"It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home."
-Lev Grossman, The Magician's Land

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Habibi - A Story of Hope

Nye, Naomi Shihab. 1997. Habibi. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0-689-80149-1

Habibi is the story of a family who moves halfway across the world, from St. Louis to Jerusalem.  Fourteen-year-old Liyana has just had her first kiss when her father announces that the family will be moving to his native city of Jerusalem.  He believes the violence there has abated, and now is the perfect time to return.  Liyana is unsure how to feel.  While this may be an exciting adventure, there are so many people and places she will miss.  She is looking forward to meeting her Sitti, grandmother, and the rest of her father's side of the family, but how will she communicate with them?  She does not speak Arabic, and they do not speak English.

Liyana and her brother, Rafik, find they enjoy living in Jerusalem.  The city is beautiful, their family is loving, and she is adjusting nicely to her new school.  But nobody knows her there, what she likes, who her friends were.  She feels like she has to start her life over from scratch.  

As time passes, Liyana starts to feel more at home in Jerusalem and even meets a boy, Omer.  But she is not in America anymore, and the expectations are completely different.  Omer is Jewish, and tensions are running high between the Arabs and the Jews.  Will her family see Omer for who he really is and not just as a Jew?  And what will her family do when the soldiers attack?  Her family and friends are not as safe as she'd like to pretend they are.  Will a shooting and imprisonment leave her family in ruins, or will they be able to rise above it and work towards peace?      

Naomi Shihab Nye draws upon her own experiences of living in Jerusalem when she was a teen to craft this authentic story.  Jerusalem has a long history as a conflict-ridden city.  Through the Abboud family, she is able to show what life is like there for the residents who desperately want peace. 

Arabic is seamlessly interwoven in the text.  Nye sheds light on the differences between American and Arab customs; for example, Liyana is not allowed to wear shorts.  Sitti has never been in an elevator and does not like using the telephone.  Nye also exposes the unfortunate living conditions of those living in the refugee camp.

This novel will appeal to anyone who has ever longed for peace.  Liyana does not let her family's prejudices affect her relationship with Omer.  She is able to look past things such as religion and ethnicity to see people for who they really are.  Teens today have a similar mindset, so they will be able to relate to Liyana.

1998 Jane Addams Children's Book Award Winner

1998 Judy Lopez Memorial Award

ALA Best Book for Young Adults

ALA Notable Children's Book

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY -"This soul-stirring novel about the Abbouds, an Arab American family, puts faces and names to the victims of violence and persecution in Jerusalem today...Nye's climactic ending will leave readers pondering, long after the last page is turned, why Arabs, Jews, Greeks and Armenians can no longer live in harmony the way they once did."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "Though the story begins at a leisurely pace, readers will be engaged by the characters, the romance, and the foreshadowed danger. Poetically imaged and leavened with humor, the story renders layered and complex history understandable through character and incident. Habibi succeeds in making the hope for peace compellingly personal and concrete...as long as individual citizens like Liyana's grandmother Sitti can say, "I never lost my peace inside."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "In her first novel, Nye shows all of the charms and flaws of the old city through unique, short-story-like chapters and poetic language. The sights, sounds, and smells of Jerusalem drift through the pages and readers glean a sense of current Palestinian-Israeli relations and the region's troubled history."

Nye is a prolific author and poet.  Have your students read more of her work.
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. There Is No Long Distance Now: Very Short Stories. ISBN 978-0062019653
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. What Have You Lost? ISBN 978-0380733071
  • Nye, Naomi Shihab. A Maze Me: Poems for Girls. ISBN 978-0060581916

To give students an idea of the culture shock Liyana experienced, share images with your students of all the places mentioned in the novel. 

To give your students an idea of who Naomi Shihab Nye really is, share this video of Nye reading one of her poems.

Use this novel as a jumping off point to have your students research the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts.

Have students take on the perspective of either Liyana or Rafik.  Have them choose an event from the story and write a journal entry as that character.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

George - Be Who You Are

Gino, Alex. 2015. George. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 978-0-545-81254-2

This middle grade novel is about a boy named George, but George knows she is really a girl.  This is a secret she has not shared with anyone.  It tears her apart inside when others refer to her as a boy or as a soon to be man, but every time she thinks about telling someone, the words get stuck in her mouth.  

George's fourth grade class is going to put on a production of Charlotte's Web, and George really wants to be cast as Charlotte.  If she could only perform as Charlotte, maybe everyone would finally realize that she is a girl, as well.  Unfortunately, her teacher won't even consider her for the part because "he's a boy."  As the story progresses, George struggles with sharing this information about herself with her mother and her best friend, Kelly.

Is George destined to work behind the scenes, while her best friend, Kelly, performs onstage as Charlotte?  And will George ever be able to let the world know who she really is?

Alex Gino has given the world a true gift in this powerful and important novel.  There is a profound lack of children's literature about characters who are transgender, especially for middle grade students.  This timely novel helps fill that gap.  It is beautifully written and completely age appropriate.  It is not about dating or sexuality; it is simply a story about personal identity.  Anyone who has ever felt different will relate to George.  Her dreams of being accepted for who she really is are not all that different than the dreams of most preteens.  Her utter devastation at not only not getting the role of Charlotte, but being dismissed as a joke by her teacher for even reading for the role, will resonate with readers who have ever been unfairly denied something they wanted.  And Kelly's ultimate acceptance of her and their experience together at the zoo will leave readers with a feeling of hope that George's (Melissa's) life is finally moving in the right direction. 

George's mother was a believable character.  She seemed to be in denial that her son was anything other than a typical fourth grade boy.  When she found George's secret stash of magazines, her first instinct was anger and to take them away from her.  As a mother, she doesn't want her child to choose a difficult path in life, and that's what she initially thinks when George tells her that she's a girl.  Fortunately, she does seem to start accepting her child for who she really is at the end of the book, in her words, "one step at a time."

