Taking me back to GH

33004289Solo, by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess (2017)

Opening line: “There’s this dream / I’ve been having / about my mother / that scares / the holy night / out of me”

Ever since reading The Crossover, I’m pretty much willing to read anything Kwame Alexander has written. That book was SO deserving of its Newbery Medal. The language that bounded off the page, the basketball lingo to hook the reluctant boy readers, the heart that just exploded all over the page… Sheesh, I can hand that to any student and feel confident about it.

So when I saw Kwame had a YA novel coming out, I was requesting it from the library as soon as I could. And then when I realized half of it takes place in Ghana, I was PUMPED. For those of you who don’t know, I spent four months studying abroad in Ghana my senior year of college, and it’s a small enough place off most people’s vacation travel radar that I don’t get to talk about it very often (although those who know me may say I bring it up whenever an opportunity presents itself). But we’ll get back to Ghana in a minute.

First, let me give you the premise: Blade Morrison is the teenage son of washed up rock’n’roller Rutherford Morrison, who has a hard time staying sober ever since his wife, Blade’s mother, died years ago. Blade has inherited Rutherford’s musical talent and is quite the songwriter/guitarist himself. But when Rutherford crashes Blade’s salutatorian speech at graduation by riding in on a motorcycle and literally crashing into the stage, and a fight with his big sister, Storm, erupts because of it, Blade learns that his musical talent is not genetic. The Morrisons adopted Blade when he was just a baby. The mother he’s loved and lost is not his biological mother.

As it turns out, Blade’s biological mother is doing service work halfway around the world in small villages in Ghana (yesssssss). Feeling lost and alone, Blade decides he needs to find her. Off he sets, and hellllooo favorite half of the book.

Let me just tell you, for those of you who haven’t been to Ghana, Kwame’s details of Blade’s experience of the country are PERFECTION. It felt like I was straight back there with all the smells, tastes, views, and heat rising right off the page. There’s this one poem, “On the way to the village we pass” that I basically wrote in duplicate on my study abroad blog in 2009 (he probably used that as his inspiration, most likely).

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(But seriously. The last sentence of my blog post reads, “Who needs a mall? Just get stuck in traffic for a couple hours and you’re all set.”)

In any case, the second half of the book could have been complete garbage and I wouldn’t have much cared, being thrilled as I was to soak up all the Ghana talk. But of course, it wasn’t garbage. Far from garbage. Just when you think you know where the plot is going, it shifts. Each time you have settled yourself on what to think about a situation or a character, he forces you to reexamine it. And, like always, the heart just pours off the page. That’s how I can best describe his writing: so incredibly full of heart.

Being clearly in the YA camp, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a good fit for my middle school library, but I think I’m going to go ahead and buy it. There’s discussion of drugs/alcohol/sex, but none of that happens on camera so to speak, and none at all with the protagonist, so I think it’s safe. Plus, the good of it blows any hesitance I have out of the water. It will be a great next step to give to 8th graders who I have hooked on a his previous novels in verse.

2.5 stars. Pure Ghana love.

Oh, and in case you were curious about what I looked like with fully braided extensions, here is that. When in Ghana.

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A haunting history

31451001Crossing Ebenezer Creek, by Tonya Bolden (2017)

Opening line: “In a southeast Georgia swamp, when a driving rain drenches an early December day, bald cypresses seem to screech, tupelos to shriek, Ebenezer Creek to moan.”

Wow. This one… just wow.

Crossing Ebenezer Creek tells the story of Mariah and a group of slaves who are freed by members of the Union Army in their march south with General W. T. Sherman. One of the men with the Union soldiers is Caleb, an African American who was born free, after his parents bought their freedom before his birth. He is working with the army, helping with repairing and building bridges, repairing wagons, and foraging for supplies in abandoned plantations. In conversations over campfires on the march toward Savannah, Caleb and Mariah comfort each other as they share the horrors of their past, and begin to make plans for the future, perhaps together. Caleb dreams of starting a newspaper, keeping a journal throughout the journey to chronicle this important moment in our country’s history. Mariah just dreams of having one acre of her own for her and her young brother Zeke, big enough to plant a garden and live off the land.

