and I also know most people won’t notice. However, I picked the book up for a little girl at school who LOVES birds and I think she might notice. Our family has lots of birds, including conures and parakeets, so I was also familiar enough to know that it doesn’t quite line up with the reality of these birds.
Despite all this, I’m going to buy the book as we approach Hanukkah. It was such an adorable story with that feel-good warmth that is so nice around the holidays. Just look at the final picture. Bird people will smile.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Adrienne, Keesha, Michael, and Tommy have been friends forforever. They live on the same street—a street in New Orleans where everyone knows everybody. They play together all day long, every chance they get. It’s always been that way. But then people start talking about a storm headed straight for New Orleans. The kids must part ways, since each family deals with Hurricane Katrina in a different manner. And suddenly everything that felt like home is gone.
I picked this one up because I gave to the I, Too, Arts Collective which is being spearheaded by Rene Watson. The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is coming up on Monday too. It seemed like a timely book. I guess my only concern is that a lot of kids, particularly here in California, don’t have much of an idea of what Hurricane Katrina was. That’s not to say they can’t read books about it or can’t connect, just that you get a lot of blank stares when you ask about it. With flooding in Louisiana right now they might have a better chance of connecting events.
I loved this book. The text was brilliant and was told in an interesting format. There is a group of friends and each page has a free verse poem narrated by one of them. They establish what it’s like to live in their vibrant neighborhood. Neighbors wave, the kids play together, music plays. As the storm approaches each child we’re following does something to prepare. Most leave, two families stay. Time passes quickly, but you see that some people had to be rescued off roofs and others ended up at the Superdome. I especially loved the two-page, wordless spread of the submerged neighborhood. Slowly the families come back and the neighborhood comes back to life. I thought the book did an incredible job of packing an emotional punch and covering the horror that was Katrina, but didn’t offer up too much information.
The illustrations were perfect too. The kids are darling and Strickland captures their expressions so well. I love the purple sky as the storm approaches. The dark room where Tommy watches the news. The neighborhood after the storm. There are frequently pictures with interesting perspectives and interesting details to notice. Strickland also does a really nice job of matching the illustration with the picture and adding just a little something to show emotion or a little more detail than you can glean from the text.
I know it might seem like this would have a limited audience, but I think if you have money it’s well worth purchasing. I like the idea of having modern events in our collections, especially those that focus on the people.
So as a little tangent, my husband and I have a friend who is a homicide detective in New Orleans (omg, that job, wow). He stayed through the hurricane. My father in law is from that area and he took us in 2009 to visit. While there our friend took us around and it was incredible the destruction that, four years later, was still there. Incredible and heart wrenching. You could tell the city was still empty. He drove us through the lower Ninth Ward and it was stunning. He pointed out where there had been boats washed up on streets, where there had been dead bodies, the marks on the houses from the rescue operations still spray painted on houses, where there had once been buildings, and streets he had boated over. I know kids out here don’t know much about what happened, but it was a human tragedy and I think there is value in sharing about it so they can understand what happens in natural disasters and give them some empathy.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: A little boy plants an apple seed, and as soon as it sprouts the boy can see the apple tree it is meant to be. But the little apple tree isn’t so sure. Young and impatient, the tree begins to doubt its calling, especially after apples fail to appear that first October. How can the little boy encourage the tree to give the seasons and years the time to work their magic?
I saw this one recommended on Debbie Reese’s site and bought it to replace some of the many Native Nations books I withdrew this summer.
I thought this was a nice gentle story and it’s so sweet. It’s also a quick read. It brought to mind The Giving Tree, a book that I know is beloved by many, but I find incredibly disturbing. Here the little boy helps his apple tree feel better until it can produce it’s own apples. He talks to the tree and interacts with it. Which also brings to mind the book Maple.
Someone in the comments section of AICL noted that Kirkus did not review the book well and that the reviewer was confused by the story. Another commenter posted some quotes from the review. I don’t think the book is confusing at all and found the complaints of the Kirkus review more confusing than this story. If you understood The Giving Tree, you won’t have trouble with this story. Neither will your students.
