…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 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.

2016 Wrap Up

If you rely on Facebook for news, it would appear as though 2016 was a pretty terrible year… fierce and ugly politics, incredible social injustice, environmental devastation, and emotional celebrity deaths… the list goes on an on. Maybe that’s why this year has been my most read year since I started keeping track at age 11. When the world is scary, it only makes sense to me to turn to books — not only to hide in the pages, but to remind me of our pure humanity and connection to each other. Each of us are just living out our stories the best we can. It’s hard to hate each other when we remember that. That being said, here’s my 2016 run-down…

  • Total books read: 112 (click the link to see the full list with ratings)
  • Favorite book read this year: Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary Schmidt
  • Number of fiction books read: 98
  • Number of non-fiction books read: 14
  • Number of adult books read: 13
  • Number of YA books read: 51
  • Number of Children’s/Middle Grade books read: 48
  • Number of audiobooks listened to: 38
  • Number of graphics read: 18

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

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

 

 

My first challenge?

The 13th Floor, by Scott R. Welvaert (2015) 414c4elowpl-_sx349_bo1204203200_

Opening line: “Sam Wentworth hated moving.”

I brought this one home to read after an angry parent threatened to call the district office yesterday. Fortunately, I had no part of that conversation (the school psychiatrist brought it to my attention, and he was just lovely about it), but I’m holding my breath to see if it will develop into anything. The book is part of the Tartan House series, and I bought it last year when trying to build up the hi/lo collection of our library. And on that note, it fulfills its goal entirely. Rated at a 4th-5th grade reading level with fewer than 100 pages, this one is definitely high interest, especially for kids who are gamers or like watching gory movies.  It captured my attention, and I flew through it in under an hour.

Sam is new at school and falls in with the popular kids over their mutual love of video games. When one of the guys gets a bootlegged copy of The 13th Floor game (which is evidently banned in the US), they all become so immersed, they can’t escape, and it begins to take over their lives. The game IS really gory. Set in an abandoned insane asylum, there are blood and guts everywhere. I can understand the parent’s disgust. However, it does exactly what it set out to do, which is engage reluctant readers to keep flipping the pages. I don’t know. I think I could argue its merit if this actually becomes a challenge, but we shall see. Sigh…and just over a week until Banned Books Week…

Oh, did I mention that the moral of the story is anti-bullying? It was a little heavy-handed, but I guess another point in my anti-censorship campaign.

1 star