Inevitably, there will be some who feel that the subject matter of this book is too controversial or inappropriate for middle grade students.  To those, I would say that it is my role as a library media specialist to promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of ALL young people.  If today's students are going to grow to be intelligent, empathetic, and kind adults, they need to build an understanding and appreciation of the diversity of the world we live in.  Literature is the best way to expose children to other cultures they may not encounter in their own lives.  George is an exemplary novel that can do just that.

Goodreads Choice Awards 2015 Finalist

Kirkus Reviews Best of 2015

Publishers Weekly Best Books 2015

School Library Journal Best Books 2015

School Library Journal Top 10 Audio Books 2015

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "For George, as is the case for many LGBTQ youth, coming out is a process that she must repeat until she is properly recognized. There is pain in George, but not without the promise of a better tomorrow, even if tomorrow doesn’t arrive as soon as it should. VERDICT A required purchase for any collection that serves a middle grade population."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "George’s joy during stolen moments when she can be herself will resonate with anyone who has felt different, while providing a necessary window into the specific challenges of a child recognizing that they are transgender. Profound, moving, and—as Charlotte would say—radiant, this book will stay with anyone lucky enough to find it."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "George, a fourth-grader who knows she is a girl, despite appearances, begins to tell her secret.  The word “transgender” is used midway through, but far more work is done by the simple choice to tell George’s story using third-person narration and the pronouns “she” and “her.” Readers then cringe as much as George herself when bullies mock her or—perhaps worse—when well-meaning friends and family reassure her with sentiments like “I know you’ll turn into a fine young man.”...Warm, funny, and inspiring."
For teachers who are looking for ways to talk about George in a sensitive manner, Alex Gino has written a blog post that addresses just that.  This is a great resource to use before reading/discussing this book with your students. http://www.alexgino.com/2015/08/how-to-talk-about-george/

Have your students write about a time they felt different from their peers.  Have anyone who is brave enough share their writing with the class.

Check out this blog post for other quality LGBTQ literature for middle grade students. http://www.leewind.org/2009/12/glbtq-middle-grade-bookshelf.html

One of the characters in the story, Jeff, is a classic example of a bully.  Have a discussion with your students about bullying and what they can each do to help a friend who is the victim of a bully.

Kelly is truly George's best friend in every way.  Have students write about their best friend and what that friend does to make them feel special.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Pirate of Kindergarten - A Must See Book

Lyon, George Ella. 2010. The Pirate of Kindergarten. Ill. by Lynne Avril. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN 978-1-4169-5024-0

Ginny is a Kindergartener who loves school.  She enjoys reading and drawing.  But Ginny has a problem.  Her eyes like to play tricks on her.  She has difficulty walking to Reading Circle because she sees double the amount of chairs.  Reading is tricky because the words seem to move all over the page.  And using scissors is even trickier; multiple images appear on the paper, and she's never sure which one to cut.

Everything changes for Ginny on Vision Screening Day.  To Ginny's dismay, the nurse finds that she has double vision.  This prompts a visit to Dr. Clare, who gives Ginny an eye patch to wear.  This patch allows Ginny to see only one of everything.  Now, she is a Kindergarten Pirate.  She is able to read, cut, run, climb, and walk successfully.  Ginny's problem has been solved, and she couldn't be happier.

The Pirate of Kindergarten is actually based on George Ella Lyon's own experiences as a child.  She has written the story in a way that makes it easy for young children to comprehend Ginny's visual impairment.  Ginny is a relatable character, in that she enjoys school and the many activities that happen there throughout the day.  Her frustration over using the scissors and her anxiety over the vision screening are understandable.  When Ginny is given the patch to wear, Lyon highlights all of its positive effects.  This lets the reader know that wearing an eye patch is not weird or strange, but helpful and exciting.  Should any young children encounter someone with an eye patch in the future, they will have a much better understanding of why the person is wearing it after reading this book.

Lynne Avril's vibrant illustrations realistically portray how Ginny's eyes work, both before and after the patch.  When I read this story to my own children, ages 7 and 5, the illustrations really helped them understand what it would be like to have a visual impairment.  The book prompted a discussion with my children about my own eye sight.  I do not have double vision, but I have very poor eye sight and wear contact lessons.  They both asked, "Is this what it is like for you when you don't have your contacts in?"  I don't think they ever really understood what it meant to have a visual impairment until they read this book.  

2011 Schneider Family Book Award Winner

Volunteer State Book Award Master List

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "Lyon's short, descriptive sentences set up the situation deftly, and Avril's astute chalk, pencil, and acrylic drawings of "two of everything" provide a vivid window into Ginny's pre-treatment world. It is not until the end of the story that Ginny declares herself a pirate, but as a metaphor for confidence and competence, her patch effectively declares her to be captain of her own ship."

From BOOKLIST - "Based on Lyon’s own experience, the sensitively written story radiates empathy and good humor. Even children who have not experienced Ginny’s problem will understand her occasional frustration and find it intriguing that one person can literally see the world differently from another."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Without lecturing or making Ginny the object of pity, Lyon (Sleepsong) and Avril (Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse), who works in cheery but remarkably expressive pastels, show how disorientating and alienating it feels when something as fundamental as visual perception goes awry."

Have a discussion with your students about visual impairments.  Do any of them have a visual impairment?  Do they know someone with a visual impairment?  

Invite the school nurse into your classroom.  Have him/her administer a vision screening on each student, so they can experience it for themselves.

Read your students more books about characters with visual impairments.  Here are some suggestions:
  • Headley, Justina Chen. The Patch. ISBN 978-1580891707
  • Shaw, Beth Kobliner. Jacob's Eye Patch. ISBN 978-1476737324
  • Kostecki-Shaw, Jenny Sue. My Travelin' Eye. ISBN 978-0805081695

Ginny's eye patch is just one way she is unique.  Have a discussion with your students about what makes each of them unique.

Share this book trailer with your students.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Experience the Power of Imagination with The Boy in the Garden

Say, Allen. 2010. The Boy in the Garden. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children: Boston. ISBN 978-0-547-21410-8

After listening to Mama read him a story about a crane who turns into a woman, Jiro goes with his father to visit Mr. Ozu.  Mr. Ozu has a beautiful garden, in which Jiro spies a crane.  He approaches the crane carefully, so as not to frighten it.  But when he hears the laughter of his father and Mr. Ozu, he realizes the crane is a statue.

