LARRY READS: November 2019

Below are ten titles (varied) of books that I’ve read over the past month.

 

MY BROTHER’S NAME IS JESSICA by John Boyne

Sam idolizes his brother, a popular good-looking footballer. But life changes dramatically when Jason announces that he knows he was born in a girl’s body and is about to transition. The boys’ parents aren’t any help – actually very harmful – to the circumstances, especially since the mother has her heart set on getting the prime minister’s job in Britain and family secrets must be kept.   Boyne is a favourite author of mine and I was intrigued throughout by the arguments, emotions and confrontations this family with humour. Mom and Dad’s comments are so outlandish they’re often funny. This is a signficant contribution to literature dealing with young people questioning their gender identity and with those around them who need to learn about acceptance. Despite some controversy (Who is Boyne to tell a story about a transitioning adolescent? The offensive title?), I applaud – and highly  recommend – another John Boyne creation.

BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY by Brian Francis (YA)

Toby’s mother committed suicide and the girl, now a teenager lives with her grandparents. Toby is troubled by her past (who is my father? who are my real friends?) and now plans to kill herself.  Her estranged father finally appears on the scene and when Toby learns that he is gay, and a drag queen she continues to ask questions about her past? A meeting with Toby’s father is strained and she struggles to accept things as they are and move on. A strong YA book concerning mental health, homophobia and acceptance.

ONE GOOD THING ABOUT AMERICA by Ruth Freeman

Written as letters to her grandmother in Africa, a young refugee girls recounts her experiences in “Crazy America”. Insightful narratives about a newcomer adjusting to North American customs, friendships and learning the English language.

ALL OF ME by Chris Baron

Ari is fat and he constantly worries about what others think of him. To add to his woes, he is being bullied, he is supposed to be practicing for his Bar Mitzvah, his parents are breaking up. But Ari does develop friendships who help him through his emotional turmoil and help him to see dealing with problems is all part of growing up. Written in free verse style.

SERAFINA’S PROMISE by Anne E. Burg

Serafina promises her family that she will get all her chores done so that she can go to school. Her bigger promise is to become a doctor one day and take care of the poor people in her community. Told in free verse, this book, set in Haiti, is a story of courage and perseverance and family love.

SHOUT by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA autobiography)

A biography written in free verse. Anderson’s main claim to fame as an author is her novel “Speak” which provided teenage readers with a story dealing with rape. Shout is based on Anderson’s personal experiences beginning with her life as a shy thirteen year old, her own rape story, and how she slowly recovered from that experience. Jacket blurb: “This book is for anyone who has ever been lost, ignored, silenced, abused, assaulted, harassed, talk down to, made to feel small. or knows someone who has.” Powerful poems best suited for a teenage audience.

THE LION THE WITCH and the WARDROBE C.S. Lewis

I chose to re-read this novel because I am going to see a stage production at the Bridge Theatre (London, UK).  I’m going to see the play because the director, Sally Cookson, has wowed me with previous productions (Jane Eyre, Peter Pan).  Alas, the novel didn’t engage me as much as it did the first time I read it (about 35 years ago).

HURRICANE SEASON BY Nicole Melleby

11 year-0ld Fig (Finola) has a lot on her shoulders. She is burdened with the erratic behaviour of her disturbed, unpredictable father, a once-renowned piano player. Fig fears that she will be taken away by child services when her father has ‘episodes’. With the help of a caring neighbour who just moved into the neighbourhood, Fig comes to learn that her father is bipolar – and gay.  A well-written moving story about mental health, homophobia, facing danger, confronting friendships, first loves,  mental health and homophobia.

WHITE BIRD by R.J. Palacio (graphic novel)

Palacio’s novel Wonder has inspired millions of readers to think about what it means to be kind. In this graphic text, Julian (the character who bullied Auggie) learns about the Holocaust from his grandmother  who recounts her experiences as a young Jewish girl, hiding from the Nazis  in occupied France. The book is introduced with the words by philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” White Bird is an important contribution toHolocaust literature that helps bring the past into the present and help students to consider the power of courage and kindness in a time of war.

 

SHOUT OUT

OLIVE, AGAIN by Elizabeth Strout

This is a sequel to Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, once again presented as short stories. Much of the cast of characters are connected to Olive (her son and his family, a new husband, a former student), but sometimes Olive’s name just seems to fly by.  The author has a gift at getting at the truths of how people feel about each other. With cranky, critical Olive, who seems to be as grounded as they come, openly observes and reflects on the quirky behaviours of those in our family and our community and the strange emotional connections to those we love (or pretend to love) relationship choices, Strout is a fantastic writer, observing the world without any word fuss, but always with keen observation and deep heart. Strout understands the lonely and loneliness. As Olive journey’s through her senior years, there is a sense of sadness in the stories of her world and these stories are certain to raise questions in readers’ minds and consider “What’s it all about?”. .  S I loved this book, certain to be at the top of my favourite’s list by year’s end.

20 PICTURE BOOKS: SOCIAL JUSTICE DIVERSITY AND EQUITY

I am working on a new book entitled : How children’s literature can help deepen understanding of social justice, diversity and equity, and so manyof recent book purchases have been centred on a range of topics of diversity. The list below outlines some FICTION and NONFICTION choices, designated by the topics in the ten chapters of my book: RACE AND DIVERSITY, POVERTY, GENDER IDENTITY AND HOMOPHOBIA, DEATH, BULLYING, INDIGENOUS IDENTITIES, THE iMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE EXPERIENCE, THE HOLOCAUST, and RIPPLES OF KINDNESS.

 

FICTION

 

WHERE OLIVER FITS by Cale Atkinson (Race and Diverse Cultures/ Kindness)

Oliver, a little puzzle piece, is determined to find out what part of the puzzle he fits into. Even though he tries to ‘fit in’ with others who are different than him, he discovers that it is best to just ‘be yourself!’

THE PENCIL by Susan Avingak and Maren Vsetula; illus. Charlene Chua (Indigenous identities/ Poverty)

Susan and her Inuit family live in an iglu.  The most precious Anaana  owns is a pencil which she uses to write letters to people in other camps. The children come to discover her pencil, each using it to draw and draw as the pencil gets shorter and shorter.  A story about life a family living in an iglu who learn to use things very wisely.

A DAY WITH YAYAH by Nicola I Campbell; illus. Julie Flett (Indigenous identities)

A First Nations family set out to gather edible plants and mushrooms and during their adventure the children learn about their grandmother Yayah’s wisdom and knowledge of the natural world.

AFRICVILLE by Shauntay Grant; illus. Eva Campbell (Race and Diverse Cultures)

When a young black gilr visits Africville in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she learn stories about the community that thrived for more than 150 years living without essential services. Winner of the Marilyn Baillie Best Picture book prize, 2019.

BE KIND by Pat Zietlow Miller; illus. Jen Hill (Kindness)

A story about being thoughtful, kind and discovering that any act big or small can help to make a difference in someone’s life.

THE PROUDEST BLUE: A story of Hijab and family by Ibtijah Muhammad, with S.K. Ali; illus. Hatem Aly (Race and Diverse Cultures)

It is the first day of school and Fazia is excited. For her older sister Asyia it is the first day of hijab which Fazia sees as ‘the ocean waving in the sky’ The young girl learns that not everyone sees the hijab as beautiful and that she must learn to overcome hurtful words.

