By Elizabeth Wroten
On 09, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: One day, Mikis’s grandfather has a surprise for him: a new donkey waiting! Mikis falls in love with the creature, but his grandparents tell him that the donkey is a working animal, not a pet. However, they still let Mikis choose her name — Tsaki — and allow the two of them to spend their Sundays together. Mikis and Tsaki soon become fast friends, and together the two have some grand adventures. Eventually, both Mikis and his grandfather learn a bit more about what exactly it means to care for another creature.
Mikis and the Donkey is such a sweet gentle story. Mikis is completely captivated with the donkey his grandparents buy to help with some work around their property.
Mikis seems to understand the donkey and loves her from the start. He speaks up for her health and her happiness. His grandparents are rather baffled by his affinity for the animal, but with some cajoling from Mikis, they support his doting on her. The funniest part is Mikis and his friend’s idea to introduce Tsaki to another donkey who lives just outside their small village. Adults will see what comes next, but Mikis’ total and utter surprise at the baby donkey who results from this donkey friendship is hilarious and sweet.
In addition to the story line about Mikis and Tsaki, there is a friendship story between humans too. One of Mikis’ classmates, a quite girl, is captivated with Tsaki. Over their love of the donkey Mikis and this little girl become close friends. Mikis discovers that though she is quiet the little girl has a lot to offer.
I think the book would make a great read aloud and it’s certainly one for any animal lover. The book does have a slow pace which might make it less popular. I see it as one you would book talk to specific kids instead of one that will fly off the shelf at every opportunity. The book isn’t too long, but I suspect the reading level is a little bit higher. It would probably go in our tiny “mellow yellow” section which is a transition from our red chapter books to our higher yellow fiction books (things that are usually called middle grade). I still think it would be fine for kids who are working their way up through chapter books.
Updated 7/10/2016: I forgot to note, since the summary from Goodreads doesn’t say, the book is set in a small village on the Greek island of Corfu. In someways I think this might be an interesting way to make the connection between the Syrian (and others) migrant crisis, as many of them are washing up and landing on the Greek islands. It might be a little contrived, but you could certainly talk about other events in this part of the world in conjunction with looking at the story of Mikis.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In the northern Ooni Kingdom, fear of the unknown runs deep, and children born dada are rumored to have special powers. Thirteen-year-old Zahrah Tsami feels like a normal girl—she grows her own floral computer, has mirrors sewn onto her clothes, and stays clear of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle. But unlike other children in the village of Kirki, Zahrah was born with the telling dadalocks. Only her best friend, Dari, isn’t afraid of her, even when something unusual begins happening—something that definitely makes Zahrah different. The two friends determine to investigate, edging closer and closer to danger. When Dari’s life is threatened, Zahrah must face her worst fears alone, including the very thing that makes her different.
The world building in this book was incredible. Okorafor is so clever in the things she weaves into new worlds. There isn’t just a layer of magic or technology laid over our own world. And it isn’t some vaguely medieval setting. In the Ooni Kingdom plants are an integral part of their world. They are used to make technology (the old ebooks are a special kind of leaf), they are used to make buildings (they are literally hollowed out or shaped as they grow to create skyscrapers and libraries), and then there is the Greenie Jungle that lurks just on the outskirts of their world.
When Zahrah’s best friend falls into a coma she has to face both who she is and the Greenie Jungle to save him. I loved that Zahrah was not necessarily brave and she is fighting a lot of her demons, but her voice was never irritating. She is afraid, but she doesn’t throw up her hands and whine about how she can’t do it. She has been picked on at school and people think she’s strange for her hair. This has hurt her, but she doesn’t throw up her hands and let other people tell her who she is. It was refreshing, first to have a girl saving a boy, but also to watch a girl who come into her own without being a “chosen one”. The story is really about Zahrah finding her inner strength. She does have a special power, but she really only draws on it in a major way at the very end, and even then not in a deus-ex-machina way.
Zahrah’s journey also includes elements of discovering the world around her and questioning everything she has been taught. She comes to realize that maybe her people have been closed minded and afraid. I think a lot of adolescents go through this kind of discovery process where their worlds open up around them, at least in an intellectual sense. Zahrah’s transformation from timid girl to confident young woman is one a lot kids will want to relate to and watch. As an introvert I appreciated that, although she gains confidence in herself and discovers how to use her new skill, she doesn’t become a different person. She is still quiet and thoughtful, she just now has an inner strength.