Jiro runs away in embarrassment, and he comes across a small cottage.  Thinking it may be the cottage of the woodcutter from Mama's story, Jiro goes in and makes himself at home.  Soon after, a beautiful woman appears, and Jiro believes it is the Crane Woman.  He is thrilled to be part of the story, and he is determined to take care of her.

Unfortunately, it appears to have all been a dream.  Papa wakes Jiro up after finding him asleep in Mr. Ozu's teahouse.  As father and son walk home, they take a moment to observe the bronze crane.

Did Jiro actually enter the story Mama read to him?  Or was it all really a dream?

Allen Say opens his book with "The Story That Mama Read to Jiro."  When he switches to the narrative of Jiro and his father going to visit Mr. Ozu, readers will likely wonder what the connection is between these two stories.  As the tale unfolds, the reader sees that Jiro may have just wandered into Mama's book.  This is certainly an intriguing idea that will grab readers and keep them guessing as to what is really going on.  Many children have often fantasized about becoming a part of their favorite books.

Say's muted watercolor paintings complement the text.  The wonder in Jiro's face is evident on each page.  While he does put on a kimono at the small cottage, Jiro is initially painted wearing pants and a coat (as well as his father).  This helps make him a relatable character to children of any culture.  The kimono comes into play when the legend comes to life.  The most important illustration, however, is the one on the last page of the book.  The reader has just come to the conclusion that Jiro's experiences took place in a dream, but a small bird flying in the distance might lead them to believe maybe it did really happen after all.   

Allen Say has written and illustrated countless picture books and was the winner of the Newbery Medal in 1994.  He has a true gift for storytelling.   

From THE HORN BOOK - "A gently unsettling tale of the power of the imagination." 

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "Say is at the height of his artistic achievement in this tale of a little boy named Jiro and the powerful impact that a story has on him...This is a beautiful, moving, quietly mysterious read, ripe with possibilities for interpretation and contemplation." 

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Caldecott Medalist Say (Grandfather's Journey), his work always painstaking and poignant, ventures tentatively into the realm of fantasy....Pale colors and expanses of empty space contribute to the feeling of haunted charm. Did Jiro dream? Possibly—or possibly not." 

Visit this website to listen to Allen Say talk about his inspiration for The Boy in the Gardenhttp://www.teachingbooks.net/book_reading.cgi?id=4794&a=1

Share more of Allen Say's picture books with your students, including his 1994 Caldecott Medal Winner, Grandfather's Journey.  Click on this website to find a list of his books. http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/bookwizard/books-by/allen-say#cart/cleanup

Click on this website to find a printable activity for your students to complete. http://www.thewiseowlfactory.com/PDFs/2011/09/TheBoyintheGardenQandA.pdf

Have your students share what story they would like to become a part of and why.

Show your students pictures of real looms and share some videos of what weaving cloth looks like.  This may be an unfamiliar process for them.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kira-Kira - A Novel of Love and Hope in the Face of Tragedy

Kadohata, Cynthia. 2004. Kira-Kira. New York: Atheneum Books For Young Readers.  ISBN 0-689-85639-3

The year is 1956.  Katie, a young Japanese American girl, has spent the first five years of her life living in a Japanese community in Iowa with her family.  When her parents' Oriental foods grocery store goes out of business, however, they decide to pack up and move to Georgia, where her uncle lives.  

Life in Georgia is very different.  Her family moved from a comfortable house in Iowa to a cramped apartment.   Katie's parents work all the time.   The other children at school ignore her.  Her only real friend is her older sister, Lynn.  Katie idolizes Lynn.  She is a shining star who seems to know everything about everything.  Katie feels happiest when she is with Lynn and always tries to please her.  

Everything changes when Lynn gets sick.  At first, she just seems tired all the time and needs extra rest.  The purchase of their own home breathes new life into Lynn, but as more time passes, it becomes clear that she is not getting any better.  The hospital bills start to pile up and Katie's parents fall behind on their mortgage payments.  They work more and more hours, but it's still not enough.

Katie's life is filled with a combination of worry, uncertainty, and despair.  What is wrong with her sister, and will she ever get better?  And how can she prevent her family from falling apart?

A sign of a remarkable author is the ability to make the reader both laugh and cry, and Cynthia Kadohata does just that in her stunning novel.  She uses the power of voice to make Katie a memorable and relatable character.  Katie is a typical young girl who would rather spend time with her older sister than do her homework.  Her observations of the world around her are often amusing.  She has a family who loves her and would do anything for her.  And while her family may be poor financially, their lives are rich with love.  Readers will root for Katie to succeed because she is so likable.

Kadohata's portrayal of the racism the Takeshimas face is accurate based on the setting of the novel.  The receptionist at the motel mistakes the Japanese American family for Indian and then Mexican.  She offers them a room at the back of the motel but charges them two dollars extra for it.  The only people who are friendly to the family in Georgia are the other Japanese Americans.  The white people ignore them or point and stare.  Mrs. Takeshima experiences this vividly when she gives birth to Sam.  The nurses in the hospital can't stop staring at the "cute Japanese" baby, but are purposely neglectful to her.  Both Lynn and Katie have a difficult time making friends, and it is a big deal when Amber, a white girl, befriends Lynn.

Kadohata intersperses Japanese words within the text.  The title of the novel, Kira-Kira, is Japanese for "glittering," and this word is meaningful to both Lynn and Katie.  Lynn dreams of moving to California and seeing the kira-kira sea, and for Katie, it was the first word she learned.  The older characters have Japanese names.  Kadohata also makes note of the most important holiday in her culture, New Year.  The most devastating event in the novel actually takes place on New Year.

I look forward to reading more of this prolific author's work.

