Frenemies, besties, and pals

31145178Real Friends, by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham (2017)

Opening line: “When I was little, I didn’t worry about friends.”

Guess what, guys? I found another one to hand to those students who have Raina Telgemeier’s books on constant rotation! A couple years ago I added El Deafo, last year I added Roller Girl, and now we have Real Friends!

This graphic memoir tells the story of Shannon Hale’s elementary years and her difficulty establishing valuable friendships. From the popular girl who is the leader of “The Group” to the girl she meets when crying in the bushes, young Shannon navigates the tricky waters of figuring out what makes a good friend and how to be a good friend. Through a lot of bumps and emotional bruises, Shannon learns that real friends help you to become the best version of yourself. Super relateable and helpful for those younger middle graders battling the same struggles.

2 stars

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A Light in the Darkness

29436571March: Book Three, by John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell (2016)

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a book on Goodreads with a higher rating than this one (4.7/5 stars), but that’s not why I read the conclusion to John Lewis’ March trilogy this weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a book win so many awards, (4 at ALA’s Youth Media Awards announced last week and the National Book Award last year) but that wasn’t why I read it either.

I read it because I needed some hope.

When earlier this week, I opened a new box of books at school, I breathed a sigh of relief to find March among them. It’s been a rough week, hasn’t it? It’s hard to not feel hopeless every time I turn on the news or scroll through my social media feeds, and after getting a little less sleep than normal due to my husband’s knee surgery on Monday, by this weekend, I was feeling weighed down. Hearing from one of our country’s leading civil rights activists who has really been through it all, that’s what I needed.

If you’ve read the first two volumes of March, you know what to expect in this one. The third volume picks up with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, when four young girls died and dozens more were injured. It then carries through the assassinations of JFK and Malcolm X, the killings of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, Freedom Summer (with the major push to register black voters in Alabama), and culminating with the marches in Selma. It’s a dark story, darker than the first two for sure. There were more than a few scenes that make my neck prickle at purchasing this for middle school.

But there’s no way I can let this one stay off the shelves. There’s too many important things in these pages, things that I don’t think my students are aware of. I know before reading the first March, I had very little knowledge of John Lewis and the incredible role he has played in our country’s history (and modern politics),  and I was raised in a much more diverse population. It seems as though we teach about MLK, Rosa Parks, maybe Malcolm X in more liberal classrooms, but that’s about the extent of it. The fact that Lewis chose to tell his story through graphic format is genius. Not only does it meet students where they are (in the graphic novel section), but also it brings the reality of the horror of our nation’s past to very bright light. And the thing is, it doesn’t take much to see how relevant this story from 50 years ago is in our current situation.

The thing that I think makes this book so powerful, though, is what I mentioned at the beginning: the hope. Lewis does not shy away from the violence, from the language, from the very real darkness he lived through. But interspersed with that darkness are scenes from Inauguration Day in 2009, when President Obama took office. These little glimpses show us that despite all the terror Lewis has witnessed, he knows the value, the purpose, the goal and that it’s all worth it. He knows that those terrible years in the 60s were just the beginning of a lifetime of hard struggle (as is evidenced in his 30 years in U.S. Congress so far), and yet he’s not giving up. He’ll keep doing the work, and so can we. As sad as I am that Obama is no longer in Washington, I can remain hopeful, because Lewis is. And even when he finally does take a well-deserved rest, there will be others there, maintaining the fight.

3 stars, Mr. Lewis.

Beauty in Imperfection

519dibqx6ql The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful, by Myquillyn Smith (2014)

Opening line: “As a child, I didn’t have huge dreams, impressive ambitions, or fancy prayers. I was a simple girl who looked forward to having a family and settling down in a little white house and growing something — you know, like a garden.”

Lately, I feel like I have been nesting. I promise I’m not pregnant. My husband says it’s probably all the folic acid from my new multi-vitamin. Maybe it’s just because it’s summer and I finally have the energy to do something more than lay down on our delicious couch the moment I walk in the door. All I know is that I just re-did our laundry room, turning it from a dark, wood-paneled scary place into a bright, happy, airy place in which I would gladly spend time. I think it’s my favorite transformation we’ve made in this home, and it’s no more than 40 square feet.

In any case, perhaps it’s my nesting tendencies that drew me toward this book, although I shelved it on GoodReads months ago. I finally put a hold on it at the library though, and have enjoyed reading through it over the past couple weeks.

Myquillyn Smith (I love the juxtaposition of that delightfully complicated first name paired with the most popular surname in America… a foreshadowing of her style, for sure) is the author of the popular Nesting Place blog, which developed into this book a couple years ago. At the publishing of this book, she and her husband moved 13 times in 18 years of being married (and I think they’ve moved again since), living in a whole assortment of different types of places, from renting to buying, from condos to mansions. Over the many disheartening moves, she came to the conclusion that if she waited for the perfect house to build her home, it was never going to come, and she’d be waiting forever. Instead, she could build her home no matter how the house was shaped. This book is a collection of what she’s learned doing just that.

