There is something truly joyous when your children read and ENJOY books that were childhood favorites of yours. Not that we don’t adore new books (we are currently fighting over an Advance Review Copy to be shared soon), but there are times when you remember that classics are classics for a reason. The latest in a series of books J has enjoyed that I remember loving as a kid? The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.
The Westing Game is a mystery reminiscent of the board game Clue (another family favorite). In this book, 16 people find themselves at the reading of a man’s will which says that a) he was murdered, b) the murderer is in the room, and c) whoever figures out who did it will win a sizeable inheritance. The group is split up into 8 pairs and they are set off on their journey to figure out who did it. At the same time, each of these characters holds a secret or two.
Turtle Wexler might be one of my all time favorite characters created and feels like the star of this particular book. Given that this was written in 1978 when you didn’t have a lot of spunky, unusual female characters, she was special. She is exceptionally bright and not as “pretty” as her older sister, Angela, but she has a very caring heart. She is a character that feels very true to life and that doesn’t seem to change with a different generation reading the book.
Another interesting thing about this book is that while there is an external focus on solving the mystery of who killed Sam Westing, there is a deeper, more internal mystery unfolding throughout the book – figuring out just who the characters are, their secrets, and how they are all related (literally and figuratively).
J, at 10 and in 4th grade, adored the book. She couldn’t put it down, kept asking me questions that I couldn’t remember the answers to, and repeatedly said “this book is awesome!” That’s pretty high praise from an avid reader. Ellen Raskin received a Newbery Medal for The Westing Game in 1979 and the award hasn’t lost its shine.
When we think of the Civil Rights Movement, we understandably think about the African-American experience. I wrote once before about how Mexican Americans in California were segregated into various schools and we have all heard of the horrible injustice of the Japanese Internment camps. As a Jew, I have long heard stories of quotas and some regions not allowing Jews to purchase homes or join certain clubs. There has always been a fear of things that are different and unknown. For this year’s Multicultural Children’s Book Day, one of the books I was sent was Making Friends with Billy Wong, by Augusta Scattergood. This book gave me pause to consider the Asian American experience, especially in the South.
This novel focuses on Azalea Ann Morgan, a young girl who is sent to live with a grandmother that she barely knows during the summer of 1952. Her grandmother needs some help while she is recuperating from an injury and Azalea has been volunteered for the job. Azalea is very shy and doesn’t like talking to strangers, and more than anything, she misses her best friend back in Texas. Grandmother Clark has a very strong personality and is seen as something of one of the town’s matriarchs, but that doesn’t mean that Azalea likes her right off the bat. Early on, she encourages Azalea to befriend Billy Wong, a young Chinese-American boy living with his great-aunt and uncle and helping them at their grocery store.
Azalea is not comfortable with meeting anyone new, but especially not a “foreigner,” which is how she sees Billy. She fears going to Mr. Wong’s store assuming that she won’t be able to understand anything he says since she doesn’t speak Chinese. Grandma Clark, ever the one to bring people together, finally helps Azalea break down her walls by making her take Billy to ice cream on a scorching hot day.
The reason that Billy is living in in Paris Junction is so that he can go to a better school. According to the author’s note in the back of the book, the Jim Crow laws of segregation in the South also impacted the Chinese immigrant population, which was surprisingly large. In 1927, a Supreme Court case classified Chinese Americans as “colored,” which led to many communities not allowing Chinese students to attend the segregated white schools. for Billy’s character, in his hometown he would have to go to the Negro school, which offered a substandard education. There had been a Chinese Mission school that his older siblings had attended, but it closed down. However, in Paris Junction Billy was allowed to go to the white school. While on the topic of Billy, from time to time, the novel switches to Billy’s voice in the form of his writings. From these small moments, we can see the prejudice from Billy’s eyes which lends additional power to his plight.
