Thursday, October 9, 2014

Unforgettable

Some stories melt your heart.

HALLEY, by Faye Gibbons, NewSouth Books, 2014

Halley is 14. She was born at the wrong time in the wrong place, during the depths of the Depression in a struggling mountain community in north Georgia. That’s just the setting for this gritty novel.

As if the times are not punishing enough, when Halley’s beloved father dies suddenly, she and her mother and younger brother Robbie are forced to move in with her hell fire and brimstone preacher grandfather, Franklin. Franklin never liked Halley’s father and takes that dislike out on his daughter and her children. He thumps his Bible and quotes Scripture to suit his own purposes, and those purposes turn the women of his family into powerless servants.

Whatever Halley prizes, her grandfather seems determined to hold hostage or take away from her. Halley believes an education will give her control over her own life and be a salvation for her family.  Her wily grandfather knows the power of education which is the very reason he stands in her way like a mile high wall of bricks. Women of today will applaud Halley’s stubbornness—or so it was considered then.    

This book offers so many springboards for discussion, I hardly know where to begin.
Gender roles. Respect for elders. Faith issues. Forgiveness. Readers at your house will be thinking, discussing, and tapping into some surprising wells of emotion inside themselves.   

Author Faye Gibbons is a master story teller. It will be a long time before you forget Halley.       

 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Tough Times, Tough Characters

Legendary writer Sid Fleischman said a strong villain is the writer’s best friend. The main character must become stronger to overcome the monstrous villain. A stronger villain and a stronger main character make the story stronger. The same could be said for obstacles.

EVERY DAY AFTER by Laura Golden, Delacorte Press, 2013

Author Golden has created conniving, bad-tempered villains and painful obstacles to challenge her main character, 11 year old Lizzie. The year is 1929, harsh for everyone. Her father leaves, abandoning his wife and Lizzie. This pushes her mother into leaving, too, mentally and emotionally.  

Lizzie is not an orphan. Or is she? Dad could return. Lizzie is sure he will be back in time for her 12th birthday.  Mom could get well. If she doesn’t, it won’t be because Lizzie didn’t try—hard.

One of Lizzie’s classmates wants to see her shipped off to an orphanage. This gal is so jealous of Lizzie, she bleeds green. The reader will wonder what sets this villain off.

The bank wants to take the house. Lizzie’s grades, a source of pride for her father, begin to drop.

There are good characters willing to help but they don’t know Lizzie needs help. To let them know would, in Lizzie’s eyes, be letting down her father.

Lizzie writes in her journal, looks at her father’s face in the heirloom locket he left her, and wonders why he left and what will happen if he doesn’t come home. These are tough times for everyone in Bittersweet, AL, but Lizzie also suffers from isolation, keeping out those who could do something to make her life better. The reader, pulling harder and harder, page by page, for Lizzie to triumph, wonders when Lizzie will realize that her father has let his family down.

Every Day After is author Golden’s first novel but it won’t be her last. Her inspiration for this one was her paternal grandmother who lost her mother at the age of 12. She was left with a strict father in circumstances similar to the ones Lizzie endures.

Historical fiction helps us see how far we’ve come. If you are trying to train your tweens to sort and wash dirty clothes at your house, Lizzie’s laundry chores will make everyone thankful for your washer and dryer. They might even help you cheerfully.  

 

 

 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Ode to the Office Water Cooler

Some picture books appeal to children of all ages. That includes parents and grandparents who are in touch with their own inner child.

DEAR WANDERING WILDEBEEST and Other Poems  from the Water Hole, by Irene Latham, illustrated by Anna Wadham, Millbrook Press, 2014

Day begins. Illustrator Wadham wakes up the book, the reader, and an assortment of animals with the warm colors of morning. It’s a time to meet, greet and gather the news of the day.

Poet Latham, in the first of 15 engaging poems, extends an invitation: “To all the beasts who enter here.”

While the illustrator uses backgrounds to advance the day, the writer plays with a variety of poetic devices to bring each animal to life as it meets daily needs for food, shelter, and safety.
 