2005 Newbery Medal Winner

2005 Asian Pacific American Literature Award Winner

2005 ALA Notable Book

From BOOKLIST - "In her first novel for young people, Kadohata stays true to the child's viewpoint in plain, beautiful prose that can barely contain the passionate feelings. Just as heart wrenching as the sisters' story is what Katie knows of her father's struggle, whether it's his backbreaking work in the factory or his love for his family. The quiet words will speak to readers who have lost someone they love—or fear that they could."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "Told from Katie's point of view and set in the 1950s, this beautifully written story tells of a girl struggling to find her own way in a family torn by illness and horrendous work conditions. Katie's parents can barely afford to pay their daughter's medical bills, yet they refuse to join the growing movement to unionize until after Lynn's death. All of the characters are believable and well developed, especially Katie, who acts as a careful observer of everything that happens in her family, even though there is a lot she doesn't understand. Especially heartbreaking are the weeks leading up to Lynn's death, when Katie is exhausted and frustrated by the demands of her sister's illness, yet willing to do anything to make her happy. Girls will relate to and empathize with the appealing protagonist."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "This novel shines."

If your students enjoyed this novel, have them read another of Kadohata's titles:
  • Kadohata, Cynthia. The Thing About Luck. ISBN 978-1416918820
  • Kadohata, Cynthia. Weedflower. ISBN 978-0689865749
  • Kadohata, Cynthia. A Million Shades of Gray. ISBN 978-1416918837

Have your students write a journal entry describing what school was like for Katie.  

Have your students research why New Year is the most important holiday in the Japanese culture.

Ask your students to think about what might happen next for Katie and her family.  Will her parents still be struggling with money?  Have them write an epilogue of what the family is doing a year from when the novel ends.

Share this video with your students of Cynthia Kadohata discussing the novel.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Chinese Folktales and Imagination Blend Together in Where The Mountain Meets The Moon

Lin, Grace. 2009. Where The Mountain Meets The Moon. New York: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0-316-03863-8

Where The Mountain Meets The Moon is the story of a young girl named Minli.  Minli and her parents live in the poor village of Fruitless Mountain.  Their tireless work, day after day, provides them with only the smallest amount of food.  Ma is dissatisfied with the life they have and would love nothing more than a change in fortune.  Inspired by Ba's exciting stories, Minli decides to leave home and seek out the Old Man of the Moon, in the hopes that he will tell her how to change her family's fortune.

Thus begins a long and dangerous journey.  Along the way, Minli befriends a lonely dragon, and he becomes her constant companion, as he, too would like to ask a question of the Old Man of the Moon.  Together, they outsmart some monkeys, search for the Guardian of the City of Bright Moonlight and a borrowed line, encounter an evil green tiger, and listen to a wealth of old stories.  They also make many new friends who are more than happy to assist Minli and Dragon in whatever way they can.

Meanwhile, Ma and Ba are worried sick about their precious daughter and fear they may never see her again.  Will Minli succeed in finding the Old Man of the Moon?  And if so, will he be willing to help her?  The ending of this exciting tale may surprise you.   

Lin's novel is both enchanting and compelling.  Minli is a strong female character who decides to take fate into her own hands.  She is determined, courageous, and kind.  In short, she has all of the qualities that any young girl might aspire to have.  I think this is particularly important because girls in Asian Pacific American literature have been portrayed as shy, obedient, and subservient in the past.  It is refreshing to read a story where the character breaks free of those stereotypes.  Minli's quest will likely fascinate all young readers, but her character will have just as a profound effect on the perception of Asian Pacific American girls.

Chinese folklore, both traditional and newly imagined by Lin, plays an essential role in this novel. Throughout the book, Minli is surrounded by these stories.  The stories Ba tells her in the evenings are the catalyst for her journey.  Throughout her travels, each character she meets has another story to share.  These stories further her knowledge and help guide her in making important decisions.  For example, The Unknown Part of the Story of the Old Man of the Moon tells both Minli and the King of the City of Bright Moonlight that the paper passed down to him from his predecessors is in all likeliness the borrowed line.  Minli uses that knowledge when she arrives at Never-Ending Mountain to create a kite from the valuable paper (along with the red string).  The Old Man of the Moon will surely take notice of her when he sees that she has returned a paper from the Book of Fortune to him.  It is important to note that at the end of her novel, Lin shares which aspects of the book were based on real Chinese folktales and which parts she created herself.

Where The Mountain Meets The Moon is a culturally authentic novel.  The characters have Chinese names, the foods they eat are traditional Chinese foods, and the clothes they wear are bright in color and made of silk.  The color red is important in the Chinese culture, and the twins, Da-A-Fu, are described as wearing red.  Dragons are symbolic in Chinese culture, and there are many dragons in this story (both real and as part of the stories).  The people who encounter Minli's friend, Dragon, are awed by him.  Likewise, goldfish are considered symbols of luck and good fortune, and their appearance in the novel marks considerable change for the characters.   

It would be remiss not to mention Lin's beautiful artwork.  Her full color paintings are vibrant and add another layer to this already engaging story.  They help the reader to more completely visualize the characters and events. 

This is the first title by Grace Lin that I have read, but I am looking forward to reading more of her work.  She is a noteworthy author from a diverse cultural group that is poorly underrepresented in American children's literature today, and I look forward to sharing her books with my students.    

2010 Newbery Honor Book

2010 CCBC Choices List

2013 Nutmeg Award Nominee

From BOOKLIST - "With beautiful language, Lin creates a strong, memorable heroine and a mystical land. Stories, drawn from a rich history of Chinese folktales, weave throughout her narrative, deepening the sense of both the characters and the setting and smoothly furthering the plot. Children will embrace this accessible, timeless story about the evil of greed and the joy of gratitude. Lin's own full-color drawings open each chapter."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "The author's writing is elegant, and her full-color illustrations are stunning. Minli's determination to help her family, as well as the grief her parents feel at her absence, is compelling and thoroughly human."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "Lin deftly incorporates elements from Chinese folk- and fairy tales to create stories within the main story and provide context for Minli's quest. With her "lively and impulsive spirit," Minli emerges a stalwart female role model who learns the importance of family, friendship and faith during her amazing journey. Richly hued illustrations reinforce the Chinese folk theme."