I was surprised to learn of the large number of Chinese immigrants that moved to the south as migrant labor and wound up opening neighborhood groceries that served black and white clientele. But as one might imagine, their being in cities that historically had been segregated didn’t always allow for smooth transitions. As Augusta Scattergood alludes to in this book, other students were not happy with the notion of students who were different coming in and excelling on the sports teams and in the classroom. Local businessmen were also not always thrilled with the Chinese grocery stores, especially if they took business away from them. By setting this novel up through the eyes of 11 and 12 year olds, you can really get a sense of what the experience was like.
Scattergood uses her novel to touch on a variety of topics. There is the fear of those that are different. There is also a general anxiety around people and learning how to deal with strangers. Azalea and her grandmother learn how to be a family and how important family bonds are. Finally, there is also the character of Willis DeLoach who has a lot of anger and is incredibly misunderstood, but behind his prejudice is a little bit of jealousy and a lot of burdens bigger than a boy his age should be dealing with. Grandma Clark is the glue trying to put the whole town together.
This middle grade novel has a lot going for it and was a great read. Many kids can empathize with one or more of the characters and see how hard it is to be different. I also think that reading the author’s note and understanding the true history behind this story is important. A great read for kids 8+.
I received this book from Scholastic Books as a part of the 2017 Multicultural Children’s Book Day.
I have been involved with Multicultural Children’s Book Day since it started. Having grown up in Los Angeles, surrounded by a diverse community, I never thought about the notion of being different. Now that I live in a small town in the south, I am much more aware just how hard it can be to be a minority and to be misunderstood. I have always tried to teach my daughters to love everyone and to believe that we are all one human race and that all of our histories and differences should be celebrated. I also know how important it is to be able to see yourself in the books you read, even more so when you are in the minority, so I look forward to this blogging event every year.
Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 (1/27/17) is in its fourth year and was founded by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into A Book and Mia Wenjen from PragmaticMom. Our mission is to raise awareness of the ongoing need to include kids’ books that celebrate diversity in home and school bookshelves while also working diligently to get more of these types of books into the hands of young readers, parents and educators.
Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day holiday, the MCBD Team is on a mission to change all of that.
Current Sponsors: MCBD 2017 is honored to have some amazing Sponsors on board. Platinum Sponsors include Scholastic, Barefoot Books and Broccoli. Other Medallion Level Sponsors include heavy-hitters like Author Carole P. Roman, Audrey Press, Candlewick Press, Fathers Incorporated, KidLitTV, Capstone Young Readers, ChildsPlayUsa, Author Gayle Swift, Wisdom Tales Press, Lee& Low Books, The Pack-n-Go Girls, Live Oak Media, Author Charlotte Riggle, Chronicle Books and Pomelo Books
Author Sponsor include: Karen Leggett Abouraya, Veronica Appleton, Susan Bernardo, Kathleen Burkinshaw, Delores Connors, Maria Dismondy, D.G. Driver, Geoff Griffin, Savannah Hendricks, Stephen Hodges, Carmen Bernier-Grand,Vahid Imani, Gwen Jackson, Hena, Kahn, David Kelly, Mariana Llanos, Natasha Moulton-Levy, Teddy O’Malley, Stacy McAnulty, Cerece Murphy, Miranda Paul, Annette Pimentel, Greg Ransom, Sandra Richards, Elsa Takaoka, Graciela Tiscareño-Sato, Sarah Stevenson, Monica Mathis-Stowe SmartChoiceNation, Andrea Y. Wang
We’d like to also give a shout-out to MCBD’s impressive CoHost Team who not only hosts the book review link-up on celebration day, but who also works tirelessly to spread the word of this event. View our CoHosts HERE.
MCBD Links to remember:
MCBD site: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/
Free Multicultural Books for Teachers: http://bit.ly/1kGZrta
Free Kindness Classroom Kit for Homeschoolers, Organizations, Librarians and Educators: http://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/teachers-classroom-kindness-kit/
Free Diversity Book Lists and Activities for Teachers and Parents: http://bit.ly/1sZ5s8i
Hashtag: Don’t forget to connect with us on social media and be sure and look for/use their official hashtag #ReadYourWorld.