But the confederate army is trailing behind them, closer and closer, which leads to a devastating conclusion of their story and a particularly dark moment of the Civil War. I had never heard of what is known as the Betrayal at Ebenezer Creek before this, and found this a beautiful and haunting contribution to YA historical fiction. The narrative and language is a bit more complex than most of the books I buy for my middle schoolers, but will be a great fit for those readers who need a challenge. The nearness of the setting (between Atlanta and Savannah) will bring this story to life for my students too. It certainly did for me. For perhaps the first time, I feel motivated to learn more about this dark era of American history.

2.5 stars.

Back to school love

 

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Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, by John David Anderson (2016)

Opening line: “Rebecca Roudabush has cooties.”

This was the perfect book to read as I went back to school for multiple reasons. First, it reminded me how much of a difference a good teacher can make in the lives of his or her students, and second, how much I love 6th graders.

Told from the perspective of three 6th grade boys, this chronicles a secret mission they embark upon to honor their favorite teacher. A week ago, Ms. Bixby explained to her students that she wouldn’t be finishing the year with them. Having been recently diagnosed with ductal adenocarcinoma, Ms. Bixby and her doctors have decided she needs to focus more on her treatment. The class will have two final weeks with Ms. Bixby and then they will have a final farewell party on her last Friday. But only one week has gone by when their principal meets them in their classroom one morning, explaining that Ms. Bixby had to leave early. She won’t be back for the rest of the year. The class is devastate, none more so than Topher, Brand, and Steve.

And so, the friends decide they will bring Ms. Bixby’s party to her. They learn that she is being moved from their local hospital to a better hospital in Boston on Saturday morning, so their last chance is Friday, which means they will have to skip school to make it happen.

The background of each of the boys’ stories is revealed along the way, showing why Ms. Bixby is so important to each of them individually. Even though the three are best friends, there are things they’ve been hiding from each other, secrets that might pull them apart. But one thing they can definitely all agree on: Ms. Bixby deserves the perfect send off. And they are going to give it to her.

Filled with laughs and heartaches, this story is a must read for teachers, reminding us why we do what we do. Kids will love it too, with the honesty of the 6th grade friendships and family relationships.

Full of heart, 2 stars.

Murderino Mayhem

30037870Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson (2017)

Opening line: “Some children are born bad, plain and simple.”

Ever since a grad school friend visited last month and introduced me to the My Favorite Murder podcast, I’ve been a little true crime crazy. I finally watched The People vs OJ Simpson on Netflix and have been diving into some deep Wikipedia holes. So when Allegedly was selected as our next book club read, I was stoked.

Mary Addison was nine when the infant daughter of her mother’s friend was found murdered in Mary’s home. Mary’s distraught mother told police that Mary and the baby, Alyssa, had been alone in Mary’s room sleeping. But now, baby Alyssa was dead, due to asphyxiation, not to mention the purple bruises covering her tiny body. Something terrible happened, and Mary’s not talking.

The public outrage over the murder quickly convicts young Mary of this horrifying crime, and she is sentenced to six years in “baby jail”, where she ends up spending a lot of time in isolation. when she is released, she is placed on house arrest until age 18 in a group home of other teen girls, who apparently hate her. Part of her sentencing includes daily volunteer hours at a local retirement home, where she has fallen in love with fellow parolee, Ted, and now finds herself with a baby of her own on the way. But she quickly learns that with her criminal history, the state isn’t likely going to let her keep her baby. For Mary, that’s what finally pushes her over the edge. It’s what finally pushes her to tell the truth about what happened that night seven years ago. It’s finally time that everyone knows she didn’t murder baby Alyssa.

The narrative here is incredibly compelling. We’ve got major elements of an unjust criminal justice system, mental illness, abuse, bullying, narcissism and sociopathic tendencies, race, teenage motherhood, and romance. The pages just fly. NOT TO MENTION an unreliable narrator who is clearly not telling us everything. I love stories that aren’t necessarily mysteries (where the characters are trying to solve something) but that the reader has to piece together clues and hints until the real picture unwinds. Gave me memories of Gone Girl and We Were Liars.

Like those two, this also has a twist ending. Unlike those two, this one unfortunately brought the entire thing way down for me. Without going into the specifics so as not to ruin it for you, the last chapter felt like a betrayal of the reader. The author gave us a sharp turn, without giving us the space to accommodate, which left me feeling unseated and disappointed.

