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

The three rancheros

91ayjzgyg0lRaymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo (2016)

Opening line: “There were three of them, three girls.”

There were once three of us, three girls. We didn’t come together quite like Raymie and her three rancheros came together, but were pushed together more due to having the same teacher and liking to play make-believe games on the playground. Raymie Clarke, Louisiana Elefante, and Beverly Tapinski come together at in a slightly more unique situation, at the home of their baton twirling coach at their first baton twirling lesson. The lesson fails to proceed, however, after Louisiana faints at the thought of performing, and their coach declines to put up with “this nonsense.”

Raymie is learning to twirl in order to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition. She has a plan. Three days ago, Raymie’s father ran off with a dental hygienist and Raymie is convinced that if she wins the competition, her father will see her picture in the paper and have to come home. Everything rests with her winning the competition. She soon finds out that Louisiana, who dons lucky bunny barrettes in her hair and flashy sequined dresses, wants to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition also, but she is more interested in the $1975 prize money in order to buy food for her and her granny and perhaps turn the electricity back on at home. Beverly, a scrappy girl with a chip on her shoulder and a bruise on her face, is just entering in order to sabotage the competition, for no reason in particular.

This is the story of the magic that can turn three strangers into best friends over the matter of a few days, at an age where empathy and compassion seem as natural as breathing. As Louisiana tells Raymie, “no matter what, you’re here and I’m here and we’re here together.” And often, that is enough to get through just about anything.

Delightfully honest and touching, 2.5 stars

Middle Grade Fiction…telling me about another disease I really don’t want to get

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, The Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel, by Deborah Hopkinson (2013)

Opening line: “What we now call the Great Trouble began one thick, hot, foul-smelling morning in August.”

As a recent transplant to a new state, I’ve got a new list of reader’s choice award nominees to read. I’d already read about 4 of them, but have a whole slew of others to get through as quickly as possible so that I can start promoting them to students! The Great Trouble was one of the ones available for immediate check out at the public library as soon as I heard I was being considered for a new middle school job, so it was up first!

Orphan Eel is doing his best to take care of himself and his little brother Henry, by doing just about any job he can get, including running errands for the local tailor. But when the tailor gets suddenly and incredibly sick one day, dying the next, Eel senses that finding his next paycheck is the least of his troubles. Soon the entire neighborhood appears to be just pulsing with the illness known to everyone as “The Blue Death”, but known to us today as cholera. In Eel’s desperation, he goes to another one of his employers, Dr. John Snow, to ask for help. Dr. Snow is instantly anxious to help, but not in the way Eel imagines. Instead of providing Eel’s friends with any kind of comfort or medicine, Dr. Snow immediately takes samples from the community well, in his opinion the culprit of the epidemic. Dr. Snow’s opinion is not a popular one — the well has the cleanest and best tasting water in the area, and everyone knows cholera is spread through the air! If Dr. Snow is going to prove otherwise, he’s going to have to act fast, and he’s going to need Eel’s help.

This book is going to be a big hit with kids who like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 (which was a big seller in my school in Illinois…we’ll see if that holds any weight in my new school). Like Anderson does in Fever, Hopkinson expertly blends real historical drama and characters with her created story, making it hard to tell where fiction and fact meet. (I was super impressed by Anderson’s ability to do this, if you remember.) This book also does a great job of exploring the scientific process (answering the “5 W’s” described by Dr. Snow) in a fictional context, reminiscent of Calpurnia Tate. It’s not going to win the South Carolina Junior Book Award, I’m pretty confident, but a good addition to the shelves.

1.5 stars

Slapstick and Watercolor: a Match Made in Heaven

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton, by Matt Phelan (2013)

Opening line: “Life in Muskegon, Michigan was quiet. Ordinary.”

Anyone who knows me can probably guess why I picked this one up. Because it has an elephant on the cover, right? WRONG.

Okay, partially right. But also because it was featured in a Best of Middle School hour long book talk I went to last year! I remember the book-talker mentioning the beautiful watercolor illustrations that accompany this graphic novel, and boy, was he right. They are GORGEOUS. (My instagrammers might have seen my grams.) The colors make you long for midwestern summers on the lake.

Bluffton starts in the year 1908 when young Henry Harrison notices a train full of vaudeville performers arrive in his sleepy town. One of the vaudeville families are the Keatons, one of the premier performing families in the country. The oldest son’s name is Buster. (For old Hollywood fans, this name is probably familiar to you. For those who it is not, no worries.) The Keaton family act is known for their slapstick comedy, and Buster is the best at it. Later, he would go on to become one of the greatest silent film actors ever known, including his film The General, which AFI ranked #18 in their list of 100 greatest American films ever made.

A lot of readers on Goodreads gave this just an okay review. They said that the intended audience wouldn’t appreciate it, that today’s kid readers don’t even know who Buster Keaton is, etc., etc. I however, disagree. Frankly, as a junior high librarian, I had a hard time not selling any graphic novels to kids. They fly off the shelves no matter the subject matter. Attach a good recommendation to it, and I’m likely to have a hold list on it for weeks. Plus, a lot of kids, at least my students, loved seeing glimpses into “things that were real.” They think non-fiction graphic novels are awesome, and while this is historical fiction, I think it would have the same appeal. Lastly, the ART IS AMAZING. The watercolor work is just beautiful, regardless of the story. And actually lastly, who cares what the “intended audience” was? I’m a 27-year-old non-Buster Keaton fan, and I enjoyed it! In fact, it made me want to check out some of his films! Honestly, I’m guessing that is much more the intention of the author — to get a new generation interested in something he finds wonderful.

