Thursday, March 29, 2007
As a person interested in history, I was enthralled with this book. I guess I had heard of the Scopes Trial in some high school history class, but I didn't really know anything about it. In Monkey Town, Ronald Kidd has managed to tell a good story while at the same time giving detailed and accurate descriptions of the summer of the Scopes Trial. Frances is a 15-year-old girl, and the daughter of one of the people who made the whole trial happen. She has a crush on her teacher, Johnny Scopes, and great admiration for her father, the head of the school board and owner of the local drug store. She has a front-row seat (literally) for the trial and all the action behind the scenes that caused it to happen in the first place. I was aware the whole time I was reading this book that the author was meticulously providing factual historical background, including actual transcripts from the trial, but that never made me lose interest. Sort of like Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac, it's definitely a vehicle for learning about history, but fortunately it's well done. Recommended for middle school students on up to adults.
I will admit that I don't read a lot of graphic novels, but I had to read this one since it won all kinds of awards this year, including the Printz Award and it was a National Book Award Finalist. I was surprised at how easy this was to read, because I have not found manga or some other kinds of comics easy to follow. The art is simple and expressive and perfectly matches the tone of the stories. I say stories because the book is made up of three story lines—one about a monkey king that doesn't want to be a monkey, one about an immigrant boy who has trouble fitting in at his school in the U.S., and one about an American boy with a Chinese cousin who embodies every stereotype imaginable and humiliates him year after year. Anyway, the stories come together at the end, and ultimately it's a story of how to take what life gives you and make something of it. It will be appreciated by anyone who struggles to be true to themselves.
I have never read a book about rodeos before. It didn't sound great to me, but I thought maybe it would be one that guys would be interested in. I was expecting some kind of cowboy story with lots of action. Surprisingly, this is much more of an introspective book about a 15-year-old boy trying to become a man and move away from his father's ranch. Will's mother died years ago, and rather than working alongside his father on the ranch, he has spent the last eight years taking care of Denny, his mentally challenged twin brother. Will has mixed feelings toward his twin. He loves him, but fiercely resents how his own life has been sacrificed for Denny's well-being. Against his father's command, Will rides away to compete in a rodeo, and then he plans to find work on another ranch and start his adult life. When Denny follows and is bitten by a snake, Will's plans are forced to change. There is wilderness survival and a rodeo at the end, but overall, this is an inward-looking book. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that there won't be much audience for it because even I, an introspective female, thought it was pretty slow. I would be very curious to hear if middle school boys relate to this book or if they just put it down because they want more action.
Sunday, March 04, 2007
La Línea is the border between Mexico and the U.S., and Miguel has dreamed of crossing that line for years. His parents live in California and he dreams of finally going to be with them. The journey is incredibly dangerous, but 15-year-old Miguel is ready to risk his life for his dream. He doesn't count on his younger sister sneaking away with him and almost ruining his plans. The two teenagers face many dangers, including the "mata gente" (people killer) freight train, and the near-deadly journey through the desert. Many students in the U.S. will have absolutely no idea what people go through to come to this country. They also probably have no understanding of what makes people so desperate to get here. This book is all about teens and survival (and many readers will enjoy it for it's tense life-and-death moments). It is not about why immigrants come or whether or not they should cross the border illegally. They are kids desperate to find their parents. I think that young people who have immigrated to the United States will appreciate this book because they will see their own journeys reflected here. But I also think it should be read by readers who don't know anything about immigration. It will change how they see things. Another fine book about crossing the border is Journey of the Sparrows by Fran Leeper Buss. Here is one of my wishlist items for middle school literature—that we have more books about Latino kids that don't deal with immigration. Why not a mystery or a fantasy or a humor book with Latino and Latina characters?