Grace Lin has several wonderful activities that go along with the novel on her website.  Check them out by clicking on this link. Grace Lin's Website  

Share this video of Lin being interviewed about her novel by some children.

If your students enjoyed Lin's writing, have them choose another of her books to read.  Her other middle grade novels include:
  • Lin, Grace. Starry River of the Sky. ISBN 978-0316125970
  • Lin, Grace. The Year of the Dog. ISBN 978-0316060028
  • Lin, Grace. The Year of the Rat. ISBN 978-0316033619
  • Lin, Grace. Dumpling Days. ISBN 978-0316125895  

Have your students write about what one question they would ask the Old Man of the Moon if they had the opportunity and why.

Ask your students to think about which character in the novel they are most like.  Have them write why they are similar to this character and list attributes that they both share.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Walk the Trail of Tears in How I Became a Ghost

Tingle, Tim. 2013. How I Became a Ghost. Oklahoma City: The Roadrunner Press. ISBN 978-1-937054-53-3

The year is 1830.  Isaac, a ten year old boy, lives in Choctaw Nation, Mississippi with his parents and older brother.  They have a comfortable life there, with many friends.  But all that changes once the Treaty Talk begins.  The Nahullos (White people) come in the middle of the night and set fire to all of the homes in their town.  Most of the Choctaw people barely make it out alive, while some perish in the flames.  They flee to a swamp, thinking it unlikely that the Nahullos would look for them there, but eventually they do arrive with a nasty surprise. 

Thus begins a long and difficult journey for the people of Choctaw Nation.  As per the agreement of the treaty, the Nahullo soldiers march the Choctaws through the sleet and snow towards the new land where they are being relocated to.  Through all of this, Isaac begins to see ghosts and learns that he will soon become one of them.  On this journey, new friendships are formed, and the Choctaws remain brave and strong in the face of so much misery.  Along with a shapeshifting panther boy and a charming five year old ghost, Isaac embarks on a mission to save a young girl's life.  Will he remain alive long enough to see this mission through?  Or will the cruel Nahullos bring more terror and death to the Choctaws along the Trail of Tears?   

How I Became a Ghost is a truly compelling story.  It is part historical fiction, part supernatural, and part mystery all wrapped up in one important middle grade novel.  The story is told from Isaac's perspective.  From his opening line, "Maybe you have never read a book written by a ghost before," Tingle quickly pulls the reader into Isaac's world and immerses him/her in this tragic piece of history. Isaac's tale keeps the reader on his/her toes, anticipating the moment when he finally becomes a ghost.  But despite this, Isaac comes across as an ordinary ten year old, who children will easily relate to.  And while the topic of death is certainly a sad one, the tone of the novel is not.  The Choctaws do not really leave when they die.  They remain with their family members and can appear before them, offering them some measure of comfort.  Children with no prior knowledge of the Trail of Tears may pick up this book because of its supernatural elements, but will leave the book emotionally connected to the Choctaws and their devastating plight.

For all of the novel's positive qualities, Tingle does the leave the reader with some unanswered questions.  It is never explained how Isaac's mother knew to keep her family from taking the blankets or who cast the spell to make the rattlesnake appear on Nita's body.  How I Became a Ghost is marketed as the beginning of a trilogy, so hopefully these questions will be answered in the next book.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any information on if and when the second book will be out.

Tingle is Choctaw, himself, and this novel was inspired by his own memories of retracing the trail and speaking with tribal elders.  The Choctaw beliefs, traditions, and language add to the authenticity of the story.  This is an important novel for all middle grade students to read, offering a glimpse into a culture they may not be familiar with while bringing to life an important event in our country's history.

2014 American Indian Youth Literature Award Winner

2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - ""The beginning of a trilogy, this tale is valuable for both its recounting of a historical tragedy and its immersive Choctaw perspective."

From THE HORN BOOK - "Tingle, a Choctaw storyteller, relates his tale in the engaging repetitions and rhythms of an oft-told story...Spare and authentic."

From THE BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS - "Tingle's prose is terse, urgently propelling the story along and providing a minimalist aesthetic that evokes storytelling techniques and renders accessible a tragic piece of history."

Tingle has written several Choctaw novels.  If your students would like to read more about this Native American culture, suggest the following titles.
  • Tingle, Tim. House of Purple Cedar. ISBN 978-1935955245
  • Tingle, Tim. Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey From Darkness into Light. ISBN 978-1933693675
  • Tingle, Tim. Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom. ISBN 978-1933693200

The Choctaws do not say good-bye.  Instead, they say chi pisa lattice, which means "I will see you again, in the future."  Why do they say that, and how is that different than just saying goodbye?  Have a discussion about this with your students.

This novel has many characters who display bravery.  Ask your students to write about who they think the bravest character in the story is and why.

Use this book as a jumping off point to have your students research the The Trail of Tears.

Tim Tingle is also a renowned storyteller.  Share this video with your students of Tingle telling a Choctaw story about how rabbit got his short tail.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Learn About a Native American Tradition in Jingle Dancer

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. 2000. Jingle Dancer. Ill. by Van Wright, Cornelius & Hu, Ying-Hwa. New York: Morrow Junior Books. ISBN 0-688-16242-8

Jingle Dancer is the story of Jenna, a young girl who longs to take part in the Jingle Dance, just like her grandmother.  Much to Jenna's delight, Grandmother Wolfe tells her that she can, in fact, dance at the next powwow.  Jenna has watched and danced along with video tapes of Grandmother Wolfe jingle dancing so many times, she knows she is ready to perform.  However, Jenna does not have a special jingle dress.  What will she do?

Relying on her creativity and determination, Jenna borrows enough jingles from the dresses of her family members to make her own jingle dress, complete with the necessary four rows of jingles.  With Grandmother Wolfe's help, the dress is ready in time for the next powwow.  Now Jenna is poised to make her dream of jingle dancing come true.

