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 28, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: From a young age, Michael was both fascinated by and afraid of his grandfather. Grandpa’s ship was torpedoed during the Second World War, leaving him with terrible burns. Every time he came to stay, Michael was warned by his mother that he must not stare, he must not make too much noise, he must not ask Grandpa any questions about his past. As he grows older, Michael stays with his grandfather during the summer holidays, and as he finally learns the story behind Grandpa’s injuries, he gets to know the real man behind the solemn figure from his childhood. Michael can see beyond the burns, and this gives him the power to begin healing some of the scars that have divided his family for so long.
This was such an interesting book. It was a very simple, but very deep. It looked at World War II from the perspective of its lasting impact on veteran’s families. Michael’s grandfather was badly burned while fighting in the Pacific and both his mental trauma, particularly how it made him feel about himself, and his physical change, make his life a struggle. People are afraid of him, his wife leaves him, and he is frequently angry. His daughter was afraid of him and at first his grandson was too.
But here is where the story really takes off. Michael, in visiting his grandfather, begins to look past the scars and taciturn attitude. He realizes they share a lot in common including a love of being together quietly. The grandfather becomes a friend to Michael and finds some redemption for the botched childhood of his daughter and his failed marriage. He begins to share his wounds and his regrets with Michael and his mother. I wouldn’t say life becomes grand and rosy, but the two find a deep connection and love that is the star of the story.
World War II books seem popular at any level, but I would say it’s best suited to middle and high school. Even adults could enjoy it (I certainly did). There isn’t anything overly gruesome in the story, it’s just deeper than I think most young readers are going to read and I don’t think they’ll find it particularly interesting.
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 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 21, Jun 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In this new YA novel by Tanita S. Davis, the Coretta Scott King Honor author of Mare’s War, a white teen named Dess is placed into foster care with a black family while her mother is incarcerated.
Dess has had a hard life. And things have gotten more complicated since her mother is incarcerated for her own protection. She is going to be a witness against Dess’s father, an abusive drug dealer who her mother has been tied to for years by her drug habit and children. Dess has endured years of abuse and neglect and has a baby brother she has tried to help care for, but ultimately they were put into the foster care system. Dess struggles with being separated from her brother and with the sudden appearance of controlling adults.
Dess has a grandmother, but she is just too old to care for Dess and her brother, something Dess doesn’t understand and cannot forgive her for. After causing trouble by running away from the group home, the family that took in Dess’s brother has offered to foster her as well. Now Dess has to recenter herself in this new family and find her place in it.
As much as the story is about Dess, it’s also about Hope, the biological daughter of the foster family who is the same age as Dess. The two really struggle to build a friendship and sisterhood with Dess constantly sniping at Hope and Hope’s selfishness.
Despite sounding like an incredibly depressing read from that description, it’s not! Peas and Carrots was a quick, fun read. Hope and Dess both come across as teenage girls and as an adult I kind of wanted to slap them both, but you understand where they’re coming from. This would be a great book to hand to girls who like girl drama and friendship in their books. They get in some funny jabs and Dess is totally bowled over by Hope’s handsome uncle which is hilarious.
I am not wild about the cover. I think it’s not particularly interesting and the font and colors are kind of an odd choice, BUT it did make me check my biases! I assumed that Dess, the foster girl, was the black girl (the description from Goodreads above was not the one I had read) on the cover. Ouch.
As always, Davis has delivered a fantastic book about family, friendship and finding yourself.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Aug 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I did a fair amount of reading this summer for fun and wanted to get some quick thoughts up about the books I read. The following books are from the upper end of what I read.
I had really mixed feelings about this one mostly because of my own personal reading preferences. While reading the book I was totally into it. The writing was wonderful and the story engaging. I liked the characters. But, it’s essentially a romance and I’m not feeling romances right now. Maybe on a less personal-preference note, why do all these books have to have a romance in them? Maybe I’m just an old married lady, but do teens want romance in everything? (This is definitely a teen book with an attempted rape or two.) I think the story would have been plenty interesting enough without the romance in it. Two girls, one Asian, one black, trying to make it across the U.S. during the period of Western Expansion? That’s a good story with a lot of problems without the complication of love and squishy feelings. Still, while I was reading it I really enjoyed it. Well worth adding to a library collection or simply picking up to read. Also the cover is beautiful.
I absolutely love this series. It’s a fun, quick mystery with some other interesting character development going on. Mary is half Lascar, but can pass as white and often does. She was also orphaned very young and has a checkered past that’s given her a lot of baggage. I thought this was a great conclusion to the series and read it in day. The question is, why do I accept the romance in this one, but not other books? I don’t know. I suspect because despite some of the issues they tackle these books are lighter in tone. It’s also definitely not a focus, but still a major plot point, if that makes any sense at all. Lee obviously has a love of this time period and I would give the series to any middle or high schooler who likes Victorian England and mysteries.
Jane Eyre is my all-time favorite book. I reread it once every year or so and still love it after reading it the first time my freshman year of high school. The Cottage in the Woods is Jane Eyre meets fractured fairy tales. It is beautifully written and just really well imagined and executed. That being said at 400 pages and with a younger feel with the fantasy/fairy tale aspect it might have a niche audience. Still, it’s brilliant and everyone should read it.