Friday, March 02, 2007
This book is a romance and a story about two sisters living in a difficult family. A really difficult family. Mina, the older sister, has spent her life under pressure. Her mother expects her to be perfect—to get good grades, work in the family business, to get perfect SAT scores, and to go to Harvard. Mina has no other choice. Mina's mom is really awful—she belittles and insults Mina's older, ineffective father, and treats Sunna, Mina's younger sister badly because she is hearing impaired. When Mina finds a connection and romance with Ysrael, a Mexican singer/songwriter who is totally unacceptable to her mother, she finds herself wanting to run away from this family and start a life on her own terms. Things I liked about this book: the bond between Mina and Sunna, the portrayal of the competitive relationship between Korean American families and the pressure on their children to be perfect, and Mina's sweet romance with Ysrael. What I didn't like was that it never addressed the solutions to Mina's problems. An Na (a fine writer) gives us this awful mother and this really universal teenage desire to live a life of your own outside of a mother's expectations, and yet we never see the mother-daughter relationship resolved in any way. I was left wondering how in the world Mina was going to go on living with her parents. It was still a good book, but I was left a little unsatisfied in the end. (For a really moving story of Korean American family, read A Step from Heaven, also by An Na.)
This is the Newbery Award winner for 2007, and it's a book that no one had heard of before it won the award. It's actually written more for upper elementary students, but it is in our library and well worth reading. I saw it as a quiet story about a smart, observant 10-year-old girl's need for security in her life. Lucky lives with Brigitte, her guardian, but Brigitte is just the first wife of Lucky's irresponsible father, and Lucky fears that at any moment Brigitte might just move back to France and leave her in an orphanage. Lucky is funny—she eavesdrops on support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and hears them talk about things she doesn't quite understand. One of those things is finding your higher power. She decides she needs to find hers—and she runs away rather than face her fear of losing Brigitte. In a predictible but fitting ending, Lucky gets what she is looking for. It's a nice book. Not one that I will read again or recommend to everyone, but smart, sensitive readers will want to curl up with Lucky (and her dog HMS Beagle).
Students at OMS have loved Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, which is about shapeshifters, so I was anxious to read Shapeshifter's Quest to find another similar book that they might like. This is the first novel by Dena Landon, and she actually came to OMS and spoke to Pageturners Book Club earlier this year. She talked about getting the novel published and how hard it is to make a living as a writer, and she had the kids in the palm of her hand. The story is about Syanthe, a teenage shapeshifter who does not have the mark on her face that all of her fellow people do. The shapeshifters are confined to the forest, but Syanthe is able to leave because she is not marked. She is sent out of the forest to save her mother who needs medicine, and also to save her people because they see that the forest is slowly dying. However, the priests outside of the forests are evil and would kill her if they discovered her. So the book is the story of her journey to the capital city and her attempt to discover what is killing the forest. I found it to be an enjoyable book, but without the complexity that makes some fantasies so intriguing and real. It seemed to me like she could have used her shapeshifting to avoid most of the journey (at one point she flew really high so the priests didn't see her--why didn't she just fly really high all the way to the capital?) Also, the ending didn't wrap everything up and seemed to be setting us up for and easy sequel. I do think it's a fantasy that middle school kids will enjoy—especially 6th and 7th graders who may not be already deep into the works of other fantasy writers like Tamora Pierce and Philip Pullman.
For some reason I wanted to know about the explorer Marco Polo, so I turned to this new biography by one of the great writers of nonfiction for children and teenagers. It's a beautiful book, shaped like a picture book with richly-colored medieval illustrations. However, it is not a book for children. It's definitely a book for middle school kids on up to adults. It explains very clearly who Marco Polo was (an Italian boy growing up in Venice in the 1200s) and what he is famous for (wild tales of his 24-year-long journey to China and back again). Marco's book called The Description of the World changed how Europeans saw the rest of the world, but Freedman tells us right away that some people think Marco Polo was just a big liar. The book nicely summarizes Marco Polo's voyage and the tales he told (he ended up in prison and his cell mate wrote the book), and tells us again at the end about how some scholars doubt his claims. I thought it gave me the perfect amount of information and helped me understand why Marco Polo's name is still known today. It's probably not a book that your average middle school kid would pick up, but it's well worth reading.