There is so much to love about this heart warming story.  Jenna is a modern Native American child.  In her author's note, Leitich Smith says specifically, she is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and also of Ojibway descent.  Jenna wants nothing more than to participate in a long standing family tradition that she has always been too young for.  This is a feeling all children can relate to.  She is depicted as smart and resourceful, when she comes up with the idea of borrowing a row of jingles from each of her four relatives.  And the strong bond she shares with her grandmother is apparent in the way she idolizes her and carefully works on the jingle dress with her.  Children will easily relate to Jenna and reflect on their own memories of when they wanted something and had to figure out a way to make it happen. 

The warm watercolor illustrations perfectly complement the tone of the text.  Husband and wife team Van Wright and Hu made each character so expressive.  Jenna's happiness and love for her family shine through in the illustrations.  Each jingle dress is painted in bright colors that highlight their beauty and their importance in both the story and the Muscogee culture.

Leitich Smith has done a fine job of creating a contemporary Native American story that includes a traditional Native American tradition.  Her author's note at the end provides a wealth of information about the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Ojibway people, jingle dresses, the origins of jingle dancing, and the importance of the number four.  Not only was this a story I truly enjoyed, but I learned about the culture, as well.  Leitich Smith even includes a glossary with Native American words children from other cultures may not know, including fry bread, Indian taco, powwow, and regalia.

Another highlight of this picture book is its portrayal of strong Native American women.  Jenna is a girl who showed great determination.  She didn't let the fact that she couldn't order a jingle dress in time for the powwow stop her from following her dream.  Grandmother Wolfe doesn't let her age slow her down or keep her from dancing.  And Elizabeth, Jenna's cousin, has a successful career as a lawyer.  This is an important book for young Native American girls to read, so that they can see themselves reflected in these strong characters.  It is also an important book for children of any culture to read, so they can find similarities between themselves and Jenna and learn about a culture they may not be familiar with.

NEA Native American Book Lists

Reading is Fundamental 2011 Multicultural Book List

2001 NCSS Notable Trade Book 

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "Watercolor paintings in bright, warm tones fill each page...Seeing Jenna as both a modern girl in the suburban homes of her intertribal community and as one of many traditionally costumed participants at the powwow will give some readers a new view of a contemporary Native American way of life."

From BOOKLIST - "This contemporary Native American tale highlights the importance of family and community through a young girl's dream of joining the dancers at the next powwow."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Their easy integration of Native and standard furnishings and clothing gracefully complement Smith's heartening portrait..."

Visit Cynthia Leitich Smith's website.  There is a wealth of information for both teachers and students.  http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com

Many Native American people believe the number four is important, as demonstrated by the four rows of jingles Jenna needed for her dress.  Ask your students if they can come up with other things that come in fours.

Ask students to share if they have any traditional dances they do with their families.  If they would like to demonstrate, invite them up to perform for the class.

Students may be interested in seeing a real jingle dance.  Share this video with them.

The powwow is an important event in Jenna's family.  Ask students to share what events are important in their families each year?  What do they do to prepare for these events?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Prepare to be Terrified with Skeleton Man

Bruchac, Joseph. 2001. Skeleton Man. New York: Scholastic, Inc. ISBN 0-439-43961-2

Skeleton Man tells the story of Molly, a sixth grade Native American girl who's parents have disappeared.  They went out one Saturday night and never returned home.  Many days pass, and still there is no sign of them.  But suddenly, a strange man shows up, claiming to be Molly's long lost uncle, and declares that Molly shall now live with him.

Instantly, Molly knows something is wrong.  The way her uncle won't show her his face, the way he locks her in her room each night, and the way he always sneaks off to the shed in the backyard all lead Molly to believe that this is no ordinary man, and certainly not her uncle.

Molly's dreams begin to give her clues to what is happening.  Her current situation is shockingly similar to a spine-tingling Mohawk legend her father used to tell her, involving a greedy skeleton man.  As Molly starts to put the pieces together, the horrifying truth is revealed.  Will Molly be reunited with her parents?  Or will they all meet a tragic demise at the hands of the Skeleton Man? 

Joseph Bruchac has created a creepy story based on an old Mohawk legend.  The result is a book that will terrify you, yet you won't be able to put it down.  Molly is a believable character who is trapped in a situation that many middle grade children fear - what would happen to you if your parents disappeared?  The plot is engaging and fast paced.  While there are some intense scenes, this is also a story of bravery, with a little bit of humor sprinkled in.  

This novel contains many authentic aspects of Native American culture.  The Mohawk legend plays a huge role.  Molly believes that the rabbit in her dreams is trying to guide her safely through the events that are taking place.  This aligns with the fact that dreams are considered symbolic in many Native American cultures and are not to be dismissed.  Perhaps most significant, though, is that Molly is portrayed as a modern, 21st century sixth grader.  She does not wear feathers in her hair or live in a tipi.  More contemporary Native American characters are needed in children's literature today, to demonstrate to others that this is not a culture that is "extinct."

Joseph Bruchac is a prolific author who has delivered a quality of piece of literature in Skeleton Man.

ALA Notable Children's Book

2005 Nutmeg Book Award Winner

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "The mix of traditional and contemporary cultural references adds to the story's haunting appeal, and the quick pace and suspense, particularly in the last few chapters, will likely hold the interest of young readers."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "The suspense draws readers in and keeps them engaged. In the classic horror tradition, Bruchac offers a timely tale that will make hearts beat and brows sweat, and it has the bonus of a resourceful heroine to put the world right again."

From author R.L. STINE - "The legend is chilling—and the terror builds on every page. This book gave ME nightmares!"

Molly is back in the much awaited sequel, The Return of Skeleton Man.  Have your students read this  book to find out what happens next to Molly and her family.
  • Bruchac, Joseph. The Return of Skeleton Man. ISBN 9780060580926.

Joseph Bruchac has written numerous picture books and novels.  If your students enjoyed his writing, have them choose another of Bruchac's books to read.  You can access his catalog of titles by clicking this link.