The text is presented both in English and Cherokee which is a really cool talking point for students. We have a biography of Sequoyah. I can’t speak to how accurate it is (so much of children’s nonfiction is terrible!!), but we are using it. I suggested my second grade teachers pair these two books. Debbie Reese also recommends that you show children the Cherokee tribal website.
It’s a far less disturbing story like The Giving Tree. I highly recommend it for libraries looking to strengthen their collections of Native Nations books. I also suggest it if you have classrooms that do fall themes, trees, or want a story about patience.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: On a hot day at the end of summer in 1973 Cindy Campbell threw a back-to-school party at a park in the South Bronx. Her brother, Clive Campbell, spun the records. He had a new way of playing the music to make the breaks—the musical interludes between verses—longer for dancing. He called himself DJ Kool Herc and this is When the Beat Was Born. From his childhood in Jamaica to his youth in the Bronx, here’s how Kool Herc came to be a DJ, how kids in gangs stopped fighting in order to breakdance, and how the music he invented went on to define a culture and transform the world.
This is another one that I have mixed feelings about. I found the story of DJ Kool Herc really interesting. It’s a neat American music story. It’s a great story about an immigrant playing an important role in shaping popular culture. I like the idea of having an artist who is Jamaican-American on the shelves to balance out all the white Classical composers (although our music collection is looking quite diverse after weeding and new additions). I also like that this is a modern black artist and not a slave narrative. We need more modern biographies in our collection.
But! The text is a little long, as it can be in picture book biographies, which make them a hard sell to the kids. I think the hip hop aspect will pull students in, but we don’t have a high circulation of picture book biographies in general. I also wasn’t super captivated by the text. I took an interest in it but didn’t find it terribly memorable. I don’t think either of these things means that it shouldn’t be on my own library’s shelf, just that it might see less circulation. That also means I need to do some leg work to get the kids reading it.
I love the color palette in the illustrations. There are a lot of quiet earth tones with pops of red and aqua. I think it gives an interesting feel to the city setting.
I don’t think this is an essential purchase for every library. If you have kids interested in hip hop, definitely buy it. But an overt interest in hip hop isn’t necessary to enjoy the book. If you have funds I would certainly say you should add it to get some diversity in the music section of your library. If you have a music collection that circulates you should add it. I’m adding this to my ongoing list of books I want to buy. It’s not that long of a list so this will end up on our shelves at some point this year, but our budget is in flux right now so I’m only buying stuff that directly supports our current units of study.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Born to parents who were former-slaves Florence knew early on that she loved to sing. And that people really responded to her sweet, bird-like voice. Her dancing and singing catapulted her all the way to the stages of 1920s Broadway where she inspired songs and even entire plays! Yet with all this success, she knew firsthand how bigotry shaped her world. And when she was offered the role of a lifetime from Ziegfeld himself, she chose to support all-black musicals instead.
You can be forgiven for not knowing Florence Mills. No recordings or film of her performances exist. And according to the author’s note at the end of the story, what we know about her singing is through what other sources report about her. It brings to mind the lighthouse of Alexandria.
The book is a little text heavy, but is really captivating. I read the story to my test subject (my four-year-old daughter) and she asked to re-read it several times. Mills was a woman of principle and she used her fame to support others and not just herself. She gave to the poor and helped other black performers. She also faced a lot of racism. Watson addresses it rather matter of factly without dwelling on it. The text also provides enough context for kids approaching this on their own to know it was Mills’ race that caused the discrimination and they see how she tried to combat it. I think this provides a very good opportunity for parents and educators to discuss racism. I also think teachers can introduce other black performers who helped break the racial barrier, such as Marian Anderson. Combined with other picture book biographies I think this could make a very interesting study of black entertainers and the discrimination they faced even when they were invited into white spaces. Watson has also woven in lyrics from various songs which, if you know the tunes, could make for a really great read aloud experience.
I love Robinson’s illustrations. The big-eyed Florence is totally endearing. The cut paper/collage style of the pictures and bright colors match the liveliness and adventure of Florence’s life. The scene of her funeral is particularly moving with the blackbirds silhouetted against the white sky and earth-toned buildings. Small blackbirds appear first on the endpapers and make cameos throughout the story as a small nod to Mills nickname. I thought that was clever and it was fun for my daughter to find them as we read.
