Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Starlight by Stella by Sharon M. Draper

I am rarely moved to tears by a book but this one managed to do so. Starlight by Stella's cover image of two young African American children hesitantly trodding in front of a burning cross is enough to make one shudder. The book's name is also the title of one of Miles Davis' compositions.

Young Stella, inspired in part by the author's own grandmother, is a smart and precocious child who as the events of the novel unfold becomes braver too. Stella keeps a journal and records some keen observations about the world in which she lives.

The Ku Klux Klan is active in their small town and Stella and her friends are fairly certain of who they are.These men are cowardly, mean-spirited and downright ignorant and we learn that the leader of this nefarious group is no kinder to his own kin. Draper is careful to portray some sympathetic white characters in the novel and some of these townsfolk are instrumental in helping the African American community when a tragedy befalls the community.

The events of the novel occur during the Great Depression and President Hoover's unpopularity is mentioned as is the near certainty of victory for Franklin D Roosevelt. Still the African American men of the town, although they are fully aware that it will be no easy task are intent on casting their vote.This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and I thought about this as I read part this part of the novel.

The book is punctuated with Negro Spirituals and African American hymns and the role of the church is evident in the town, not only as a place of worship but as a rallying point for the community. The pastor is is no shrinking violet and much in the vein of later giants of the Civil Rights movement it is he who inspires his flock to do something to stand up for their rights. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for students in grades 4 and above.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Beneath by Roland Smith

I have traveled on many subways and trains across this country and whenever I  caught glimpses of tunnels as the train whizzed by I couldn't help but wonder about life in that subterranean maze. There are people who frequent the nether regions beneath our society but to have an actual functioning society down there is something that is hard to imagine...or is it?

Young Pat loves his older brother Coop despite the latter's quirky nature. The boys come from a loving if slightly weird family with two extremely smart parents who are good at their jobs but not so great at raising kids. Then one day his brother disappears and then Pat begins receiving some strange communiques from him. This leads him to New York city where the mystery deepens.

Pat finds not one but two societies underground with a hierarchy, strict laws and  some strange characters. It is his luck that he enters that world at a time of upheaval and although he makes alliances he doesn't know who to trust. There are some dangerous people in the world below, and some of them may be a threat to the world above ground.

Smith does a good job of showing how Pat begins to act like a person from down below after just a short time. While I must admit that Coop seemed just a bit too reckless for my liking he was a good foil and without his shenanigans we would have no story.

I like this book since not only does it show a young protagonist who must be brave in the face of terrible adversity, but he also must conquer some very real phobias that have dogged him his entire life. There are multiple literary references as well and the author is obviously an avid reader. I recommend this book for readers aged 10+

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Paperboy by Vince Vawter

  It is always nice when a book can have elements of truth to it but written in such a way that a young reader can grasp something from it. Paperboy occurs over the span of one summer in Memphis Tennessee. Little Man volunteers to be a substitute paperboy for his friend Rat, an act that changes his life forever. Though he can throw a mean fast ball and is quite good in school, he does have one problem, that will require much help to overcome.

What separates this from other books that I have read is that the protagonist suffers from a speech impediment which both influences the narrative and also influences how he interacts with others.  Physically he is a normal kid (he does have a mean fastball pitch) and he is intelligent and savvy.

As you would expect, the adults in V life are very influential. However his parents, good people that they are are relegated to a small role in this narrative. Instead, the African American maid Mam, the verbose and loquacious Mr. Shapiro and the scoundrel Ara T are the adults whose actions change Virgil's life forever.

Though not mentioned by name the specter of discrimination rears its ugly head in the novel (it did take place in the 1960s). Another theme that is still with us today- that of school choice is also alluded to. For this reason I can add this list to many others that I class as "conversation starters" in that they pique interest in a subject and will inevitably invite questions from young readers who may want more background info. I recommend this book for readers aged 10+.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Fake ID by Lamar Giles

Fake ids are a big thing in our country for so many reasons. People use them to work legally and to get into clubs and bars to drink. I know of a few people that have used these things to get into night clubs and other places. I have never thought about someone who was forced for various reasons to adopt a new identity.

This is the case with Nick whose dad can't seem to keep out of trouble and so the family is moved around many times by the Federal Witness protection program. Nick goes through the motions at his new school trying to stay low but immediately meets a boy called Eli and his sister Reya. He gravitates towards them both-for different reasons- and ends up spending a lot of time with Eli who is a quirky but kind kid. Things take a deadly turn however when Eli is found dead in the school's newspaper office. As Nick tries to solve the mystery it becomes clear that there is a larger problem going on in the down and the web of secrets is stickier than he could have imagined.

The novel centers on twin narratives, one is the larger issue of the sinister events in the town but Nick is also dealing with family unrest. His parents' relationship (strained no doubt by countless moves) is on shaky ground and he fears that either one of his parents could bail on the family at any time. Apart from the more serious, criminal aspects of the novel Nick is also African American although this fact is not mentioned many times in the narrative and truth be told we forget about it except a few times when this fact influences the plot. This protagonist is one that happens to be African American and not an African American protagonist.

