A Light in the Darkness

29436571March: Book Three, by John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell (2016)

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a book on Goodreads with a higher rating than this one (4.7/5 stars), but that’s not why I read the conclusion to John Lewis’ March trilogy this weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a book win so many awards, (4 at ALA’s Youth Media Awards announced last week and the National Book Award last year) but that wasn’t why I read it either.

I read it because I needed some hope.

When earlier this week, I opened a new box of books at school, I breathed a sigh of relief to find March among them. It’s been a rough week, hasn’t it? It’s hard to not feel hopeless every time I turn on the news or scroll through my social media feeds, and after getting a little less sleep than normal due to my husband’s knee surgery on Monday, by this weekend, I was feeling weighed down. Hearing from one of our country’s leading civil rights activists who has really been through it all, that’s what I needed.

If you’ve read the first two volumes of March, you know what to expect in this one. The third volume picks up with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, when four young girls died and dozens more were injured. It then carries through the assassinations of JFK and Malcolm X, the killings of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, Freedom Summer (with the major push to register black voters in Alabama), and culminating with the marches in Selma. It’s a dark story, darker than the first two for sure. There were more than a few scenes that make my neck prickle at purchasing this for middle school.

But there’s no way I can let this one stay off the shelves. There’s too many important things in these pages, things that I don’t think my students are aware of. I know before reading the first March, I had very little knowledge of John Lewis and the incredible role he has played in our country’s history (and modern politics),  and I was raised in a much more diverse population. It seems as though we teach about MLK, Rosa Parks, maybe Malcolm X in more liberal classrooms, but that’s about the extent of it. The fact that Lewis chose to tell his story through graphic format is genius. Not only does it meet students where they are (in the graphic novel section), but also it brings the reality of the horror of our nation’s past to very bright light. And the thing is, it doesn’t take much to see how relevant this story from 50 years ago is in our current situation.

The thing that I think makes this book so powerful, though, is what I mentioned at the beginning: the hope. Lewis does not shy away from the violence, from the language, from the very real darkness he lived through. But interspersed with that darkness are scenes from Inauguration Day in 2009, when President Obama took office. These little glimpses show us that despite all the terror Lewis has witnessed, he knows the value, the purpose, the goal and that it’s all worth it. He knows that those terrible years in the 60s were just the beginning of a lifetime of hard struggle (as is evidenced in his 30 years in U.S. Congress so far), and yet he’s not giving up. He’ll keep doing the work, and so can we. As sad as I am that Obama is no longer in Washington, I can remain hopeful, because Lewis is. And even when he finally does take a well-deserved rest, there will be others there, maintaining the fight.

3 stars, Mr. Lewis.

2016 Wrap Up

If you rely on Facebook for news, it would appear as though 2016 was a pretty terrible year… fierce and ugly politics, incredible social injustice, environmental devastation, and emotional celebrity deaths… the list goes on an on. Maybe that’s why this year has been my most read year since I started keeping track at age 11. When the world is scary, it only makes sense to me to turn to books — not only to hide in the pages, but to remind me of our pure humanity and connection to each other. Each of us are just living out our stories the best we can. It’s hard to hate each other when we remember that. That being said, here’s my 2016 run-down…

  • Total books read: 112 (click the link to see the full list with ratings)
  • Favorite book read this year: Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary Schmidt
  • Number of fiction books read: 98
  • Number of non-fiction books read: 14
  • Number of adult books read: 13
  • Number of YA books read: 51
  • Number of Children’s/Middle Grade books read: 48
  • Number of audiobooks listened to: 38
  • Number of graphics read: 18

A Beautiful Gift for a Sad Anniversary

All We Have Left, by Wendy Mills (2016)

Opening line: “Travis draws my face into his chest as the smoke engulfs us.”

That opener gives you an idea of the intensity of this book. Wooo boy.

The smoke that main character Alia is referring to is the smoke from the burning floors above her and near-stranger Travis where a Boeing 767 crashed into 1 World Trade Center. The date, of course, is September 11th, 2001, and America as Alia knows it, is about to change. She was never meant to be at the WTC, but after a terrible fight with her mother, Alia’s only chance at getting into an incredible summer art program to develop her passion for drawing (specifically, drawing her kickass Muslim girl superhero comics), is to skip first period and head to visit her dad at work to convince him to sign the permission form. Only, when she gets there, her Ayah isn’t at his desk, and on her way back down, there’s an ominous explosion, and the elevator suddenly stops working.