I love novels in verse and this one didn’t disappoint. We picked up a copy at ALA in June and talked a bit with Nelson (she was delightful). Apparently she lived in Sacramento and, according to her book more than once, which added a nice personal connection. This is a memoir of her childhood growing up moving around the country as an Air Force family and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights Movement. I think her personal awareness of the time period really adds something to the history and I think the book would make a great read aloud or read together for any class that studies it.
Another great novel in verse from Marilyn Nelson. We got the ARC of this at ALA and I wanted to preview it before I passed it on to any of the kids in my lower school library. American Ace covers some of the history of the Tuskegee Airmen through a boy who has learned that his grandfather was not actually his grandfather. There is both the history of the Airmen and a lot of personal details about how Connor and his family take this news. I think we skipped this bit of history when I took American history THREE TIMES. Jeez, Louise. That’s ridiculous. Let’s get wonderful books like this into kids hands so we don’t have to rely on textbooks to give us a broad picture of our history. The book is totally appropriate for upper elementary (simply based on reading level) on up into high school.
Holy crap this book was so, so good. It’s also incredibly violent. But so, so good. Larbalestier can write. She really brought the neighborhood to life and it’s a character of its own in the book. There is a lot of tension and suspense, but there is a ton of character development. And these characters are damaged. Their baggage drives the story as much as the action does. I love ghost stories too and the addition of Kelpie’s ability to see ghosts was My one “complaint” was that I didn’t realize it takes place over the course of one day.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 25, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Our story. Our way.
I would have loved this book in my early twenties. I probably would have wanted to copy the idea of combining poetry and art. That isn’t to say I don’t like it now. I loved it now, I just wish I had had it back then too.
Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin were college roommates who were lucky enough to become close friends. When they got out of college they moved to New York together where life was not easy. This cemented their relationship even more.
Together they put together this slim book that combines poems written by Reynolds and art done by Griffin. The art and poems weave beautifully together to tell the story of how hard those first years out of college were and how hard it is to be young adult. I could certainly connect with their fears and anxieties about not knowing if they would make rent, worrying that they had made poor career choices, and wanting to find somewhere to belong. This is the book I would give to someone graduating from college. It so perfectly captures that weird stage between the relative safety of college and the time when you can look back and realize you’re really an adult making it in life. It’s also a wonderful glimpse into how strong the friendships and relationships you make at this stage in your life are. I think older high schoolers might find comfort in it too knowing that it’s okay for them not to figure it all out in college. Certainly the book skews toward a more middle class experience, but I don’t know what kind of SES either Reynolds or Griffin came from. Reynolds finished his college degree, but Griffin did not and he talks very honestly in the opening and ending of the books (two dual voice longer poems) about that decision and the doubts he had about it. I think it’s refreshing to see a perspective that didn’t take the college path and still managed to turn out just fine.
I know there is all kinds of vitriol about the new adult label, and I agree that it’s silly that it’s essentially come to mean steamy YA, but this is really what new adult is and should be. It’s a book about how difficult and confusing life can be after college. Especially since you’re sort of expected to strike out on your own (only failures live at home! which is of course not true at all) and know exactly what you’re doing. I’m really glad Reynolds and Griffin put their difficult experiences out there for others to draw comfort and strength from.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: A lot of the stuff that gives my neighborhood a bad name, I don’t really mess with. The guns and drugs and all that, not really my thing.
Nah, not his thing. Ali’s got enough going on, between school and boxing and helping out at home. His best friend Noodles, though. Now there’s a dude looking for trouble—and, somehow, it’s always Ali around to pick up the pieces. But, hey, a guy’s gotta look out for his boys, right? Besides, it’s all small potatoes; it’s not like anyone’s getting hurt.
And then there’s Needles. Needles is Noodles’s brother. He’s got a syndrome, and gets these ticks and blurts out the wildest, craziest things. It’s cool, though: everyone on their street knows he doesn’t mean anything by it.
Yeah, it’s cool…until Ali and Noodles and Needles find themselves somewhere they never expected to be…somewhere they never should’ve been—where the people aren’t so friendly, and even less forgiving.
Another winner from Jason Reynolds. Clearly he likes to write stories that take place in Bed Stuy. Reynolds is really good at creating a sense of place. He describes the setting so well it’s easy to picture yourself standing around seeing the neighborhood. And part of the setting are the neighbors. There is always mention of the people who live around the neighborhood and around the main characters of the book and they really help bring the story to life.
When I Was Greatest was actually pretty exciting, not something I always expect from realistic fiction. Even though the trouble Ali and Noodles get into doesn’t happen until relatively late in the book (maybe a little past half way through) you just know it’s coming and you can’t help wanting to tell them what a bad idea their plan to go to this party is. But the beauty of the story is when Ali reflects back on whose fault everything is and he takes as much blame as he places on Noodles. As an adult reading it (and probably teens will pick up on this too) there isn’t really any one person to blame. Plus they’re 15, they make bad choices sometimes, but those shouldn’t have to place them in the danger they find themselves in.