AT THE MOUNTAIN’S BASE by Traci Sorell; illus Weshoyot Alvitre (Indigenous identities)

A poetic sparse narrative of a Cherokee family, living in a cabin under an old hicklory tree. More than a story about holding on to traditions this is an important recognition of American Indian and Alaska Native nations who served in wars started by European colonizers.

WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA by Traci Sorell; Illus Frane Lessac (Indigenous identities)

Otsaliheliga is a Cherokee word used to express gratitude. The story, and lively illustrations, help readers not only to better understand the traditions of tribal nations but to be thankful for life’es blessings and giving  for celebrations large and small.

GHOST’S JOURNEY: A Refugee story by Robin Stevenson (The Immigrant and Refugee Experience)

Inspired by the true story of two gay refugees, the author tells the story of arriving in Canada, through the eyes of Ghost, the family cat.

DEAR MR. PRESIDENT by Sophie Siers; illus. Anne Villeneuve (Bullying/Kindness)

A series of letters addressed to the president where a young boy complains about the bedroom room he has to share with his brother. In the letter the young boy debates the pros and cons of building wall – yes a wall! This book can be used as a source for persuasive letter writing but more important helps readers to contemplate sibling rivalry, compromise and tolerance.

THE TREASURE BOX by Margaret Wild; illus. Freya Blackwood (The Immigrant and Refugee Experience)

What would be the most important possession to take with you if you were forced to flee your country. Peter and his father carry a treasure box that holds something more precious than jewels… a book!

SHOUT OUT (Kindness)

THE BOY, THE MOLE, THE FOX AND THE HORSE by Charles Mackesy

I’m going to claim this as my favourite picture book of the year.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

“Kind” said the boy.

“What do you think success is?: asked the boy

“To love, ” said the Mole.

NONFICTION

 

REFUGEES by Brian Bilson; illus. Jose Sanabria (poem) (Immigrant and Refugee Experience

The powerful poem, read top to bottom, then bottom to top ignites contrasting motions about rrefugees – fear and hate/ compassion and empathy.The illustrations often illuminate the verbal text, though sometimes the scenes are too busy, distracting from the message.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE FOOD? by Eric Carle et al (Race and Diverse Cultures)

Fourteen children’s book artists draw pictures of their favourite foods and provide reasons for their choices. A book to inspire readers to create their own food drawings and stories which can help celebrate diversity in tastes and culutures.

HO’ONANI: Hula Warrior by Heather Gale (illus Mika Song) (Gender identity; Indigenous Identities)

Ho’onani doesn’t see herself as a wahine (girl) or kane (boy) but is happy to be in-between. Based on a true story, this book is a celebration of Hawaiian culture and a girl who is empowered to accept who she is and rule wisely as a warrior.

WHAT IS A REFUGEE? by Elise Gravel (Immigrant and Refugee Experience)

Gravel helps to explain the refugee experience for young readers by offering simple sentences that answer the title’s question.

THE INCLUSION ALPHABET by Kathryn Jenkins (Kindness)

A is for acceptance; B is for bravery; C is for capable; D is for different. Twenty-six words, used in sentences to help explain the meaning of the words, help readers to consider what it means to be INCLUSIVE.

SHOUT OUT

FRY BREAD: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard; illus. Juana Martinez-Neal (Indigenous Identities)

A beautiful, beautiful example of nonfiction picture book using verse to explain what Fry Bread means to a modern Native American family.  The title of each spread, helps to highlight the appeal of this dish, embracing community and culture in face of opposition. The Author’s notes that appear at the end of the book, extend facts that were presented throughout the pages: Fry Bread is Shape…; Fry Bread is Sound…Fry Bread is Flavor…Fry Bread is Time.I’d give this perfect  book an award.

MALALA: A brave girl from Pakistan / IQBAL: A brave boy from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter (Race and DIverse Cultures)

Winter presents two biographies about a brave girl and a brave boy from Pakistan in one book. Read one way, we learn the story of Malala, flipped over and read the other way, we learn the story of Iqbal.

OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE: Greta Thunberg’s Call to Save the Planet by Jeanette Winter

When she learns about the effects of climate change, young Greta Thunberg, decides to go on strike from school. Word of the strike spread in her Stockholm community and around the world inspiring children to take action even though grown-ups hesitate to do so. A full page spread ends the book with the words WHAT WILL YOU DO? thus nudging young readers to consider taking action for a cause they believe in. A timely book. An important story.

RECENT CANADIAN TITLES

Here is a listing of 2019 CANADIAN publications that include picture book, novels for middle years and adult fiction.

 

PICTURE BOOKS

TREES:  by Pamela Hickman; illus. Carolyn Gavin (nonfiction)

A wonderful xample of nonfiction picture book, filled with facts with ‘just enough’ information about trees filling each page. The range of text features that includes, headings, diagrams, labels, captions, maps, glossary – and the  abundance of appealing scientific and imaginative illustrations – make this a top-notch information book.

AFRICVILLE by Shauntay Grant; illus. Eva Campbell

Africville was a Black community in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a vibrant self-sustaining community that thrived without such services as running wter, sewers, police or ambulance service. A young girl revisits the community and the stories she heard from her family in free verse narrative. Winner of the Marilyn Baillie best picture book, 2019.,

WHEN MOLLY DREW DOGS by Deborah Kerbel; illus. Lis Xu

The Japanese folktale “The Boy Who Drew Cats” inspired this story, a young constantly doodles bringing the many dogs who move through her head to life through her dogs. A story of mental anxiety and finding comfort through art.

THE PLAYGROUNDS OF BABEL by JonArno Lawson; illus. Piet Grobler

Children gather around in a playground to listen to an old woman tell a story inspired by the Tower of Babel. One child translates for another who doesn’t understand the language. Told entirely through dialogue in speech balloons. Clever and imaginative both in text and art.

LIGHT A CANDLE by Godfrey Nkongolo and Erik Walters; illus. Eva Campbell

The Chagga people are the caretakers of Mount Kilimanjaro. In this story, in English and Swahdili, a young boy is determined to climb up the mountain without his father’s approval.  The goal: to light a candle  at the mountaintop to honour Julius Nyerer, the first leader of Tanzania hoping to unify the two territories of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

THE PHONE BOOTH IN MR. HIROTA’S GARDEN by Heather Smith: illus. Rachel Wada

Japanese villagers grieve over all that was lost by a tsunami. Mr. Hirota builds a phone booth giving the community to feel close to those they love. What a unique, heartwarming story (by a favourite Canadian author) about loss and recovery.

HAWKS KETTLE, PUFFINS WHEEL And other poems of birds in flight  by Susan Vande Griek: illus. Mark Hoffman (poetry)

AN OWL AT SEA by Susan Vande Griek; illus. Ian Wallace (nonfiction/ free verse)

 

NOVELS: MIDDLE YEARS

THE COLLECTED WORDS OF GRETCHEN OYSTER by Cary Fagan

Hartley Staples is dealing with the trauma of having his older brother run away from home. The family attempts to move on but Hartley, burdened with anxiety, tries to cope with school assignments, an antagonistic sister, a best friend who rejects him and the stress of having to complete a final grade eight project. The sporadic appearance of artful postcards with wise messages keeps Hartley intrigued and provides a digression – and a support – for dealing with life’s problems. I really enjoyed this novel and applaud the insightful, humourous first-person voice Fagan has given to this middle years student.

