Taking me back to GH

33004289Solo, by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess (2017)

Opening line: “There’s this dream / I’ve been having / about my mother / that scares / the holy night / out of me”

Ever since reading The Crossover, I’m pretty much willing to read anything Kwame Alexander has written. That book was SO deserving of its Newbery Medal. The language that bounded off the page, the basketball lingo to hook the reluctant boy readers, the heart that just exploded all over the page… Sheesh, I can hand that to any student and feel confident about it.

So when I saw Kwame had a YA novel coming out, I was requesting it from the library as soon as I could. And then when I realized half of it takes place in Ghana, I was PUMPED. For those of you who don’t know, I spent four months studying abroad in Ghana my senior year of college, and it’s a small enough place off most people’s vacation travel radar that I don’t get to talk about it very often (although those who know me may say I bring it up whenever an opportunity presents itself). But we’ll get back to Ghana in a minute.

First, let me give you the premise: Blade Morrison is the teenage son of washed up rock’n’roller Rutherford Morrison, who has a hard time staying sober ever since his wife, Blade’s mother, died years ago. Blade has inherited Rutherford’s musical talent and is quite the songwriter/guitarist himself. But when Rutherford crashes Blade’s salutatorian speech at graduation by riding in on a motorcycle and literally crashing into the stage, and a fight with his big sister, Storm, erupts because of it, Blade learns that his musical talent is not genetic. The Morrisons adopted Blade when he was just a baby. The mother he’s loved and lost is not his biological mother.

As it turns out, Blade’s biological mother is doing service work halfway around the world in small villages in Ghana (yesssssss). Feeling lost and alone, Blade decides he needs to find her. Off he sets, and hellllooo favorite half of the book.

Let me just tell you, for those of you who haven’t been to Ghana, Kwame’s details of Blade’s experience of the country are PERFECTION. It felt like I was straight back there with all the smells, tastes, views, and heat rising right off the page. There’s this one poem, “On the way to the village we pass” that I basically wrote in duplicate on my study abroad blog in 2009 (he probably used that as his inspiration, most likely).

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(But seriously. The last sentence of my blog post reads, “Who needs a mall? Just get stuck in traffic for a couple hours and you’re all set.”)

In any case, the second half of the book could have been complete garbage and I wouldn’t have much cared, being thrilled as I was to soak up all the Ghana talk. But of course, it wasn’t garbage. Far from garbage. Just when you think you know where the plot is going, it shifts. Each time you have settled yourself on what to think about a situation or a character, he forces you to reexamine it. And, like always, the heart just pours off the page. That’s how I can best describe his writing: so incredibly full of heart.

Being clearly in the YA camp, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a good fit for my middle school library, but I think I’m going to go ahead and buy it. There’s discussion of drugs/alcohol/sex, but none of that happens on camera so to speak, and none at all with the protagonist, so I think it’s safe. Plus, the good of it blows any hesitance I have out of the water. It will be a great next step to give to 8th graders who I have hooked on a his previous novels in verse.

2.5 stars. Pure Ghana love.

Oh, and in case you were curious about what I looked like with fully braided extensions, here is that. When in Ghana.

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A haunting history

31451001Crossing Ebenezer Creek, by Tonya Bolden (2017)

Opening line: “In a southeast Georgia swamp, when a driving rain drenches an early December day, bald cypresses seem to screech, tupelos to shriek, Ebenezer Creek to moan.”

Wow. This one… just wow.

Crossing Ebenezer Creek tells the story of Mariah and a group of slaves who are freed by members of the Union Army in their march south with General W. T. Sherman. One of the men with the Union soldiers is Caleb, an African American who was born free, after his parents bought their freedom before his birth. He is working with the army, helping with repairing and building bridges, repairing wagons, and foraging for supplies in abandoned plantations. In conversations over campfires on the march toward Savannah, Caleb and Mariah comfort each other as they share the horrors of their past, and begin to make plans for the future, perhaps together. Caleb dreams of starting a newspaper, keeping a journal throughout the journey to chronicle this important moment in our country’s history. Mariah just dreams of having one acre of her own for her and her young brother Zeke, big enough to plant a garden and live off the land.

