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).

IMG_20170906_185418

(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.

Advertisements

Back to school love

 

27064348

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

 

28688476

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.

 

MG GNs Roundup

Summertime is always the time when I catch up on stuff that I’ve bought for school over the past year that I’ve been meaning to read, but haven’t gotten the chance, and graphic novels tend to be a huge part of that. I have really prioritized building my school library’s graphic novel section since I got there two years ago, because when I arrived, the graphic novels were still lost on a lone shelf in the 741 section of the non-fiction, where they couldn’t be found or loved. Now, the two bays I dedicated for them when I arrived are bursting at the seams (once I got them all returned at the end of the year), and although about half of them are circulating at any given time, I’m starting to eye some other areas where I can expand even more. This spring I specifically targeted the manga collection (Japanese comics) and the kids were so excited. I’ll definitely be buying more of those this year.

In any case, here’s a selection of some of the MG GNs (middle grade graphic novels, for those of you not deeply rooted in library land) I’ve been catching up on this summer:

 

28508624

Ghosts, by Raina Telgemeier (2016)

I definitely had to wait for summer to read this one, because ever since I bought three copies of it for the library, it hasn’t stayed on the shelf for more than 24 hours (you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not). Cat’s family had moved to northern CA, a climate better for her little sis’s cystic fibrosis, but this town seems to be a little too paranormal for Cat’s comfort level… As always, Raina’s colors are vibrant and sister relationships are spot on. Fun and quick. Not my favorite of Raina’s, but a sure hit with all her fans. 2 stars

Fish Girl, by David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli (2017)30971730

Obviously we all love David Wiesner’s picture books, right? I did a David Wiesner unit with third graders when I was student teaching, and we had a wonderful time dissecting all the illustrations to try to figure out what was going on. Now that he’s teamed up with veteran MG/YA author Donna Jo Napoli, we get a graphic novel that is a little more flushed out than his picture books, although it still leaves a lot of room for the imagination. Fish Girl tells the story of a young mermaid who lives in a boardwalk aquarium attraction with little to no memory of how she ended up there. When a curious visitor starts to connect to and communicate with her, Fish Girl starts to realize that there is a big world beyond her aquarium walls, and Neptune, the owner of the aquarium, is really more of a captor than a father figure. She must decide if she is able — and willing — to break free to live in an unknown world. 2 stars

30652105One Trick Pony, by Nathan Hale (2017)

Our students already known and love Nathan Hale from his Hazardous Tales history graphic novels. Now he brings them out of the past and into the future in this dystopian imagining of what our world will be like when the aliens invade, seeking out our energy sources and basically destroying our world in the process. (Although, let’s be honest, we won’t need aliens to mess up our energy sources. We’re quite capable of that all on our own.) Hale maintains his tradition of shades of gray with one color mixed in, which paints a fairly bleak picture of the future. But it’s also a fascinating one. The main character’s family is part of a caravan, constantly on the move to stay away from the aliens. This is because they are the protectors of all the digital information they’ve been able to gather, and their mission is to protect humankind’s history. I’m all about a kid’s sci-fi GN with the message of the value of information and our duty to protect it. 2.5 stars

The Nameless City, by Faith Erin Hicks (2016)25332000

Kai is a recent immigrant to the Nameless City, an ancient city under constant turbulence as neighboring empires attempt to control it and the waterways it’s connected to. Currently the Dao have control of the city, and have maintained relative peace for the last three decades. But no nation has kept control this long… it’s only a matter of time before war comes again. Kai, Dao born and bred, has moved to the city to finally meet his father and to train as a Dao soldier. But he’s not really interested in fighting. When out exploring the city one night, he meets Rat, a local who was born and raised in the streets, and is the fastest person he’s ever seen. As Rat begins to teach Kai how to run the rooftops, and their friendship blossoms, each realizes that maybe there’s no reason for the hate and resentment that has traditionally kept the tension boiling in the city — and it may be up to them to stop that tension from boiling over. Excited for the next installment! 2.5 stars

31159613Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, by M.T. Anderson and Andrea Offermann (2017)

This one is quite different than the others on the list, both in terms of style and audience. Again, we have a novelist and an illustrator teaming up to create their first graphic novel, and it is definitely unique. Here we have a graphic version of a great Arthurian epic, the tale of Yvain, a knight of Arthur’s round table and cousin to Sir Gawain. Yvain feels the need to prove himself as a young knight, and goes off to avenge another cousin, killing his enemy. The man he kills is the lord of a castle and keeper of a magical pond that causes horrific storms when anyone pours water on a stone at its the center. Of course, Yvain falls in love at first sight upon seeing the window of said enemy, and she is convinced to marry him in order to protect her townspeople and castle. Yvain, being the young dope he is, proceeds to cause all sorts of trouble before setting things “right” again. Okay, so it’s hard to summarize an epic poem in one paragraph, because craziness always ensues. In any case, this one leans more YA in content and style. The language is a bit tricky for younger readers and there’s lots of blood and gore (although artfully depicted). I think it will be a tougher sell for my students, but kids interested in medieval settings may enjoy it. 1.5 stars

That’s a wrap for now! I’m sure I’ll have more graphics to review before too long…

 

A fresh perspective

30312547Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan (2017)

Opening line: “Something sharp pokes me in the rib.”

Amina is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, living in Milwaukee, WI, and she’s having a hard time finding her way in middle school. As anyone who has been to middle school knows, things always seem to shift if that first year after elementary, when you are trying to figure out your talents and who your friends are.

Amina’s best friend is Soojin, whose family is from South Korea. The girls have always bonded over their differences from their classmates, the ways substitute teachers struggle with their names and how other students turn up their noses at the contents of their lunchboxes. But Soojin and her family are about to become American citizens, and with that, they plan to change their names, adopting more “American-sounding” ones. Amina is surprised by how much this upsets her, and starts to feel left out when Soojin begins to befriend classmate Emily, a girl who has always hung around with the popular kids and has made fun of Amina and Soojin in the past. Things become even more tense when the one place Amina feels like she really fits, her family’s Islamic Community Center and mosque, is badly vandalized, and Amina questions where she belongs.

I loved this story. What’s so great about it is that it will open the eyes of many students who know nothing about Islam or the immigrant experience in a way that is totally accessible and that they will identify with. The whole time I was reading about the friendship dramas between Amina, Soojin, and Emily, I was brought back to my fifth grade year when I was certain I was going to lose my best friend to the popular girl. (In case you’re wondering, I didn’t, and said “popular girl” is now my best friend 18 years later.) Readers will recognize and connect to Amina’s story, while seeing a completely different (and much more accurate) picture of Islam that we see on the news.

A book for every middle grade shelf, 2.5 stars.