The reading level and length make this much more of a book for middle school age kids, which is too bad because it was awesome and I would have loved to put it in my library. I may still. Buy this if you have fantasy fans in your library. Buy it if you are in an elementary library that has really strong readers. We need more variety in our fantasy and not another book set in a thinly disguised Europe.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Meet Ruby—a small girl with a huge imagination, and the determination to solve any puzzle. As Ruby stomps around her world making new friends, including the Wise Snow Leopard, the Friendly Foxes, and the Messy Robots, kids will be introduced to the fundamentals of computational thinking, like how to break big problems into small ones, create step-by-step plans, look for patterns and think outside the box through storytelling. Then, these basic concepts at the core of coding and programming will be reinforced through fun playful exercises and activities that encourage exploration and creativity.
Hello Ruby is an interesting hybrid of chapter book and activity book. Oddly, though, the activities are included in the back half of the book and not in or at the end of each chapter. The introduction also says that the book is designed for a parent to read the story to their child(ren) and work through the activities together.
The story is cute and simple with a pretty easy reading level (with some help a second grader could manage), however it jumps from something realistic into what I think is Ruby’s imagination. Ruby’s dad has hidden gems and left her some cryptic messages as clues to finding them. I was a little confused as to how Ruby managed to create a map for a world that I thought was supposed to be around her house, but ended up with a river and a forest. I stuck with it and the story eventually made more sense, it just required accepting that this was not our world. I’m not sure kids will be thrown by the leap into Ruby’s imagination since they are less familiar with genres and rules about worlds and stories. Some of the chapters were a little confusing unless you looked at and did the activities with them.
I did appreciate that the activities built on each other, getting more difficult as the book went on. One helps kids understand Booleans which I might have to use in the library when we talk about them.
In case you were wondering about the diversity tag on this book, I considered it diverse because Ruby is involved in computer science, something that is not traditionally assumed to be a girl’s activity.
I’m going to spend next week going through the chapters and exercises with my daughter to see how engaging it is for kids (I realize she’s a little younger than this is probably gear toward, but it will give me a sense). Considering it needs a parent to go through it with the child (not a bad thing! I wish more parents of older kids were still reading and working with their kids), it’s probably not the kind of book that would be popular in my library. It should work for a public library or a home collection if coding is popular. What I think I might do is buy it to have in the makerspace I run.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Jazz musician Sun Ra (1914–1993) always said that he came from Saturn. Being from another planet, he was naturally intrigued by everything earthly — especially music, because music is the one thing on Earth most like the stars. Earthlings themselves confused Sun Ra, the way they sorted themselves by color and fought wars against one another. So he made music. And he traveled with other musicians and singers, calling themselves the Sun Ra Arkestra, playing, singing, and dancing for people all over the planet. Because music, he said, is what holds us all together. Join acclaimed author-illustrator Chris Raschka in celebrating a legend of the jazz world who was truly one of a kind.
I am not usually a fan of Raschka’s art (A Ball for Daisy being the exception), but I think his sketchy, spotty, messy style fits perfectly with jazz. There is color everywhere on the pages of this book in splotches, washes, and swipes. There are also pieces of musical staff paper incorporated into the art.
The writing itself is perfect for a young audience . One of my big complaints is that a lot of picture book biographies are directed toward older readers (fourth or fifth grade and up) and they are hard to get those kids to pick up. Cosmobiography is pitch perfect for first through third grade. No, it isn’t the kind of book you could use as an exclusive resource for a biography project, but personally I think we do a disservice to kids, their curiosity and their education by creating projects that use only one dry source and require only one form of expressing their new-found knowledge.
Cosmobiography does cover Sun Ra’s life from his birth to his death. It doesn’t skimp on information about the man. It’s presented in a small digestible pieces for children. Pieces that may intrigue them and encourage them to learn more or simply gain some knowledge of one jazz great. The book starts out rather conspiratorially with the reader. Raschka points out that Sun Ra believed he was from Saturn, but acknowledges that the reader may find this unlikely. He then continues the book accepting the fact that Sun Ra was actually from Saturn. It also brings up the topic of race, discrimination, and segregation.
I highly recommend this one for biography collections. I’ll be adding it to ours this year for sure.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: We look into Carmen’s studio and see her paint a Mexican jarabe tapatio dancer; we glimpse the hummingbirds that cross the US-Mexico border to taste the sweet nectar of the cactus flowers; and we watch Carmen teach her nieces and nephews how to make their own magic windows. Magic Windows is a continuing tribute to family and community as well as a way for Carmen to connect future generations to their ancestors by teaching and sharing with them this traditional folk art.
