Sunday, November 27, 2016

We Need Diverse Picture Books

I continue to search for picture books to incorporate into my classroom library, the more diverse, the better. At the 2016 International Literacy Association conference, Adora Svitak said, "Understanding starts with the stories we read." By providing access to diverse books, we open students' minds and worlds. I can't think of a more appropriate time for these books than right now.

The Soccer Fence tells the story of Hector, a young boy growing up in South Africa during apartheid. He spends many years watching other boys playing soccer through a fence, but never gets asked to join them. When Nelson Mandela is released from prison, things begin to change. 

Framed through soccer, this is a book that will appeal to my students. They'll be excited to learn more about the Bafana Bafana team and enjoy Jesse Joshua Watson's illustrations of the fan reactions to the team's win. I thought it was a bit unrealistic how the other children's opinions of Hector changed so quickly, but would highlight how similar their interests were, despite different backgrounds.

Stranger in the Mirror has to be one of the strangest picture books I've ever read. While searching our library for books about social justice issues, I turned to the Allen Say section, because his work is usually poignant. While this book does attempt to tackle ageism, it is so bizarre that it doesn't seem to work.

One day, Martin wakes up and he looks like a very old man. Doctors can't find a reason why and he feels okay, so he is sent to school. Martin's classmates ridicule him and his sister starts to call him, "Grandpa." Martin struggles with the change until he realizes he is the same, no matter how he looks.

There are social justice issues here, but my students will be so distracted by the odd plot that they won't be able to focus. On a positive note, Say's illustrations are gorgeous, as always.

Your Move is such a gem for teachers; it can be used as a mentor text for so many different units. I'll be using it as part of our social issues unit, focusing on peer pressure.

James will do anything to join the K-Bones, even sneaking out his younger brother late at night to vandalize some property. While he knows it's wrong, he wants so badly to fit in that he loses focus on what he should do.

The text is simple enough for any reader, but the issues are complex. We'll be discussing what small issues get resolved in the book, as well as which larger issues remain. This book belongs in every school's classroom. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Poet Slave of Cuba

As mentioned many times before (hereherehere, here, and here), I love Margarita Engle's writing. What a gift to learn about Cuba's history through novels in verse. The Poet Slave of Cuba is no exception; it tells the story of Juan Francisco Manzano. 

Juan was born a slave in Cuba and was treated as a pet by his master, whom he was made to call Mama. He learned to recite long pieces of literature and then did so at parties for applause. Meanwhile, his true parents watched and worried about their son. Juan was a gifted poet, and when he got a new master, he needed the beauty of poetry to help him through the torture she puts him through. 

The punishments that Juan receives are disturbing, which makes this book much darker than Engle's typical stories. While Juan finds solace in beautiful words, I think that middle grade readers would be upset to learn about his torture. Still, I am happy it is in my classroom library and hope that there are students who want to read it. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The White Giraffe

In my class, I have several bins of animal books, which range in quality from Kate DiCamillo's excellent works to the Animal Ark series, about which the less said, the better. I'm happy to have another quality book to add to the bins.

Something that has come up a lot in my recent reading is helping my students balance their desire to grow as readers and read all the 'hot' books like Red Queen, and what is actually appropriate for them. A lot of the time, when they finish a heavy series, they feel unmoored and want something light and safe. A palate cleanser that reminds them that the whole world isn't a dystopia. Lauren St. John's The White Giraffe is a book I could hand those students.

After the tragic death of her parents, Martine moves to her grandmother's wildlife reserve in South Africa. It is there that she learns the legend of the white giraffe and realizes that she might have some special gifts when it comes to healing hurt animals. A white giraffe is the rarest animal on earth, so Martine must protect her new friend before poachers can harm him.

I might be accused of being overly sensitive, but I was slightly uncomfortable about this white girl moving to Africa (almost always referred to that way, not referring to the specific country where it is set) to be a savior to the animals. While the setting is authentic, I wish that Martine had made friends with people of African heritage.

Overall, it has a good mystery and won't feel 'babyish' to my animal book lovers. There are more books in the series which I will add to the collection if this novel is popular.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

One of my students has recently moved to China after living in The Bahamas for six years. Understandably, he had many different emotions. China and The Bahamas have a complex relationship right now, so I wanted him to have a positive mindset about the move. As always, it comes back to a book for me. He and I read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon together.

Although it is set in China, this book brought me back to my childhood love of The Wizard of Oz. It has all the hallmarks of that classic: a young girl on a quest, different strangers who help her along the way, overcoming challenges, and many lessons learned. I've mentioned before that my sixth graders are at an interesting stage as readers: they will push themselves to read more mature books, but occasionally want the comfort of a beautiful story for children. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is that kind of book, like a warm blanket being tucked around you on a cold night. It brought comfort to my student before his move, and it will be a book I recommend frequently to students in need of a feel-good story.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Night Divided

A Night Divided made me realize that I've never read a middle grade or YA book about the Berlin Wall. It's interesting because there are so many books for young readers about WWII, but not many about what happened afterwards. For that alone, I think this book is worth adding to a classroom library.

Gerta's father has always been under suspicion of being unfaithful to the East German government, but they never thought anything would come from it. Until the night that a wall goes up, with Gerta's father and brother on the western side, and Gerta, her mother, and other brother Fritz left behind in East Germany. Years go by under the oppressive regime until Gerta decides that it is worth the risk to try and escape to the west. With the clock ticking down until Fritz has to report for military duty, the children decide to dig a tunnel. But they've lived so long in a society where no one can be trusted, it's only a matter of time before someone betrays them.

I enjoyed Nielsen's The False Prince and she uses her skill with pacing to give the novel an intense final third. This is a middle grade novel, so the interrogation tactics of the Stasi are glossed over, but the society is familiar enough to the dystopian novels my students enjoy that they would understand. I found there to be too many conveniences that would only happen in a middle grade novel: there just happens to be a pond where Gerta and Fritz can hide the dirt from the tunnel, the father just happens to know of a bomb shelter with weak walls, etc. These lend an air of incredibility to the novel for the adult reader, but young readers will eat it up. I think there are enough students who are interested in reading about WWII that they would read this on their own after a book talk.