Have your students work with iMovie or another video production program to create a book trailer for Skeleton Man.  Have them use their creativity to make it scary and engaging.

Have a discussion with your students about Molly's dreams.  What did they mean?  Do they think dreams have meaning?

Joseph Bruchac does school visits, where he combines storytelling, Native American music, and information on his own writing.  Depending on the budget of your school or your school's PTA, look into scheduling a visit with him.  Students will be in for an incredible experience.  For more information on Bruchac's school visits, visit his website http://www.josephbruchac.com

Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Trailer - Barbed Wire Baseball

Here is my book trailer for the 2014 Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Honor Picture Book, Barbed Wire Baseball.  I hope you like it!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Visit the Other Side in The Afterlife

Soto, Gary. 2003. The Afterlife. Florida: Harcourt, Inc. ISBN 0-15-204774-3

Set in California, The Afterlife is the story of Chuy, a seventeen year old Mexican boy who is brutally murdered in the opening chapter of the book.  He rises up from his body as a ghost.  In his new ghostly form, he laments his death and all the things in life he will never get to experience.   He visits his parents and other friends and family members and shares in their grief.

But Chuy realizes that being a ghost isn't all bad.  He discovers he has some newfound abilities, including flying and walking through solid objects, and he has some fun experimenting with what he is now capable of.  He comes across a couple other ghosts of the recently departed and even encounters true love.

As he slowly starts to fade away, will Chuy leave this earth with regrets or at peace?  

While this YA book includes a random act of extreme violence and a host of characters who are devastated by their losses, Soto manages to keep the tone of the novel light and humorous.  Chuy is a sarcastic, self-deprecating teen who causes the reader to laugh more than to feel sorry for him.  His moments of grief are balanced with mischief and fun, including knocking down the door of a thug's house so the local children could "steal" the stolen bikes he was stashing there.  His voice comes across as that of a realistic teenager.  Readers will root for him as his feelings for Crystal grow, and they will relate to his jealousy over her past boyfriends.

Soto interweaves many Spanish words in with the English text, which adds to the cultural authenticity of the story.  In keeping with Mexican tradition, Chuy's family has a rosary for him the day before his funeral.  When Chuy realizes that Crystal is half Mexican, he finds her to be even more lovely.   

What will stay with me after finishing The Afterlife is not that it was a story about death, but that it was a story about hope and taking the time to enjoy each moment, even if you are a ghost.

ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers

BOOKLIST Editors' Choice

From BOOKLIST - "He not only paints the scenery brilliantly but also captures the pain that follows an early death. In many ways, this is as much a story about a hardscrabble place as it is about a boy who is murdered. Both pulse with life and will stay in memory."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "Soto writes with a touch as light as Chuy's ghost and with humor, wonderment, and generosity toward life."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "Filled with hope and elegance."

If your students enjoyed Soto's writing, share some of his other books with them.  Click this link to peruse his catalog of titles.

Chuy and his family did not have a lot of money, and he describes himself as completely average, even feo.  Still, he was a happy teenager who was content with his life.  Crystal, on the other hand, was rich, beautiful, and popular, but she was so unhappy that she killed herself.  Have a discussion about the stark differences between these two characters' overall satisfaction with their lives and what the implications are.

While Chuy is a ghost, he fulfills a lifelong dream of going to a Raiders game.  He was able to float in and go right down onto the field without being noticed.  Ask your students to write about where they would go if they were in the same ghostly form as Chuy and explain why.

Have your students take a quiz to check their understanding of this novel.  Click on this link to find a quiz that you can print and administer to your students.

Ask your students if they were satisfied with the ending of the book.  If not, how do they think it should have ended?

Monday, October 5, 2015

Celebrate the Joy of Reading with Tomás and the Library Lady

Mora, Pat. 1997. Tomás and the Library Lady. Ill. by Raul Colón. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-80401-3

Tomás and his family are traveling from Texas to Iowa.  His parents are migrant farm workers who work on Texas farms in the winter and Iowa farms in the summer.  Tomás and his family do not have much, but they all share a love of stories.  After realizing that Tomás has heard all of his stories, Papa Grande encourages him to visit the library.

Tomás had never been to a library before, and he is amazed by the sheer volume of books.  It was at this library in Iowa that he developed a passion for reading and a joy in sharing books with others.  When it was time to return to Texas at the end of the summer, Tomás was sad to leave his beloved library and his new librarian friend behind.  However, that love of reading stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Tomás and the Library Lady tells the true story of Dr. Tomás Rivera, the son of migrant farm workers who grew up to become the chancellor of the University of California at Riverside.  

Pat Mora has written an inspiring story about the power of reading.  Using Dr. Tomás Rivera's real life experiences, she depicts an accurate portrayal of what life was like for migrant workers from Mexico in the 1940s.  Tomás and his brother did not have many toys to play with, so storytelling was a cherished form of entertainment.  The brothers and their family worked all day and had little opportunity to visit places such as libraries.  The kindness showed to him by the librarian and the fact that she made him feel so welcome in that library was something he hadn't experienced before.  Spanish words are woven into the text seamlessly.  

Young readers will relate to the joy Tomás feels when entering the library because it is a feeling that they all share.  Reading and being read to is a common experience among all cultures.  They will also enjoy Raul Colón's beautiful, warm paintings.  They give the portrayal of Tomás's life an almost dreamlike quality.

My children and I enjoyed sharing this book together.  When I was done reading, my five year old son said, "Tomás is just like me because we both like to go to the library."  While there are vast differences between Tomás's life in the 1940s and my son's life today, I was pleased he made that connection and that is what stayed with him upon completing the book.

1997 Américas Award for Children’s and  Young Adult Literature Commended Title 

1997 Notable Books for Children, Smithsonian

1998 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award 

1998 Teachers' Choices Award from the International Reading Association 

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "While young readers and future librarians will find this an inspiring tale, the endnote gives it a real kick; the story is based on an actual migrant worker who became chancellor of a university—where the library now bears his name."

From KIRKUS REVIEWS - "A charming, true story about the encounter between the boy who would become chancellor at the University of California at Riverside and a librarian in Iowa."