When I Was Greatest is less introspective than The Boy in the Black Suit, but Ali and Matt have their thoughtfulness in common. Greatest is a lot more about the friendship between Ali and Noodles and Needles and their brotherhood. There are also themes of parent-child relationships and Ali’s relationship with his sister which contrasts with the sibling relationship between Noodles and Needles. This would be a great book for boys to pick up, but anyone interested in more contemporary, urban fiction should give Reynolds a try. At 230 pages I’m not sure it’s exactly the book for reluctant readers, but it’s exciting enough that they might stick with it. Plus the dialog and setting might draw in readers (this is no Victorian classic).
If I have one quibble it’s with the cover. First of all there is a gun in the story, but I wouldn’t say it has an especially prominent or important role. Not particularly. I would have suggested some boxing gloves. But really the yarn covering the gun is crocheted and Needles knits. A minor quibble, but a quibble nonetheless.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Matt wears a black suit every day. No, not because his mom died—although she did, and it sucks. But he wears the suit for his gig at the local funeral home, which pays way better than the Cluck Bucket, and he needs the income since his dad can’t handle the bills (or anything, really) on his own. So while Dad’s snagging bottles of whiskey, Matt’s snagging fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad. But everything else? Not good. Then Matt meets Lovey. She’s got a crazy name, and she’s been through more crazy than he can imagine. Yet Lovey never cries. She’s tough. Really tough. Tough in the way Matt wishes he could be. Which is maybe why he’s drawn to her, and definitely why he can’t seem to shake her. Because there’s nothing more hopeful than finding a person who understands your loneliness—and who can maybe even help take it away.
I know some people really hate when reviewers say a protagonist is relatable, especially when they are non white, because it implies that only likable characters are worth reading about and as if white audiences will only read books about people of color if they can relate. I get it, but I’m going to describe Matt as relatable. And not because he’s a decent kid living in a bad neighborhood. He’s relatable because he’s pretty average. He does fine in school; he has a two parent household; he lives in a house; he has a best friend; and he likes girls. Obviously these things don’t describe all kids, but it was refreshing to read a story about a kid who was coping with his grief, but was otherwise unremarkable and hadn’t been dealt six other horrific and terrible things that he had to work through.
I read another review of the book that thought it was creepy and weird that Matt decides he likes sitting in on funerals, but I completely disagree. Matt is grieving for his mother and he finds solace in knowing he isn’t the only person hurting. Matt’s sitting in on funerals isn’t about a fixation with death, just an inability to move on in his grieving process and a part of that process. As I said, Matt is an average guy and the whole funeral thing doesn’t consume his life nor is it an indication of anything but his mourning process. When he meets Lovey at her grandmother’s funeral she doesn’t seem to be hurting the way he is and that draws him to her. He thinks she holds some magic key to letting grief go. Ultimately it’s the fact that she is and isn’t hurting that helps Matt learn how to move past deep sadness. She is a good friend and great relationship for him to cultivate at the right time and I think that’s a really powerful message and example.
Reynolds can clearly write. The book was fantastic. He even managed to pull off something I find incredibly irritating, which is using slang in dialog. Oftentimes you have slang that contrasts with the narrative prose of the rest of the book and it feels awkward. Not so here. Reynolds has also created characters that are so easy to want to get to know and that you root for. There was also a twist that I didn’t see coming. Not a twist like a murder mystery, but some plot lines converged in a surprising and unexpected way that was jarring and awesome at the same time.
I think high schoolers, and even middle schoolers, will simply like Matt and they will understand what he’s struggling with. They’ll connect with his story and want to follow him through his grief out to the other side where he can live his life. Based purely on setting I would give this to fans of How It Went Down, but The Boy in the Black Suit is a book about a normal kid having a hard time coping with something that gutted him. While not every kid loses a parent so young, every kid understands both how hard that could be and how one thing can change everything for you. Give this to kids who like character-driven realistic fiction that feels modern and fresh.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 17, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.
Book One spans John Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins, building to a stunning climax on the steps of City Hall.
This is such an amazing history book. I was not familiar with who John Robert Lewis is or his role in the Civil Rights Movement, but I was aware of the lunch counter sit-ins. I know I rant about this all the time, but our history classes, if they even get as far as the 60s (because I never had a history class make it past 1945), tend to gloss over a lot and Martin Luther King, Jr. is the primary focus of these cursory Civil Rights studies. He was certainly important, but there was A LOT going on at the time.
March does an incredible job of weaving Lewis’s personal history in with the history of the movement. In doing this the book becomes incredibly accessible. You don’t have to know much if anything about the era or Civil Rights. It’s all so seamlessly woven in and told through Lewis’s life story. He lived the discrimination. He lived the frustration. And he lived the decision to take a stand and break down barriers for people of color.
I would love to see this book taught in a history class. It would be awesome to use it in conjunction with other texts about the Civil Rights Movement. Not to mention the graphic novel format makes it a lot more accessible and interesting than any text book. The art is wonderful as is the storytelling and it completely brings the story and history alive right before your eyes.
There have been a lot of books recently published that tackle the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and while many of them are excellent, this is a shining example as well as one of the few intended for older audiences.