We are very fortunate in that our students take a foreign language in lower school (beginning in Kindergarten). The purpose of the program is not to create bilingual students, but to give the children exposure to another language and develop an ear for other languages. They can choose from French and Spanish (I really wish there were more options). I discovered this year that our Spanish teacher bought some books featuring Latina characters and a few bilingual books and while I tend to buy books that I want to use every year in my lessons and totally understood her impulse, I also felt a little like the library had let her down! We have a small collection of Spanish language and Latinx culture books, but it could be a little richer. So, now I’m keeping my eye out for books that can build that collection too. (So many places to build up the collection!)
I came across Magic Windows in a blog post somewhere and was intrigued and was rewarded with a fascinating book. It’s part family memoir, part art instruction, part culture introduction. Each page features a cut paper illustration that Garza has done with an explanation of what the picture is depicting. She also goes into her family history a bit with them, encourages the reader by sharing tidbits about making the papel picado, and shares some of the culture around various iconography. Each page features a few short paragraphs with this information in English and in Spanish.
Due to the length of the book I would say it’s better suited to older grades (second and up), but you could easily share a page or two with younger students. It would be a great jumping off point for an study into cut paper illustration and art. You could also pair it with books illustrated by Nikki McClure who uses a similar technique. It would also go well with a study of families and how we talk about them, honor them, celebrate them, and share our traditions and memories.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 04, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Sixth-grader Rufus Mayflower doesn’t set out to become a millionaire. He just wants to save on toothpaste. Betting he can make a gallon of his own for the same price as one tube from the store, Rufus develops a step-by-step production plan with help from his good friend Kate MacKinstrey. By the time he reaches the eighth grade, Rufus makes more than a gallon — he makes a million! This fun, breezy story set in 1960s Cleveland, Ohio contains many real-life mathematical problems which the characters must solve to succeed in their budding business.
Happy Fourth of July. Here’s a book about the entrepreneurial spirit of the US for today. Considering the original publication date of this book, 1972, it’s surprising that one of the primary characters is African American. Kate MacKinstrey tells the story of how she and Rufus, two kids who didn’t quite fit in with their peers, became friends over making things and then started a business. Kate is new to town and is having trouble making friends until Rufus helps her clean up her spilled backpack one day on the way to school. She’s intrigued by his messenger bag he made for himself (and he offers to make her one as well).
This story has awesome all over it. It features a boy-girl friendship. Rufus is black and Kate is white. Kate isn’t into “girly” things and she starts up the business with Rufus. She helps make toothpaste, pack it up, and helps find a tube supplier and a factory to ramp up production. Rufus may have had the toothpaste formula idea, but Kate is as much of an entrepreneur as he is handling practical logistics. The kids also get to run around town by themselves! On bikes! I think it will seem extraordinary to kids these days, but also very enticing. I do wish that the story was more about Rufus. For example, I wish we knew why he choose Kate as a friend. He helps her and their friendship just starts up. It didn’t feel forced, but he just sort of assumes that after that point they are friends. Kate is grateful and takes it in stride. I am glad that on this cover Rufus is front and center.
I loved Rufus, he is so practical and straight forward. He starts the toothpaste production because he is convinced toothpaste companies are charging way too much and he could do it just as well for less and still make a profit. I do wonder if he falls into any stereotypes. Not only is he African American, but he also strikes me that he could have Asperger’s. I am not certain about that, but I wonder if he was supposed to be like one of those kids and if he is too much of a stereotype.
For a chapter book this one is on the higher end. In terms of interest I think kids from second to seventh grade would enjoy the story. I would recommend it for any elementary school library, but consider it if you have middle schoolers who are into inventing or need some lower reading level, high interest stories.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Bea Garcia is an artist. She draws anywhere and everywhere—but mostly in her own notebook. When Bea’s first and only best friend Yvonne moves to Australia, not even drawing makes Bea feel better. And things only get worse when a loud, rambunctious boy moves in next door. He’s nothing at all like Yvonne! But with a little imagination and a whole lot of doodles, Bea Garcia might just make a new friend.
Poor Bea! Her best friend has just moved away to Australia, all the way across the globe. Bea is heartbroken. To make matters worse, a weasel of a kid has moved next door into Yvonne’s old house and he’s ruining everything.
This was an interesting book to read as an adult and a teacher. I got how upset Bea was and how she didn’t know how to process her feelings. I think we’ve all felt the heartbreak of a good friendship splitting up, either because someone moves or because people change. I knew that feeling as a kid, but as an adult I thought about how tough it is to keep in touch with far away friends when you are so young. I also saw Burt, the annoying new neighbor boy, from both perspectives. To the kid mourning the loss of her best friend, Burt was obnoxious and forced on her by well-meaning adults. As an adult I saw that Burt was struggling too. He was new to the neighborhood and school and didn’t know how to insert himself in a constructive way into the class dynamic and to ask for friendship.