It’s interesting watching your reader grow in maturity. This year has seen great strides for J who continues to grow, not only as a reader, but in general maturity. Friday morning I was reading a post from the Nerdy Book Club about the “just right” book and what that means and it resounded with me. I am happy to say that J has never focused much on her “level” and always has read for pleasure. She has had great teachers and I’m definitely not one to push for reading levels.
These days, unfortunately, many kids focus a great deal on the “level” of the book and less on the story itself. That’s one thing if the book is required reading, but if you are reading for pleasure, it should be just that – pleasurable. When J was obsessed with Harry Potter or the Land of Stories, it was like you couldn’t pull her away from them. She knew every detail backward and forward. She could actually even recite the chapter titles from the first Harry Potter book.
So these year I watch with fascination as J approaches her required reading list for the Battle of the Books. J has long desired to be a part of the Battle of the Books. While she could easily read and comprehend most of the books at an early age, the rules state that you have to be in 4th or 5th grade for the elementary competition. A big reason for this, I believe, is less about reading level and more about having the maturity to read books that you don’t necessarily like all that much. She took a quick break from one book in order to plow through another and the different purposes and the distinction feels very clear to me.
The first book she is reading is Woods Runner, by Gary Paulsen. This is one of the books for the Battle of the Books this year and tells of a 13 year old boy living in the American frontier during the American Revolution. While Samuel is out hunting one day, his parents are taken captive by British soldiers. Samuel then sets out to find them. The story is filled with very detailed descriptions of muskets, rifles, bayonets and other weapons of the time. There are also many instances where readers learn of the practice of scalping someone. After each chapter there is also a page with historical notes that help fill in some of the holes that might exist by reading a book that takes place in such a different time. I would say that we are about half-way done with this book and while some parts are fabulous and keep you yearning to know what it going to happen, there are many other parts that you just have to trudge through.
The second book is Gertie’s Leap to Greatness. She inhaled this book. It was given to her on Thursday afternoon and by Sunday evening she had finished it. When I asked her what she liked about it, she just said it was great. I’ve started reading it myself, but haven’t gotten into the heart of the book yet. Gertie has been compared to Ramona Quimby, but slightly older and definitely more modern.
The story is primarily about Gertie Reece Foy, a fifth grade girl who has made it her goal in life to become the best fifth grader in the universe. Why? Her mother had moved out when she was a baby, but a few days before 5th grade started, Gertie saw a for sale sign in her mother’s front yard. Gertie feels the need to become her absolute best self so that she can walk up to her mother’s door, hand her back a locket that she had given her, and then her mother “would know that Gertie Foy was one-hundred-percent, not-from-concentrate awesome and that she didn’t need a mother anyway. So there.” But there is just one problem in Gertie’s plan. The new girl, Mary Sue Spivey, also wants to be the best fifth grader.
This book is the trials and tribulations of an 10 year old trying to become her best possible self. In seeking out her greater self, she stumbles upon the greatness that was already inside of her. Even if the kids who are reading it don’t completely get that message, they will see her try new things, fail, and pick herself right back up and figure out a new plan of action. Gertie’s “leap” to greatness is really made up of many small steps that all of us need to take.
I loved watching J tear through a book again, it just really made me think about how we all approach books. When a book really moves a kid, or an adult, they simply can’t put it down. Gertie’s Leap to Greatness, Serafina and the Twisted Staff, Frindle, The Monster War, these are the books that have been favorites recently in between the required reading she has done. She’s definitely enjoyed some of the BOB books more than others and doesn’t wait for me to share in the reading, but she absorbs them and enjoys them in a completely different way. That’s okay, she is learning of the wide variety of styles and flavors out there. If only we could all be as smart as our kids.
Every once in a while a book completely surprises you. “It Ain’t so Awful, Falafel,” by Firoozeh Dumas, was one of those books. I had heard about it in an article in Time Magazine referencing the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement which I have followed for some time. The book sounded like a fun read and I was thrilled when I managed to get a library copy over the summer.