Pacing is prime when author Latham describes the impala, the picture of grace. The meerkat is bright eyed and disciplined and so are its stanzas. A snake slithers across the painted page while letters drape and sounds delight.

A change of pace allows a break for a commercial, an ad for the efficient cleaning service run by the enterprising oxpeckers.  “Oxpecker Cleaning Service.” Clean is guaranteed!

When day comes to a close, it’s time for a bath. Be careful how you handle “Dust bath at dusk” if you decide to read this poem to an imaginative child. You might have to explain why a dust bath is not an option for a non-elephant, a.k.a. the child in your lap.

“What Rhino Knows” is about your typical loner. You may have one in your family, the one your mother’s sisters are always trying to marry off.  Rhinos are not friendly to other rhinos. If one crowds another at the watering hole, the protestor could charge, kick up dust, or, worst of all, simply ignore the other. But, between rhinos, being ignored may not matter.
 
Second and third grade readers will lap up the fact filled sections. Call these blocks of sprightly text another type of watering hole. A glossary and other books add breadth to knowledge.

Irene Latham  has written 3 collections of poetry for grown-ups and two novels for kids, Leaving Gee’s Bend and Don’t Feed the Boy.

Illustrator  Anna Wadham lives in England in a flat with a rooftop view.

While you read Dear Wandering Wildebeest dozens of times to your eager little listener, recall the office water cooler. Which co-worker is which animal? Which animal are you?   

 

 

 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Conversation’s Comeback (Maybe)

Dinner time. The phone rings.  Another political recording. Maybe, instead of gritting my teeth , which I do, I should start a conversation with the real people around me about the importance of voting. A new book categorized as young adult (YA) nonfiction could launch a new meal time activity: talking to each other.

A WOMAN IN THE HOUSE (AND SENATE): How Women came to the United States Congress, Broke Down Barriers, and Changed the Country, by Ilene Cooper, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. Foreword by Former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014

Through a curious set of circumstances, at the same time this book captured my attention, I was also reading A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren and Tough Choices by Hilary Rodham Clinton. What an interesting trio of books!

If you’d like a tip about which one to read first, I’d recommend the YA because it is a good summary and grounding for the other two.  In her acknowledgements, the author, an editor for Booklist whose first book was Susan B. Anthony, says lack of space prevented her from profiling many other women. She encourages readers to look at Women in Congress 1917-2006. I did.

Information from this book is available on the website:
http://history.house.gov/Exhibition-and-Publications/WIC/Women-in-Congress.

This site is definitely well worth the time if your curiosity and courage are heightened by reading author Cooper’s book. Mine were.

The three books on my reading table related well. Both Elizabeth Warren and Hilary Clinton are profiled in author Cooper’s lively and well researched book which includes an appendix, bibliography, and an index which is on its way to being well-thumbed at my house.  Maybe yours, too.

Go ahead. Start a conversation.

 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

What Every 5th Grader Needs

Too old for a babysitter. Not old enough to stay home alone. Just “almost.” That’s Albie’s dilemma. Until he gets a new nanny.

ABSOLUTELY ALMOST by Lisa Graff, Philomel Books, 2014

Calista tunes in right away. She tells Albie she isn’t a baby sitter. They will just hang out.

Entering a new 5th grade is hard enough. When you are always “almost” and never “most”, as Albie sees himself, life is tough. Add a few bullies, which seem to populate every 5th grade story, and you know fairly soon what Albie is up against. Then Calista arrives. She helps him see life and himself differently.

Calista is like a bridge between Albie and the adults in his life—parents, teachers, neighbors in his New York apartment building-- and between Albie and his friends and classmates who may or may not be the same people.
 
Complications rush in like a run-away subway train when the family of his best friend Erlan, who Albie suspects may be his only friend, is selected to allow TV cameras into their home. Suddenly Erlan lives in the middle of a successful reality show. The boys try to work around it, but it’s almost--that word again--impossible to have a private best friend talk with a camera leaning in.  