BROKEN STRINGS By Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Two of Canada’s most celebrated authors for young people have collaborated to tell a thoughtful, informative and heartwarming story of Shirli Berman and Ben Morgan two junior high school students who have been selected to star in the school production of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. The production tightens the relationship between the Jewish girl and the cutest, popular boy in the school (non-Jewish). The event also proves to be of significance by deepening the bond between Shirli and her Zayde. She enjoys visiting her grandfather often and knows that there is a story about his past that is being kept secret. As the play goes into rehearsal, and the novel unfolds Shirley and readers discover the hidden story of being a survivor of the Holocaust. This is a fine example of middle years novel about the Jewish culture, the power of music and the need to have family stories revealed so that the stories can be cherished and passed on. Five stars.

THE STARLIGHT CLAIM by Tim Wynne-Jones

Noah  missing his friend who died in an accident and hopes to find some answers, heads up to a camp in Northern Ontario. Alone. A storm is a-comin’. Noah encounters convicts who escaped from jail. And a masked man who seems to know a lot about Noah. A gun.  A skidoo chase. No cell phone.  An exciting adventure and survival story from Canadian storymaster Tim Wynne-Jones.

 

ADULT BOOKS

IMMIGRANT CITY by David Bezmozgis (short stories)

The thing about a short stories collection is that  you can read the stories chronologically and you can even choose to skip over one’s you don’t like. These stories are linked by immigrant memories and experiences layered with humour (some) and kvetching (some)The thing about short story collections is that you might tend to like some (“Little Rooster”) better than others (“How It Used to Be”). Giller prize nominee.

THE INNOCENTS by Michael Crummey

What a staggering writer. I think I learned a new word (or two or three) on every single page. A rather haunting tale of two orphans who thrive and survive live in an isolated cove in northern Newfoundland.  Fighting to survive through meagre catches, wild storms and illness, Ada and Evered are symbiotic siblings, independent and fiercly loyal – even when vistors,  nature and their own natures test their loyalties. Giller prize nominee.

AKIN by Emma Donoghue

Ever since reading Room, I have become a Donoghue fan and am eager to discover her new publications. This story about a retired professor and his relationship with his great nephew intrigued me. (I am a semi-retired professor; I have 4 great nephews). Circumstances (the 11-year-old grandnephew, without any parents or guardians  is forced upon Noah who is about to embark on trip to Nice France. Noah hopes to reconnect with a place that was once his home before being shipped off to America as a child to escape the Nazis. Armed with a series of photographs taken by his mother, Noah and Michael hope to identify the places and people depicted in these snapshots. I enjoyed the story of the relationship between these two characters, 79 year old Noah who is out of his depth as a guardian, and Michael, a wise and wise-cracking kid who frustrates and educates Noah.  I loved reading about Nice, but in truth i wasn’t caught up in the mystery of the family’s past that involved (perhaps) spying, surviving the Nazis and affairs.  A good, but not a great, read for Larry.

 

 

SHOUT OUT

CANADIAN CHILDREN’S BOOK CENTRE AWARDS, October 15, 2019

Seven awards in total were given out:

  • Ebb & Flow by Heather Smith, won the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award ($50,000)
  • Africville by Shauntay Grant, illustrated by Eva Campbell, won the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award ($20,000)
  • Turtle Pond by James Gladstone, illustrated by Karen Reczuch, won the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children’s Non-Fiction ($10,000)
  • The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis, won the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People ($5,000)
  • Sadie by Courtney Summers, won the John Spray Mystery Award ($5,000)
  • The House of One Thousand Eyes by Michelle Barker, won the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award ($5,000)
  • They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki won the CBC Fan Choice Award ($5,000)

 

TEN NOVELS: October 2019

This posting features ten new novels I’ve recently read (including 2 for grown-ups), of ‘troubled’ characters, young and old.

MOMENTOUS EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS by Dusti Bowling

I was so looking forward to reading this sequel to Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus and was very pleased to gain deeper insights into the life of Aven Green, a girl born with no arms, as she enters high school. An incident involving harassment, is likely to infuriate readers and who will cheer Aven on as she tries to keep it cool and find a place of acceptance. Abandoned friendships, DNA testing, horse-back riding and punk rock bands play are indeed momentous events in the life of this teenage cactus. Hooray for Aven!

BEVERLY, RIGHT HERE by Kate DiCamillo

This title shines a light on Beverly Tapinski, a girl we first met in the novel Raymie Nightingale. The author has now given each of the three girls her own novel platform. Beverly has run away from her Florida and seems to be quite the determined free spirit.  As the novel unfolds she meets some rather quirky characters – a wise-cracking waitress, a rebellious cook, a feisty teenage store clerk, and a generous senior citizen who invites Beverly into her home. DiCamillo always seduces readers into cheering on her protagonists and she has done it again with Beverly’s story.

AKIN by Emma Donoghue (adult fiction)

Ever since reading Room, I have become a Donoghue fan and am eager to discover her new publications. This story about a retired professor and his relationship with his great nephew intrigued me. (I am a semi-retired professor; I have 4 great nephews). Circumstances (the 11-year-old grandnephew, without any parents or guardians  is forced upon Noah who is about to embark on trip to Nice France. Noah hopes to reconnect with a place that was once his home before being shipped off to America as a child to escape the Nazis. Armed with a series of photographs taken by his mother, Noah and Michael hope to identify the places and people depicted in these snapshots. I enjoyed the story of the relationship between these two characters, 79 year old Noah who is out of his depth as a guardian, and Michael, a wise and wise-cracking kid who frustrates and educates Noah.  I loved reading about Nice, but in truth i wasn’t caught up in the mystery of the family’s past that involved (perhaps) spying, surviving the Nazis and affairs.  A good, but not a great, read for Larry.

THE COLLECTED WORDS OF GRETCHEN OYSTER by Cary Fagan

Hartley Staples is dealing with the trauma of having his older brother run away from home. The family attempts to move on but Hartley, burdened with anxiety, tries to cope with school assignments, an antagonistic sister, a best friend who rejects him and the stress of having to complete a final grade eight project. The sporadic appearance of artful postcards with wise messages keeps Hartley intrigued and provides a digression – and a support – for dealing with life’s problems.  I really enjoyed this novel and applaud the insightful,  humourous first-person voice Fagan has given to this middle years student.

A PLACE TO BELONG by Cynthia Kadohata

World War II has ended. This book is a beautiful example of historical fiction telling the story of twelve-year=old Hanako whose family was forced, after being imprisoned in camps to return to Japan to start a new life. Living in a small village with her grandparents, Hanako encounters a ravished Hiroshima, a starving nation, black markets, begging orphans. But the young girl and her family continually strive to be hopeful and share kindnesses. Winner of the National Book Award,

GUTS by Raina Telgemeir (graphic novel)

Telgemeier is the queen of graphic novels, particularly for the pre-teen girls. (i.e.,  Smile, Sisters, Drama, Ghosts). This book is autobiographical taking the author back to her years as a fourth grade student who was consumed with mental anxiety. Young Raina often wants to stay home to school rather than face woes about food, school assignments and fickle friendships. And she has an intense fear about vomiting (i.e, Emetphobia). Obviously the author has dug deep into stories from her past and her graphic creations serve as a kind of therapy for the author and a forum for true-to life worries that many young people can  identify with. No wonder, Telgeemier is the queen of graphic novels.

RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson (adult fiction)

This novel, by bestselling, award-winning author presents a powerful poetic narrative told in varied narratives, moving backward and forward in time. Melody, a child born out of wedlock is celebrating her coming-of-age ceremony in 2001. Her mother, Iris, abandoned her daughter with the hopes of getting a better education. Her father remains steadfast in his devotion to Melody. The novel weaves in themes of family love, ambition, class, sexual longing and racial identity.

THE STARLIGHT CLAIM by Tim Wynne-Jones

Noah  missing his friend who died in an accident and hopes to find some answers, heads up to a camp in Northern Ontario. Alone. A storm is comin’. Noah encounters econvicts who escaped from jail. And a masked man who seems to know a lot about Noah. A gun.  A skidoo chase. No cell phone.  An exciting adventure and survival story from Canadian storymaster Tim Wynne-Jones.

 

SHOUT OUT

BROKEN STRINGS By Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Two of Canada’s most celebrated authors for young people have collaborated to tell a thoughtful, informative and heartwarming story of Shirli Berman and Ben Morgan two junior high school students who have been selected to star in the school production of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. The production tightens the relationship between the Jewish girl and the cutest, popular boy in the school (non-Jewish).  The event also proves to be of significance by deepening the bond between Shirli and her Zayde. She enjoys visiting her grandfather often and knows that there is a story about his past that is being kept secret.  As the play goes into rehearsal, and the novel unfolds Shirley and readers discover the hidden  story of being a survivor of the Holocaust. This is a fine example of middle years novel about the Jewish culture, the power of music and the need to have family stories revealed so that the stories can be cherished and passed on. Five stars.

SHOUT OUT

LOOK BOTH WAYS: A tale told in ten blocks   by Jason Reynolds

This book should win the Newbery medal. This book WILL win the Newbery Medal.  Jason Reynolds: heroic black author, a hero for black characters getting through the day.  Reynolds is riding on Reynold’s shoulders. Walter Dean Myers is riding on his shoulders. ManiacMagee is jumping around in his brain.  Don’t ask me to  pick a favourite of these ten short stories, but “Skitter Hitter” is one of the best bullying narratives story I’ve read in a long time. This book will be at the top of my favourites for 2019, It deserves awards.

FALL INTO FICTION: Middle Years Novels

My pile of fiction dwindled somewhat over the past five week as I dug into some new novels for mostly ages 9 through 12.  Many middle school readers will identify with the character’s finding a place of belonging both within friendship circles and family circles and surviving (even a story about a wolf).

DENIS EVER AFTER by Tony Abbott

Denis died at a young age and his twin brother is still grieving. Denis returns to earth, so that both he can rest in peace and his family can let go. This novel wasn’t what I expected it to be as it focuses on the circumstances surrounding Denis’s death. It is a ghost story, a mystery story and what becomes a thrilling adventure story as the two boys go an a quest to answer many questions. Alas, I wasn’t intrigued by the mystery but was more interested in the mystery of what happens after we die and how a family copes with death.

FINDING ORION by John David Anderson

The name of the family is KWIRK and they do indeed live up their name with quirky adventures that involve journey to find Papa Kwirk’s ashes. Rion (not Ryan) is the storyteller recounting the families quest to find out where his grandfather has been buried. Rion’s father did not have a good relationship with his father growing up, and discovers the truth about his dad who, as it turns out was beloved by many in his community. The author tell a mystery story filled with adventure and family bonding and odd yes, quirky stuff : a toothbrush collection, a singing ‘telegram’ (announcing Papa Kwirk’s death), , a marching band,  the challenge of eating a sundae made of 36 scoops of ice cream, a war museum, a fried chicken-flavoured jelly bean and a python. Kwirky, fun and ultimately heartwarming.

EACH TINY SPARK by Pablo Cartaya

Cartaya’s fine novels focus on the lives of Latinx youth and how they navigate their culture (The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish) and in his latest novel readers are introduced to Emilia Torres who must deal not only with special needs issues, but more importantly with the relationship with her father who returns from deployment and shuts himself in the garage to work on an old car. The two are brought closer together by the act of welding. Once again, Pablo Cartaya celebrates Cuban culture, effectively weaving Spanish language throughout the dialogue.

THE ACB of HONORA LEE by Kate De Goldi

I have found a new favourite author this year, thanks to my friend Shelley who passed on the award winning novel The 10 PM question to me (loved it.) I have sought out other titles by the author. In The ACB Honora Lee Young Perry is challenged to develop a relationship with her grandmother who suffers from dementia. On her frequent visits to Santa Lucia rest home, Perry embarks on creating a illustrated abecedarium (ABC book)  filled with the people and events of her grandmother’s life.  The quirky art that accompanies this story is a bonus. Can’t wait to read another Kate De Goldi book!

IT WASN’T ME by Dana Alison Levy

This book is “The Breakfast Club” put into contemporary middle years’ fiction. When Theo’s self- portraits are vandalized at his school, five tweenagers (the Nerd, The Princess, the Jock, the Weirdo, the Screw-Up) are brought together by a teacher who believes that learning to trust and getting to the truth can happen through a Justice Circle. The group of six meet each day during a week of school holidays and learn truth’s about each other and about themselves. Young adolescent readers will likely come to recognize these characters as being real and will hopefully understand the complexities of bullies, victims and bystander. For me, the story would hold stronger believability from the onset had the characters students been enrolled in high school. And would a principal be required to give up her holidays to help facilitate these meetings?

NOT IF I CAN HELP IT by Carolyn Mackler

Willa has been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder who’s idea of order and sensory sensations (e.g., the taste of eggs, getting her toenails trimmed) make life seem out of whack at times.  Willa has a best friend, Ruby, and things get more out of whack for Willa when she learns that their parents are dating each other (and will soon be getting married). This engaging novel is a fine contribution to stories that deal with divorce and the changes many middle grade student encounter.

THE 47 PEOPLE YOU’LL MEET IN MIDDLE SCHOOL by Kristin Mahoney

A great title that will inspire those entering – and living through – the trials and tribulations of Middle School life and the students and staff that comprise their school day life. The story is one girl’s advice to her younger sister who will eventually have to meet life as a sixth grader. The book struck me as a balance between authentic (yes, we know these people) and quirky character and events that (the stuff of fiction).

TIGHT by Torrey Maldonado

Bryan is caught between a rock and a hard place.  His father and especially is mother have geared him to understand the difference between right and wrong, but peer pressure has lured him into behaving badly (skipping school, jumping trains).  The world of comic book heroes gives Bryan strength but he himself can’t seem to be the superhero he want to be. What sets this novel apart is the setting of the New York projects. Torrey Maldonado masterly creates the tensions of street life and the colourful lingo that paints a strong picture of Latino and Black youth (“Big Will isn’t fazed by dip dudes rocking bling or pushing fat whips.”

CATERPILLAR SUMMER by Gillian McDunn

Cat’s mother creates picture books about two characters, Caterpillar and Chicken who depend on each other. In real life, Cat is a devoted caring sister to Henry (Chicken), a boy who demands attention because of special needs. One summer, Cat and Chicken spend time with their grandparents who live in an island in an island. Hesitant at first to enjoy the summer, Cat grows to love the seaside setting, fishing and especially her understanding of what it means to stay together as a family. A heartwarming story.