The premise of this book is that Zomorod Yousefzadeh has just moved to Newport Beach and is trying more than anything to fit in. Zomorod is an 11 year old Iranian girl whose father works for the oil industry and their family has had to move many times in the US as well as in Iran. She goes so far as to go by the name Cindy, since her given name is difficult to pronounce as well as “different.”
As the book starts out, it is mainly about being how challenging it is for Cindy and her family to fit in with Newport Beach life in 1978. Cindy is an avid reader and constantly looking out for her mother, who seems to be very lonely living in the United States. She struggles with the fact that her name is hard for everyone to pronounce, her mother only speaks Persian, and the foods that her family eats are not like everyone else’s. The idea of being different is a common theme in children’s literature, although having the main character be Iranian definitely sets it apart.
What sets this book apart from other coming of age stories is when it started to bring in the Iranian Revolution. Most middle school kids know nothing about when the Iranian shah was overthrown and the events that unfolded after that. I will be the first to admit that I am not all that knowledgeable about that part of history, and this book was like a lesson in what happened in the late 1970s.
When the Iranian Revolution hits and the subsequent hostage crisis, Cindy’s family deals with the fallout of being Iranian in the United States. Her father loses his job due to the political unrest, her teachers want her to be able to answer questions about what is happening in her country that she doesn’t have answers to, and some people start to treat her poorly and play nasty pranks. This was true to what was happening in the late ’70s, but it also felt too close for comfort to things that are going on in this country right now.
The book continues to go between the political issues abroad and social issues for Cindy’s family in the United States. There are so many wonderful aspects of this book. Whether it be the free history lesson of a period that many adults don’t fully understand, the true to life notions of trying to fit in when your customs and background are different from those around you, or wanting to be the hero of your own family when they start to face their own struggles, this book has a little bit of everything and it is handled with humor and heart-felt emotion.
Through it all, Cindy keeps in mind advice from her father: “Kindness is our religion and if we treat everybody the way we would like to be treated, the world would be a better place.”
There is a popular thread among book bloggers with the hashtag #IMWAYR. I don’t typically manage to post to this thread, but I just picked my older daughter up from 3 weeks of sleep-away camp yesterday and it seemed appropriate to cover what she has been focused on. So I welcome you to J’s edition of #IMWAYR.
We literally finished this book the night before we dropped J off at camp. The Dragon Lantern is the second book in the League of Seven series by Alan Gratz, and it had us chomping at the bit for book 3. The series is a very fascinating steampunk scifi look at an alternate history of the US and takes place in the 1870s. Without giving away too much, a group of extraordinary kids come together to save the world as part of the League of Seven to save the world from destruction at the hands of the Mangelborn (it is scifi, remember). Book 1 focuses on the first three characters of the League and in book 2 an additional two get introduced.
Roald Dahl strikes again! It’s been a while since J has read a new-to-her Dahl book, but we sent this one to camp with her and she loved it. In The Witches, Grandmamma loves to tell about witches. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you’re face to face with one? Well, if you don’t know yet you’d better find out quickly-because there’s nothing a witch loathes quite as much as children and she’ll wield all kinds of terrifying powers to get rid of them.
I wanted J to get some of her Battle of the Books reading done, if possible, while she was at camp and am thrilled that she enjoyed Fish in a Tree as much as I did. This book focuses on a little girl with dyslexia who has always managed to hide her disability, but also, who has also always just figured that she was stupid. When a new teachers comes to teach Ally’s 6th grade class, he sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone—than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike. Children are wonderfully taught that “Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”
Of course, summer is the time of amazing new releases. One of the notes we got from J was actually requesting that we send her two of the books that were released the Tuesday after she started camp, which of course we had pre-ordered. I only sent her one, but we have a lot of reading cut out for us.
The one book I did send her was The Land of Stories: An Author’s Odessey. In the fifth installation of Chris Colfer’s fabulous Land of Stories series, brother and sister, Conner and Alex, are trying to save the fairy tale world by jumping into stories that Conner wrote and creating an army. There are a lot of hidden gems in this one about the lines between fiction and reality, the role of the author, and where the creative spark comes from. As a grown-up, I loved this series most when it stayed put in the fairy-tale world, but it is still a wonderful series that J is super excited to be reading. She needed a break from telling us about her experiences at camp so she could just have quiet time in the car to read this one!
