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.

 

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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.

 

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:

 

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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.

 

A Must-Read

 

32075671The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (2017)

First line: “I shouldn’t have come to this party.”

If you are active in the #kidlit world, you have probably already heard about this book. After all, it’s currently sitting number one on the NY Times Bestseller list, and was one of the inaugural winners of the Walter Dean Myers Grant awarded by We Need Diverse Books. It’s getting LOTS of buzz, one of the reasons I dropped what I was reading to squeeze it in when my hold came in at the library.

The title, The Hate U Give, is reference to Tupac’s explanation of the meaning of “Thug Life” (“the hate u give little infants f***s everybody”), meaning that what society gives its youth, comes back to affect us all. When the author experienced the aftermath of Oscar Grant’s shooting in Oakland, CA, in 2009, Tupac’s words seemed to bring up new relevance, and from that Starr Carter’s story was born.

In the first chapter of The Hate U Give, 16-year-old Starr finds herself at a house party over spring break in Garden Heights, the neighborhood where she lives and has spent her entire life. She feels uncomfortable, though, because for several years Starr has been attending a predominately white private school in the suburbs, 45 minutes and a world away from the Garden. She has become acutely aware of the two different parts of her identity, and is adept at code-switching between the two, not wanting to seem “too ghetto” while at school, but still wanting to be able to fit in in the neighborhood.

While at the party, Starr runs into Khalil, her childhood best friend but a guy she hasn’t seen in a couple years. At once, he’s the same little kid she used to goof around with but also somehow grown up. When the party gets out of control and they hear gunshots, Khalil offers to drive Starr home. On the way, they are stopped by the police for “a broken taillight,” but soon Khalil is asked to get out of the vehicle, and while he is looking back in the window to check to make sure Starr is okay, he is shot in the back 3 times. Starr holds him in the street while he bleeds out.

Starr then finds herself in another very uncomfortable situation. While she grieves for her former best friend and fears all white cops she encounters, she also hears her current friends refer to Khalil as a thug and a drug dealer, as if that justifies his death. They stage a protest at school, just to get out of class, and simultaneously sympathize with the family of the cop who shot him. And Starr has no idea what to do.

I quickly understood what all the buzz was about when reading this book. It was heartbreaking, eye-opening, real, and hilarious all at once. I recently saw Jason Reynolds speak at an author panel, and he mentioned that in his writing, he tries to show not only some of the injustice and dark side of neighborhoods like where he (and Starr) grew up, but also how those people love to laugh, have favorite foods, goofy habits, best friends, etc. That people from the hood are people first. I think Angie Thomas does a superb job of this as well. I found myself fully attached to these characters, laughing and loving right along with them. Despite the dark content matter, there were some hilarious parts of this novel. This blend is what I think makes it so powerful.

I am so pleased that this novel is getting the attention it deserves. The more who read it, the better. It will do what novels do best: create empathy, build bridges, and cause change to those who read it.

3 stars

 

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