Meanwhile, we also hear the story of Jesse, living fifteen years later. Jesse’s just trying to survive high school with her three best friends, while being as invisible as possible at home where her parents have not moved on from her brother’s death on that fateful September day when Jesse was just a baby. Jesse’s father, in particular, has spiraled into a raging alcoholic, angry at the world — and particularly all the Muslims in said world, who are responsible for his son’s death (in his eyes). But things start to shift for Jesse when cool, edgy Nick starts to take notice of her and invites her into a dark web of tagging buildings, something that starts as an adrenaline rush, but culminates into hateful graffiti.

This novel will keep readers at the edge of their seats, not only with the intensity of all that is happening on that terrible day in Alia’s world, but also with the regular shifting of perspectives and time periods. The pacing of the chapters was on point, and just when I felt the need to get back to the other character, Mills seemed to anticipate that and POOF, chapter end. I was swept up in both the girls’ stories — Alia’s a little more so, due to the obvious magnitude of her situation — and felt desperate to catch up to the little snapshot the prologue gave to both their narratives.

While there were some bits that felt unrealistic (some of Jesse’s moments with Dave, the resolution of the story), there were a lot of parts that felt incredibly authentic (Jesse’s whirlwind involvement with Nick and his dangerous friends, Jesse’s girl gang, Alia’s short moments with her older brother before school and her inner monologue upon first meeting Travis, Jesse’s visit to the 9/11 museum). Here’s what I think about this book on a whole: It captured me and brought me right back to that day, giving me all the “remember where I was” feelings that accompany any mention of September 11th. But I also felt like it does an excellent job of making it real for all of those teenagers who weren’t alive yet in 2001, or were just tiny babes like Jesse. The author mentions in an interview she did with The New York Times that when her teenage son finished reading the novel, he asked her, “Did all that stuff really happen?” I’m guessing for today’s teens reading about September 11th is similar to how I feel when I read about the Titanic. It seems too dramatic to be real. But it was. So very real. Mills also does an excellent job (I think) of representing Islam to unfamiliar readers. Especially at a time when our President-elect is someone who wants to restrict the immigration rights of all Muslims, we need so many more stories that show the truth of Islam among all the misinformation and misconception. I’m not sure how Mills did her research on this part, but her execution felt spot-on (to this non-Muslim reader).

I want to give this book to all my students. It would probably help if I’d stop hoarding it on my bed table and get it back to school. It also made me want to read all the other 9/11 fiction that’s come out this year, although it sets quite the precedent.

2.5 stars

A search for peace among war

51pf6phqmrlPax, by Sara Pennypacker (2016)

Opening line: “The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first.”

Get ready for a heart-breaker, friends.

Years ago, while playing in the woods, Peter stumbled across a dead mother fox and her litter of pups, all but one of whom were also dead. The tiniest one was somehow surviving, and Peter brought him home and named him Pax. Since that moment, the two, boy and fox, were inseparable. But now war is upon them, and Peter’s father is joining the effort, meaning that Peter must go live with his grandfather, where Pax is not allowed. Heartbroken, but seeing no other option, he releases him into the wild, where he hopes he will be safe. Pax, of course, doesn’t understand, and plans to wait until his boy returns. But when hunger sets in and danger lurks, that plan isn’t quite so easy.

Meanwhile, the moment Peter arrives at his grandfather’s, he knows he made a mistake leaving Pax behind. He will know no peace until he finds Pax again. So he sets out in the middle of the night, planning to hike the couple hundred miles back to where he left his fox. As you might imagine, things go array pretty quickly.

The chapters switch back and forth between Peter’s story and Pax’s, as both are desperate to reunite with the other. The alternating perspectives spur the story forward, allowing the reader to feel that desperation as well. Those who loved One and Only Ivan will love Pax as well, and it is well-deserving of its spot on the NBA Young People’s Literature longlist for 2016.

2 stars

 

 

My first challenge?

The 13th Floor, by Scott R. Welvaert (2015) 414c4elowpl-_sx349_bo1204203200_

Opening line: “Sam Wentworth hated moving.”

I brought this one home to read after an angry parent threatened to call the district office yesterday. Fortunately, I had no part of that conversation (the school psychiatrist brought it to my attention, and he was just lovely about it), but I’m holding my breath to see if it will develop into anything. The book is part of the Tartan House series, and I bought it last year when trying to build up the hi/lo collection of our library. And on that note, it fulfills its goal entirely. Rated at a 4th-5th grade reading level with fewer than 100 pages, this one is definitely high interest, especially for kids who are gamers or like watching gory movies.  It captured my attention, and I flew through it in under an hour.

