Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Red Pencil, by Andrea Davis Pinkney






We begin with Amira's 12 birthday.  She is finally old enough to wear a toob yet young enough to enjoy her Dando lifting her to the sky.  Amira lives on a farm in South Darfur surrounded by friends and family, but changes are afoot.  Amira's best friend Halima and her family are packing their things and moving to the city.  They say the city has more opportunities.  Amira wishes she could go with them to Nyala and attend the Gad Primary School with Halima.  Amira is not so sure about her Muma's old fashioned ways.

                  "She does not like the idea of Gad,
                    or any place where girls learn
                    to read
                    or write,
                    in Arabic or English
                    or think beyond a life
                    of farm chores and marriage." (p. 13 arc)

Soon, the extra chores of 12, missing Halima, and trying to solve the ongoing bickering between her father and villager Old Anwar seem anything but troubling.  The relative peace of her village is shattered when the Janjaweed  attack, changing Amira's very existence.

Amira and the other survivors must pick up the pieces and leave the ruins of the village to find safety.  Their trek takes them to the refugee camp Kalma - the Displaced People's Camp.  Amira doesn't like this space surrounded by fences and barbed wire.

                    "Everywhere I look,
                      I see
                      people, people, and more people.

                      I'm glad to stop walking.
                      I'm glad we have finally reached who-knows-where.
                      But already I do not like this place." (arc p. 139)

It would be easy enough to give up in such a desperate place with no real end in sight.  Amira and her family have lost so much.  But when Amira meets Miss Sabine and is given a gift of a red pencil she discovers some things about herself, her family and those on the journey with her.

Written in free verse, The Red Pencil is a story of family and loss and hope.  It was eye opening for me on a number of levels.  One is that it is so easy for me not to see what is happening in the world from my perch here in NYC.  The horrors of Darfur in the early 2000s seemed so far away in time and place that I wonder how many people in North America are aware of what was happening.  I find myself very impressed with the deftness of Andrea Davis Pinkney's hand when it came to writing the passages dealing with the violence.  She truly tells the story from a 12 year old's point of view, and the free verse format allows for silences that speak volumes.  The illustrations by Shane W. Evans are playful within this serious book and somehow bring a feeling of safety to the pages.

A must read for librarians, teachers and students.


Monday, September 01, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

I was lucky enough to hear Jacqueline Woodson speak about and read from Brown Girl Dreaming during the School Library Journal Day of Dialog last spring.  If any of you have seen Woodson before, you know she is charming, and dynamic and funny.  She read a few poems from the book and spoke of her family and writing life.  Like the rest of the librarians, I waited in line to speak with Ms. Woodson and have an arc signed, but 10 minutes or so into the wait I knew this arc wasn't going to be for me to keep.  Instead, I had it signed for a student and gave it to her when I saw her next.   So like so many others, I waited for the book birthday to get my hands on the hard cover copy on the day of its' release.

I'm not sure I can add much to the conversation around this book, as I agree with the buzz.  Brown Girl Dreaming is more than a book or a memoir....it is a gift.  We follow Jacqueline and her changing family from Ohio to South Carolina and up to NYC and each poem is a revelation of sorts that brings the reader through the timeline of Woodson's life.  From the "how to listen" haikus to poems like "sometimes, no words are needed", "stevie", and "as a child, i smelled the air" I found myself closing the book to pause again and again.

I had posted a photo of "stevie" on Instagram and commented that I was swooning over this book, and a friend commented that her copy is so dog-eared that she isn't going to share it with her students.  It made me comment back that this is the kind of book you carry around with you.  I will take the dust jacket off, and place it in my school bag.  And when the world gets to be a little too much, I will open the pages and gift myself with a little bit of magic.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier

Molly and Kip are trying to find the Windsors, their new home of employment, but the locals are not making it easy for them.  Every time Molly asks, they speak of the sour woods and tell Molly that she should stay away.  But it's not like Molly has a choice - she and her brother are far from home and without parents.  When they encounter Hester Kettle on the road, they seem to have found a piece of luck.  She is willing to tell the children how to get to the Windsors for a promise of future stories. Molly agrees and they are soon on their way.

Molly's introduction to the family is a far cry from welcoming.  Hired by the Windsor's solicitor, Constance has no idea Molly is coming and is less than pleased to find her telling stories to her young daughter Penny in the dusty foyer of the house.  Constance and her son Alistair want Molly and Kip to leave immediately, but Molly is able to use her gift of the gab to convince them that they would much rather live in a well tended house, and that she and Kip can provide it for them.