For the most part, it seems that her main point (or at least, my biggest takeaway) is just to not be afraid to experiment and try things out. She was a big fan of asking for forgiveness from landlords rather than permission, and just went for it. Another thing she stresses is to make decorations useful and useful items beautiful. It’s clear she and her family live in the home. She repeats over and over that imperfection is beautiful, and very much the goal.

Repetition was in fact pretty common throughout the pages, and not just about imperfection. There’s a lot she repeats from chapter to chapter, and I wasn’t overly impressed by any of her ideas. However, that being said, I did feel generally inspired by the end. I felt ready to take on small tasks around the house (like said laundry room), and not worry so much about making our house perfect in this first year we own it. That was one major issue I had after buying our house — it felt like we had to make so many decisions right away, decisions we were going to have to live with for a long time. Smith gives me the assurance that we can change things whenever we want to, and small, subtle changes can have huge impact.

One of the appendices at the back of the book is what Smith calls The Imperfectionist Manifesto, which I loved. Some of my favorite tenets include:

  • WE BELIEVE that home should be the safest place on earth.
  • WE BELIEVE that authenticity trumps perfection.
  • WE BELIEVE in mismatched sheets and unmade beds.
  • WE BELIEVE that the things in our house are meant to serve us, not the other way around.
  • WE BELIEVE that both pretty pillows and dogs should be on sofas.
  • WE BELIEVE that toys and homework and smelly shoes and spilled milk are signs of life.
  • WE BELIEVE in using the good stuff now, not waiting for some future better purpose.
  • WE BELIEVE that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.

Okay, so that was 8 out of the 13 tenets. But I couldn’t pick just a few! Setting in to our second year of homeownership, in a house that is not anywhere near “complete” yet, I think these are some good words to live by…

1.5 stars

Big Top Mysteries

I can’t seem to help being swayed by a good circus story. What is it about the circus that generates such good stories? In any case, here I present to you two different circus stories, one fiction, one non-fiction; one set in today’s time, one set in the 1940s; both fantastic mysteries.

51jetsaox2blGirl on a Wire, by Gwenda Bond (2014)

Opening line: “I planted my feet on the wire that ran parallel to the rafters.”

Jules Maroni’s biggest dream is to walk the wire as well as her father. Part of a circus family, Jules comes from a long line of circus performers, but no one has ever been as good as her father on the high wire. The problem is, hardly anyone knows that because the Maronis never perform with the bigger circuses, all due to a generations-old feud between them and another ancient circus family, the Garcias. But Jules is determined to join up with the new Cirque American, set to start touring this summer, despite the fact that the Garcias have already signed on. After an act of a tricky teenage manipulation, Jules is able to bring her family on board, and soon, the Maronis take the road with the Cirque American.

Jules is sure the old feud has no merit — rumors of black magic and age-old superstition fill the air — but when she falls off the wire during practice one night (which hasn’t happened since she was the tender age of four), she starts to wonder if the rumors can be true. Is there really someone out there who is bent on taking down the Maronis? Anxious to uncover the sinister plot, she teams up with a person she’d never expect, Remy Garcia, cute teenage son of the Garcia clan. But can they demask the villain Scooby Doo Style before it’s too late?

511x91-ta1lBig Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show on Earth, by Laura A. Woollett (2015)

Opening Line: “You could almost hear the buzz of excitement in the air over Hartford, Connecticut, leading up to the arrival of the one and only Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.”

July 6, 1944 started as a fun and exciting day for hundreds of circus goers in Hartford. Many had already been to the sideshow attractions and seen the animals in the circus zoo, and were now looking forward to the clowns, trapeze artists, and lion tamers. But shortly after the Greatest Show on Earth began, a fire broke out in the Big Top, and within 10 minutes, the entire thing had burned to the ground, trapping 167 people inside. And the story doesn’t end there. Mysteriously, despite all the pairs of eyes in the tent that day, no one saw how the fire started, and although it was initially written off as accidental (due to a casually tossed cigarette butt on highly flammable hay), later investigation proved that to be highly unlikely. Additionally, one particularly precious victim to the fire, whose body remained almost entirely intact (unlike many of the other victims who were nearly unrecognizable), was never identified. Who was this sweet blue-eyed, curly-haired six year old girl, and why was she never claimed?

I just happened to read these right after each other, but they could easily be paired with purpose. I am on a kick now — I feel really desperate to get my hands on another circus story STAT.

2.5 stars, both.

Required Reading, please

51dw5mh9-zlNo god but God, by Reza Aslan (2005, updated 2011)

Opening line: “Midnight, and five hours to Marrakech. I have always had trouble sleeping on trains.”

I rarely blog about adult books, and I don’t know that I’ve ever blogged about one of the books I’ve read for my mini-book club I have with my dear friend Mallory (check out her very impressive website), whose books have so far been entirely religious non-fiction. She and I met at church, and one of the things we both love about our church home is that it is wide open in terms of what you are “supposed to” believe. In fact, it regularly makes it known that there are no “supposed tos.” We decided a few years ago that we wanted to explore what other religions are all about, because although we both definitely identify as Christian, we weren’t sure why (despite growing up in church). And so we embarked on a journey, one that has led us through Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (as well as touching on several others).

