Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Somewhere Among

Unintentionally, it seems to be Japanese/American novel-in-verse week here at Devour Books! When I saw Somewhere Among listed on NetGalley.com, I was eager to see Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu's take on this theme.

I've read many of Holly Thompson's novels in verse, which usually are about feeling foreign, but in Somewhere Among, our protagonist Ema feels entirely at home in Japan. Although her mother is American, Ema is culturally Japanese. Other people may see her as foreign, but she thinks and acts like a Japanese child. I loved the glimpses into Japanese life and that Donwerth-Chikamatsu trusted the readers enough that she didn't explain everything in detail. For me, the best part of the book was feeling fully immersed in Japan while reading.

Unfortunately, the book was very sad and I don't know many middle grade readers who can take this much tragedy in a book. Somewhere Among features September 11th, living away from a beloved father, a bully whose mother hits him, a sickly grandfather, a mean grandmother, and a mother whose pregnancy puts her own and her baby's health in danger. The young readers I know could handle one or two of those problems, but it was fairly overwhelming. For foreigners living in Japan, there are never enough books to support your experience. Everyone else should read Holly Thompson's books.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Falling into the Dragon's Mouth

Holly Thompson is a treasure for foreigners in Japan.

Having lived in the country for sixteen years, she has the experience of being an outsider and her books, like Orchard and Falling into the Dragon's Mouth bring that to life. When I read one of her novels-in-verse, I am back in my Kagoshima days, trying to use the correct manners and doing my best to understand. I taught in Japan with an American man who had three children attending Japanese schools. I always wondered what life was like for them. This is a book that would have helped them so much.

Falling into the Dragon's Mouth is about Jason Parker, a sixth grader who attends public school and is shunned by his classmates for being different. Jason finds solace in aikido, where everyone starts at the same level and his language difficulties don't matter. Knowing how to do aikido is one thing, and being faced with a pack of bullies is another, especially in a culture where saving face is so important.

Thompson makes Jason's loneliness palpable and captures so many small parts of daily life. I am eager to track down Thompson's other books to be brought back to my Japanese days. I hope that every international school in Japan gets a copy for their library.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Gordon Korman is simply magic.

This has been the Year of Korman in grade five. The students flew through the Dive, Island, and Everest series. A few are trading copies of Swindle. Next, they are going to love Ungifted.

After a series of humorous events, troublemaker Donovan Curtis is accidentally sent to a school for gifted students, where he most definitely does not belong. Everyone knows it, but Donovan brings so much life and unpredictability to his new school, that they want to overlook it. Unfortunately, no one can run away from their mistakes, and hiding them makes it harder for everyone (a great lesson for middle grade readers). Luckily, things tend to work out for characters like Donovan, and Ungifted is no exception to that rule.

This is a genuinely funny book that will have readers rooting for Donovan. The gifted and "normal" students are fairly stereotypical, but I think readers are smart enough to know this. I love the personal growth that I saw in the characters, particularly Donovan. In many ways, he is a typical middle school student, full of unthinking actions and fearful of consequences. Readers will relate to his impulsivity and the way that he thrives wherever he is placed.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Nameless City

My students love anything presented in graphic novel form, so they would probably read this. As a more discerning reader, I want more from a book. This is too bad, because a fictional ancient civilization would fit in so well with what I teach.

I never got attached to any of the characters. I suppose the girl, Rat, was likable, but seemed to be a generic heroine. Faith Erin Hicks' illustrations were a bit rough for me, as well.

Not much to say except I was disappointed and won't be recommending this book to my students.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Picture Books About Bullying

Have you ever been unkind and unable to apologize or take it back? That's what Jacqueline Woodson's Each Kindness is all about.

Maya is the new girl in school: she wears second-hand clothes, plays old-fashioned games, and tries to fit in with the other children. Chloe and her friends are having none of it. They snub Maya and make jokes about her behind her back. One day, Maya doesn't return and the class' teacher shows them that every action has a ripple effect. Really, the teacher should have taught that lesson on Maya's second day, but no matter. That's all that happens in the book. Chloe can never apologize and the reader is left to decide if she will change.