Despite the jarring ending, still a worthwhile, disturbing, and quick read for any fans of the genre. 2 stars

 

A Journey of Empathy

Refugee, by Alan Gratz (2017)33118312

Opening line: “CRACK! BANG! Josef Landau shot straight up in bed, his heart racing.”

Guys, I’m so excited to be blogging about this for multiple reasons: First: This book just came out last week, so I’m actually relevant! I feel like I’m usually at least a year behind publication dates when I blog, which most of the the time feels like too little, too late in terms of making a difference in sharing what’s new out there. And now, even though Mr. Schu has been talking this up since about February, I am at least in the realm of recently published, so hooray! Second: Alan Gratz is coming to my school in October and this is one of those books that I think every one of my students (and teachers) should read!

From the title, you can guess the content. This is book is simultaneously three stories of three separate refugee crises and one story of humanity that we need to pay attention to. The first character we’re introduced to is Josef, who is living in Berlin in 1938. His father is captured by the Nazis for continuing to practice law after Jews were forced to quit many lines of work. After several months in Dachau Concentration Camp, his father is released with the understanding that he and his family must leave Germany immediately. And so, they embark on the MS St. Louis, which is transporting hundreds of Jews to Cuba to escape Hitler.

The second story we get is that of Isabel’s, whose family is living in 1994 Havana, Cuba, under the oppressive rule of Fidel Castro. With little money and next to no food, they are barely surviving. After a particularly violent public uprising, Castro lifts his travel ban, allowing any citizens to leave Cuba without punishment. Isabel and her family quickly decide it’s time to take the risk and join their neighbors in a small makeshift boat in a desperate journey to Miami.

Finally, we meet Mahmoud, living in Aleppo, Syria in 2015. Things have gone from bad to worse in Aleppo, and when their apartment building is hit with a missile, completely destroying everything, Mahmoud’s parents decide they cannot stay in Syria any longer. With little money and nothing more than what they can carry in two small backpacks, the family of five set out to journey across nine countries to Germany, who has recently announced they are accepting refugees.

If you were paying attention there, you might start to see how these three separate stories might connect, despite the 77 year and 7000 mile spread. Gratz shifts from story to story at just the right moment, leaving us anxious to keep reading so we can get back to whatever character we just left (and that happens every. time. I never had a good chance to put in my bookmark and leave it for later! Which is why I finished it in less than 24 hours…). Each refugee crisis is brought to life with the lives of these families, and you cannot read them without wanting to change something. While two of the stories are historical fiction, one is still very much a reality for many families. In his author’s note, Gratz provides the websites for two of the organizations he suggests to look into if you too are inspired by Mahmoud’s story: UNICEF (which will receive a portion of the proceeds for every copy of Refugee that is sold) and Save the Children.

The power of books is to build empathy, and this book does just that. 3 stars

A new fairy tale to tell

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill (2016)

Opening line: “Yes. There is a witch in the woods.”

I realize I’m a little late to the reviewing game on this one, seeing that big shiny gold medal in the corner of the cover, but I can’t help but talk about it. And there may still be a few readers out there like me who haven’t picked it up yet! That shiny gold medal can be a divisive one for readers… some will automatically gravitate toward award winners, because they know they have been thoroughly vetted by a group of knowledgeable people. Others, though, will particularly avoid Newbery medalists (in particular), because they have had a bit of a reputation in the past for not choosing readable books for kids. They might be literary gems, but aren’t engaging for the relevant audience of (typically) middle grade readers. That seems to have changed in the past several years though, with the likes of The CrossoverLast Stop on Market Streetand of course, One and Only Ivan (which I can literally give to any student and know it will be a positive experience). I’m not sure where this year’s winner will fall in that spectrum, but I’m sure going to try to make it be one of those that kids will devour too.