She will soon live to regret this move, as the family and the house seem to be harboring dark secrets.  While she is able to throw herself into the ample work of cleaning up the household during the day, it is at night when Molly is most afraid.  Every night since she's been sleeping in the house, she has been having terrible nightmares.  And it turns out the darkness isn't just in her mind.  She wakes to find her door open, leaves in her hair and mud on the floor.

As it turns out, the Night Gardener Miss Polly has mentioned is real.  He wanders the house and the grounds at night and has his hand in the nightmares of the household.

And he is not the only dark element at the Windsors' place.  The tree, growing much too close to the house, is more than it seems as well, and will soon ensnare Molly as it has the Windsors.

This is a deliciously scary story that will have readers up into the night to finish. Jonathan Auxier is one of those writers who seems like he's been around forever.  Not because there are a plethora of his books lining the shelves, but because he is a craftsman.  His books have a timeless quality to them and are made of the stuff with staying power.  The Windsor's legacy is slowly revealed piece by piece which helps bring the suspense level to that of a slow burn.  He explores the themes of human weakness and greed, family and loyalty with aplomb.  The setting is expertly laid out and even now as I close my eyes I can see the grounds, the stables and the green door.

Fans of dark fantasy, Victorians, and well crafted stories will be left shivering with delight.




Monday, August 11, 2014

Nest, by Esther Ehrlich

"I should have taken the shortcut home from my bird-watching spot at the salt marsh, because then I wouldn't have to walk past Joey Morell, whipping rocks against the telephone pole in front of his house as the sun goes down." (p. 1)  If you know anything about me, I am a sucker for a good first line, and this one has got the goods.

This is Chirp's (Naomi's) story.  Well, her family's story really.  Her mom is a dancer who has suddenly started to have some problems with her body.  Her leg is dragging around and has been hurting her for a while, but Chirp's somewhat clinical and distant psychiatrist dad isn't really talking about it.  Big sister Rachel is distancing herself as well as she tries on teendom for the first time.

When Chirp's mom is diagnosed with MS the family verily falls apart.  Hannah's existence has always been that of a dancer, and she quickly falls into a deep depression and nobody in the family really knows how to cope.  Chirp finds an ally in a very unexpected person - Joey Morell.

Joey's family is one that Chirp's family looks down on.  They have a 3 sons who run amok, but their problems go deeper than that.  Chirp and Joey find common ground, and as two kids who ultimately are scared and feeling abandoned, they cement their friendship as they slowly reveal the pain inside each of their houses.

I don't want to spoil the plot so I will leave it there, but will also say that Ehrlich is part poet and part magician as she weaves this tale together.  "Ice-blue quiet smacks me when I open the front door after school." (p. 86)  "A little square of my blouse is stuck to my upper arm, like the wrinkly paper on a temporary tattoo before you lift it off and leave a splotchy red heart or yellow smiley face behind." (p. 164)  "The air's already thick and warm, even though the sun's still just a spritz of light in the pitch pines and the scrub oaks and not a hot, round ball bouncing on the top of my head, like it will be soon." (p. 12)  Swoon.

For sure, this is a story filled with heavy and heady stuff.  But it is through the eyes of Chirp, so while it is indeed sad, it is never too much.  It is gorgeous, quiet and filled with hope.  I fell in love with Chirp and Joey as I read. They simply became real, and I turned the pages late into the night because I could not leave their story unfinished.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

El Deafo, by Cece Bell

After an illness at age 4, Cece loses her hearing.  She is soon equipped with a hearing aid that involves wearing a pouch around her neck attached to some "ear globs".  Cece is happy to hear again, but now has to learn how to understand once more.  To top things off, Cece now has to go to a new school.

A good thing about the new school is the other kids are wearing hearing aids too, and Cece is learning some useful skills like lip reading and using visual, context and gestural clues to help in understanding.  Cece is just finding her way, when her family decides to leave the city and head to the country, where she will be going to a regular school.

Cece gets a brand-new-BIG-for-school-only-around-the-neck hearing aid (The Phonic Ear) that comes with a microphone for her teacher to wear and is superpowerful.  What nobody expects is that it comes with the added feature of having a super long range, allowing Cece to hear not only her teacher teaching, but whatever her teacher is doing when she is out of the room as well (yes...even *that*!).