I think this book is well worth adding to biography collections in libraries. There are more famous entertainers from the same era that could be argued to be more essential, but if you have money I highly recommend it.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Ash Mistry Series by Sarwat Chadda
Book 1: Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress
Book 2: Ash Mistry and the City of Death
Book 3: Ash Mistry and the World of Darkness
From Goodreads: Ash Mistry hates India. Which is a problem since his uncle has brought him and his annoying younger sister Lucky there to take up a dream job with the mysterious Lord Savage. But Ash immediately suspects something is very wrong with the eccentric millionaire. Soon, Ash finds himself in a desperate battle to stop Savage’s masterplan – the opening of the Iron Gates that have kept Ravana, the demon king, at bay for four millennia…
I really, really enjoyed this series. Growing up, like many kids, I was totally into Greek and Roman mythology. Then I found Ancient Egyptian mythology and culture. Back then there were was very little YA and MG literature that I could get my hands on that featured good Ancient Egyptian content (I eventually started reading the Elizabeth Peters mysteries, which had a lot of romance and stuff that I wasn’t all that interested in) or even really Greek and Roman mythology and history. Now that Rick Riordan has written all those Percy Jackson books there’s plenty of Greek content out there. There are also the Kane Chronicles. And now it looks like Norse mythology is catching on. I think it’s great that there is a lot out there for kids who are interested in mythology and ancient cultures, but it’s really mostly focused on the Greeks and Romans. Which is why I think series like this one are awesome.
Ash Mistry is based around Indian mythology and it’s so rich. It helps that Chadda appears to know his Indian mythology, ideology, and history inside and out. It’s so seamlessly woven into the story of Ash. From Ash’s rebirths to the Carnival of the Flesh that appears in the third book. It all plays such an important role in the story. Chadda never panders to the Western audience by having asides that explain various aspects of the mythology, but there is explaining. You don’t need to know Indian mythology to understand and follow the story.
I did find the third book moved more slowly for me. I don’t know why. It was by far the most violent in action and depiction. Otherwise the books move along at a nice clip. They are full of action, but aren’t just plot driven. Ash grows and changes through the series into a wiser character. There’s a tiny bit of romance. Ash has a crush on a girl and there is something brewing between him and Parvati, but it’s never really the focus of the story and there’s only one kiss at the very end of the series. Ash is also incredibly devoted to his family which I thought deviated from the standard YA hero story and was a nice touch.
The series is definitely for older audiences. I had originally picked up the first book to see if it was something I could get for our fifth grade students. I don’t think it’s the best fit. There is a lot of violence. A lot. And it’s a lot more graphically depicted than, say, the Riordan books. That makes me think these books are really more YA than middle grade. Darn. They’re so good. I’m mulling it all over. Since we don’t have anything else that features Indian mythology I would consider having the first book on our shelves. That one is probably the least violent or graphic. I highly recommend this for libraries with middle school and high school age patrons. It’s so engrossing and mythology is certainly a popular subject.
There is one big, big problem with the series, though. Only the first two books have been released here in the U.S. I got the first two books from my public library and had to buy the third from a British dealer on Amazon. Why would the publisher do that? It was incredibly frustrating.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: When her fifth-grade teacher hints that a series of lessons about home and community will culminate with one big answer about two tall towers once visible outside their classroom window, Deja can’t help but feel confused. She sets off on a journey of discovery, with new friends Ben and Sabeen by her side. But just as she gets closer to answering big questions about who she is, what America means, and how communities can grow (and heal), she uncovers new questions, too. Like, why does Pop get so angry when she brings up anything about the towers?
I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of Jewel Parker Rhodes middle grade novels at this point and I have loved them all. This was no exception.
I think it would be a mistake to sell this book to kids as only a September 11th book. It needs to be about the friendships and family themes in the book. Most kids in our elementary schools are vaguely aware of 9/11. It’s important and upsetting to those of us who were alive then, but not so much to our young students. I know they can grasp the importance and we’re certainly seeing the ripples of it still with our conflicts in the Middle East, but that’s Over There and way more abstract for these kids. Deja, the main character, struggles with understanding that and it makes the book all more relevant to kids today.