A WOLF CALLED WONDER by Rosanne Parry

This book stands out from the other titles on this list, being a story of a wolf’s journey to survive, told from the point of view of that wolf. When he is separated from his family, Swift encounters danger through different landscapes forests, barren wilderness, wild water and other perils of survival (fire, hunters, hunger). What makes this a remarkable narrative is that it is based on a true story of a wolf named) OR-7 (aka Journey) who trekked across 1000 miles across the Pacific Northwest. Because the book is told through the point of view of a wolf,  readers get into the minds of the animal and learn much information about their characteristics, behaviours and instincts.

SHOUT OUT

COUNT ME IN by Varsha Bajaj

Told in alternative voices: Karima a young Hindu girl who has a talent for photography; Chris (the boy next door) who doesn’t do all that well in math. The friendship of the two characters when Karina’s grandfather comes to live with the family and ends up tutoring Chris. An episode involving a shattering encounter “Terrorists don’t belong here” helps readers to examine the issue of hate in society. An important timely novel, about immigration, about hate and about communities – and a society – coming together, counting on one another. A good companion to Wishtree by Katherine Applegate.

 

Count Me In by Varsha Bajaj

LARRY BOUGHT 15 PICTURE BOOKS

A batch of new picture books have gathered in my office over the summer. Some with 2019 titles. Some were recommended by colleagues and students. Some seemed ideal to reference in my forthcoming Pembroke Publishers’ title  TEACHING TOUGH TOPICS. A brief synopsis and a brief rationale for choosing this book accompanies each title.

 

 WORM LOVES WORM J.J. Austrian; illus. Mike Curato (2016)

What: Worm is in love with Worm and their animal friends help prepare for the wedding. Either   worm can be the groom. Either worm can be the bride.

Why: Gender differences, families, and same sex marriage – for youngsters! (Topic: Gender Identity)

 

A BIKE LIKE SERGIO’S by Maribeth Boelts; illus. Noah Z. Jones (2016)

What: Ruben finds a one hundred-dollar bill  – and now he can afford to buy a new bike. Should he do the right thing and return the money to its rightful owner.

Why:  A book to help children think about what’s right and what’s wrong. And the have’s and the have not’s. A beautiful companion to Boelt’s “Those Shoes” to help children think about wants and needs.  (Topic: Poverty)

 

YARD SALE by Eve Bunting; illus. Lauren Castillo (2015)

What:  It’s hard to let go of stuff  that has been important to you a Yard sale, even though it’s for the family time to move to a smaller place.

Why: A story about letting go of things, moving on, and realizing that there’s more to life than the our possessions. (Topic: Poverty)

 

14 COWS FOR AMERICA by Carmen Agra Deedy; illus. Thomas Gonzalez (2009)

What: A gift of 14 cows from the Masai tribe in Kenya to the United States Embassy in Nairobi following September 11, 2001.

Why: This book of honour and strength and generosity needs to be shared in every classroom. (Topic: Kindness)

 

DRUM DREAM GIRL by Margarita Engle; illus. Rafael Lopez (2015)

What: Newbery Honour Winner about ‘how one girls’ courage changed music’. Inspired by a Chinese-African- Cuban girl who broke Cuba’s taboo against female drummers.

Why: A celebration of music. A story of perseverance. (Topic: Gender equity)

 

ADA’S VIOLIN: The story of the recycled orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood; illus. Sally Wern Comport (2016)

What: The children of Paraguay played instruments made from recycled trash and ended up performing concerts around the world. This is the story of how they orchestra came to because of man’s vision, and one girls dreams.

Why: Resilience. Determination. (Topic: Poverty)

 

IDA ALWAYS by Caron Levis; illus. Charles Santoso (2016)

What: A true story of true love – between two bears.

Why: Those who were part of our hearts will always be there, even when they are gone. (Topic: Loss and Death). (see also Always With You by Eric Walters)

 

BIG WORDS FOR LITTLE GENIUSES by Susan and James Patterson; illus. Hsinping Pan

What: An alphabet book of unusual – big – words (definitions provided). (e.g., catawampus; dulcifluous, empyreal). A worthy companion to The Word Collector by Peter Reynolds.

Why: It’s important to engage readers of all ages with a celebration of the looks, sounds, and meanings of words in order to increase their word power with reading, writing and talk (See Word by Word by Larry Swartz, Pembroke, 2019)

 

LITTLE LIBRARIES, BIG HEROES by Miranda Paul; illus. John Parra (2019)

What: The story of Todd Bol who became the founder of the Little Free Library movement where millions of books have been shared in ‘little libraries’ into outdoor neighbourhoods throughout the world.

Why: A love of books. And those who choose to share books with others. (Topic: Kindness)

 

HIAWATHA AND THE PEACEMAKER by Robbie Robertson; illus. David Shannon (2015)

What: The story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker  and the uniting of the five Haudenosaunee (Iroquois tribes)

Why: The message of peace informing readers about the ways of the Iroquois people. A must-read to help students gain understanding of Indigenous culture. Staggering visuals by David Shannon. Includes a CD featuring an original song by the author. (Topic: Indigenous Culture)

 

MEMOIRS OF A HAMSTER by Devin Scillian; illus. Tim Bowers (2013)

What: An amusing – informative – recount of fourteen nights in the life of Seymour the Hamster.

Why: First person voice. An engaging, original approach to memoir writing.

 

THE CHANGE YOUR NAME STORE by Leanne Shirtcliffe; illus. Tina Kugler (2014)

What: Wilma Lee Wu does not like her name and frequent visit to the neighbourhood store help her consider alternatives. Told in rhyme.

Why: Inspires students to share stories about their own names. (Topic: Identity)

 

SMALL IN THE CITY by Sydney Smith

What: A story of a small boy who gets lost as he wanders about the city, taking wrong paths, combating bad weather until he finds his way back home.

Why: A story of persverance and resilience.  “Devastating!” (CBC, September 17, 2019)

SHOUT OUT

These two Canadian picture books are treasures.  Both titles were inspired by important people in the authors’ lives. Each is the ideal selection to inspire connections and special memories of people and places. Both books are gifts and both will likely be passed on as gifts. 

ALWAYS WITH YOU

 Eric Walters; illus. Carloe Liu

A beautiful story that journeys over the years. Emily’s grandfather passed away and over the years she receives advice (in the form of fold-out letters) as she reaches various life milestones that include school, marriage and giving birth. Yes, a ‘timeless story about grief, growing up, and  cherished memories of those who are “always with you”.  A gem! (Topic: Loss and death)

WILLA’S HOUSE
by David Booth; illus. Renia Metallinou  (2019)

(from Promo material)

Willa’s House, David Booth’s final book, is a tribute to women teachers, the joy in life’s small moments, and to home.

In Willa’s House, author David Booth takes us on a nostalgic walk back to the quiet contentment of calmer times. Based on a true story, this heartwarming chronicle of a teacher’s life in a small Canadian town illustrates the tragedies and triumphs that centre around this one home. These events demonstrate Willa’s strong ties to family, friends, and students as well as the ways in which she makes a lasting impact on her community. With her less-than-typical trajectory, Willa shows us that there is more than one way to lead a fulfilling life.

 Proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the Professor David Booth Memorial Bursary (OISE, University of Toronto).
order: sales@plumleafpress.com  / phone: 1 800 336.0980

 

POTPOURRI OF SUMMER READING, 2019

The summer of 2019 challenged me to reduce my meter-high book pile and week by week, page by page, I spent time with some interesting books, both children’s and adult literature, both fiction and nonfiction. Seems however, that there is hardly a dent in the pile but I’m reading as fast as I can!

HOW TO READ A BOOK by Kwame Alexander, Illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Picture Book)

Sharing this book with young readers may invite them t olinger equally over the words and the bright images that join together to explain the best way to savour in the joy of reading (“A picnic of words=sounds in leaps+bounds”).

THINGS MY SON NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT THE WORLD by Fredrik Backman (Nonfiction, Essays)

Ever since falling in love with the novel, A Man Called Ove, I have been intrigued by reading the books by Swedish author Fredrick Backman. This book, written as a letter to his son, the author reflects upon and reveals the joys and flaws of fatherhood. Anecdotes are drawn from life experiences about such things as appetites, playing soccer, visiting IKEA, religion, show Backman to be the best husband and father and man as possible at the same time as being true to himself. This is a book of honesty and truth and humour.

THE NEXT GREAT PAULIE FINK by Ali Benjamin (middle years novel)

When her mother relocates to a small town in Vermont, Caitlyn Breen is forced to attend a rural middle school. She is one of only ten students in the seventh grade. Paulie Fink used to belong to the school but his disappearance is a mystery, especially since he was known for his mischief, humor and intellect. A reality show competition is established to help find ‘the next great Paulie Fink’. The book is written in short chapters that includes interview format, text messages,  and lists. A story of quirky relationships… and self-discovery… and belonging. An enjoyable read, but not as appealing as author’s debut novel The Thing About Jellyfish.

SMALL ISLAND adapted by Helen Edmundson from the novel by Andrea Levy (script)

After seeing the wonderful production of this play as an NT Live Event, I read the beautiful script centred on the story of Jamaicans who settled in Britain in Audience members who saw the play, and readers of the novel and or script cannot help to cheer for Hortense who years for a new life away from rural Jamaica, and Queenie, who long to escape her rural English roots.

KADDISH.COM by Nathan Englander (adult novel)

When his father dies, Larry refuses to recite the Kaddish (Jewish prayer for the dead), even though as the only surviving son, it is his responsibility to do so. Lo and behold, Larry discovers a website where a stranger can say the daily prayers and usher his father’s soul to safety. As the novel unfolds (in four parts), Larry struggles to deal with the consequences of his cynical plan. Larry transforms back to his original name and identity as Shuli, and his Hasidic roots. He becomes a  Yeshiva teacher, is comfortably married with  two children but and goes on a quest to find the stranger he once hired to fulfill his obligations. An at times amusing, bizarre and disturbing story of following Jewish tradition in the face of modern times. Philip Roth would be very pleased with this novel (I think!).

SHOUTING AT THE RAIN by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (middle years novel)

What a great writer, author of Fish in a Tree,  Lynda Mullaly Hunt is. Delsie and her grandmother reside in Cape Cod, each showing devotion to one another, especially since Delsie’s mother has abandoned her. A wonderful cast of characters that includes Ronan (a fisherman’s son who prefers who’d rather throw creatures back in to the sea than eat them), Brandie (a ‘used to be’ best friend), Tressa (a conniving ‘mean girl). Words of wisdom about meeting life’s challenges abound in this book (mostly through the voice of Grammy) in this warm story about belonging, loyalty, overcoming diversity and shouting at the rain and knowing that ‘the sun will come out tomorrow’. (The musical Annie is featured in the plot).

ALL THE GREYS ON GREENE STREET by Laura Tucker (middle years novel)

This is a debut novel by the author and she has done a fine job of telling an intriguing story set mostly set in the Soho streets of New York. Though set in the 80’s the time period seem to be an important feature to lift  the story.  All the Greys on Greene Street has the flavour of  E.L. Konigsburg’s popular novel From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E.Frankenweiler as a trio of friends  depend on each other and work together to solve problems of family, love and art.  Twelve-year-old Olympia, a talented young artist, is at is the centre of the story and must deal with the severe depression of her mother (who refuses to get out of bed) and the disappearance of her father , an art restorer, who seems to be caught in a forgery scheme.  This is a book layered with mystery and strong emotion, especially with the plight of Olympia dealing with her mother’s mental illness.

THE WORLD’S WORST TEACHERS by David Walliams (short stories)

That rude rascal of an author is at it again, this time in a collection of short stories about bad bad teachers, that includes wild adventures with Miss Seethe who liberally assigns detentions to anyone  who blinks, blows his nose, smiles on school premise or for having one ear larger than another; Mr. Pent who loathes (and confiscates) balls in all shapes and sizes:. Mrs. Splatt the dinner lady who cooked stinky stew with all kinds of things floating about (a hearing aid, a hedgehog, a used handkerchief, a scouring pad), and Doctor Dread, the science teacher infamous for his chair of a thousand farts.  Funny funny funny.  Crude crude crude. This book is filled with farts, and boogers, and mean teachers is ‘snot’ for everyone’s tastes.

THE NICKEL BOYS by Colson Whitehead (adult novel)

Whitehead, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Underground Railroad, has written a novel, based on a stark event in history where black boys ‘disappeared’ from a reform school in Florida only to be discovered about fifty years later when their bodies were dug up from their grave sites. The Nickel Boys tells the story of two boys who were sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era. Elwood Curtis, tries to maintain a reputable lifestyle under the guidance of his grandmother. He is determined to go to college, but an innocent mishap leads him to be sentenced to Nickel Academy, where sadistic staff abuses the students. A stark narrative of injustice, fate and resilience.

SHOUT OUT #1

THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS by Ann Braden (middle years novel)

The Benefits of Being an Octopus

Zoey, a seventh-grader, is smothered with her family obligations and her role as caregiver for her younger siblings. Living in poverty, Zoe tries to stay under the radar, stay positive and make the most of her troubles, even though her teacher advises her to ‘Suck it up!’.  Zoey can tell you everything you need to know about octopuses and the animal serves as a metaphor for her daily struggles at home and at school. The author packs a wallop in this debut novel by presenting a family who lives from paycheck to paycheck, a mother reluctant to confront an abusive relationship, and brave girl trying to cope and find a voice (literally) in her middle school life. Facts about the octopus, procedures about the debate club, and the challenges of taking care of our friends and family are presented in this compassionate, and at times humourous, novel. One of my favourite reads this summer which I highly recommend. (ages 9-13).

SHOUT OUT #2

The 10PM Question by Kate De Goldi

Image result for the 10 pm question

Huge thanks to my colleague Shelley Stagg Peterson who brought me this award -winning “Book of the Year” title from New Zealand.  Frankie is a neurotic teenager who bravely tries to cope with his persistent anxieties and his quirky family that includes a demanding older sister, three feisty great aunts, a rascal brother, Uncle George (his father) and a mother who, after nine years refuses to leave the house. Gigs and Frankie are great friends. When a new girl, Sydney, arrives in his class, Frankie discovers a new soulmate who helps him to get through the life’s foibles (Sydney has her own family troubles). This terrific New Zealand author paints vivid images of her characters and presents a strong voice and the sympathetic soul of a teenage boy who would likely be a great friend to Holden Caulfield. I loved this funny,  heartwarming, special book!