If, as a parent, you read this book before you place it somewhere to be discovered, think of it as a guide for crossing the bridge between parent and pre-teen experiences. You will see all sides of these developing relationships. No one will be right all the time. Good news for you, because you will be thinking in the not too distant future that surely no one could be wrong all the time.

 A former children’s book editor, Lisa Graff has written other books, too, among them A Tangle of Knots and Sophie Simon Solves Them All.  I can't help but wonder if she didn't have a bit of Calista's savvy when she was a teen.   


 

 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

SLEEPLESS IN THE SOUTH

Megan Sovern owes me a Saturday afternoon. That’s what I lost because I had to take a nap because I was up half the night reading her debut novel.

THE MEANING OF MAGGIE by Megan Jean Sovern, Chronicle Books, 2014

I learned a long time ago I can’t pull an all-nighter the way I used to. That knowledge didn’t stop me from wanting to see how Maggie’s life turned out when it began with her dad in the hospital and ended in the same place except…

It’s the "except" part that kept me reading. Maggie is sprightly, fun, bright, too bright some would say, but smart girls should be IN not left OUT of things, especially when you have Maggie’s temperament, are the future president of the United States of America and own stock in Coca-Cola. She loves, especially her family, cares, especially about other people, is spunky, and thinks her dad and mom are the top guys on the planet. Mom and Dad may be pushing that last part, however as Maggie gets older and begins to realize her older sisters aren’t all bad and maybe Mom and Dad aren’t all perfect.

Maggie is about to turn 11 or as the book jacket puts it, “one year closer to college. One year closer to voting. And one year closer to getting a tattoo. *” Footnotes throughout the book tell us what Maggie thinks, and the tattoo footnote tells us Maggie thinks tattoos are terrifying.  It’s just nice to know she is one year closer to getting one if she wants to.

As care-free as Maggie seems, she is super worried about her cool dude dad whose legs have fallen asleep. She tries hard to honor the family motto, “Pull up your bootstraps.” Not easy. Author Sovern’s insights into how each member of the family handles Dad’s increasing disability turn Maggie’s family into the reader’s family, too.

If you lose a night of sleep reading this book, it’s not my fault. Tell the author. She lives in Atlanta. Probably hangs out in coffee shops with a notepad and pencil. Or a laptop. Maybe a tablet. Smart phone? Happy hunting.

 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

ONE MORE SAMURAI STORY

You may not be anywhere near the Birmingham Museum of Art. You may not be able to enjoy its current exhibit, Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor. That won’t stop the readers at your house from getting caught up in the action of a debut novel that combined this ancient art with our American love of baseball. Speaking of which, I am hooked on Little League these days. Anybody else watching the World Series with me?

SAMURAI SHORTSHOP by Alan Gratz, Dial Books, 2006

As noted, this was a debut novel. The author did not stop there. In addition to his obvious penchant for thorough research, he delights in combining and twisting unrelated topics: Bushido--the Samurai code--and baseball. Shakespeare and pulp mystery fiction. He makes disparity work. Gratz's latest middle grade series is being launched as I write this. It combines steam punk and the 1870’s.  

First Samurai Shortstop: Toyo is 16. The year is 1890. When the mighty Shoguns were overturned twenty years earlier, Japan’s isolation ended. Toyo is born into a country opening its eyes to the rest of the world. However, his father and uncle belong to the traditional world of bushido, the way of the warrior.
When Toyo’s uncle commits ritual suicide to avoid modernization, Toyo agonizes that his father may do the same thing.

Toyo’s traditional samurai training at the prestigious Ichiko Japanese boarding school and his clash with the spirit of Ichiko law lands him squarely in the same dilemma faced by teens today: how do you fit in and still stand up for yourself?

Alan Gratz figured this out and young readers casting about for one last absorbing story before summer ends will find the ending as satisfying as a baseball game when your team wins.

Now is the time to check out the author’s web site and see what other twists he has in store.

Hillview School Library