But the confederate army is trailing behind them, closer and closer, which leads to a devastating conclusion of their story and a particularly dark moment of the Civil War. I had never heard of what is known as the Betrayal at Ebenezer Creek before this, and found this a beautiful and haunting contribution to YA historical fiction. The narrative and language is a bit more complex than most of the books I buy for my middle schoolers, but will be a great fit for those readers who need a challenge. The nearness of the setting (between Atlanta and Savannah) will bring this story to life for my students too. It certainly did for me. For perhaps the first time, I feel motivated to learn more about this dark era of American history.

2.5 stars.

Murderino Mayhem

30037870Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson (2017)

Opening line: “Some children are born bad, plain and simple.”

Ever since a grad school friend visited last month and introduced me to the My Favorite Murder podcast, I’ve been a little true crime crazy. I finally watched The People vs OJ Simpson on Netflix and have been diving into some deep Wikipedia holes. So when Allegedly was selected as our next book club read, I was stoked.

Mary Addison was nine when the infant daughter of her mother’s friend was found murdered in Mary’s home. Mary’s distraught mother told police that Mary and the baby, Alyssa, had been alone in Mary’s room sleeping. But now, baby Alyssa was dead, due to asphyxiation, not to mention the purple bruises covering her tiny body. Something terrible happened, and Mary’s not talking.

The public outrage over the murder quickly convicts young Mary of this horrifying crime, and she is sentenced to six years in “baby jail”, where she ends up spending a lot of time in isolation. when she is released, she is placed on house arrest until age 18 in a group home of other teen girls, who apparently hate her. Part of her sentencing includes daily volunteer hours at a local retirement home, where she has fallen in love with fellow parolee, Ted, and now finds herself with a baby of her own on the way. But she quickly learns that with her criminal history, the state isn’t likely going to let her keep her baby. For Mary, that’s what finally pushes her over the edge. It’s what finally pushes her to tell the truth about what happened that night seven years ago. It’s finally time that everyone knows she didn’t murder baby Alyssa.

The narrative here is incredibly compelling. We’ve got major elements of an unjust criminal justice system, mental illness, abuse, bullying, narcissism and sociopathic tendencies, race, teenage motherhood, and romance. The pages just fly. NOT TO MENTION an unreliable narrator who is clearly not telling us everything. I love stories that aren’t necessarily mysteries (where the characters are trying to solve something) but that the reader has to piece together clues and hints until the real picture unwinds. Gave me memories of Gone Girl and We Were Liars.

Like those two, this also has a twist ending. Unlike those two, this one unfortunately brought the entire thing way down for me. Without going into the specifics so as not to ruin it for you, the last chapter felt like a betrayal of the reader. The author gave us a sharp turn, without giving us the space to accommodate, which left me feeling unseated and disappointed.

Despite the jarring ending, still a worthwhile, disturbing, and quick read for any fans of the genre. 2 stars

 

A Romeo & Juliet for the modern American scene… without the daggers and poison of course.

 

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Something In Between, by Melissa de la Cruz (2016)

Opening line: “First you have to hollow out.”

Jasmine is starting her senior year and things are working out perfectly. She’s captain of the cheer team, she’s on the road to valedictorian, she met a cute boy at the hospital where she volunteers, and her school counselor just gave her the best news ever: she’s won a highly prestigious award, the National Scholarship Program, which will pay for her entire college career at any school of her choice. She can’t wait to get home to tell her parents, but when she does, they don’t react the way she expects. After all, she didn’t expect them to have even bigger news.

Jasmine isn’t going to be able to accept the scholarship, her parents tell her, because she doesn’t have the necessary documents. In fact, she doesn’t have any documents. The green cards Jasmine believed her family had are fictitious. Jasmine’s family moved to America from the Philippines when she was nine, and California is the only home she really remembers. But after their temporary work visas ran out and their green cards fell through, they’ve been secretly flying under the radar. With Jasmine starting to apply to colleges, though, under the radar isn’t going to be an option too much longer. Now what?