One that we haven’t read yet, but is in our pile to be inhaled as soon as possible, is Serafina and the Twisted Staff, the sequel to the wonderful Serafina and the Black Cloak. In 1899, when an evil threatens all the humans and animals of the Blue Ridge Mountains, twelve-year-old Serafina, rat catcher for the Biltmore estate and the daughter of a shapeshifting mountain lion. Deep in the forest, Serafina comes face-to-face with the evil infecting Biltmore–and discovers its reach is far greater than she’d ever imagined. All the humans and creatures of the Blue Ridge Mountains are in terrible danger. For Serafina to defeat this new evil before it engulfs her beloved home, she must search deep inside herself and embrace the destiny that has always awaited her.
Tomorrow, our copy of The Candymakers and the Great Chocolate Case will arrive. J absolutely adored The Candymakers and read it three times! This book takes place a few months after the first book. Forever changed by the experience, Logan, Miles, Philip, and Daisy have returned to their regular lives. But when presented with the chance to go on tour to promote the new candy, they each have very different reasons for hitting the road. The stakes are a lot higher than they thought, however, and a decades-old secret is revealed. In this action-packed adventure, the four friends embark on a journey full of hidden treasures, imaginary worlds, rivers of light, a map of awe, a sky of many colors, and one very small cat who thinks he’s a dog. They’ve already learned to trust one another. Now they’ll have to trust themselves in order to face what lies ahead and save what really matters.
Since I mentioned that we finished The Dragon Lantern right as J was going off to camp, I couldn’t even wait the three weeks for her to get back to read the final book. It came out the Tuesday after she left and I immediately bought it (and loved it!). The final book, The Monster Wars, was probably my favorite of all three. Having discovered the monstrous secret of his origins, Archie Dent is no longer certain that he is worthy to be a member of the League of Seven. But with new enemies to face, he realizes that he may not have the luxury of questioning his destiny. Wielding the Dragon Lantern, the maniacal Philomena Moffett has turned her back on the Septemberist Society, creating her own Shadow League and unleashing a monster army on the American continent. Archie and his friends must race to find the last two members of their league in time to thwart Moffett’s plan and rescue humanity once more.
There are definitely too many books and not nearly enough time! What are you reading?
One of the best experiences as a book loving mom is to watch your child go absolutely crazy for a new book. There have been many books that J has devoured in the past – Harry Potter, Land of Stories, and The School for Good and Evil to name just a few. But we have typically stayed in the same general genres. When we first got the Battle of the Books list for the upcoming year, we decided to purchase a few of the titles that sounded exceptionally good. One of books was The League of Seven, by Alan Gratz.
This book is the start of a Science-Fiction trilogy set in an alternate 1875 American reality. As the summary explains, “electricity is forbidden, Native Americans and Yankees are united, and eldritch evil lurks in the shadows. Young Archie Dent knows there really are monsters in the world. His parents are members of the Septemberist Society, whose job it is to protect humanity from hideous giants called the Mangleborn. Trapped in underground prisons for a thousand years, the giant monsters have been all but forgotten―but now they are rising again as the steam-driven America of 1875 rediscovers electricity, the lifeblood of the Mangleborn. When his parents and the rest of the Septemberists are brainwashed by one of the evil creatures, Archie must assemble a team of seven young heroes to save the world.”
I read the book first when we were on vacation at the end of March. I enjoyed it, didn’t swoon over it, and was actually a tad concerned how J was going to respond to it. I shouldn’t have worried. She inhaled it! I think this was her first real taste of science-fiction and she fully enjoyed it. The book takes real characters like Thomas Edison and makes him into the evil genius who is trying to restore electricity to the world in order to bring back the Mangleborn. I think what truly enticed her were three young heroes with various strengths and weaknesses coming together to save the world. She was especially drawn to the main character of Archie Dent and went crazy when he disappeared for two chapters. While I was good only reading one book, she immediately wanted us to purchase book 2.
