Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt

This is the first book I have reviewed this year in which the main protagonist is an animal. There are lots of bears, dogs and even cat protagonists in many of the popular books out there and with good reason too because those animals seem to be more likable and personable than bighorn sheep which frankly are not the most popular animal. Bighorn sheep on the whole tend to be very elusive and frequent high altitudes.

In this story after feeling threatened a flock of sheep split up with a small band composed of Tuk and his good friends Rim and Mouf.  As they journey to a mysterious blue mountain that seems to be part myth and part legend they face various trials.

Mixing elements of mythology and a keen sense of story, Leavitt does a fine job of imbuing animals with personalities that match their temperament. There is a brief interlude with an otter that is hilarious. Bighorn sheep are preyed upon by several creatures and Leavitt is able to portray this fine balance between life and death in a sympathetic manner. The harmony of nature is seen in the exchanges between the sheep and some other creatures who are looking for a meal but through some quick thinking they survive.

These animals are extremely hardy and in the book they survive various perils. Habitat loss is mentioned a few times and the sheep do come into contact with various humans but thankfully they are none the worse for wear.  For me another important element that came up a few times in the story was the peaceful nature of the bighorn. Despite the rams' huge horns they are indeed a peaceable species so much so that when the impetuous Tuk has a violent altercation with a predator another sheep asks him if he is truly a bighorn.

The author's father grew up in the mountains and she mentions in the afterword that the story is based partly on a stash of notes that he left her.  The love she has for the environment is palpable and her descriptions make the story come alive. I felt as if I were in the valleys and glens walking along with the herd at times.  This is a fine book and I recommend it for ages 8+

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

We Need Diverse Books

  The #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag is all the rage now and frankly I am a bit surprised that it has taken this long for people to realize that books about those that are "different" are grossly underrepresented in books at all levels (from picture books to yfic). I love vampires, werewolves and the like too but from monitoring the new books over the past few years as they come in to my library it seems that every author has written about those topics and then some. All that is left now is to write about teen vampires in love on Mars (smile).
 I had hesitated about blogging about this but this recent post in the ALA digest got me thinking and I began to ruminate on diverse books, what they mean for different people and how we can promote books that otherwise would fall by the wayside.This is the diverse books site. I think they do a pretty darn good job of saying what they are, how you can help (through donating time or talent) and how you can find diverse books.

Here is a long but very well written article on flavorwire that basically reviews the highlights of the movement and ends on a hopeful note saying that perhaps this movement has started a groundswell of change. Popular site huffingtonpost has a list of some amazing reasons why we need diversity in books. (I was blown away by #1)

Finally here is  a very diverse booklist on goodreads. I found a list of 50 diverse books every child should know and last but not least here is my humble submission of a few diverse books for the 9-12 age group.

The Way to Stay in Destiny by Augusta Scattergood

Stella by Starlight by Augusta M Draper

Bad Boy: A Memoir by Walter Dean Myers

Paperboy by Vince Vawter

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri

The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez by Peter Johnson

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Way To Stay in Destiny by Augusta Scattergood

The small town of Destiny Florida circa 1974 is the setting for this novel's events. During one long, hot summer Theo Thomas has moved to this small speck of a town  in the company of his Uncle Raymond, a Vietnam War veteran. Theo has only heard stories about his uncle but unfortunately his reunion with his uncle is not a happy one. For one, Uncle Raymond has rules, lots of them. And perhaps most importantly he is very much against music and that includes playing the piano, something Theo loves to do.

At first Theo wishes he could go back to live with his grandparents in Kentucky. There he was adored and allowed to play the piano as much as he wanted. Destiny does have the advantage of being near the water however and he finds that is a good place to gather his thoughts.

Another thing that he can do to help with his homesickness is play baseball. He loves the sport and listens to as many games as he can, especially if Hank Aaron is playing. He finds another baseball fanatic- a classmate called Anabel. There is more to her than baseball though and she complicates his life in ways he could never have imagined.

Though not overtly discussed it seems that poor Uncle Raymond is suffering from some form of PTSD as he has nightmares and a very strange demeanor. He is a true soldier and he seems to have signed up for the mission of taking care of Theo more out of a sense of duty than from a genuine love for his nephew.