So, Towers Falling is not really a story about 9/11. It’s more a story about how families cope with trauma (or don’t). It’s about how parents and adults give their baggage to children and have expectations of them they can never meet because they don’t know the rules to the game their playing. It’s a story about a family that has fallen on hard times, like so many over the past years, and how it disrupts the children’s ability to function. It all coincides nicely with the anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 and provides a way to talk about those as well, but I think in the years to come the book will have staying power because it is about teaching children to look past the surface of a person.
Deja is deep and she’s hurting and things are hard. She lashes out, she says inconsiderate things, she behaves poorly, not because she wants to or doesn’t know any better, but because there is a lot going on in her life and in her past and those things make it impossible for her not to. She’s been taught to be tough and mean and unfeeling and hurt others before getting hurt herself, but is being held to a standard that expects her to not do those things. Towers Falling is a story about how the past ripples out into the present. Again that happens to be the 9/11 attacks in this story, but it could just as easily be any other event- a shooting, an illness, a car accident. It’s also about how Deja grows through good friends, a conducive environment and learning about the root of many of her family’s troubles (which happen to be the September 11th attacks). It’s about how Deja becomes more aware of what is going on around her.
I found the book incredibly powerful. I realized I have never actually watched the footage of the attacks. I’ve seen the clips of the second plane and I remember a few photographs from the newspaper and that’s it. But I remember that day very vividly. I think it’s hard for me to say with certainly this book is an important part of collection development because I have an emotional reaction to the 9/11 attacks. I believe it’s important for kids to know about them and I think this is a good story to learn about them through. I also think the story itself is only partly about 9/11 and has a lot of value and merit on its own. Recent history is important and I can’t figure out why we’re happy to talk about things like slavery and WWII, but deem 9/11 too hard for kids to learn about. This is a good book, but I know there will be resistance to putting it on shelves in elementary and middle school libraries. I think it should be on all library shelves and do think we need to consider putting this out there.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Long ago in what would come to be called Mexico, as Mama Alma and her granddaughter, Bella, recall happy times while walking in the garden they have tended together since Bella was a baby, Mama Alma asks that after she is gone her family remember her on one special day each year. Includes facts about The Remembering Day, El dia de los muertos.
I bought this one for our Spanish collection and because I know several classes, including our music class, study El dia de los muertos. Mora imagines a time when the tradition of El dia de los muertos began in this sweet story about Bella and her grandmother. The story is fairly quiet as the two remember the happy times they have had together. As Mama Alma realizes she is going to die she asks Bella to start a celebration of those who have died in their village.
I think this one would make a great addition to any collection. While it has the cultural component of looking at El dia de los muertos, it’s meaning and possible origin, it is also a story about a grandparent dying. I think it would be a good story to offer to children and families who have lost someone. My own family celebrates the Celtic version of a remembering day each fall and this would be a fantastic book to read at that time.
I loved that Mora’s first line makes it clear that this is something that started before colonizers from Europe came and she touches on it again in the note at the end of the story. Remembering the dead is not uniquely Catholic or even Christian and the practice goes back much further into our human history. I think it’s important to acknowledge that with our students and children.
The illustrations are warm and inviting. They show Bella and Mama Alma working in their garden, weaving, and playing together. The soft, warm colors enhance the nostalgic and gentle mood of the text. The text is a bit on the long side so your mileage may vary with very young audiences. I bought this specifically for my second grade classes, but I think it could be read up into fifth grade and down into Kindergarten. The story is just so worthwhile.
I am curious, the title in English is The Remembering Day while the Spanish title is El Dia de los Muertos. I understand that the holiday is about remembering and respecting the dead, so does that mean The Remembering Day is a more accurate translation? I like it better. Calling it the Day of the Dead always brings Halloween to mind for my students and sort of sucks the meaningful significance out of the holiday (we are actually one of those families that do not celebrate American Halloween, for the record, so this could just be a personal bugaboo). To my limited knowledge of the holiday The Remembering Day seems a lot more inline with what the holiday is about.