There were lots of pieces that went over her head, but that made it even more appealing for the grownups reading along. I especially laughed at the whole scene of people physically hacking the pneumatic mail tubes (p-mail) and talking about the fact that people seemed to really respond to silly requests for money from made up princes in foreign lands. It was also great to see how the three saviors grew into their roles and learned large amounts by finally having friends and a purpose that was bigger than themselves.
The Battle of the Books competition has some issues in terms of the types of questions they ask and how schools choose to approach the process, but the fact that it gives a list of books that challenge young readers to test out different styles of writing is outstanding. This is a book I highly doubt J would have ever picked up, and now she has been shown a whole new genre that she can consider.
Last summer, while wandering the library I discovered the book The Book Scavenger. I was quickly enthralled by the book which takes kids on an adventure through the streets of San Francisco searching for books that have been hidden and also for clues that have been left by a writer who was about to launch a new game before he was attacked and left in a coma. I loved this book and could completely see kids from 3rd grade up liking it. It had everything for me – a great premise, books, San Francisco and engaging characters.
So earlier this week I happened into our local book shop and on my way out noticed signs for the book. Author Jennifer Chambliss Bertman was coming to town. She is planning on having a discussion about her debut novel and a book trivia game. I rearranged my older daughter’s piano lessons and we will be at the event!
One big part of this book is that people all over the country participate in a massive game of “find the book” that has been organized by a book publisher. A few years ago we got into geocaching with my kids and their friends, but we floundered when there weren’t a ton of things in our area to find. The idea of basically being able to geocache with books and literary clues…awesome! I remember reading the book wishing something really existed. The thing is, it does, it’s just that last year when I read the book, no one had hid any within an hour of our home. The bookstore, however, also reminded me that people can hide books via the Book Scavenger website. Someone from the store itself has hidden a few in preparation for this event. That in mind, my thoughts began to churn – I need to hide some books!
Today I picked up 6 books at a local used book store and am going to hide them over the weekend. I would love for my daughter to get into this book, she just is currently devouring The League of Seven and wants to finish that one first. But once she finishes the book, I want her to have the ability to go searching for books. For that, I need more people to get involved. If you live near us, and you know who you are, go to the Book Scavenger website and get the materials necessary to hide a book. If you don’t live near us, do it anyway, you never know what young reader you will be helping!
As for the book itself, I honestly don’t remember a ton of details from the book. I do know that there were lots of wonderful little gems. As someone who grew up roaming the streets of San Francisco, it was like stepping back in time visiting places I hadn’t thought of in years, especially City Lights Bookstore. I loved that not only were ciphers used, but you got a little bit of history lesson on them as well. Then there were the relationships between Emily and her brother Matthew as well as between Emily and James. This book was one that struck me as just fabulous and that all book loving kids should read. If you are a fan of Mr. Lemoncello’s Library or a fan of a good mystery, you will definitely enjoy this book.
I have many blog posts about individual books, and groups of them, that I want to actually type up, but getting the time to get it all down sometimes poses challenges. That said, this wonderful article was in the Washington Post and deserves to be read by many many people, especially those concerned about what their kids read.
So tonight when I was scrolling through Facebook while putting my younger one to bed (she plays with my hair for 5 minutes), I found this outstanding article. It struck me because I have had conversations with other moms about letting kids read books that “upset them” or show things we might not want our “sheltered” kids to face yet. What I’ve always said is let them read the book.
Kids read books and understand them on different levels than we do. I mean, even when my older daughter was reading Harry Potter there was the whole fact that book 7 upset her at times that didn’t phase me, but the part that left me bawling was no big deal to her. We have read a wide variety of books and they have made her a more well-rounded reader and a more well-rounded person, even when they aren’t exactly my favorite books, or hers.
Kids learn TONS from books. They learn that the world around us is both wonderful and cruel, but they do it in a safe environment. They learn how to treat people and how not to treat people. They learn that there are good people in the world and truly horrible ones. I mean, no one would ever want to have parents like Matilda Wormwood’s, but kids innately understand that they are a caricature and move on.