Sam is new at school and falls in with the popular kids over their mutual love of video games. When one of the guys gets a bootlegged copy of The 13th Floor game (which is evidently banned in the US), they all become so immersed, they can’t escape, and it begins to take over their lives. The game IS really gory. Set in an abandoned insane asylum, there are blood and guts everywhere. I can understand the parent’s disgust. However, it does exactly what it set out to do, which is engage reluctant readers to keep flipping the pages. I don’t know. I think I could argue its merit if this actually becomes a challenge, but we shall see. Sigh…and just over a week until Banned Books Week…

Oh, did I mention that the moral of the story is anti-bullying? It was a little heavy-handed, but I guess another point in my anti-censorship campaign.

1 star

Finding truth while being lost

51w1vnrjk9lThe Distance Between Lost and Found, by Kathryn Holmes (2015)

Opening line: “The laughter starts as a low murmur.”

Hallelujah Calhoun has found herself back at a church youth camp, after an extended absence from all youth group activities. Although the reader isn’t clear about what happened exactly, we know that it involved the preacher’s son, Luke, and extremely disappointed parents. We know that since, Hallie has quit choir, has lost her friends, and has retreated inside herself. But now she’s back at camp, hiking through the Smokey Mountains, and every moment in the same vicinity as Luke and his cohort is excruciating.

There is a new girl at camp, however, named Rachel, who is outgoing and attempts to befriend Hallie. When she and Rachel and Jonah (Hallie’s friend prior to the Luke incident) find themselves separated from the hiking group, Rachel is insistent in hiking back to camp, and Hallie and Jonah agree to go with her. But when they reach a Y in the trail, they choose the wrong path, and soon are completely lost. Day turns to night turns to morning and night again, and days  go by without any sign of rescue. Before long, their situation turns dangerous, and they have to rely on each other entirely if they are going to have any hope for survival.

I struggled to get into this one. I found myself dreading finding out what actually happened between Hallie and Luke, while I was simultaneously somewhat bored by the tedium of their being lost in the woods. Nothing was particularly wrong with the novel, I just wasn’t immersed. But THEN, for the last 150 pages, I simply could not put it down. The intensity of their situation picks up, we finally hear the full story of “the incident” (don’t worry middle school librarians, it’s early-teen friendly, and even a healthy way for teens to explore early romantic pressures), and we are able to see some hope among their desperation.

Hallie’s story is wonderfully relateable, and I will definitely recommend it to my kiddos.

2 stars

ReadUp RunDown!

20160806_185340[1]Today I was so excited to be able to attend Greenville’s inaugural YA/middle grade lit festival, ReadUp Greenville, and I just had the best Saturday. We live about 40 minutes away from G-ville, which seems to be the perfect distance to the “big city.” (I’m a big fan of this “big city”, btdub. It’s small and lively and beautiful and friendly and there are dogs everywhere.) It was also lovely that the fest
didn’t start too early, so I still got to sleep in. Thanks, guys. 20160806_155656[1]

So this festival got together 25+ authors and put on 3 keynotes, 9 multi-author panels, bunches of book signings, AND an ice cream social. And most of the events (including the ICE CREAM) were completely free to the public. I mean, come on. Whoa.

Personally, I sat in on “First Years This Way: The Necessary Harry Potter Panel” with Cassie BeasleyTerra Elan McVoyBrendan Reichs, and Maya Van Wagenen; the Holly Goldberg Sloan 20160806_133449[1]afternoon keynote, where I learned she wrote the movie Angels in the Outfield with my heartthrob (“I called him Joey… other people call him Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I guess.” Presh.) and where she passed out fresh copies of her brand new ARC, Short; the “Magic: The Gathering(TM)” session, with three fantasy authors, Cassie 20160806_141852[1]Beasley again, Ryan Graudlin, and Maggie Stiefvater, all three of whom I want to be friends with now; and “A Whole New World,” with three authors who write in a middle eastern setting, Renee Ahdieh, Jessica Khoury, and Aisha Saeed.

There’s something magical about attending literature festivals (or conferences). I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but as author Cassie Beasley mentioned today, festivals are so great, because they are simultaneously fangirl sessions while also showing you that authors are just normal 20160806_145529[1]people. A bunch of the authors are my age, which for some reason makes me want to write again. (By write “again” I mean, for the first time since 9th grade.) It’s like, they’re doing it. I could do it.

Regardless of if this festival forces me to open up a new Word document (or really, Google doc, because who can afford Word?) and pen my first book, there’s something so rejuvenating about lit festivals. Seeing bookish t-shirts, bookish totes, and bookish pins everywhere you look and hearing people laugh and nod at all the bookish references that are casually slipped into talks, just makes me feel like I belong. Despite going to the festival solo, I never felt lonely, because I was totally among my people.

A-Plus, ReadUp Greenville. Three Stars.