Theo has a genuine musical talent and in the book he finds someone who both recognizes this and encourages him to develop his gift. I am a firm advocate of music instruction as it can help kids in so many ways. I am glad that this book used music as a form of therapy for the male protagonist. I recommend this book for readers aged 8+. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp

Often when you read juvenile historical fiction, especially if set in a particularly rough time in America's history, the protagonists are doing feats of daring do, fighting bad guys or dragons or both and emerging unscathed. In Alison DeCamp's My Near-Death-Adventures the young protagonist lives with his mom and is obsessed with being a "manly man" like the men he sees around him and like the men he reads about in books. The thing is, he isn't exactly a tough cookie.

Stan loves books, is afraid of critters and has a vivid imagination. He is not the most reliable narrator and he has a particularly strange quirk- he thinks out loud. This leads to some interesting conversations with some of the book's other characters.  Stan, more than anything wants to find his dad who left the family in strange circumstances which are not made clear.

Stan's grandmother persuades his mother to move with her to a logging camp for a few months and there we meet other members of the family and Stan tries to determine if any of the loggers are his dad. Stan's grandmother is a tough, no nonsense character but slowly he begins to see that she does love him even though she has a very stoic way of showing it.

 This is as much the story of an impressionable young man as it is a family drama and it is also the story of one woman who challenges the social mores of the time. Stan's mom although courted by several suitors is coy and will not allow herself to be swept off her feet easily.  Is there a happy ending to this book? That depends on what you would consider a happy ending. Let's just say that it depends on what you consider happy.

This is a cool yarn that is loosely based on DeCamp's family lore. I liked this book because it showed a young boy who is vulnerable and likeable at the same time. You can't help but root for him. I recommend this book for kids aged 9+.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Gandhi: My Life is My Message by Jason Quinn

Mahatma Gandhi died more than sixty years ago but his life story is still relevant today. This simple man's story resonates even more today because many of the ills against which he fought are still with us and also because violence is now prevalent worldwide both by the oppressor and the oppressed. I read this graphic biography and was pleased to learn many things about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (his birth name). Mahatma was a name that his followers proffered on him (the word means "great soul") but he was not fond of it and was very embarrassed when he heard it used).

Gandhi' s life reminded me of that of Malcolm X for some reason. They were both family men, both had large families and spent a lot of time away from home pursuing their life's calling. Sadly they were both felled by an assassin's gun. Gandhi's family were not easy converts to his message however and his eldest son was estranged from the family and according to this text he actually revered his mother more since he saw her as the one holding the family together.

It is known that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was inspired by Gandhi's struggle and his insistence on non-violent tactics. Both men however were no pushovers. They were steadfast in their beliefs and pursued their goals with dogged determination. India's case system is very rigid and relations between the castes are firmly defined. Gandhi went against this system, so much so that he was disowned and cast out by the men in his village.

Gandhi cut his teeth in South Africa where he not only helped the Indian community there but also saw the atrocities of the British wars against the Zulus.  Travel broadens one's horizons, this was the case with him as he earned his law degree in London but also saw prejudice firsthand on his travels. It is ironic that he used his education provided by his colonial master, England and was able to help his country throw off the yoke of colonialism.

This book is an excellent primer for a young person trying to find their way in life and perhaps seeking information about men whose life impacted the world and left an indelible legacy. Gandhi truly was one such person. I recommend this graphic novel for ages 11+.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Spring STEMmy crafts

  Spring is just around the corner. I can feel it despite the fact that we have had record snowfall here in Colorado. So let's take a look at some crafts that we can do in spring. I have been asked to do some sort of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in each of the Saturday craft sessions so below are what I intend to do (or have already done).

Spring is a time when nature is in full bloom. So to celebrate and highlight the changing of the seasons I will do a caterpillar-butterfly craft later this month. I searched long and hard and found some which used the caterpillar and the butterfly. There is this one which uses a paper bag for both the caterpillar and the butterfly

This one you can use a clothes pin or other small wooden article, decorate it with small pom-poms or the like. Next you can place that small piece on top of the butterfly wings which can also be colored with markers etc.

