Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bird by Zetta Elliott

I loved this one. Bird surprised me by its instant catch of unique and powerful storyline, fabulous illustrations (by Shadra Strickland), and sweetly told text swept me along. The cover is an intriguing one for me, and it makes me wonder what this young man is thinking. Mentored by wonderful and present elders, Bird finds his own way to hold the loss of his brother due to drugs.

At one point in the story, Bird sits with Uncle Son, his deceased-grandfather's friend, talking about what had happened to his brother. Bird tells Uncle Son that he wished he could have fixed his brother. The next words offer a brilliant glimmer into some of the wisdom setting in this book:

"You can fix a broken wing with a splint, and a bird can fly again, he said. "But you can't fix a broken soul."

Boom. Maybe this doesn't speak so loudly out of the context of the book, but within it, the words and message lit inside of me. When I finished reading the book, I actually felt inspired to write, as if some truth was waiting to emerge from me. Seriously. 

I found myself nodding as I read Bird, like somewhere in me a part of me was confirming that yes, I should have read this and that more people should too. At our local library, staff can write a little blurb about their interpretations of the book to entice you. Someone wrote this: I just read this book and I think everyone else should too. The drawings are heartwarming, and emotional. You can really feel what he is thinking." I am guessing by the handwriting that this staff member is younger than me by a good few decades, and still they are spot on: this is a rich read. It won a number of awards, including the new Voices Award. You owe it to yourself to read this. Really. It is that good.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jocobson

One of my family members is an elephant fanatic. Ever since our trip to India several years back, she has been seriously passionate about elephants. Not crazy rabid or anything, just totally faithful that they carry great wisdom and spirit, and for that and more, she loves 'em. Loves 'em. She has spent time here locally very near some elephants ( I am sworn to secrecy for that story), she always has her elephant pendant on, and she created a tattoo with an elephant (as in Ganesh) at the center: see, committed. So when I saw the cover of this juvenile fiction book, I wondered about if someone like Laurie would like this book. Turns out the answer is very likely yes. I am not an elephant-driven gal, but the story sure made me wonder about the possibilities.

The story centers on a young man whose mother desserts him in a campground. Yep, she has her own issues and she makes a big mistake. And Jack, being the upstanding and dedicated kid he is, like most kids, he decides to go find her. It is not an easy journey for him, but let's just be sure we remember that he keeps his eyes on the prize of possibility. He comes across some very kind people in his travels, he has stuff stolen, he steals stuff, he realistically doesn't trust the cops, his old friends, and his new friends. He struggles to figure out what to do until he realizes where he must go (yep, this is one key point where elephants come into play). The storyline holds merit and seems plausible, and I would love to believe that if I had been in his shoes at his age that I would have had enough gumption to do what he did. I doubt I did. But on the converse side, I grew up around adults whom for the most part I trusted to help me out if I needed it. I grew up totally different than the frame Jacobson writes from for Jack. And I guess that is where I would love to believe I would have enough gumption, wherewithal, guts to show up and act like he does. It's pretty powerful, and the greatest thing to me was how one key person figured it all out just about when he did. And that is what made this book worth reading for me. Yep, the elephant piece is powerful, but for me, I maintain hope in connecting deeply with others and this "other" does just that.

This is a keeper. I really enjoyed it and can imagine young readers swallowing it all down and then needing to talk about it. You would be offering yourself a gift if you read it with or before your child or student; then you too get to witness Jacobson's handy work and enjoy a sweet story about elephants, survival, and relationship.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Something to Hold by Katherine Schlick Noe

It's kinda funny to check out the different kinds of books Alysa and I read. While we both get completely consumed by certain authors and series, she reads more fantasy books and chick lit and I read coming-of-age stuff. I think it fair to say that we both feel like we have heavy loads to read for school: her most recent school read was What is the What? by Dave Eggers. As an instructor at a college, I am always juggling a solid handful of books during the semester. I know we both love to read, and what we choose to get swallowed always intrigues me. One of the super-cool things I see happening these days is how when other teacher friends come over, they often ask Alysa what she is reading. These teacher friends are readers too, and they are always searching for great lit, particularly through the eyes of a teen reader like Alysa.

In November I attended a national literacy conference for educators. There I met several authors and saw dozens of amazing looking books, some of which I have written about on this blog. But this book, Something to Hold, caught me in a special way. I could be this girl on the cover. The moment I saw it, I knew I had to read it. Seriously if you and I sat down with old photos my dad took from when I was young, I can almost guarantee you we would find at least one like this: me jumping over a stream, hair pulled back, out in the wilds. I also knew that I wanted a quieter time to read this book, that something about it spoke in a calming way. Maybe it was the familiarity of the cover shot, maybe it was the title: who knew?

