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 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

 

 

Clinging to Winter (but not really, because winter’s the worst)

Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch (2014)

Opening Line: “Block!”

I’ve been falling behind on my blogging lately, guys. I was doing so well! Sheesh. But here’s another one for next year’s SC Junior Book Award list, and since I’m anxiously reading it’s sequel right now, I feel capable of blogging about it, even though it’s been a while. Plus, it’s one of my favorites so far, and before the list, I had never heard of it, which means you may not have either!

Set in a sprawling fantasy world with eight major kingdoms (complete with a map in the end papers!), Snow Like Ashes gives us our heroine, Meira, one of just eight refugees from the Kingdom of Winter. Meira was an infant when Winter fell to the evil hands of Angra, king of Spring, and all of her fellow Winterians were captured and put into slave labor. Only a handful — including Meira — escaped. Sixteen years later, the refugees are still quietly fighting to recapture the magic emblem of their fallen monarch, Queen Hannah, in hopes that when it is recovered, Winter can be restored, despite the fact that Hannah’s heir Mather (who was also a baby at the fall), does not carry his mother’s female-lined powers. All Meira wants is to help the cause, but she is routinely stopped by Sir, the leader of their pack, forced to remain in the safety of camp while Mather and the others regularly put themselves in danger. When she finally gets a chance, Meira goes way beyond Sir’s expectations — she actually recovers the treasure, Queen Hannah’s locket! Unfortunately, it’s only half the locket, and Meira’s actions send the group on the run again, right into a destiny Meira never expected, one that’s been in the making ever since Winter fell all those years ago.

I got totally wrapped up in Meira’s story. Like Katsa in Graceling (one of my faves), she’s independent, fierce, courageous (feeling her fear and acting anyway), and believable. She doesn’t always understand what’s happening around her or to her, but her determination just makes you desperate for her to succeed. And let’s be honest, the very mild love triangle interest has my heart beating just as fast as any tween reader’s.

So here’s the thing. I feel like fantasies sometimes get a weird reputation — I have a hard time selling them at school, especially to girls, unless they are the Rick Riordan/Harry Potter readers. “I don’t really like magic stuff,” they say. “Percy Jackson was okay when I was like ten,” they say. The set for the older crowd, again especially older girls, seems to somehow be overlooked. But this one, along with GracelingThe Red Queen, and a whole host of others, are oh-so-good, and I think would be devoured by the same readers who love Divergent and Matched and Delirium and Legend. Why is it that dystopians are so much easier to sell than fantasies? Perhaps it’s because they are often more difficult to explain than dystopians. I’m not saying dystopians are all the same (but, come on, a lot of them are), and I’m not saying fantasies are wildly unique, but somehow the typically complex setting and the array of fantastic elements are more challenging to encompass in a 60 second booktalk in the middle of the shelves, than, “Here, this one reminds me of Divergent because of this thing that happens in the future and and this character who has to go against everything she’s ever known to save the world. You want to read it? Okay, great.”

If any one has any tips for me for selling fantasies to middle schoolers, I’m all ears. Because I want this one to be a top contender on next year’s JBA list, and I’m afraid I’m not going to do it justice with getting it in the hands of my readers.

Onto the next one, Ice Like Fire, and anxiously awaiting the third, Frost Like Night, expected September 2016.

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

All the cliffhangers

16101054SYLO, by DJ MacHale (2013)

Opening line: “It was the perfect night for a football game. And for death.”

Oh boy. Let’s talk about a cliffhanger. Right from the very beginning.

Ninth-grader Tucker lives in a peaceful island town off the coast of Maine where no one is concerned with much more than lobster festivals and football games. In fact, it’s at one such Friday night game that the star of the football team drops dead moments after making a spectacular touchdown. Then later that night, Tucker and his best friend Quinn are out on a bicycle joyride to work off the weirdness of the evening, when they experience something out of this world. A strange shadow giving off an eerie melody hovers just off the cliffs where Quinn and Tucker watch, before it explodes.