SHOUT OUT

WE RISE WE RESIST WE RAISE OUR VOICES

Essays, Art, Poems, Stories, Letters

Over 50 voices shouting out take action,  be kind, and make a difference

A dazzling collection of writing and visuals by diverse voices sharing perspectives, wisdom and encouragement for readers to stay strong, be hopeful and spread kindness. 

Three Excerpts…

What songs will our children sing to their children?

What inspiration will they find in the words?

The songs that our children sing to their children

Will be songs we teach our children to sing.

          ~ Curtis Hudson /Page 65

Walk through each day and out of it, knowing the blanket of love each of you is wrapped in and ready to pen that blanket to others.

         ~ Jacqueline Woodson, “Kindness is a Choice” / page 18

Everything bad and frightening and loud

will always hide when you hold your head up,

will always hide when you hold your heart out,

will always sing a shrinking song

when you fly.

          ~ Jason Reynolds, “A Talkin’-To” / page 73

We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices

 

BEING GAY, BEING PROUD

 

This posting shines a light on fiction and nonfiction gay characters  coming to terms with their identities, their coming out experiences and their questioning relationships with family and friends.

WHAT IF IT’S US by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera (YA)

Boy meets boy. Boy loses boy. Boy finds boy (about 100 pages later). Boys fall in love. Boys disagree and separate. Boys reconnect and then ‘carry on’.  This story is told in alternative voices of Ben and Arthur and is and provides honest insights into the dating game and the challenge and thrill of finding love as a gay (or straight) teenager. An up-to-the minute setting, social media, Hamilton (the musical) and all. Highly enjoyable read.

BIRTHDAY by Meredith Russo (YA)

Born on the same day, Eric and Morgan have maintained deep bonds, and deep secrets, which become tested in adolescenthood. Morgan feels trapped in a mixed-up body and Eric feels trapped by his romantic preferences. The book is written in alternating voices and chunked into sections that recognize the two boys birthdays from 13 to 18 years of age. A story about devout loyalty, being gay, and questioning gender identity and a novel to be celebrated not only for its engaging story, but for its authenticity having been written by a transgender author. Bravo, Meredith Russo.

THE  57 BUS by Dashka Slater (YA nonfiction)

Sasha identifies as transgender. Richard is an Afro American adolescent, reckless and carefree. A ride on Bus 57 brings these two young people together through a harrowing incident that has Richard setting fire to Sasha’s skirt while she is sleeping. Sasha is severely burned and Richard is sent to juvenile prison awaiting charges for the hate crime.  What makes this story particularly gutsy as the incident is true. This is a story of class, race, gender, right and wrong, justice and injustice. Events are reported episodically in one to four page spreads. This news story from 2013 will engage readers, arouse empathy and ignite questions about morality and forgiveness and the of executing a hateful deed ‘just for the fun of it. Powerful.

DEPOSING NATHAN by Zack Smedley (YA fiction)

Nate and Cam have been best friends throughout their whole lives and their journey as adolescents challenge their relationship and expose their attraction to one another. An incident involving a fistfight lands Cam in Jail. The story is told as a deposition, where Nate is being ordered, under oath, to confess some truths that will change their lives.

LAURA DEAN KEEPS BREAKING UP WITH ME by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (YA Graphic novel)

Frederica (Freddy), an Asian teenager, is besoughted with Laura Dean who chooses to casually move in and out of romantic adventures, which breaks Freddy’s heart. Artist, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell uses black, white, grey and salmon pink to present some stark visual images. Visuals are well crafted and varied in perspectives, but % of the visuals being wordless, they didn’t always add to the narrative or emotional impact of this lesbian relationship. Really the title says it all, but it this story of longing, delusions and heartbreak is often heartbreaking that is part of many adolescent romantic experiences, straight or gay .

ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong (adult fiction)

What an intriguing poetic title! What an intriguing, poetic story! Ocean Vuong is staggering writer. The book is written as a letter from son to mother and is rooted in Vietnamese history, familial ties, masculinity and gay love. A strong, strange, marvelous read.

SHOUT OUT (picture book)

A PLAN FOR POPS by Heather Smith; illus. Brooke Kerrigan

Grandpa and Pops are a couple. Granddaughter Lou visits her grandparents every Saturday and enjoys good times going to the library, eating inventive meals (spaghetti and waffles) and building contraptions. One day, Pops has a fall and is confined to his room. This is a beautiful picture book, with simplicity and aptly deserves the adjective ‘heartwarming’. The relationship between the two senior men and the loving care given to grandchild Lou is told with simplicity and yes, normalcy.  Lovely!

A Plan for Pops

 5 Middle Years Novels

Hurricane Child Kheryn Callendar

The Lotterys Plus One Emma Donoghue

One True Way Shannon Hitchcock

Stitches Glen Huser

The Best Man Richard Peck

5 YA Novels

Moon at Nine Deborah Ellis

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children Kirsten Cronn-Mills

Be My Love Kit Pearson

Gracefully Grayson Ami Polonsky

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Saez

YA FICTION

I cared for  – cheered for –  each of the characters in the Young Adolescent novels listed  below.

WHAT IF IT’S US by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

Boy meets boy. Boy loses boy. Boy finds boy (about 100 pages later). Boys fall in love. Boys disagree and separate. Boys reconnect and then ‘carry on’.  This story is told in alternative voices of Ben and Arthur and is and provides honest insights into the dating game and the challenge and thrill of finding love as a gay (or straight) teenager. An up-to-the minute setting, social media, Hamilton (the musical) and all. Highly enjoyable read.

DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY by Adib Khorram (ages 12-14)

Like his father, Darius takes medication to control his depression. A Fractional Persian (his mother’s side), the adolescent has some difficulty fitting in with others at school. When his grandfather is diagnosed with cancer, Darius travels to Iran with his family. A strong friendship is developed with a neighbourhood boy named Sohrab and the two boys feel that they can tell each other anything.  Darius realizes that his visit is only temporary but in that short time he learns more about his grandparents, his parents (especially his father), his sister and his culture.  The author has done a fine job of opening a window for readers to Persian culture as well as insights into the life – and growth – of a troubled teenager.

THE GIVER by Lois Lowry, adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell (graphic novel)

Since it’s release in 1993, The Giver has been read by millions (particularly young adolescents).  This story of a boy who lives in a future community where everyone is the same has been transformed into a play, a movie, and an opera. The graphic adaptation is a perfect vehicle to tell the story in another art form. Much of the images are monochromatic black, white and washes of blue and splashes of colour emerge is given the power to maintain memories.

CHICKEN GIRL by Heather Smith

Ebb & Flow, and The Agony of Bun O’Keefe were absolutely two of my favourite reads last year and I so looked forward to Heather Smith’s new novel.  It’s fantastic! Poppy and Cam are two twin teenagers whose relationship is deepened by their varied outlooks on life. Poppy has issues with body images and is hired to dress up as  a chicken mascot to advertise the local restaurant. Cam is an openly gay teen who strives to maintain an optimistic outlook on life with all that he encounters. When Poppy meets a young girl named Miracle who is sheltered by a group of homeless people, she struggles to come to terms with the good and bad in the world. This novel is full of heart, albeit an aching one at times, and unforgettable characters. Kudos to Poppy, Cam, Miracle.. and Heather Smith.

OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt

A beautifully-written coming-of-age story by author Gary D. Schmidt (The Wednesday Wars) who skillfully captures the voice and heart of his characters. Doug Swieteck lives in upstate New York in a place he calls ‘The Dump’.  His father is abusive, his one brother is trouble, another returns disabled from Vietnam and his mother has the best smile of anyone in the world. Doug is obsessed with the Birds of America plates of John James Audubon and with mentorship, he strives to imitate Audubon’s style. As stories about young adolescents, Doug struggles to find a place of belonging, struggling to fit in at school, at home and in a small community.  I really loved this book, but was rather dismayed with the final chapters which stretched some believability (e.g., adventure on Broadway episode).

LAURA DEAN KEEPS BREAKING UP WITH ME by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (Graphic novel)

Frederica (Freddy), an Asian teenager, is besoughted with Laura Dean who chooses to casually move in and out of romantic adventures, which breaks Freddy’s heart. Artist, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell uses black, white, grey and salmon pink to present some stark visual images. Visuals are well crafted and varied in perspectives, but didn’t always add to the narrative or emotional impact of this lesbian relationship. Really the title says it all, but it this story of longing,

BE MORE CHILL by Ned Vizzini

Jeremy longs for popular, beautiful Christine, and even though he knows he doesn’t stand a chance, he think of ways to succeed. When a pill-sized computer (“The Squip”) that can be swallowed is offered to him, Jeremy jumps on the chance since the The Squip brings on anything one desires in life. Under the control of this supercomputer, Jeremy becomes the coolest dude in the class. But being under the influence of the ‘drug’ can of course lead to disasters.  Teenage fans have connected enthusiastically to the  trapped feelings offered by his fictional characters (It’s Kind of A Funny Story; House of Secrets).  Be More Chill has been transformed into an off-Broadway musical sensation. The musical now appears on Broadway.  Ned Vizzini committed suicide in 2013.

SHOUT OUT

The 10PM Question by Kate De Goldi

Image result for the 10 pm question

Huge thanks to my colleague Shelley Stagg Peterson who brought me this award -winning “Book of the Year” title from New Zealand.  Frankie is a neurotic teenager who bravely tries to cope with his persistent anxieties and his quirky family that includes a demanding older sister, three feisty great aunts, a rascal brother, Uncle George (his father) and a mother who, after nine years refuses to leave the house. Gigs and Frankie are great friends. When a new girl, Sydney, arrives in his class, Frankie discovers a new soulmate (who’s not his girlfriend) who helps him to get through the life’s foibles (Sydney has her own family troubles). This terrific New Zealand author paints vivid images of her characters and presents a strong voice and the sympathetic soul of a teenage boy who would likely be a great friend to Holden Caulfield. I loved this funny,  heartwarming, special book!

 

DIVERSE IDENTITIES: Middle Years Fiction

The novels listed below are linked by their diverse narratives of diverse circumstances. Race, Culture, Class and the refugee experience can be found in the books listed below, helping middle age readers to understand how our  identities shapes our lives and  how strength and courage can help us to combat intolerance and hate.

BLENDED by Sharon M. Draper

For me, Draper is best recognized for her beautiful novel Out Of My Mind. In this new novel, the author tells the story of eleven year old Isabella, who is the daughter of divorced parents, one black, one white. Isabella’s life, and the structure of the book is mostly divided into Mom weeks and Dad’s weeks where thus testing her flexibility and attempts to comply with the circumstances. Throughout the book, Isabella, a talented pianist, questions her identity as a blended person and this quest to understand the self and find a place of belonging is at the heart of the novel. An episode at the novel’s climax is rather surprising, somewhat unbelievable and in the end significant to help this girl and readers understand how society looks at us, particularly when someone of colour, or even blended.

MASCOT by Antony John

After surviving a car crash which killed his father, Noah Sorvino, paralyzed, is stuck in wheelchair. Readers are likely to feel empathy with Noah as he struggles with the realities of being disabled and the guilt of being the one to survive the accident. The game of baseball helps Noah to overcome his fears and move forward to meet life’s challenges, small and large. An important addition to novels helping readers to gain understanding of people who are physically challenged.

THE PARKER INHERITANCE by Varian Johnson

For those who like mystery stories, this novel is intriguing as two friends attempt to solve  the mystery of the Parker Inheritance which involves a huge amount of money and a generous anonymous donor. But more than a mystery, this story, jumping back and forth in time, is a strong story about injustice and prejudice against African Americans both past and present.

THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE by Kekla Magoon

Styx Malone, a foster child,  becomes a hero for Caleb and his brother Bobby Gene. Despite the wishes of the brothers parents, the friendship develops as the boys get involved in shenanigans that involve firecrackers, a lawn mower and a moped. I felt I could have put this book down at any time, but the story gains momentum in the last third as character relationships are strengthened.

A LONG WALK TO WATER by Linda Sue Park

This book, based on a true story, brings to love the story of one ‘lost boy’ refugee who was forced to flee his village in war-torn Sudan and travel across Africa hoping to find salvation. Another strong feature of this book, is the additional narrative of  a young girl in South Sudan, 2008, who is responsible for making journeys to a faraway pond, twice a day, to gather water in jugs for her family. This is an essential book to share with middle year readers to gain understanding of refugees who persevered to survive strife and to find a place called home when they are caught in the horrors of war.

PAY ATTENTION, CARTER JONES by Gary D. Schmidt

The family of Carter Jones falls into chaos each day. The arrival of Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick provides a dream solution to the family as he fulfills his duty as a butler perfectly. Not only is he a savior at bringing order and  pulling the family together, he has a special bond and helps  Carter Jones adjust to the challenges of middle school. A daschund that throws up easily and the game of cricket play an important part in this funny, warmly-engaging novel.

SHOOTING KABUL by N.H. Senzai

It is 2001 and Fadi and his family have left war-torn Afghanistan to find a better life, but sadly circumstances have forced the family to leave behind six-year-old Mariam. Fadi gradually settles  into his new school, finding comfort in a hobby for taking photographs. However with the events of 9/11, the young boy comes face to face with news incidents and hateful students who feel that people like Fadi and his family are responsible for terrorism.  A great read that should touch the hearts of young readers.

PAPER WISHES by Lois Sepahan

Ten-year-old Manami and her family are forced by the government to leave their home and join other Japanese Americans at a prison camp. Manami finds refuge by creating drawings, especially ones of her dog Yujin who was left be significant novel, helping young readers understand the injustices of forcing Japanese evacuate, relocate and live and work in internment camps.

OTHER WORDS FOR HOME by Jasmine Warga

In this free verse novel, Jude and her mother find refugee with family in Cincinnati while her father and brother remain behind in the turmoil threatening Syria.   Jude slowly adjusts to school life as she learns English and finds friends. However as Middle Eastern girl, she also comes against the harshness of Islamophobia. An important story of culture, identity and understanding of ‘home’.

SHOUT OUT (Picture Book)

HOW TO READ A BOOK

by Kwame Alexander; Illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Evocative poem by Alexander intertwines with bright collages by Melissa Sweet shine a spotlight on this thing called reading.

Don’t rush through:

Your eyes need time to taste.

Your soul needs

Room to bloom.

How to Read a Book