I love that Bea learns that Burt isn’t so bad. I love that her teacher doesn’t humiliate her for doodling some rather unkind things. She realizes Bea knows she was being unkind and unfair to Burt and puts an incredibly positive spin on her drawing while still making a subtle point to Bea, and Bea only, that she needs to write in her school notebook not her doodling book.
Bea is Latina, maybe biracial? The thing is, the story doesn’t make a big deal out of it and I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. I appreciate that, once again, we don’t have a book that makes being something other than white seem other and doesn’t focus the story on that. But I’m also wondering if it was a little shallow? Her name and a handful of Spanish words are just about the extent of her cultural identity in the book. There is the fact that this is a pretty simple book for readers who are just getting into chapter books so the need to keep the story short and more to the point was probably a big factor. I can’t find much information about Zemke either so I can’t tell if she’s writing as an insider (considering the state of children’s publishing I would guess not).
This really brings up another issue for me, which is, I bought the book for my library and is that a step in the right direction toward telling publishers I want books with diversity? Once they see diversity sells will they be more willing to get more of it on their lists, including diverse authors? I don’t know. I worry it encourages them to have their white authors write diverse content and we end up with a glut of shallow diversity. Things to think about.
In the end, the book is wonderful. Bea is like a lot of kids I have known over the years and I think a lot of readers will connect with her and want to follow her adventures (this is a planned series). Good addition to a chapter book collection.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: One of 12 siblings growing up in depression-era Baltimore, Edith isn’t quite sure of who she is. Between working at her father’s diner, taking care of her younger siblings, and living in the shadow of her more mature sisters, Edith feels lost in a sea of siblings. When a kind teacher encourages Edith to be a teacher herself one day, Edith sees prospects for a future all her own.
Looking For Me was such an enjoyable book. Edith is a really likable girl who seems to get short shrift in her family. It’s a memoir in verse of Betsy’s mother’s childhood growing up in a very large Jewish family. Edith really struggles to find her place and make her parents see her. There are also a lot of expectations put on her. She helps care for all the younger children because she is “the little mother”. This is a role she doesn’t necessarily mind, but she also resents having it be expected of her and having it be the only role her family sees her in. She also must work in the family restaurant after school everyday until nearly midnight. But she’s usually a happy kid with good perspective.
I am always looking for books that feature Jews, but not the holocaust. Why are all books with Jews about the holocaust?! Here the family is loud and boisterous and always short on money. They run a diner and barely keep a lid on all their children in the best possible way (I sort of imagine my dad’s childhood was a little like this, actually, running a bit feral with all his siblings). Their faith doesn’t play into the book too much, which I appreciated in that I am not looking for Jewish Books, but books with people who happen to be Jewish. Where the Judaism infuses their lives, but isn’t front and center.
A warning, one of Edith’s younger brothers dies. It’s a bit dramatic, but not detailed or gory. He comes down with what, at the time, was a fairly common childhood disease (I’m sorry I can’t remember what it is right now) and is whisked off to the hospital.
While appropriate for an elementary library, it seems better suited to middle schoolers who are really grappling with who they are. I think I have a few fifth graders who might enjoy this and they could certainly read it, I just worry that these glimpses into everyday life are not quite what they willingly pick up. I would give it to fans of Marilyn Nelson’s How I Discovered Poetry. Both are memoirs in verse and feature themes of self discovery. This would make a great addition to a classroom library as well. And I hate to give it the kiss of death, but it would be a good class read. I’m still undecided on whether or not I will purchase for our library.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: George Washington Carver was born a slave in Missouri about 1864 and was raised by the childless white couple who had owned his mother. In 1877 he left home in search of an education, eventually earning a master’s degree. In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to start the agricultural department at the all-black-staffed Tuskegee Institute, where he spent the rest of his life seeking solutions to the poverty among landless black farmers by developing new uses for soil-replenishing crops such as peanuts, cowpeas, and sweet potatoes. Carver’s achievements as a botanist and inventor were balanced by his gifts as a painter, musician, and teacher.
This was an incredible and eye-opening book. Unsurprisingly I learned nothing about Carver in my history classes and I’m pretty sure no one is explicitly studying him in any of our current social studies curriculums. Such a shame because he was a fascinating figure. While relegated to terrible jobs on chicken farms because of the pervasive racism at the time he did some incredible research into soil science and farming. All of it was inspired by a desire to help poor black people raise themselves out of poverty and do a better job farming. Carver is best known for peanut butter, I think, but there was SO much more to his studies.
