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

A new fairy tale to tell

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill (2016)

Opening line: “Yes. There is a witch in the woods.”

I realize I’m a little late to the reviewing game on this one, seeing that big shiny gold medal in the corner of the cover, but I can’t help but talk about it. And there may still be a few readers out there like me who haven’t picked it up yet! That shiny gold medal can be a divisive one for readers… some will automatically gravitate toward award winners, because they know they have been thoroughly vetted by a group of knowledgeable people. Others, though, will particularly avoid Newbery medalists (in particular), because they have had a bit of a reputation in the past for not choosing readable books for kids. They might be literary gems, but aren’t engaging for the relevant audience of (typically) middle grade readers. That seems to have changed in the past several years though, with the likes of The CrossoverLast Stop on Market Streetand of course, One and Only Ivan (which I can literally give to any student and know it will be a positive experience). I’m not sure where this year’s winner will fall in that spectrum, but I’m sure going to try to make it be one of those that kids will devour too.

This one reads like a delicious fairy tale, one that has dark and twisty edges like “Hansel and Gretel” or “Rumpelstiltskin”, rather than “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, for instance. In the village known as the Protectorate, villagers know that every year on the Day of Sacrifice, the youngest baby in the Protectorate will be taken out into the woods to be left for the witch. Because of this annual tragedy, a cloud of sorrow hangs over the village, although the parents of the sacrificed baby have always willingly complied. Until this year, that is. This year, the youngest baby’s mother is driven mad with grief, and is locked in a tower in the center of the Protectorate to live out her days. Her baby is taken to the clearing in the woods and left for dead. Here’s the really grim part: the leaders of the Protectorate know the witch story is just made up. They know the baby is likely just eaten by wild animals or dies of starvation or thirst. The Day of Sacrifice is a tool of manipulation, one meant to keep the people in line.  Yikes.

HOWEVER! There IS a witch in the woods! And she DOES come to get the babies each year! Of course, this witch is a good witch who has no idea why these infants are being left in the woods. She’s practical though, and when she sees a problem (particularly one like an innocent babe being left to fend for itself in the woods), she’s apt to solve it. So every year, she embarks on a journey through the deep and dangerous forest to retrieve the child and take it across the world to the Free Cities where she finds a loving adoptive family to raise it. On the journey, she typically feeds the baby starlight, giving them a little magical glow that stays with them for the rest of their lives. But this year, this baby, she accidentally feeds her with moonlight. And it turns out moonlight gives you more than a magical glow. It gives you MAGIC. Babies aren’t supposed to be enmagicked because they can’t control it, so the witch decides to adopt the baby herself to look after her. Add in a sweet swamp monster and a tiny dragon who thinks he’s huge, and we’ve got the beginnings of a fantastic fairytale.

The layers to this tale are complex and suspenseful, and the narrator’s language made me want to read this aloud. (I did. I did read it aloud. To my dog.) I think this would be a great classroom novel that could also be used in short chunks to discuss mood, tone, or word choice. I don’t think that every middle grade reader is going to love this one if tackling it on their own (like Crossover or Ivan), but maybe that’s another reason why it’s special. It has a special reader in mind.

2.5 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

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

Get ready to be swept up

51zohd5wlplThis is the Story of You, by Beth Kephart (2016)

Opening line: “Blue, for example. Like the color that sun makes the sea. Like the beach bucket he wore as a hat, king of the tidal parade. Like the word and the hour of nobody awake but me. I thought blue was mine, and that we were each ourselves, and that some things could not be stolen. I thought the waves would rise up, toss down, rinse clean, and that I would still be standing here, solid. I was wrong about everything.”

Okay, so, confession time… sometimes I buy books because they’re pretty. Perhaps you think this is an irresponsible use of school money, but I say, IF IT’S PRETTY, THEY’LL CHECK IT OUT. I mean, I did. (Plus, of course, it had some great reviews, so low risk). I feel like I’m just rewarding the graphic designers for doing their job well.

So, because #IJudgeBooksByTheirCovers, there was a chance this would be a dud. But GUYS, I LOVED THIS.

As someone who reads a lot of middle grade fiction, I’m sometimes wildly surprised by beautiful writing. That’s not to say that middle grade fiction doesn’t have good writing, but it has its audience. And that audience is primarily made up of 8-12-year-olds. Not 28 year old former English majors. So when I come across a book whose language and writing is as beautiful as its story, I may become obsessed. I mean, check out that opening line I included at the top. Usually, I just have an opening sentence. But I couldn’t stop at a sentence! I just couldn’t!

Mira lives with her mother and younger brother on Haven, a small island just off the Jersey Shore, where the summers are filled with tourists and the off-season is filled with racing around the 3 sq miles of island with her two best friends, Eva and Deni, on their “modes” (of transportation): a golf cart for Deni, a skateboard for Eva, and a pair of old school skates for Mira. Mira’s brother, Jasper Lee, has a crippling congenital illness that requires weekly treatments on the mainland, so on this particular Wednesday, it’s normal that her mother and brother hop in the car and head off of Haven. It’s normal when the clouds roll across the waves, because as the weather forecasters tell them, it’s headed back to sea. It’s normal.

But it’s not normal when her mom calls to tell her that Jasper Lee had a terrible reaction to one of the medications and has to stay at the hospital for several days. It’s not normal when she sees a dark shadow of a person walk up her boardwalk to her house and shuffle around for a while before walking away. It’s not normal when the wind and rain pick up and it’s clear the storm did not head back out to sea.

After a terrifying night, which Mira almost doesn’t survive, she is forced to head out to check out the damage of the island, and see how she’s going to pick up the pieces.

Like I said, the lyrical and poetic writing just swept me along with the story, and made me stay up way past my normal sleepy-girl bedtime. I hope my students will be swept along like me, rather than stuck at what may not be as straightforward as they’re used to.

2.5 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.

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