Cece has to negotiate the things that all kids go through at school - including navigating a friend who is not-so-nice, and getting her first crush.  Things unique to her situation include dealing with friends who TALK TOO LOUD AND TOO SLOW, and those who refer to her as their "deaf friend".

This is more than a graphic memoir - it is a school and family story for all kids.  Cece is an imaginative and emotional kid with whom readers will identify.  There is an accessibility to Bell's art that immediate draws you in and you can't help but cheer with her successes and cringe with her tears.  Fans of Telgemeier and Varon will readily scoop this up off of the shelves, and it *will* be passed hand to hand.  I am certain I will see many doodles of Cece and her friends in the margins of writer's notebooks this coming school year.  Do yourself a favor...get more than one!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Under the Egg, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Theodora Tenpenny may live in Manhattan, but it's not a glamorous existence for her.  She lives in a ramshackle house with her absent minded math genius mother and her grandfather Jack.  But right on page 4, Jack is killed and leaves Theo only with the dying message of "Look under the egg."

Not much for a 13 year old who is trying to keep it together to go on.  So between gardening, taking care of her chickens and pickling for food, scanning the streets for useful objects and caring for her mother, Theo needs to unravel what her grandfather's wishes were.

Theo is up in her grandfather's art studio one day trying to figure out the mystery when a mouse runs up her leg and she jumps up and spills some rubbing alcohol on one of Jack's paintings - the painting unlike his other paintings.  The egg.  As Theo desperately tries to clean the rubbing alcohol off, the colors smear and smudge and she is devastated at losing this last bit of Jack.  But when she looks closely she realizes that under the egg, a different painting is revealing itself.  Could this be what Jack's dying words were about?

Theo is at a neighborhood diner owned by a friend of Jack's where she forms an unlikely friendship with Bodhi - another 13 year old who has just moved down the block and happens to have Hollywood parents.  Where Theo's existence is positively Little House on the Prairie, Bodhi's is the Jetsons in comparison.  Theo surprisingly lets Bodhi in on the secret painting, and soon with Theo's art history knowledge and Bodhi's internet skills, they are on the trail to the truth.

Woven into the text are explanations of fine art, as well as bits of history involving WWII.  There are also real life bits of NYC living including the Staten Island Ferry, Grace Church, the Met and the Jefferson Market Library.  All of these true things had me actually google Spinney Lane to see if it was one of those Manhattan streets I've walked by a million times but not walked down.

This is a solid summer mystery with a really fantastic sense of place.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

It's Summer Throwdown Time!

It's year 3 of the #summerthrowdown, y'all!  What is the summer throwdown, you ask? Well, it started as a friendly competition between teachers and librarians to see who could get the most reading done in a month. Over the years it has morphed into a read-o-rama, where we all try to read as much as we can to inform our readers advisory skills.

When I do the #summerthrowdown I tend to read across age groups so that I can recommend books to all constituents in our school - from the 4 year olds to the 15 year olds to parents and care givers.  So while you will be hearing about the tween titles more fully here, I am going to give a couple brief synopses of some of the books I have read and enjoyed that fall out of the tween age group.

First off we have Noggin, by John Corey Whaley.  Travis Coates opted for a radical treatment to his cancer - having his head removed and placed in a cyrogenics lab to await a possible body donation sometime in the future.  But the future comes sooner than anyone can imagine.  After only 5 years, Travis is still 16 and his best friend and girlfriend seem to have moved on, his parents are off and he feels like a freak.  How will he make it through this transformation?






Next, we have Alex London's follow up to Proxy called Guardian.  The Rebooters have taken over and the Reconciliation has placed Syd (Yovel) at its head, given him a bodyguard and are trying to reform the world.  Power, however, is an interesting thing and perhaps the leanings of those in charge of the Reconciliation aren't where they should be.  Larger than life characters and constant action will keep fans of the first installment wanting more.






A Time to Dance, by Padma Venkatraman is a stunning account of dancer Veda's journey as a dancer.  She has always wanted to dance, has breathed rhythm and feels strongly enough to go against her mother's wishes for her education.  Where a terrible crash leaves her an amputee, Veda has to find a way to dance again. Beautifully written, this story is a must read.







And finally Toms River, by Dan Fagin.  I am still working on this one, but this account of small towns and industrial pollution has this former resident of Niagara captivated.  I keep having to read bits aloud, because I simply cannot believe what was going on unbeknownst to most residents of Toms River in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Fascinating and horrifying all at once.







So head on over to the Summer Throwdown and get reading!