I will admit that when J was much younger and reading things on a level that was truly unusual for say a 4 year old, I did a touch of censoring. I fully admit that I had a truly visceral reaction to Junie B Jones, which I ranted about so long ago it is on a different blog, but that did have to do with not wanting my 4 year old calling things stupid.
We protect our kids as much as we can, but it is also our job to teach them to be empathetic of others and aware that sometimes life sucks. A book might make them cry, it might make them question things, but the glorious thing is that they still come to us so we can be there to help them make sense of it all.
When we were reading Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics (which I still need to write about here), a big focus was on banning books. One person who has had many of her books on the “banned book list” was Judy Blume and she put it perfectly when interviewed by the Telegraph in 2014:
Parents worry “much too much” about what their children are reading, said the author Judy Blume. She argued that they will simply “self-censor” by getting bored of anything they do not understand.
So let your kids read. Let them read things that you think are perfect for them and let them read things that you can’t stand. I can only imagine what my parents thought when I was reading Sweet Valley High Books back in 6th grade, you know, after I begged my mother to allow me to read the Clan of the Cave Bear. Let them read for fun and not for their lexile level. Because the more you read, the more you grow.
Last summer when the Battle of the Books list came out, I printed out a copy hoping to encourage J to read some of the books over the summer to expand her reading options even though she knew should wouldn’t be allowed to be on the team this year. It was a nice thought on my part, but even though she thought a bunch of the titles sounded good, she really did not care to read them. I actually started reading a number of them on my own, but completely dropped the subject with her. Over winter break, she decided on her own that she was ready to tackle the list.
The first book that she read after making this decision was Tuck Everlasting. She had already read The Lemonade War and Because of Winn-Dixie, and I think she picked Tuck because it had been brought up at our last kids’ book club as an option of a book that has a movie. The main theme of Tuck Everlasting is the notion of immortality and whether it is a blessing or a curse. The Goodreads synopsis says:
“Doomed to – or blessed with – eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing that it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.”
I was actually hoping to read it before she got a chance, but I wasn’t fast enough. I did wind up reading a chunk of the middle with her, but only because she still enjoys our reading time together before bed. J really enjoyed it and is now thrilled by the notion that there is a Broadway musical coming out. She understood that eternal life isn’t something that we would necessarily want to have, to watch those you love die before you. I think the other reason that she liked the book was because the characters were so well developed and real, even with their ability to never die.
The second book that she read, which got me thinking about the theme of perspective, is “A Dog’s Life – The Autobiography of a Stray.” In Tuck Everlasting you are considering the notion of eternal life. From the outside, it might sound rather appealing, but when you go through the experience yourself, there are many challenges that come up and make living forever not such an enticing goal. The book A Dog’s Life does a really exceptional job of considering the world from a dog’s perspective from birth through to old age. This dog happens to also be a stray whose life gets impacted tremendously by the other people, both human and animal, that are in her life.
The Goodreads synopsis of A Dog’s Life says: “Squirrel and her brother Bone begin their lives in a toolshed behind someone’s summer house. Their mother nurtures them and teaches them the many skills they will need to survive as stray dogs. But when their mother is taken from them suddenly and too soon, the puppies are forced to make their own way in the world, facing humans both gentle and brutal, busy highways, other animals, and the changing seasons. When Bone and Squirrel become separated, Squirrel must fend for herself, and in the process makes two friends who in very different ways define her fate.”
A Dog’s Life is incredibly far away from the books that J would typically tend to read, yet she absolutely loved it. Author Ann Martin writes with simplicity and clarity and makes even non-dog lovers feel for her characters. When a family treats Squirrel with cruelty, J and I had a conversation on how people could be that way and how important it is to care for others. There were so many moments in this book that resonated with us and brought out strong feelings.
When I asked J what she liked the most with A Dog’s Life, she really enjoyed that it was from the dog’s perspective and written in her voice. She had done work in her third grade class on perspective before winter break, but this seemed to impact her on a stronger level then writing a short piece. I’m just glad that she’s understanding things on a variety of levels and enjoying stories that stray from the predictable.
