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 writing style analysis of a steampunk series opener: Monsters, robots, and POV, oh my!

 

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The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz (2014)

Opening Line: “The secret entrance to the headquarters of the Septemberist Society could only be reached by submarine.”

I love a story in which the opening line leaves me with SO MANY questions. (What is the Septemberist Society? Why is it called the Septemberist Society? Why can you only reach it by submarine? Why is it secret? Who’s in the Septemberist Society? Is it a real thing? Where is the headquarters located? I could go on.)

In anticipation of Alan Gratz’s author visit to our school in October, I’ve been attempting to read through all the books of his we own in our library. His black/white/red covered books (see: Prisoner B-3087, Projekt 1065and Code of Honor) are wildly popular with our students, and while I can definitely understand why that is the case, they weren’t doing the same for me. I liked them fine, but I didn’t love them. It was starting to make me feel anxious. As a librarian, I want to be able to earnestly and honestly and exuberantly push these books on my students prior to his visit. I was trying to piece together what the issue was until I opened up League of Seven, and was immediately gripped by the story. Phew.

Our main character is 12-year-old Archie Dent, son to researchers for the Septemberists, a secret society aimed at keeping the world safe from the Mangleborn, massive world-destroying monsters. Several times throughout the history of humankind, the Mangleborn have risen up and destroyed civilizations, and it is only through a League of Seven heroes that they are quelled and trapped beneath the earth once again. It’s been many generations since the Mangleborn have awoken, but according to research by Archie’s parents, there are rumblings of a rebirth. This becomes very clear when they arrive at the Septemberist headquarters and council has been infiltrated and taken over by strange bug-like creatures buried in the backs of the council-members necks. Soon Archie learns that Thomas Alva Edison, evil genius, is attempting to use lektricity to awaken the Swarm Queen, a Mangleborn locked under the swamps of Florida, and he is using Archie’s parents to help him. Archie is thrown together with two other young people, Fergus — whose impressive mechanical knowledge makes him desirable to Edison — and Hachi — a First Nations girl who has great skills in weaponry and a vengeful death wish for Edison — and together, they must figure out a way to stop Edison and the Swarm Queen from killing Archie’s parents and destroying the world. No biggie.

Okay, so there are some definite differences between League of Seven, and the black/white/red books (subsequently referred to as BWR books). First of all: genreLeague of Seven is an alternative steampunk historical fiction novel (as opposed to realistic historical fiction). We’ve got some some robots, some ancient legends, some real-life characters making a very different impact on society (hello there, villainous Thomas Edison), all set in a much different picture of 1870s America.

Secondly, tense. I’ve noticed his other books (that I’ve read so far) are written in present tense. This gives the narrative an urgent, action-driven focus. For some reason, this tense style feels more juvenile for me. Again, I see value in it for the intended audience, but for me, it’s not my preference. League is written in past tense.

Next, point of viewLeague is written primarily in the third-person limited perspective (with Archie being the limited scope), although we do see a more omniscient perspective occasionally. This is my FAVORITE pov to read. I think it gives the author flexibility while still allowing the reader to feel personally connected to the protagonist. I think it also lends authenticity to the text. The BWR books are written in first person, which again, tends to be the more comfortable choice for my students. However, authors who write for middle grade audiences are still ADULTS (primarily), and when they write in a tween voice, even the best authors are impostors.

Now maybe my English major analyzer is in overdrive here and these aspects are just correlation not causation. I feel like I’ll certainly be more aware of these things in the future. Let’s just say I’m super pumped to be able to promote this series to my students this fall in anticipation of Alan’s visit. I’ll still booktalk all his books, but the BWRs basically promote themselves. League is a little more off the beaten path, but I think will be a HUGE hit with those insatiable fans of our dear friend Rick Riordan.

2.5 stars. Next two books in the series are already out!

 

 

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.

 

…for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

26026063Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk (2016)

Opening line: “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.”

What a delicious opening line. So much anticipation, so much mystery.

Annabelle is living in rural Pennsylvania amidst the years of WWII, although it’s the earlier war that plays a more significant role in her story. Oldest of three children, Annabelle spends her days quietly wandering the woods and hills by her home, following her boisterous younger brothers to and from school, and occasionally running across Toby, a homeless WWI vet who has taken up residence in an abandoned smokehouse nearby. Though strange and mysterious to most of the townsfolk, Annabelle’s family takes a special interest in Toby, sometimes bringing him food and clothing, and sharing with him the camera Annabelle’s mom won in a photography contest years ago.

Things change in quiet Wolf Hollow, though, when Betty moves to town to live with her grandparents. A few years older than Annabelle, it quickly becomes clear that Betty is a bully. Annabelle is determined not to let Betty get to her, despite her regular threats of violence, but when Annabelle’s youngest brother’s face is cut by a wire deliberately stung across their path, Annabelle feels the need to speak up. Before she gets a chance, though, Annabelle’s best friend Ruth is horribly injured by a thrown rock, and Betty tells everyone she saw Toby throw it.

Annabelle doesn’t believe Betty’s telling the truth, and now she’s adamant to set the record straight before things turn into a witch hunt. But when Betty goes missing, everyone assumes Toby must have something to do with it.

Other reviewers have compared this to To Kill a Mockingbird, and I agree with their assessment. Like Scout, Annabelle is forced to grow up as she struggles with what is right and what is wrong and attempts to prove the innocence of a man who seems unable or unwilling to defend himself. And like Mockingbird and so many other wonderful middle grade and YA stories, I loved the message that age cannot define how much of a difference you can make. As Annabelle put it, “There would always be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say. But… If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?” (p 228).

In addition to the rich language and small moments of magic in the pages, I marveled at the complexity of each of the characters the author presents to us. She shows us that we can never fully know another person’s history — even those whom we dislike — though it never hurts to try.

I loved this one. I hope it becomes a classic. 3 stars.

P.S. That book cover, though, right? Swoon.

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