This craft is already one that I can't wait to do with the little ones since it correlates with a book. It teaches shapes, animals and allows kids to use their imagination.  It will involve some prep work since the shapes are small and require some skill with the scissors.

I also decided to tweak this craft somewhat to incorporate Lois Ehlert's Color Zoo. I have long been fascinated by the shapes in this book and the way in which the book is constructed so that the animals change according to the shapes. I provided some models for the little ones to follow. I also left the book in the room for them to flip through.

Finally, engineering and construction do not have to be daunting things. With some toothpicks and marshmallows kids can make some cute little structures. If they wish they can focus simply on shapes. I like how this can be adjusted for different ages and dexterity levels.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Hold Tight, Don't Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner

Many of the teen books I see feature kids with what are affectionately known as "first world problems" i.e. who to go to the prom with, what clothes to wear etc. This is not to belittle those issues but I am sure even the protagonists of those books would admit how good they have it. Hold Tight Don't Let Go features two girls Magdalie and Nadine who have been  brought up like sisters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. After a terrible earthquake they are forced to live in a refugee camp where conditions are squalid to say the least.

The girls make do and learn to enjoy their new life in the much changed capital city. They are normal teenagers with normal teenage angst and experiences. The novel has many American pop culture references which make the text accessible to the North American reader (and also show how prevalent American culture is worldwide).

Life changes for both girls when Nadine gets an American visa and moves away to Florida. She promises to do the same for Magdalie and this hope of making the trip to America becomes the only thing that sustains her. I would also add that obtaining an American visa is one of the most important things in the lives of millions of people worldwide and small industries are devoted towards securing that or a green card. The US despite its flaws is still seen as a land of milk and honey and exceptional opportunity.

There are countless novels featuring a female protagonist who, at her wits end decides to use her body as a commodity. I was very glad that she did not choose that route nor that of the easy life offered to her by another character later on in the book. The author Wagner as an educated woman and anthropologist must have been very conscious about her portrayal of the country's citizens.

Nadine does not live a charmed life in Miami however and in her few conversations she has with Magdalie seems conflicted about her new life and seems to be experiencing a small degree of culture shock. Magdalie also experiences a shock of her own when she travels to the remote village her mother is from. Wagner does well to portray a reality on Haiti (and many of the Caribbean nations for that matter), that of the ease of country life but its stifling quality and lack of amenities.

I was pleased to see that in the afterword Wagner gave a brief explanation as to why Haiti is the way it is. It is common to hear that Haiti is the the poorest country in the hemisphere etc but most people don't bother to read up on exactly why that is. This is a good book for a young reader because of the universal themes explored but also because it gives an unflinching portrait of the soaring heights and dreadful depths that is Haiti.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers

Myers was a literary giant and extremely prolific author who wrote boks in a variety of genres. He wrote some books that dealt with inner city life and you felt that he knew what he was talking about, that he had lived that experience. In this autobiographical book he talks about his life in an accessible way. A young reader can empathize with some of the themes he discusses despite the fact that Myers is a child of the post World War II era. We learn some interesting facts about young Walter in this book, such as why he uses all three for example.

Myers recounts his academic prowess and subsequent realization that such behavior was deemed masculine. A telling line in the book is when he describes having to carry books home in a bag so that the neighborhood boys would not tease him or worse. Another aspect of the book that young readers may empathize with is his awkwardness around girls, he does not talk about a girlfriend or serious relationship.

Though Myers does not go into detail about segregation and the unfortunate treatment of non whites during that era, he describes his best friend Eric *a white boy) with whom he gets along really well. As the boys grew older,  there are places that Eric can go where young Walter was unwelcome, a difficult realization for him.

His parents wanted to see him succeed in school and Myers realized early on that education was the only way for him to not have a tough time as his parents did. His father could not read and was proud of his son's accomplishments but one gets the sense that he was somewhat unsure of how to feel. It is Myers' mom who seemed to be his true champion as she is the one who intervenes when Myers interest in school began to wane.

Overall this is a good read with the compelling writing which we are used to seeing in Myers' books. It is not a stirring book however when compared to other coming-of-age novels by other African American writers. I do however recommend it for readers aged 11+.