The ending of Each Kindness is probably deeply unsatisfying for children, who want a happy ending and a simple solution for all problems. That's why this book is so powerful when it comes to teaching kids about bullying. Some actions can't be undone and we just need to live with them.

Patricia Polacco churns out "issue" picture books several times a year, but they always manage to be thoughtful and high quality. It's pretty impressive! This time, she has turned her pencil to bullying and how it looks in the digital age.

Interestingly, this picture book tells about middle school students and how a clique can quickly gain a member and then drop them. The characters are older than expected, but the same age as my students, so it works for me! Cady moves to a new school and befriends a friendly, chubby boy named Damien. They are great friends until the popular girls decide Cady is cool and let her sit with them and dress like her...and bully other people with them. Eventually, she has a change of heart and drops the cool girls, who are angry with her.

Oh, wait. That's the plot of the movie "Mean Girls." Just change the character names and it's the plot of Bully. It's fine with me, as my students haven't seen the movie yet, but I thought it was funny how similar the stories are. Still, I appreciated the small details, like how the popular girls would wear a clothing item on one page, and everyone else would be wearing it within a few pages. It's a good conversation starter, and that's really what we need when it comes to bullying.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Under a Painted Sky

Partway through Under a Painted Sky, I realized that I had never read a western before. What a pleasure for an avid reader to find an entire genre that is missing from my experience!

Not that I think this is a typical western. It follows Sammy, a Chinese teenager, who loses her father to tragedy and accidentally kills a man. She and a runaway slave, Andy, have to dress like boys to blend in with the many "Argonauts" who are heading west to seek their fortune. Chased by the law, they join up with a group of travelers and have a series of adventures and scrapes.

I really enjoyed this book, especially for all the action that occurred. It held genuine surprises for me and some pleasant connections, too. If I learned anything in elementary school computer class, it's that someone always gets cholera on the Oregon Trail. I found that I was less interested in the scenes about horses stampeding (probably why I've never read a western), but taken in by the setting and what life was like on the trail.

Most of all, I loved the friendships in the book. This reminded me so much of Copper Sun, which is a huge compliment because I think that is the pinnacle of YA historical fiction. There is a romance, sure, but the central relationship of the novel is between Sammy and Andy. I appreciate that message for teenage readers.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Language Inside

Oh boy, do I love Holly Thompson's books. After teaching in international schools for many years, in addition to teaching in Japan, there was so much to relate to here. The Language Inside is fantastic and an important read for third culture kids, the ones who don't feel like they fit perfectly anywhere.

Emma is technically American, although she was raised her entire life in Japan and her nakami (filling) is Japanese. When her mother needs to have surgery for breast cancer, she and her family move to Lowell, Massachusetts. Emma feels guilty and caught between two worlds: wanting to be a supportive daughter in the US, but wanting to be part of the tsunami cleanup in Japan. I've lived outside the US for sixteen years and I know the pull of loving people in many countries. Add on the fact that I was actually in Lowell when I read this, and it was perfection.

I miss having so much access to novels in verse. I love how Thompson uses it in The Language Inside. Emma suffers from migraines, which begin in the novel with a scattering of words, symbolizing the scattering of her thoughts.

I also adore when novels feature a Caucasian girl falling for an Asian boy; this diversity is important and welcome. The last time I saw that was in North of Beautiful. It's been too long.

Although Emma is a teenager, I would recommend The Language Inside to older middle school students, and I believe it should be in every international school's library.

Monday, March 7, 2016

What I Saw and How I Lied

A mystery filled with murder, adultery, and lies? Clearly this wasn't going to be a book talk for my 5th graders, which made reading it over vacation all the sweeter. I spent a day reading about intrigue in post WWII Palm Beach, Florida.