Part biographical, this book leads us through the early teen life of a girl whose father works for the government on a reservation. The girl finds her own way to push back against the ugly racism, unfairness, and brutality she experiences or witnesses at her school and in her life during the early '60's. She finds her own grounding through her willingness to stand true to what she believes in. I enjoyed the book and can see many girls like me reading it, particularly the young outdoor set. This is the kind of book I would have loved to read as a young girl. I imagine I would have read it several times, having identified personally with a number of the girl's struggles.

And what would Alysa do with this book? First I doubt I have ANY pictures of her jumping over streams; her way of being and mine are just different. But I can imagine her connecting deeply with the truth telling the runs through the storyline, and I believe she might see herself as the girl in the text, having been there in the trials of ugly words and actions, all by folks who sit beside her in her school. No vampires and boyfriends in this book, but worthy subject focus and realistic issues fill the text with merit. I am glad the cover spoke to me so convincingly.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod

Do you like books about half-vampire, half-human kids with some humor? If so, then The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod by Heather Brewer are your perfect book. The image above shows all five books (which you should read) but I will be writing this on the first book: Eight Grade Bites
I thought it was not only very funny, but had a really good plot that kept you wondering and guessing. It was very well written as well.

Vlad is an outcast. And not just because he's half vampire, only Henry knows that. But mostly because he's unusually pale, very scrawny, has the same things for lunch each day (it's hard to find foods that easily hide blood), and has exactly one friend. Besides being the social outcast, his parents happen to also have been mysteriously murdered three years ago. Vlad has been living with his Aunt Nelly, who is a very loving guardian and would do anything for him. Yes, Vlad's life is quiet odd and out of the ordinary, but things haven't even gotten weird yet.
Vlad's favorite teacher goes missing and no one seems to have any idea where he went. A new teacher, Mr.Otis, comes to take his place. But the creepy thing is that he seems to have an odd interest in Vlad. Mr.Otis's first assignment is mythology. They must draw a name from a hat and do a presentation on that mythical creature. Vlad draws Werewolf. But then, the letters change to become Vampire. how did this happen? Vlad can't give a presentation on what it's like to be a vampire! That could give away everything! As the year progresses, Vlad finds that Mr.Otis seems to be trying to reveal Vlad's true identity. Is Mr.Otis good? Did he possibly kill Vlad's parents?

I thought this book was very good and had just the right amount of everything. Even if you don't like vampires, I still recommend it because Vlad is very much human besides the levitating and the blood drinking.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines

I knew I was into a tough read when three friends on a writing retreat all told me A Lesson Before Dying was good. Yeah, sure, their words were all the same but it was the intonation, the way they expressed the "goodness" of the book that caught me.

I get why they said it that way now. The book swallowed me yesterday. I had kinda plinked my way through it up until yesterday morning, reading a bit at night until my eyes couldn't stay open. The momentum built in this book step by step, moment by moment, like walking up a long gradual uphill that you know you can walk fast or slow and there is no rush to get to the top. But then there was. Because I knew something was happening and it wasn't gonna be good. Or was it?

If we are lucky, we have one person in our life who turns us, who helps us shift from our own self-centeredness to seeing the light of the world, of humanity, of living. Gaines wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a classic read when I was in high school. Cicely Tyson played the main character impeccably, and whenever I think of her, I can see her standing with her do-rag and her broom and her conviction and integrity, all in the midst of such hatred disrespect, and ugliness. Gaines writes from a world of truth and hurt that change me and return me at the same time. I will be ruminating about this book for awhile to come. When a good man is killed, I tend to do that.

Oh, I didn't say much about the book. Hmmm, I am not sure what to say about it. Guess you maybe will just read it for yourself. A teeny window in? Racism, the South, '40's, death row, and a teacher.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Marching for Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge

I stumbled onto this gem last week at the library. I love books that tell the truth of a difficult time without lessening the weight of the time period.I know this is difficult for young readers-- heck, the Civil Rights Movement continues to be difficult for adults! But this book brought this quiet to my inner conversation around the march and I really appreciated that.

This nonfiction hardback details the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Stories of that experience fill the pages in pictures and words, with the level of detail remarkable. The back photo of Dr. King and his wife leading and holding hands is gorgeous, the photo of Rosa Parks addressing a crowd remarkable, and the photos of the mornings breaking camp insightful. I loved that there are new-to-me photos here-- I just haven't seen such a thorough children's book on this topic before. I loved that the stories are written in such starkness, simply telling the facts from the marchers perspective with truth, conviction.

It is hard for me to write about this book even though I loved it. It feels like such an important book and topic that my words aren't enough for it. I don't know how to honor it except to say read Marching for Freedom. It is beyond worthy.