Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This is yet another autobiography! This one is about the childhood of Jackie Woodson. These stories are told in a poetic prose that has a certain rhythm and doesn’t follow the conventional style of paragraphs as it seems to have stanzas instead. This memoir follows Jackie through her childhood, as her parents divorce, as they move from Ohio to the South, as they leave her grandparents for New York and details the tragedies and triumphs along the way. It has a sweet voice that shares the pain and joy as only a child can. She explains the racism, the violence, the anger and the stop signs she encountered with an openness and lack of bitterness that is interesting and insightful. She balances the negatives with her family experiences and the love she experienced. I loved this book with the soft rhythm and veins of racism, strength and vitality but I wonder how much of it is lost on a younger reader? They would have no problem “reading” it but would lose so much of the underlying meaning that I’m not sure it’d be worth the read. 

Ages 12-15 

Marshfield Dreams by Ralph Fletcher

This is an autobiographical memoir, so a collection of stories of Ralph as a young boy-from birth to about 11 I'd guess, although I'm not sure of the exact age. It is about life in an Americana that no longer exists, for sure: tales that can only stir the memories of these boys that grew up in Average-Smalltown, USA in the 1950's. I'm not sure how much kids today can relate but it has a very "Stand by Me" quality to it.  I didn't really enjoy it. I wanted it to have a bit more punch to it, be more interesting, have more action, emotion...something. Instead it seemed like a collection of stories from a very average kid. Some people like that, but I want a book to take me away somewhere I want to be and I have never wanted to be a boy or in Average-Smalltown, USA. Ha!

Ages 8-12

El Deafo by Cece Bell

El Deafo is a graphic novel with characters that remind me of Arthur the cartoon from back when my kids were little. I don't think they are weird aardvarks but strange bunnies perhaps? This novel tells the story of a girl Cece who loses her hearing and has to assimilate back into society. It starts by explaining how Cece lost her hearing and the whole book is told by Cece so we get to know her thoughts, fears and questions. It really is an in-depth look at what could go on in the mind of a girl as she tries to find her place in a new school, faces her fears and wonders about how she is perceived. The main character is a deaf girl, but I think most of the questions and thoughts she has about fitting in are universal.  It's an interesting perspective and feels very genuine. It has a babyish quality to it, but I think that enhances the voice, as opposed to muting it (no pun intended).   

Ages 8-12 Newberry Honor

Monday, August 17, 2015

The White Giraffe

The premise of this book is that fate has determined that a girl has magical powers over the animals in Africa and only she can save a magical white giraffe. I have to admit I was not excited about this book. It's just not my type of book.

Basic plot line: Martine, an 11 year old girl in England, loses her parents and has to live with a grandmother she didn't even know who runs a wildlife reserve in Africa. She arrives and her grandmother is cold and she feels a desperate loneliness, although she falls in love with Africa and the richness of life and the variety of animals. She meets a wild woman who tells her she has the gift and eventually she figures out she can save and communicate with animals. Rumors are there is a white giraffe that lives on the reserve that people are trying to capture which she discovers and she has to figure out if she can save, not only the white giraffe, but the reserve itself.

Given that I wasn't excited about this book, it was actually pretty good. You root for the girl and there is a bit of a mystery about who is trying to destroy the reserve and who killed her grandfather, which adds to the excitement. And it is a fantasy for sure, that a little girl can communicate with animals and befriend a giraffe. But it is also heart warming somehow.

Parts that made me a bit crazy were more character development and genre than anything. The girl loses her parents and has to return to a grandmother she doesn't know. The author doesn't seem to genuinely depict the loss a kid feels, but at the same time how do I know and it's a heartbreaking thing so can the book really focus on that? There is a balance between glossing over it and harping on it and all of it seems to be not genuine. That would my biggest gripe about the book.

My other would be that there are several storylines running and it's a lot to absorb and some are stronger than others. Who killed her grandfather? Who is poaching animals? What about the giraffe? Will she ever have a good relationship with her grandmother? What about Tendai? Is he a good person? And what does the wild woman mean? Is Alex helping the reserve or hurting it? Can she heal animals? Are they all resolved in the end?