What I Saw and How I Lied is all about how Evie came of age in a rush, after years of wanting it to be so. After she learned the truth about the young man she loved and her parents, she would have given anything to go back to being the innocent girl from the start of the novel. As the author writes, "Being an adult--was this it? Doing the thing you most in your life didn't want to do, and doing it with a shrug?" This is a dark view of adulthood, and I wonder how it will impact the intended audience of teenage girls. I also wonder if they will be confused about what really happened in the story, when the mystery was fairly obvious throughout. Would teenagers really not figure it out, or was it written to make them feel superior to naive Evie?

There were some things that confused me, but I still enjoyed reading the book. It's a breezy vacation read that entertained me on a rainy day.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

We Need Diverse Picture Books

The We Need Diverse Books movement has brought to light the lack of diversity in many books. Readers need to be able to see themselves in stories and to see stories that resemble their lives. I've recently read picture books that perfectly exemplify diversity, both in subjects and characters.

A 2015 Caldecott Honor Book, Viva Frida is a really cool and original book. Written in both English and Spanish, I would definitely incorporate this into my study of verbs and culture if I was a Spanish teacher. (How many times a week do I say, "If I was a Spanish teacher..."?)

Viva Frida is gorgeously illustrated by author Yuyi Morales, who uses 3D puppets to demonstrate the appeal of Frida Kahlo. The reader won't get much information on Kahlo's life here, but the saturated colors and creative images capture the feeling of Kahlo's work and will inspire the reader to learn more about the subject. The simplicity of the language makes the book appropriate for even the youngest readers, who will be drawn to the colors and beauty of Morales' work. I'm glad I read this.

"Girls can't play drums." This was the rule in 1930s Cuba, even though it is a country that is filled with the constant rhythm of drums. Margarita Engle takes us through the journey of the Drum Dream Girl, who refuses to give up on what she wants.

At first, I wasn't crazy about the book. I love Margarita Engle (reviews here, here, here, and here) and have come to expect to learn a lot from her books. The transition from a novel-in-verse to picture book leaves less room to inform the reader. My opinion raised when I learned that the book was based on the life of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl who fought to become a drummer. This historical context is important to my appreciation of the book.

Rafael Lopez's illustrations were what we really knocked me out. I loved his choice of colors and that the book needs to be turned sideways to view the dancers on stilts at Carnivale. This is a book worth reading and I appreciate Engle's continued efforts to share Cuban culture and history with the world.

Love, love, love.

Phil Bildner's book, Marvelous Cornelius, reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, "Work is love made visible." Inspired by the life of Cornelius Washington, a New Orleans sanitation worker, it tells the story of love for a city and its people. Cornelius' spirit and positive attitude made him a real hero for his community. He loved his city before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.

John Parra's illustrations are what make me want to add this to my library. The colors pop off the page and the busy paintings bring New Orleans to life. There is so much to pore over in this beautiful tale of resilience. It will be interesting to pair with Don Brown's Drowned City. The books couldn't be more different and are both accessible to many readers, so could lead to excellent conversations about Hurricane Katrina and the response to it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Escape! The Story of The Great Houdini

One of my continuing goals is to find nonfiction books that excite my students the way that fiction does. There are some topics that fascinate children; books about sharks, Titanic, and Houdini are almost never on the shelf. I really enjoyed Sid Fleischman's Escape! The Story of The Great Houdini, but I don't know if it will be as popular with young readers as the picture book I read about him earlier this year.

Fleischman was a magician, which adds to his passion for the subject. He actually met Houdini's beloved widow, Bess, who gave him some of the photos published in the book. That personal touch is evident in the care that Fleischman takes with his subject. Still, the audience was unclear to me. If it is young readers, why use so much convoluted language and such meandering sentence structure? If it is for older readers, why is the font so large and why doesn't it go more into the gritty aspects of Houdini's childhood?

This confusion leaves me wondering what to do with this book? My best idea is to use passages from it as practice for standardized tests. The students will be interested in the topic, but will have to work hard to decipher the complex vocabulary and sentences. Definitely not what the author intended, but better than having the book languish unread on a shelf.