This one reads like a delicious fairy tale, one that has dark and twisty edges like “Hansel and Gretel” or “Rumpelstiltskin”, rather than “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, for instance. In the village known as the Protectorate, villagers know that every year on the Day of Sacrifice, the youngest baby in the Protectorate will be taken out into the woods to be left for the witch. Because of this annual tragedy, a cloud of sorrow hangs over the village, although the parents of the sacrificed baby have always willingly complied. Until this year, that is. This year, the youngest baby’s mother is driven mad with grief, and is locked in a tower in the center of the Protectorate to live out her days. Her baby is taken to the clearing in the woods and left for dead. Here’s the really grim part: the leaders of the Protectorate know the witch story is just made up. They know the baby is likely just eaten by wild animals or dies of starvation or thirst. The Day of Sacrifice is a tool of manipulation, one meant to keep the people in line.  Yikes.

HOWEVER! There IS a witch in the woods! And she DOES come to get the babies each year! Of course, this witch is a good witch who has no idea why these infants are being left in the woods. She’s practical though, and when she sees a problem (particularly one like an innocent babe being left to fend for itself in the woods), she’s apt to solve it. So every year, she embarks on a journey through the deep and dangerous forest to retrieve the child and take it across the world to the Free Cities where she finds a loving adoptive family to raise it. On the journey, she typically feeds the baby starlight, giving them a little magical glow that stays with them for the rest of their lives. But this year, this baby, she accidentally feeds her with moonlight. And it turns out moonlight gives you more than a magical glow. It gives you MAGIC. Babies aren’t supposed to be enmagicked because they can’t control it, so the witch decides to adopt the baby herself to look after her. Add in a sweet swamp monster and a tiny dragon who thinks he’s huge, and we’ve got the beginnings of a fantastic fairytale.

The layers to this tale are complex and suspenseful, and the narrator’s language made me want to read this aloud. (I did. I did read it aloud. To my dog.) I think this would be a great classroom novel that could also be used in short chunks to discuss mood, tone, or word choice. I don’t think that every middle grade reader is going to love this one if tackling it on their own (like Crossover or Ivan), but maybe that’s another reason why it’s special. It has a special reader in mind.

2.5 stars

 

 

A Romeo & Juliet for the modern American scene… without the daggers and poison of course.

 

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Something In Between, by Melissa de la Cruz (2016)

Opening line: “First you have to hollow out.”

Jasmine is starting her senior year and things are working out perfectly. She’s captain of the cheer team, she’s on the road to valedictorian, she met a cute boy at the hospital where she volunteers, and her school counselor just gave her the best news ever: she’s won a highly prestigious award, the National Scholarship Program, which will pay for her entire college career at any school of her choice. She can’t wait to get home to tell her parents, but when she does, they don’t react the way she expects. After all, she didn’t expect them to have even bigger news.

Jasmine isn’t going to be able to accept the scholarship, her parents tell her, because she doesn’t have the necessary documents. In fact, she doesn’t have any documents. The green cards Jasmine believed her family had are fictitious. Jasmine’s family moved to America from the Philippines when she was nine, and California is the only home she really remembers. But after their temporary work visas ran out and their green cards fell through, they’ve been secretly flying under the radar. With Jasmine starting to apply to colleges, though, under the radar isn’t going to be an option too much longer. Now what?

To add to the stress level, enter in Royce Blakely, aforementioned cute boy, who Jasmine quickly falls head over heels for. The sweetness and kissing in their romance is definitely swoonworthy and sent my old-married-lady heart a twittering. The only problem is, Royce is the son of Senator Blakely, the California congressman who is leading the crusade against the new immigration bill that would allow her family to reapply for green cards and, eventually, citizenship. The Blakelys represent everything her family is not: wealthy, well-connected, blonde Americans. Jas is sure their relationship — and likely her future as an American citizen — is doomed.

I loved the complexity the author brings to what might otherwise be a sweet, light-hearted teen romance. She’s definitely brought the romance — mild enough for middle school libraries, but knee-weakening enough for YA romance fans — and there is so much MORE to dig into as well. The story of the undocumented immigrant family is relevant and timely and offers a very different picture of what that means than many readers may be familiar with. Additionally, the relationships Jasmine has with her family is fantastic. I LOVE the dialogue that happens in Jasmine’s house, particularly with Jasmine’s father. His one-liners had me cracking up! (In fact, these family relationships reminded me of the ones in The Hate U Giveanother one I loved this year.)

Finally, I loved all the quotes de la Cruz provided at the beginning of each chapter to kind of set the tone. I was amazed at how apt they all seemed to be, and have added some new favorites to my list.

2.5 stars.