To add to the stress level, enter in Royce Blakely, aforementioned cute boy, who Jasmine quickly falls head over heels for. The sweetness and kissing in their romance is definitely swoonworthy and sent my old-married-lady heart a twittering. The only problem is, Royce is the son of Senator Blakely, the California congressman who is leading the crusade against the new immigration bill that would allow her family to reapply for green cards and, eventually, citizenship. The Blakelys represent everything her family is not: wealthy, well-connected, blonde Americans. Jas is sure their relationship — and likely her future as an American citizen — is doomed.

I loved the complexity the author brings to what might otherwise be a sweet, light-hearted teen romance. She’s definitely brought the romance — mild enough for middle school libraries, but knee-weakening enough for YA romance fans — and there is so much MORE to dig into as well. The story of the undocumented immigrant family is relevant and timely and offers a very different picture of what that means than many readers may be familiar with. Additionally, the relationships Jasmine has with her family is fantastic. I LOVE the dialogue that happens in Jasmine’s house, particularly with Jasmine’s father. His one-liners had me cracking up! (In fact, these family relationships reminded me of the ones in The Hate U Giveanother one I loved this year.)

Finally, I loved all the quotes de la Cruz provided at the beginning of each chapter to kind of set the tone. I was amazed at how apt they all seemed to be, and have added some new favorites to my list.

2.5 stars.

 

A Must-Read

 

32075671The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (2017)

First line: “I shouldn’t have come to this party.”

If you are active in the #kidlit world, you have probably already heard about this book. After all, it’s currently sitting number one on the NY Times Bestseller list, and was one of the inaugural winners of the Walter Dean Myers Grant awarded by We Need Diverse Books. It’s getting LOTS of buzz, one of the reasons I dropped what I was reading to squeeze it in when my hold came in at the library.

The title, The Hate U Give, is reference to Tupac’s explanation of the meaning of “Thug Life” (“the hate u give little infants f***s everybody”), meaning that what society gives its youth, comes back to affect us all. When the author experienced the aftermath of Oscar Grant’s shooting in Oakland, CA, in 2009, Tupac’s words seemed to bring up new relevance, and from that Starr Carter’s story was born.

In the first chapter of The Hate U Give, 16-year-old Starr finds herself at a house party over spring break in Garden Heights, the neighborhood where she lives and has spent her entire life. She feels uncomfortable, though, because for several years Starr has been attending a predominately white private school in the suburbs, 45 minutes and a world away from the Garden. She has become acutely aware of the two different parts of her identity, and is adept at code-switching between the two, not wanting to seem “too ghetto” while at school, but still wanting to be able to fit in in the neighborhood.

While at the party, Starr runs into Khalil, her childhood best friend but a guy she hasn’t seen in a couple years. At once, he’s the same little kid she used to goof around with but also somehow grown up. When the party gets out of control and they hear gunshots, Khalil offers to drive Starr home. On the way, they are stopped by the police for “a broken taillight,” but soon Khalil is asked to get out of the vehicle, and while he is looking back in the window to check to make sure Starr is okay, he is shot in the back 3 times. Starr holds him in the street while he bleeds out.

Starr then finds herself in another very uncomfortable situation. While she grieves for her former best friend and fears all white cops she encounters, she also hears her current friends refer to Khalil as a thug and a drug dealer, as if that justifies his death. They stage a protest at school, just to get out of class, and simultaneously sympathize with the family of the cop who shot him. And Starr has no idea what to do.

I quickly understood what all the buzz was about when reading this book. It was heartbreaking, eye-opening, real, and hilarious all at once. I recently saw Jason Reynolds speak at an author panel, and he mentioned that in his writing, he tries to show not only some of the injustice and dark side of neighborhoods like where he (and Starr) grew up, but also how those people love to laugh, have favorite foods, goofy habits, best friends, etc. That people from the hood are people first. I think Angie Thomas does a superb job of this as well. I found myself fully attached to these characters, laughing and loving right along with them. Despite the dark content matter, there were some hilarious parts of this novel. This blend is what I think makes it so powerful.

I am so pleased that this novel is getting the attention it deserves. The more who read it, the better. It will do what novels do best: create empathy, build bridges, and cause change to those who read it.

3 stars

 

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.

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