From AMAZON.COM - "This tribute to Tomás and his mentor reminds us of the power of stories and those dedicated librarians who have changed the lives of so many people."

Share this video with your students where Pat Mora discusses the real life Tomás.

Have a discussion with your students about migrant workers.  Explain to them what life is really like for these people. 

Share this poem about Tomás that Mora wrote in 2005.
Library Magic
"¡Vamos! Let's go to the library!"
Tomás said to his family. 
He showed them his favorite books
and his cozy reading nooks.

"¡Vamos! Let's go to the library!" 
Tomás said to his friends. "Hurry!" 
They saw libros in stacks and rows. 
They laughed at funny puppet shows.

"¡Vamos! Let's all go to the library!" 
Join the fun, a treasure house that's free. 
Bring your friends and family. 
Stories, computers, maps and more, 
facts, fun. Enter the magic door. 
Like Tomás, open books and soar. 
Be a reader. Explore galore.

In memory of the leader, educator and author, Tomás Rivera
© 2005 by Pat Mora

If your students enjoyed this story, read more books to them written by Pat Mora.  Here are a few of her many titles.
  • Mora, Pat. The Rainbow Tulip. ISBN 978-0142500095
  • Mora, Pat. Book Fiesta!: Celebrate Children's Day/Book Day; Celebremos El dia de los ninos/El dia de los libros. ISBN 978-0061288777
  • Mora, Pat. Confetti: Poems for Children. ISBN 978-1880000854

If your students enjoyed Raul Colón's paintings, share more books with them that he illustrated.
  • Colón, Raul. Draw! ISBN 978-1442494923
  • Weatherford, Carole Boston. Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century. ISBN 978-0375856068
  • Brown, Monica. My Name is Gabito / Me llamo Gabito: The Life of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. ISBN 978-0873589086

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Return to Sender - A Story of Hope

Alvarez, Julia. 2009. Return to Sender. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-375-85838-3

11 year old Tyler Paquette and his family live on a farm in Vermont that has been in their family for generations.  Since his father's tractor accident, however, they are struggling to keep the farm going.  Rather than sell the farm, his father decides to hire some workers from Mexico.  The three brothers he hires live in a trailer behind the Paquettes' house, along with one of the men's three daughters.  

The eldest daughter, Mari, is the same age as Tyler.  They develop a tentative friendship based upon their mutual interest in star gazing.  Tyler, however, struggles with the fact that his new friend and her family are in the country illegally.  How can he be friends with someone who is breaking the law?

Mari and her family are in constant fear that they will be picked up by la migra and deported back to Mexico.  They also worry about their mother, who they haven't seen or heard from in months.  Will she be able to find her family now that they've moved to Vermont?  Is she even still alive?

Return to Sender is a powerful and relevant story that examines the line between right and wrong.  It is also a tale of friendship and family.  As Alvarez so eloquently put it, "Friendship knows no borders."

Julia Alvarez's story offers an honest look into a timely issue in our country.  The novel is told in alternating points of view.  Tyler's story is told through a narrative, and Mari's story is told through personal letters she has written to various members of her family.  While born in two seemingly different worlds, Tyler and Mari come to discover that they actually have a lot in common.  The idea that "friendship knows no borders" will resonate with young readers and hopefully inspire them to get to know someone who may seem different than they are.  

This story, while a work of fiction, is culturally authentic in every way.  The situations it describes are real.  Like the Cruz family, farmers from Mexico who can no longer survive farming in their own country are forced to come north into the U.S. to find work and provide for their families.  The title of the novel, Return to Sender, was the name of an actual operation in 2006, where many workplaces were raided and anyone found working in the country without the proper paperwork was taken away on the spot.  Alvarez has seamlessly interwoven many Mexican traditions, holidays, foods, and the Spanish language into the novel.  The plight of the three girls, especially Ofie and Luby who were born in America, is something the children of migrant Mexican workers must face.  The ruthless coyotes Alvarez describes do exist, and the methods described for how to transport the immigrants across the border are authentic.

This novel takes a relevant issue in our country and brings it to life.  It gives a face to the nameless illegal immigrants that are discussed on the news.  Most importantly, it takes an honest look at the children of the Mexican immigrants and how they are affected by this.  While there are a plethora of people in this novel who would love to send the Mexicans back to Mexico, there are also characters who recognize the Cruz family for the wonderful people they are and would go to any length to help them.  Alvarez sheds light on the fact that this issue is not so black and white.  There are many shades of gray, and doing the right thing as a fellow human being may not necessarily align with what the law dictates.

Return to Sender is an important novel that every middle grade student should read.  

2010 Pura Belpré Author Award

2010 Americas Award for Children and Young Adult's Literature

Oprah's 2010 Kids' Reading List

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "This timely novel, torn right from the newspaper headlines, conveys a positive message of cooperation and understanding."

From BOOKLIST - "The plot is purposive, with messages about the historical connections between migrant workers today and the Indians’ displacement, the Underground Railroad, and earlier immigrants seeking refuge. But the young people’s voices make for a fast read; the characters, including the adults, are drawn with real complexity; and the questions raised about the meaning of patriotism will spark debate."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "While this novel is certainly issue-driven, Alvarez (Before We Were Free ) focuses on her main characters, mixing in Mexican customs and the touching letters that Mari writes to her mother, grandmother and even the U.S. president. Readers get a strong sense of Tyler’s growing maturity, too, as he navigates complicated moral choices."

Julia Alvarez is a prolific author of Hispanic literature for young people.  If your students would like to read more of her books, send them to this link to find a list of titles and descriptions.

To listen to Julia Alvarez discuss Return to Sender, click this link.

Julia Alvarez has shared on her website some highlights of the research she did on migrant workers while writing this novel.  To learn more, click this link.

Share Mari's favorite song, "La Golondrina", with your students.

Mr. Bicknell asks his students to write a love story, any kind of love, that had happened to them that past year.  Have your students take on this writing assignment.  If they feel comfortable, have them share their writing with the class.