It is a predictable story with many plot deviations but good for 4th and 5th graders.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Crossover by Kwame Alexander

This is a book written in poem form--it has a rhythm and is set up in stanzas. It is also told by a seventh grade kid so it even kind of reads like a rap. This does two things, it makes you pause and, consequently, read more slowly (which drove me crazy). The pausing helps you to think, but also interrupts the flow making it feel choppy. As I kept reading I did get used to it and it became easier. Initially, however, it was hard for me to really get into it and flow and understand. I wonder how students will react to it?

As for the storyline, it's about a kid, Josh Bell, who plays basketball and is the son of a former NBA player who pushes him pretty hard. He has a big reputation to live up to and his father is constantly pushing him. He also has a twin brother who is also a baller. This is his story of growing up, playing ball and the tragedies in life that push people apart and bring them together. 

It's well told, once you adjust to the rhythm and it made me cry and reread certain areas that were particularly poignant. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Li

This is a story about Minli that is written in a fashion that echoes ancient Chinese tales. The general story is about Minli and her search for an icon that will provide her with the wealth she seeks so that she can finally see her mother happy. Minli’s mother is never happy and bitter that they are barely subsisting on the food and shelter they have. Minli sets off on her quest for wealth without her parents’ knowledge or consent, and they are heartbroken without her. Eventually Minli’s mother comes to the realization that she should not be miserable because they do not have material things and that all that really matters are those that she loves. Meanwhile, Minli, on her voyage, meets various characters who all help her to gain the wealth she seeks, but also help her to grow emotionally as well.

The story of Minli’s journey is interwoven with ancient Chinese tales that are told by various people which influence characters’ choices, particularly Minli and her parents. Minli’s tale is meant to show that wealth is not monetary, but should be measured in love and kindness, as that is all that really matters. It is an interesting book but not quite my genre or style. I found it a bit pedantic and predictable. However, it is a good book for people to read to get a flavor of Chinese folklore.

The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Inning by Alan Gratz

This book is a bit unique in its organization, as it has nine chapters about 9 different characters. Basically The Brooklyn Nine is 9 vignettes. Although the characters are different, the voices all seem genuine and each tale is interesting in it’s own right and the main characters are teenagers but at different times in American history. There are common threads through each chapter; characters are related biologically, items that are significant appear in subsequent chapters, and they all demonstrate a love of baseball and Brooklyn. It is an interesting book that appeals to both genders and shares the perspective of the time periods in a way that is interesting and shares some of the most relevant information of that time.

Grades 3-6

Monday, March 16, 2015

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

This book is a narrative told by a girl who is 11. She is writing it to a person that is unnamed and remains a mystery, until the end.  It is the story of a girl and her friendships, life and growing up. While in the midst of the story, you don’t quite understand all the pieces until the end. It is based in the 70’s and many references the author makes will be lost on kids that read it today. It is, in some ways, an homage to A Wrinkle in Time, and, if you have read that, you will understand more of it the book and some of its references.  If, however, you have not read A Wrinkle in Time and know nothing about the 70’s, the book’s true meaning will be lost. It becomes just another book about friendships and happenstance instead of a book probing the meaning of time and thinking deeply about something.
Grades 5-7 (but perhaps better as an adult quick read?)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Diamond in the Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

In California, Tetsu, a second generation Japanese American, is an average 12 year old American boy who loves baseball and his family. And then Pearl Harbor happened. Tetsu’s family was banished to a Japanese detention camp. This is the story of how he made the awful life he was given in the internment camps feel a bit more normal. He and other families did it through the creation of a baseball diamond where they played baseball. This book showed the humanity and normalcy despite the surroundings. It also revealed the love and pain of being part of a family and the choices we make as children, as his choices affected his sister’s choices. Then his guilt and reactions altered his choices and impacted his friends. The story of his experience at the camps is a powerful tale.

I liked this book because it dealt with the awful treatment of Japanese people by the American government honestly and without pulling punches. It also showed the beauty of these same Japanese that had been so poorly treated. That is what was difficult for me about this book. These people were badly mistreated and they still considered themselves American and loved their country. I loved this book because of it’s honesty and because it also made me angry.  This outrage is useful because if I felt it, hopefully others do as they read it.