And that’s only the beginning of the crazy mess. Soon the President is putting the island under a quarantine and a special military unit called SYLO has taken control of the island. But no one is giving them any answers. And the answers they are giving don’t make any sense. As aggravating as this is for Tucker, I swear it was just as aggravating for me, especially when we reach the end of 400 pages with still no answers. This may appeal to fans of Maze Runner, as I got the same sense in that one and had to keep reading the whole gosh darn series, despite the fact that I didn’t really like it. I liked this one more, but still find it annoying that I am compelled to read the remainder of the series to figure out what the hell is going on. If someone wants to spoil it for me, that’d be fine.

1.5 stars

Epic musical turned teenage dystopia

Legend, by Marie Lu (2011)

Opening line: “My mother thinks I’m dead.”

Today’s post is brought to you by a student recommendation. That’s right, folks, one of my 8th graders recommended that I read this book! I love that I have students and I love that they recommend books for me to read and I love when I love the book as much as they did!

My obsession with dystopian YA lit continues in this debut novel by Marie Lu. According to the author blurb at the back, Lu was inspired to write Legend after watching Les Miserables one afternoon. As one of the many who are anxiously awaiting the soon-to-be Hugh Jackman movie version, this is an interesting bit of information to go into the story knowing.

As in Les Mis, Lu presents us with two main characters whose opposition is inherent: the criminal and the law. June is a fifteen year old military prodigy while Day is a fifteen year old vigilante. The story is set in future Los Angeles after the Republic has taken control, and although he doesn’t work with the organized revolutionary group, the Patriots, Day is actively rebelling against the military government by destroying their planes, vandalizing their offices, and stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Meanwhile, June was born into an upper-class military family and her 1500 perfect score on the Trial (a series of tests taken at age 10 to determine your future) pushed her quickly up in the ranks.

There is little reason for June and Day to meet. That is, until June’s older brother Metias is killed and Day becomes the prime suspect.

Now June is out for revenge and she’ll stop at nothing to hunt down her brother’s murderer to bring him to justice. But what if Metias’ murder isn’t quite as it seems? Or more, what if the government she has spent her life training to defend is not as respectable as she was made to believe?

Full of intrigue, nail-biting suspense, and a little bit of romance, Legend is added to my list of recommended books for readers who liked Hunger Games. It, of course, is the beginning of a series, of which the next installment, Prodigy, is due out in January.

2 stars

From Saigon to Alabama

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai (2011)

This is a beautiful book. I didn’t know much about it, though, except that it had was getting a bunch of awards and had a gorgeous cover. It lived up to expectations, certainly.

Hà is ten years old, living with her three older brothers and mother in Saigon in 1975. Let me remind you — today, Saigon is known as Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam. And what was going on in Vietnam in 1975? Yep.

Needless to say, Hà’s mother is worried for her family’s safety. But if she leaves Vietnam, her husband (who was lost at war) would never be able to find them again. The situation is desperate, though, and soon they have very little choice but to escape with Hà’s uncle’s family, on a boat bound for America. And it’s because of what happens once they hit the American shores that made me fall in love with this book and this girl.

I’ve never read a book that seems to so perfectly capture the young English language learner experience. Of course, I don’t have any personal experience as an ELL, but I AM reading an informational book for educators right now (Getting Started with English Language Learners, by Judie Haynes) and everything Haynes is telling me about ELLs shows up in this text. This either is a sign of authenticity for Lai or for Haynes (I’m not sure which), but because of this, the story definitely rings true. From Hà’s realization that a, an, and thes act like “little metaphors to tell the world whose English is still secondhand”, to her struggle with knowing she used to be smart and now feels incredibly stupid, it made me understand the ELL experience way more than I think Haynes’ book can.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s all written in verse? Beautiful, heart-breaking, hilarious, thoughtful verse?

I want everybody — especially everybody in a school setting where you may interact with students learning English — to read this book. Please.

2.5 stars