I love novels in verse and this was an wonderful way to open up the history here. Carver really came to life on the page as did the times he lived in. Nelson’s work is always worth reading, but especially this book.
A heads up: the n-word appears in one (possibly two) of the poems. In context I think it makes sense, so it isn’t gratuitous use of the word. The inclusion of the word didn’t make or break my decision not to purchase the book, either. I do hesitate, however, to have materials with slurs or with stereotyped/racist content and depictions on our shelves because our students are not having conversations around that material, particularly the materials they pick up in the library (they take them home, read them on their own, and return them). Instead of learning about the power of words (or images) and how hurtful they can be and how they can be used intentionally to hurt and oppress others, they are simply internalizing those images and words. And that is insidious. It eats away at their ability to call out racism (and other -isms) and see how it truly influences our world.
More to the point, though, for buying this for an elementary school library, is the reading ability required to follow the narrative. The poems aren’t totally straight forward. It’s free verse, but the mix of narrators and settings made it a little harder to follow. This makes for a deep reading experience, but one that I think is above even my fifth grader’s heads. Sometimes I can make the case that strong fourth grade readers and fifth graders can handle a book that is more middle school (Almost Astronauts for example, or Moonbird), but with the verse format in Carver, I think they would really struggle.
I would have no hesitation buying this book for a middle or high school library, however. I would highly recommend it for an English and/or history class to use too. There is so much good information and history and writing here. So much!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Why is the land so important to Cassie’s family? It takes the events of one turbulent year—the year of the night riders and the burnings, the year a white girl humiliates Cassie in public simply because she’s black—to show Cassie that having a place of their own is the Logan family’s lifeblood. It is the land that gives the Logans their courage and pride—no matter how others may degrade them, the Logans possess something no one can take away.
Considering this won a Newbery Award I’m surprised I haven’t read it before. I was only vaguely aware of it’s presence in middle school. Such a shame because it was a fantastic book. It should be taught in more English classes instead of some of the boring, male- and white-centric novels we read in middle and high school (Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you).
Our library has one or two of the Logan series so I picked this up both because of its awards and because I was curious if we should add it to our collection. I’m sort of torn. It isn’t the longest of the Logan books and it was certainly interesting and engaging. But it was also a tough read in terms of reading level. Plus this is a much more introspective book and I think kids who aren’t already strong readers won’t have the stamina to get through it. If I had picked it up in late elementary school and even into middle school I wouldn’t have finished it, let alone appreciated and enjoyed it. It would have just been too hard.
I think if one of our classes studied Reconstruction Era and/or the Depression I would highly recommend it as a book to read as a class. With a teacher guiding fifth graders through, it’s possible. The book takes place during the Depression, but you can see threads of slavery and Reconstruction and Jim Crow in the story that would make for excellent tie-ins with history studies and bring on tough, but necessary, conversations about institutional racism and systems put in place to keep anyone who isn’t white, down.
The story was absolutely heart-wrenching and heart-warming. The Logan family faces a lot of challenges from racism, to white supremacists, to poverty, to a father being away at work. Plus a lot of hardships befall them. Their mother is fired from her teaching job for teaching black pride and history. Their father breaks his leg and is unable to go back to his job on the railroad. And payments on their land and farm are coming due because white people who don’t like them are fiddling with the system and trying to force them into foreclosure. But they also have a large close-knit family that promises to see them through. Cassie makes for a great narrator for all these events. While realistic and at times introspective about their situation, she is also optimistic. Plus she gets some AWESOME revenge on the white school’s bus and on the girl who humiliates her. The book itself is also nuanced in its look at Southern life. There are out and out racists and bigots and there are white people who support and help the Logans and other black families, overtly and covertly. There are African Americans who are afraid and timid and there are African Americans who stand up for what they believe even if it means putting themselves out there as targets. In other words there is no binary here.
Although this is technically book four in the series that chronicles the Logan family, it made perfect sense picking it up and reading it. There were a few references to events that had happened in earlier generations, but they were explained within the context of the story and didn’t leave me wondering if I needed to go back to earlier books. This may be in part due to the order the books in the series were written and published. I don’t think they necessarily came out in chronological order.
I really think that this is truly a middle grade book suited to middle school age. I don’t think elementary students can’t handle anything in it, but the reading itself might be very taxing. I’m going to have see what others we have in the series and if they need to be passed up to our middle/high school library or if I should flesh out the series a bit. I will note that the first book chronologically is The Land and clocks in at 400 pages!! Yipes, that would be a looong book for a fifth grader.