Overall this was a good read and due to some language and the heavy thematic content I would recommend this for ages 14+

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Ghetto Cowboy by G Neri

There are few books that can combine cowboys, family drama, inner city life and still have an authentic feel. In Ghetto Cowboys, we meet Cole, a troubled boy who lives with his mother in Detroit. His shenanigans have pushed his mother to the edge and she decides to carry him to Philadelphia to live with his father, Harp, a man she has never spoken about and whom Cole has never met. Harp is not exactly pleased to see his son and for various reasons, chief among them that he lives with horses. After Cole gets over the initial shock, he is able to live with the beasts; the bigger question is if he will be able to live with his father.

This is a timely book for many reasons. First urban decay is rampant in many cities across America bringing with it various societal ills. Communities of color have been disproportionately affected by economic downturns with staggering consequences. Although there are various social groups, fraternities and clubs that do their part to help mentor the youth in their community, these groups are rarely highlighted in the media.

What's more, the book drops tidbits here and there about the history of the word "cowboy", famous African American cowboys, the long history of African Americans racing thoroughbreds as well as the inner city practice of keeping horses. Neri is careful not to overload the reader with that info however but instead reveals nuggets of information in small doses.

 Another aspect of the story that I liked was the respect for tradition. The Cowboy Way is mentioned several times as a way of living an honorable life. Among the supporting characters I liked the old timer Texas Pete. He was well respected and treated in a very reverential manner. This respect for older generations is something that has diminished somewhat in recent years. I am glad that Neri included that character and made him worthy of respect instead of a crazy old coot.

There is a picture in the back of the book of a real life inner city boy with his beloved horse. Neri in his afterword mentions the Federation of Horsemen in Brooklyn, I had never heard about such an initiative before despite having visited the borough on many occasions. The illustrations, done by JJ Watson add another layer to the story. We see Harp's emotions. Exhilaration, disappointment, worry.  Cole (short for Coletrane) also runs the gamut of emotions: fear, trepidation, excitement.  The illustrations are also good for low readers as they help make sense of the text. I highly recommend this book for kids aged 10+

Friday, February 6, 2015

Monkey Wars by Richard Kurti

Group think, lust for power, oppression of minority groups and flimsy justifications for war are all themes explored in Richard Kurti's Monkey Wars. If you think that those themes sound like they have been plucked from news headlines over the past decade then you are correct.  The only difference is that these things occur in a monkey society in present day India.

Teens and younger readers may not be fully aware of the full scope of those historical events and this novel may be a means to introduce those concepts. Without giving away too much the many species of monkey in the novel are perfectly capable of coexisting in peace but it is just a few monkeys who are intent on stirring up trouble for their own selfish ends.

The Orwellian nature of the story was something that I noticed as the plot unfolded. Power grabs, hidden plots and ulterior motives abound as well as the changing nature of some individuals once they achieve the power the sought. Unlike in Animal Farm however, gruesome endings are the nature of the day for the villains in the story.

Mico, the story's protagonist makes an unlikely ally in Papina a monkey from another species. Their relationship blossoms from there through the many twists and turns that life takes. It is amazing that Kurti has managed to cram in so many different themes but it is a testament to his skill as a writer.

In the novel's afterword Kurti relaus some personal information that informed his vision for the book and he implores readers to make a stand whenever they think things aren't right, even if they are the only ones voicing their opinion. That, I think is the best message we can take away from the book. I recommend this book for readers aged 13+.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Left Behinds: The iPhone That Saved George Washington by David Potter

I like a crazy premise and the premise of this tale by David Potter is as crazy as it gets. Three tweens go on a school trip and end up thrown back in time hundreds of years. They soon discover that that they are the only ones who can stop a plot to kill General George Washington. Things aren't that straightforward however because there are some evil men who will stop at nothing to make sure that Washington does not live and, worst of all, the power bar on their phones keeps going down.

Historical fiction can sometimes be tedious but the writing here is tight and the story moves forward nicely. With the moves to Common Core and other testing standards this novel might find a place as an ancillary text to provide back up information after a concept has been taught in class.The historical tidbits are dropped in a very smooth manner.

The three main kid characters are as different as can be but they manage to work together as a team. One of them isn't particularly interested in History or in school work but being thrown headfirst into a major historical event changes his perspective somewhat.  As you would expect, some liberties have been taken with facts but Potter makes sure to clarify this in the author's note. There is also a comprehensive list of websites where readers can get more information after their interest has been piqued.

This is not a book with lots of action scenes and fisticuffs but it does have enough things going on to keep you engrossed. Also it includes so much cell phone terminology that it is bound to strike a chord with some readers. The main character's voice is compelling enough that you can't help but root for him. I recommend this book for readers aged 11+