I think both of us would say this one has been one of our favorites. Early on, we wanted to learn more about Islam. With so much happening in the world that seems tied (correctly and incorrectly) to this massive religion (we’re talking 1.5 billion Muslims, guys), we felt the need to be able to speak to what we regularly felt was just blatant misconception. It took a few missteps (and several very dense books) to get us to this one, but, at least for me, this is just what I was looking for.

Author Reza Aslan provides an incredibly encompassing picture of the religion of Islam, starting with its inception  with the Prophet (well, actually well before that), and traveling all the way through its current reformation. Somehow, in less than 300 pages, the reader gets a broad tutorial in the basic beliefs, the widespread historical context, the varying sects, and the very contentious political implications of Islam in its current state. All while keeping me engaged. I think his skill lies in his position as a youngish Muslim who, while incredibly smart and well-researched, is personally connected and invested in the future of this religion. The text never comes across as preachy (he’s not trying to convert non-Muslims by any means), and while the majority of the text is framed as informational, he definitely has opinions on how Islam is represented (see: poorly). In fact, my first encounter with Reza Aslan (although I didn’t know it at the time) was in this ridiculous CNN interview in which he refuses to let the “journalists” talk shit about his religion. (I apologize for my sarcastic quotes. But, like Professor Aslan, I have a hard time when smart people ignore basic facts.)

In any case, I feel like this book should almost be required reading in this day and age. Like he tells us in his last chapter of his book, Islam is in the process of undergoing a major reformation, just as Christianity did those hundreds of years ago with good ol’ Martin Luther. It’s all over the place right now, both metaphorically and literally, and NO, THE VAST MAJORITY OF MUSLIMS DO NOT BELIEVE IN KILLING PEOPLE OF DIFFERENT BELIEFS. If we’re ever going to come to any sort of world peace (beauty contestant answer, I know), we have to actually learn something about one another. Let’s make it happen.

2.5 stars

A beautiful surprise

51fb-u69shlBehind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo (2012)

Opening line: “Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station.”

This one was tough. It took me like 6 months to read, because I could only take so much at a time. And I was just reading it. It’s unimaginable to be living it. But this incredibly researched piece of stunning non-fiction absolutely deserves it’s National Book Award (and the four other awards it won).

Author Katherine Boo married into Indian culture and became fascinated by the startling clash of affluence so close to extreme poverty that she saw in Mumbai, particularly in the Annawadi slum on the other side of the road from the Mumbai airport. For years, Katherine spent her days among the residents of this slum, chronicling their struggles and successes, their joys and pain, their complications and hopes. While obviously life in the Annawadi slum is horrendously difficult, what this book does so well is show us privileged white Americans that that’s not all it is. Katherine profiles several Annawadian families over these 250 pages, including a family with a productive garbage picking business, a young woman who hopes to become the first female college graduate from Annawadi, and her mother who plans on taking on the roll of the “slum-lord” of the community. It’s not about feeling sorry for these people. It’s about seeing their strength in spite of and because of their surroundings. It’s about noticing their humanity, recognizing pieces of them that are in all of us. It’s about realizing our complicity in creating a world where realities like these exist.

That’s not even to mention her writing, which is SO DAMN FANTASTIC, it’s breathtaking.

Everyone should read this book, but be wary of when. This is not a quick or enjoyable read, so if that’s what you’re looking for, look again. But oh-so-worthwhile.

2.5 star

 

Sheinkin strikes again

816maqpda9lMost Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War, by Steve Sheinkin (2015)

Opening line: “They came to California to ruin a man.”

When I read Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon a few years ago when it was a Rebecca Caudill nominee, I was a HUGE fan of Sheinkin’s pretty instantly. What might have been a thick, dense history book, turned into a page-turner crime novel, that I just had to keep reading. Which is why I had no problem picking up Most Dangerous.

This one takes a look at a different war than Bomb, and does so with no less depth or intrigue. Starting as a data analyst with the Department of Defense, Daniel Ellsberg initially supports America’s role in the growing hostility in Vietnam. However, after travelling to the warzone, and witnessing firsthand the devastation of the country, the civilians, and the men fighting there, his opinion starts to shift. It is swayed even more when, back in the States where he has access to some very classified documents, he finds out that even more was going on behind the scenes that anyone in the public was aware of. Soon he decides that this 7000 page document known as the Pentagon Papers, in which all these secrets are listed, is not something to be kept behind closed doors. In fact, these papers should be broadcast for everyone to read.

This one took a little while to get into, but once I felt involved, as involved as Daniel Ellsberg, I couldn’t stop. Sheinkin has a knack for bringing history to life, a truly amazing feat for middle schoolers. If only I could get more of them to give it a try.

2 stars