I am lucky that J loves to read as much as she does. We are looking forward to the time when she can officially be on the Battle of the Books team. She struggles with the fact that her classmates read books so that they can take reading counts tests on them. She loves books and doesn’t have a competitive bone in her body when it comes to them, she just wants to share her love of books with anyone who will listen to her, but she doesn’t want to quantify what she is reading. I think that she will thrive being allowed onto the Battle of the Books team next year so that she will have a group of people reading the same books and feeling them with the same sense of passion that she does and she could use a little drive of competition as well. For now, because she is reading things that many of her friends are not, if she wants to have a conversation about a book she either has one with me or else she finishes a book and tries to figure out which of her friends might read next.
It has been great to see her gain a different type of perspective on life by reading things that challenge her notions. The Battle of the Books will continue to allow her to get additional perspective and be surrounded by those who appreciate books the way that she does.
As the New Year approaches, we are often encouraged to make resolutions and usher in the coming year with thoughts of new beginnings, introspection, and the plan to be the best you in the coming year. For my column in OutreachNC, I was encouraged to write about books that touched on this subject. Most young children cannot fully comprehend the notion of resolutions, and they shouldn’t need to, but as kids start getting into the middle of elementary school, the notion of looking forward and making changes to make yourself a better person can start to make sense.
In author Grace Lin’s debut novel, “The Year of the Dog,” readers on the third to fifth grade level get a gem of a story about finding yourself in the New Year – the Chinese New Year. Pacy “Grace” Lin, the protagonist of the story, is a young Taiwanese-American girl who lives in an upstate-New York community where there are not a lot of other Chinese children. The beginning of the book finds her family celebrating the Chinese New Year and all of it’s customs with special foods, colors and activities. They are ringing in the year of the Dog, which her mother tells her is a “good year to find yourself…deciding what your values are, what you want to do – that kind of thing.” Grace vows that this year she will discover new talents and decide what she wants to be when she grows up.
What is special about this book is that it is truly told from Grace’s voice and is true to what a child would experience. As Grace moves through the year, she is trying to figure out her place in the larger world. She tries to balance Chinese culture with American culture. She makes new friends and starts paying more attention to which boys might like them. She works on a science fair experiment and auditions for the school play. She is confronted by bullies.
Grace faces struggles that any kid can relate to. While her focus is on the fact that she is Chinese-American in a world where everyone else is white, it comes down to a feeling of fitting in, something we have all considered from time to time. Grace struggles because she cannot see her role in the larger world because of her culture, but this is a feeling most children go through. For Grace it is highlighted when she was going to audition for Dorothy in a school production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Rather than saying that of course she should try out, one of her friends comments that she “can’t be Dorothy. Dorothy’s not Chinese.” This feeling is only compounded by the fact that she seems to not find any characters in books or film that are like her, which in turn makes her feel less important.
The biggest turning point for Grace comes when she is working on a project for a national contest called “Written and Illustrated by…” All of the kids in her class get the assignment that they not only have to write a story, but illustrate it as well. Her friends all come up with stories, but she has a major case of writer’s block. Her teacher encourages her to “write what you know” in order to have a book with a unique and original idea. She winds up writing a story that is auto-biographical about the time her mother grew “ugly” vegetables that were turned into an absolutely delicious soup.
J and I really enjoyed reading this book. I think that she could relate to what Grace was going through. We also really enjoyed the family stories that were interwoven throughout the book. Whenever there was an experience that Grace was going through, a family member would tell them a story from their past. For example, when she is so tired after celebrating Chinese New Year that she doesn’t want to go to school, her mother tells her of the story when “Mom Sleeps in School.” Or when she struggles with coming up with a topic for her writing assignment, her mother tells her about “The Paper Piano” to encourage Pacy to work on it a little every day, just like practicing and instrument. These stories kept the whole thing light-hearted and give the story additional depth.
“The Year of the Dog” is a lighthearted coming-of-age novel with a cultural twist. A real page-turner that will delight readers.