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

…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 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.

ReadUp RunDown!

20160806_185340[1]Today I was so excited to be able to attend Greenville’s inaugural YA/middle grade lit festival, ReadUp Greenville, and I just had the best Saturday. We live about 40 minutes away from G-ville, which seems to be the perfect distance to the “big city.” (I’m a big fan of this “big city”, btdub. It’s small and lively and beautiful and friendly and there are dogs everywhere.) It was also lovely that the fest
didn’t start too early, so I still got to sleep in. Thanks, guys. 20160806_155656[1]

So this festival got together 25+ authors and put on 3 keynotes, 9 multi-author panels, bunches of book signings, AND an ice cream social. And most of the events (including the ICE CREAM) were completely free to the public. I mean, come on. Whoa.

Personally, I sat in on “First Years This Way: The Necessary Harry Potter Panel” with Cassie BeasleyTerra Elan McVoyBrendan Reichs, and Maya Van Wagenen; the Holly Goldberg Sloan 20160806_133449[1]afternoon keynote, where I learned she wrote the movie Angels in the Outfield with my heartthrob (“I called him Joey… other people call him Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I guess.” Presh.) and where she passed out fresh copies of her brand new ARC, Short; the “Magic: The Gathering(TM)” session, with three fantasy authors, Cassie 20160806_141852[1]Beasley again, Ryan Graudlin, and Maggie Stiefvater, all three of whom I want to be friends with now; and “A Whole New World,” with three authors who write in a middle eastern setting, Renee Ahdieh, Jessica Khoury, and Aisha Saeed.

There’s something magical about attending literature festivals (or conferences). I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but as author Cassie Beasley mentioned today, festivals are so great, because they are simultaneously fangirl sessions while also showing you that authors are just normal 20160806_145529[1]people. A bunch of the authors are my age, which for some reason makes me want to write again. (By write “again” I mean, for the first time since 9th grade.) It’s like, they’re doing it. I could do it.

Regardless of if this festival forces me to open up a new Word document (or really, Google doc, because who can afford Word?) and pen my first book, there’s something so rejuvenating about lit festivals. Seeing bookish t-shirts, bookish totes, and bookish pins everywhere you look and hearing people laugh and nod at all the bookish references that are casually slipped into talks, just makes me feel like I belong. Despite going to the festival solo, I never felt lonely, because I was totally among my people.

A-Plus, ReadUp Greenville. Three Stars.

 

Fostering a father

41uzrunxtklOrbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt (2015)

Opening line: “‘Before you agree to have Joseph come live with you,’ Mrs. Stroud said, ‘there are one or two things you ought to understand.'”

The one or two things Jack and his parents “ought to know” about Joseph are these: Two months ago, Joseph almost killed a teacher in a bathroom, and a month before that, Joseph became a father. The last thing? Joseph’s fourteen.

I feel like right there, you know this story is going to be a heartbreaker. As someone who works with 14-year-olds on a daily basis, I cannot physically imagine any of them being fathers or mothers, despite the fact that I know it happens. As someone twice that age, I am just beginning to imagine myself in that role. 14-year-olds are supposed to be worried about basketball practice and pop quizzes and obnoxious siblings, not about caring for an infant.

However, within these first few pages of a potentially heartbreaking story, we also see a glimmer of hope. Because despite these concerning facts about Joseph, Jack and his parents are completely on board with welcoming him into their family, and do so with gusto. Jack, age 12, takes it upon himself to be there for his new foster brother, sitting by him on the bus (against the advice of his friends), walking with him to and from school when the bus isn’t an option for Joseph (despite his principal’s warnings), and having his back in fights (even though he’s two years younger). Although he doesn’t yet know the full story of Joseph’s life (Joseph is pretty clammed up about it), Jack somehow recognizes that there’s got to be more to it, and more to Joseph than what initially meets the eye. Through the patience and kindness of Jack and his parents, Joseph begins to open up. When he does, Jack learns that the thing Joseph wants most in the world is to meet his baby daughter, Jupiter. It’s the only thing he cares about, the only thing he’s focused on. And he’s willing to risk everything to do it.

Not only did this story hook me right from the very beginning with it’s plot, but Gary Schmidt’s storytelling completely absorbed me. I loved hearing the story from Jack’s perspective, a somewhat objective viewpoint, although still deeply involved. I loved the sparse, purposeful dialogue that let the story be revealed to us, rather than the abundant “he said/she saids” that are so frequently sprinkled throughout middle grade lit. I even loved the winter setting, feeling the thick snow drifts up to my knees and burning sensation of your ears and nose when you come in from being outside (and for those of you who know my disposition to warmer climates, you understand how impressive that is).

I have to tell you, I was blown away by this book. I read it almost all in one sitting (I think I was about 15 pages in when I picked it up yesterday morning), and it gripped me the entire time. I JUST WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW ABOUT IT. If you are familiar with the foster system, you should read this. If you are someone who works with teens and preteens, you should read this. If you are a teen or preteen, who knows that life really is more complicated despite what adults believe or want to believe, you should read this. Just, read this.

3 stars

Holy Mae Jamison!

71aw5whc8el81cs5miglxlLumberjanes Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy and Lumberjanes Vol. 2: Friendship to the Max  by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Brooke A. Allen (2015)

Oh my gosh, you guys. These GNs are the best.

Miss Qiunzilla Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types is the summer home for the five best friends in the Roanoke Cabin. Things are hunky dory with a variety of summer camp activities. That is until monsters show up. That’s basically the extent of this series… summer camp activities, friendship, and monster-fighting. And I couldn’t ask for more.

The dialogue is smart, hilarious, and perfectly pre-teen. The pro-feminist attitude and she-ro exclamations (“oh my Bessie Coleman!” “Where the Phyllis Wheatley were you?”) are perfection (even if they may be lost on a younger audience). AND it quietly references A League of their Own, only the greatest movie ever!

Seriously, these are so much fun and made me laugh out loud many times. 3 stars.

Hello Rainbow? It’s Me, Emily.

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell (2014)

Do you ever get so absorbed in a book that it feels like you can’t read fast enough? That you find yourself turning the pages quickly, but then turning back to make sure you read everything because you don’t want to lose a single word?

I feel this way every time I read something Rainbow Rowell has written.

And now I’m feeling the creeping Deathly Hallows hollowness that comes with reading the last thing she’s written. Unlike with Harry Potter, I do have hope that there will be another one eventually, but seeing as Landline has a 2014 copyright date, it might be a while.

This one isn’t even my favorite one she’s written. In fact, I didn’t even really like it that much initially. But Rainbow has a knack for making me certain she’s writing about me, even though none of the plots are remotely like my life nor are her characters similar to me in any sort of tangible way.

Take this one. It follows one week in the life of Georgie McCool, a comedy writer for a TV show (think Tina Fey – at least that’s who I pictured through all this) who has maybe wrecked her marriage and isn’t sure what to do about it. And then her mother’s landline phone becomes a magic portal to the past, connecting her to her future husband at the age of 22 when they almost broke up the first time. And she can use this warped time to either repair or dissolve her future marriage. Sound even remotely like me? Not in the least. And yet…

Please, Rainbow, please, write another of my pseudo-memoirs. I’ll be desperately awaiting.

3 stars, because I can’t get enough. (Btw: Fangirl is the best one.)

Addendum: In case I needed further proof of our entwined souls, here’s this.