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.

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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

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

Snow Day = Graphics Day

We had a snow day Friday, which is much different in South Carolina than it was in Illinois. First off, they called it at about 6pm the night before (unheard of), and we didn’t get snow until late Friday night, although the freezing rain and sleet all day did make the unsalted roads fairly treacherous. I’m not complaining, to be clear. Plus, I had been forewarned by my new coworkers to expect it, so I took home a whole stack of new graphic novels we got in this past week, and put my snow day to good use!

51vjlju6ullDrowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, by Don Brown (2015)

Opening line: “An unremarkable wind leaves Africa and breezes toward the Americas.”

Don Brown, gaining a reputation for his graphic non-fiction for young people following The Great American Dust Bowlpresents a graphic representation of the most horrific natural disaster our country has seen so far this century: Hurricane Katrina. His artwork is haunting, and he will give students new to this topic a lot of surprising and jarring details about this disaster. I wanted to love this one, but found myself having trouble connecting one panel to the next, and also found some of his details confusing or strangely placed. I wished for a more cohesive narrative. And although written for a slightly older audience, I loved A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge much more.  1.5 stars

51p2bmkuorjlLost in NYC: A Subway Adventure, text by Nadja Spiegelman, illustrated by Sergio Garcia Sanchez (2015)

Pablo is new to NYC, and although he is used to new places (as his family moves a lot), he’s not at all used to the NYC subway system. He quickly becomes separated from his class on their field trip to visit the Empire State Building, and has to navigate the crazy colors and numbers to get himself to the right place. A very quick read, but the drawings are full of rich and fun details that could easily let you spend a long time on each page. 2 stars

51fryuowq-lThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Volume 1, by Ryan North and Erica Henderson (2015)

Opening line: “Squirrel Girl, Squirrel Girl! She’s a human and also a squirrel!”  (sung to tune of the SpiderMan theme song)

I don’t read a lot of superhero comics, but Squirrel Girl is one I can get behind. Doreen (aka Squirrel Girl) is starting college at Empire State University, simultaneously trying to blend in as a regular college student (although stuffing her enormous tail into her pants gives her a hiney rivaling Kim K’s), and jumpstart her career as an awesome superhero. As part squirrel, Doreen can climb and leap with the best of them, but her real power lies in her ability to communicate with and instruct squirrels to do her bidding, besting even the strongest of villains. Plus, she and her sidekick Tippy Toe are generally hilarious. I’m a big fan. 2 stars

41vjt-xeoalTrickster: Native American tales, A Graphic Collection, ed. by Matt Dembicki (2010)

This is a compilation of more than 20 Native American trickster tales, adapted into graphic novel format. Each story is collected from a different Native American storyteller or author, and is illustrated by a different artist. I have to say, with the vast variety of stories and artists, some I liked better than others. A couple of my favorites included the brightly-colored “Mai and the Cliff Dwelling Birds” and the dark and haunting “Coyote and the Pebbles.” There were others, however, that I did not enjoy, like “When Coyote Decided to Get Married” (in which everyone was turned to stone because Coyote was pissed that one of the maidens he sent for was tarnished goods) and “Paupaulenalena” (which combined a hard-to-read font, creepy pictures, and a super bizarre story). I don’t know. I guess I feel good that we have it in my library, but it was not my favorite of the pack, to be sure. (1 star)

 

Marching Still

March: Book One (2013) and Book Two (2015), by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

Opening line: “‘John? Can you swim?'”

It’s amazing how relevant this story is today.

In the first two parts of the planned trilogy, readers of this startling graphic novel series will get a full picture of the life and times of U.S. Representative John Lewis. The only one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement still alive, Rep. Lewis partnered with a member of his D.C. staff and a graphic novelist to tell his story to a younger generation. Book One starts with the morning of President Obama’s first inauguration, a day that blends itself in between the stories of previous decades, before going back to John’s childhood as the son of a sharecropper in Pike County, Alabama. Believing it was his destiny to be a preacher, he started speaking his gospel to the chickens he was in charge of on the family farm, but eventually realized that his mission lay elsewhere. While in college, he met with other students who were practicing non-violence in preparation for protests they intended to do at lunch counters that refused to serve black customers. Before long, John was heavily involved, becoming an active member in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), helping to organize the lunch counter protests, movie theater protests, the Freedom Rides to Birmingham and Montgomery, and then the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It is clear from the structure of the book that Rep. Lewis (and his co-writers) meant for the reader to connect the events of the past with today’s current situation. As I mentioned above, snippets of President Obama’s inauguration day on January 20, 2009 appear throughout the text, often overlapping with images or word bubbles from events during the 50s and 60s. Perhaps this project began as a symbol of triumph for John Lewis, showing that all the hard work of he and his fellow civil rights activists paid off as we elected our first black president. I wonder, though, if and how the third installment will be different. As I poured through these pages, I couldn’t help but see images that look haunting like the ones I see on the news and internet today, the words of President Kennedy sounding so similar to those of President Obama in response to another tragedy.

Earlier this month, Rep. Lewis spoke in Atlanta with other civil rights leaders, addressing this issue. “I tell you,” he said, “we have a fight on our hands. I happen to think we’re too quiet.” He seems hopeful though, that with some “good trouble and necessary trouble” we can keep marching more toward equality. Let’s hope he’s right.

Dark, graphic, yet hopeful. 2 stars.

Doing the time

Locked Up: A History of the U.S. Prison System, by Laura B. Edge (2009)

Opening line: “In September 1773, twenty-one-year old Levi Ames of Boston, Massachusetts, confessed to being a member of a gang of robbers.”

I am on the constant lookout for engaging, extended informational texts. Not only does the curriculum require it for Common Core, but to get my kids to read full-length non-fiction, it’s gotta be really good. If I was to continue my “opening line” with the rest of this first page of Edge’s history book, you would quickly find the major reason why I don’t think this one would hold up.

After the first paragraph, the short description of Levi Ames end by gallows, Edge jumps to a description of crime. And then back to the 1600s. And so she goes throughout her story. Although the basic structure of her text is chronological, Edge rather skips and hops between ideas and lacks the transitions necessary to tie these together. This can be really problematic when you are trying to convince middle schoolers to read the entire thing.

Perhaps a rare student could use this for some sort of research project. It appears to be good information and well-researched, with a full 22 pages of end matter. It’s an interesting and relevant topic — especially to those 1.5 million children who have at least one parent in prison, as Edge suggests. I can picture this topic as a thoughtful subject for project-based learning. But for pleasure reading? Not so much. I also wish there was a bit more treatment of the state of modern prisons.

Informative, but rather chaotic. 1.5 stars.