Lovely. Plus, there’s an elephant on the cover.

2.5 stars

Speakeasies and Creepy Crawlies

The Diviners, by Libba Bray (2012)

Opening Line: “In a townhouse at a fashionable address on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, every lamp blazes.”

Guys! My wish was granted! I’ve found a Libba Bray book that I loved! I should probably read more mysteries (maybe specifically paranormal mysteries?) because it seems like every time I do, I eat them up.

The prologue sets the stage in this one, with a delightful seance gone terribly wrong. Using a trusty old Ouija board, the members of this party conjure the spirit of Naughty John, our villain for the tale. Now, my friends were seance experts growing up, hosting at least one at just about every sleepover for the years between 1999-2001, but we never used a Ouija board. I don’t know if I could have handled the pressure.

Chapter 1 brings us to our sort-of main character, Evie O’Neill, outgoing party girl recently banned from her little town in Ohio to go live with her uncle in New York City, right at the height of the roaring 20s. (Hindsight for Mr. & Mrs. O’Neill – sending your naughty daughter to the Big Apple where all the speakeasies are might not have been the best move.) Uncle Will, more affectionately known as “Unc” is the proprietor of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, known to the masses as The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. As someone with a special knack for the supernatural, Evie is worried that Unc will discover her secret talent, her ability to divine truths about someone just by touching an item belonging to them. But when a young woman is found murdered in a particularly gruesome scene, and Will is called in to help, Evie starts to think her talent might just be useful.

What makes this book so great — besides the SUPER CREEPY murder scenes and delightful time period elements — is the vast cast. I said “sort-of main character Evie O’Neill” because there are multiple main characters at play here. As opposed to many third-person narratives that focus on one primary character’s perspective, we get the perspectives of a whole slew of people, and they all seem equally important. I can’t wait to see how they continue to connect and overlap throughout the series. Book two, Lair of Dreams, hit shelves a couple weeks ago.

This one reminded me a lot of a couple others I’ve loved in the past year, The Lockwood & Co. series and The Shades of London series.

2.5 stars

Introducing the Documentary Novel

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No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (2012)

Opening line: “Everybody keeps saying be satisfied with Jesus’s love, and he will give us our daily bread. I keep waiting, but we never get any bread, so I have to go out and do things for myself.”

I’ve been immersed in the realm of non-fiction lately, trying to find extended informational texts for our ELA teachers to use in their classes (since, according to CCSS, students should be reading 2 extended informational texts per year at the middle school level — yikes). This has led to all sorts of confusing conversations about what qualifies as informational, what qualifies as extended, etc. And this new “genre” introduced by Nelson only muddles the conversation even further.

What a peculiar book. As the subtitle states, it chronicles the life and work of Lewis Michaux, evidently an incredibly influential Harlem bookseller in the 1940s-70s. Has anyone heard of this guy before now? His bookshop was the gathering place for famous poets, writers, activists, and leaders, most notably, Malcolm X. Not only did he house the great leaders of the civil rights movement, but he was an outspoken voice himself, loudly displaying controversial signs in his windows, shouting as he pulled book carts down the sidewalks, always advocating for African Americans to educate themselves with materials written by them, for them, and about them. He believed in his store and what he was selling, calling it “The House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda.” Because according to Michaux, “Knowledge is the thing that is needed among young people today. You can’t protect yourself if you don’t know something.”

So not only was this content new and exhilarating, but the format too was something different than I’ve ever read before. Nelson (or her publishers, as the case may be) describes it as a “documentary novel,” which means it’s a blend of various character voices in little paragraph or page-long snippets and media (photographs, newspaper clippings, FBI reports, etc.) to create a picture of a historical figure. The actual voices are created from the author’s imagination, but the characters and clippings are almost all true and historical. So does this qualify as an “extended informational text”? It’s conventions (photos/images/graphs with captions, index, references, bibliographies, etc.) would suggest so. But it’s structure is one very much of a storytelling narrative, so I think all in all, no. Does that mean it does not share information with readers? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I learned all kinds of information I didn’t know before by reading Nelson’s book. It’s definitely informational, regardless of Common Core’s definitions.

Although I learned a ton and powered through this in less than 24 hours, the content is a bit dry for teen readers. I have a feeling it would take quite a motivated reader to pick up this selection and read it in its entirety. A powerful story, and one told in a new and inventive way, but not quite as engaging as I had hoped.

1.5 stars

Retail Therapy 3: Books I Bought Today

Come on, folks. It’s been 2.5 months since I’ve bought any books. Which is why I went a little wild at the FriendShop today:

  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck, by Nora Ephron
  • Nowhere in Africa, by Stefanie Zweig
  • On Beauty,by Zadie Smith
  • Room, by Emma Donoghue
  • Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See
  • The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

Purchased from: CPL FriendShop

Total spent: $7.00