Category Archives: great read

Stars and rainbows and gun violence

stars beneathI was at work  when I learned about the latest mass shooting.  We heard again that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen around here.”  Clearly, it does happen around here, more and more often.  And it’s been happening around here for a while.  We’re not really even surprised by it.

I’d been reading The Stars Beneath Our Feet for a few days, and while it’s set in New York — which might seem far away to anyone knowing where I live – it’s not far away at all.  I recognize these kids, having worked in a program similar to the one described in the book, just out here in good ol’ Iowa.  They’d lost family members to gun violence and drugs, and some lived every day with traumatic pain, not seeing any way to get out of it all.  Some of my favorite kids could be Lolly and Vega and Big Rose.

I wish they had all known Lolly and this book.  It might have given us one more way to talk about the really awful choices in front of them, things adults all want them to avoid and resist, but which, like Harp and Gully, just kept landing in the middle of the sidewalk in front of them, unavoidable.  My own Lolly, much loved by his family and friends, didn’t make the same choices and will most likely be incarcerated for many years, missing his kids’ birthdays and everything else.  His decisions will ripple out to affect even more people.  The pain just spreads.

After finishing the book, it struck me that these tragedies — mass shootings or gun violence in our neighborhoods – they’re not so far away from any of us, whether we’re in the suburbs or the city or a small town.  We act like one thing is different from another, but maybe it isn’t.  And as a country, we don’t do anything about either, no matter how many lives are ruined and wasted on it all.

This should probably have filled me with sadness and hopelessness, but it didn’t.  Lolly’s story, you see, is like a rainbow of Legos reaching out to us across that pain.  (I like the image, although I know it’s a little silly on paper.)  It needs to be read by all kids, whether they sound and look like Lolly or not.  Kids in small town and urban Iowa may look or sound different, but they live their own stories with strikingly similar challenges.

Can a book change the world or a life?  It can.  This one just might.

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

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Re-reading my personal classics…

Most years, I experience Charlotte’s Web in bits of pieces, since I’m almost always volunteering in Mrs. P’s room just after lunch recess during literature time, and she always reads it to her third graders.  Other books pop up again and again, sometimes because I’ve sought them out, sometimes because the kids at school or the library remind me how wonderful they are.  It’s usually a good experience, since reading them again reconnects me with something from my youth when I first read them.

Because I recently re-read Counting by 7s (by Holly Goldberg Sloan) and The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (by the always wonderful Kathi Appelt), I’ve been thinking about other books that do the work of capturing moments in my life I want to revisit.  And here they are…

  • A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle) – Whether it’s because of Meg Murry and Charles Wallace, or because it mentions tesseracts and led me into some great science fiction, re-reading this one is always powerful. There is loss – a lot of loss – and being an outsider and trying to figure out what the heck is going on and it all just seems like too much.   It’s both your worst family trip and your best one.  From there, I might head back into When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead or A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver (E.L. Konigsburg) – This somewhat unlikely book for middle graders and teens is about Eleanor of Aquitaine. She’s in heaven, waiting to find out where her second husband, King Henry II of England, will be headed.  How does this seem like something that would have fascinated me when I was young?  It’s Eleanor.  Well, Eleanor and the great writing, which made these long-dead historical figures seem real to me.  Reading about her made me think more critically about women and power and history, which could conceivably have pushed me in several directions that affected real-life choices for me.  After reading this one, I like to move on to biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt or other lesser-known rad women.  (See this blog post for more.)
  • The Dark is Rising sequence (Susan Cooper). This series actually starts with Over Sea, Under Stone, and I have to admit that I haven’t re-read it lately, so who knows what I’ll think of it now?  (I know I’ll still love it.) However, it was fantasy in the time before Harry Potter, and brought together a bunch of kids into a fight between Dark and Light, complete with connections to Arthurian legends and other fun stuff.  The Dark was really dark, and there were wizards, and that’s all you need to know if you haven’t read them.  I remember dreaming myself into the stories when I was a kid, and then thinking about what my mind made them into while I was at school the next day.  What an excellent use of “quiet work” time!

I’m sure there are more, many more.  Some books hold up better than others over the years.  Some characters remind you of who you used to be, and others connect with you in new ways.  It’s all good.

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Re-Counting by 7s

countingSometimes books just hit us at the perfect moment.   There’s something in our past, our present, or what we think might be our future, something that a book or a character or even just a phrase captures precisely.  That, my friends, is Willow Chance and Counting by 7s in a nutshell.  Willow is obsessive, awkward, analytical and an outsider.  But somehow, she’s all of the things we know ourselves to be, too.  She’s trying to find her way.

I don’t do much re-reading – there are always too many new books to get to– except for my annual trips to Hogwarts in French and German, which is my way of reminding my brain of its many and varied pathways.  But my book club decided to read Counting by 7s, and after trying to listen to it in the car unsuccessfully (some books work that way for me and other just don’t), I scrounged up my son’s copy. (He rereads it regularly.)

Holly Goldberg Sloan’s writing is just incredible–direct, powerful, illuminating, wonderful.  Switches of perspective happen seamlessly, although the characters don’t seem to share very much.  Willow is an oddball genius, as labeled by Dell Duke, her school counselor who lies about having a cat and can’t throw things away.  Her new friends, Mai, Quang-ha and Pattie probably have a few issues, too.  Mai would like to have bunk beds; Quang-ha would like to be left alone; Pattie thinks about nail polish a lot, maybe too much to realize what her life is really about.  Then there’s Jairo, a cab driver who becomes convinced Willow is his personal angel.

In the end, all of these oddballs form a family. It’s a happy ending, but it doesn’t feel sappy or cloying.  And passing through their lives reminded me of so many painful and happy days of my own – experiencing soul-crushing grief, seeing a garden grow, and finding a new friend who is completely different but perfect for me.  It’s a trip you should take, too, whether you’ve been there before or not.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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This is the book

inquisitorYou didn’t know you needed three magical children, a holy dog, an adventure with dragons, mishaps, danger, a variety of bad guys, an inquisitor, and oh, maybe the King of France – did you?  Monks, religious zealots, illuminated texts?  Really?

Oh yes, this is the book you have been waiting for.  You may need it to escape a day full of devices and computer screens or maybe just the onslaught of shrieking talking heads.  You might need to forget your workplace drama or a wicked boss or that annoying co-worker or student who comes to work sick and gives everyone else the flu.  Or maybe your family is driving you crazy, leaving glasses around the house, not turning off lights, having laundry crises, demanding snacks at all hours.  Who knows?

But this, this, is a book for a great escape. Find your porch swing, the chair under your favorite tree, the bed with the big pillows.  Settle in and hear the tale of Jeanne, William and Jacob, and their journey across France to right wrongs and settle a few scores.  You won’t be sorry you did.

The Inquisitor’s Tale – or, the three children and their holy dog by Adam Gidwitz

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Caring and sharing – making a difference in your daily life

ahatformrsgoldmanWow.  I’ve set expectations kind of high today.  Maybe we can change the world with just a smile?  But here’s the thing.  We have to start somewhere.  Are we all about ourselves and what we are entitled to and deserve, or are we about doing what’s best in a larger sense, for our family, for our community, for the world?

Talking about this with kids is important, because what you learn at home and in elementary school sticks with you for the rest of your life.  It can be hard to imagine how you, as a six year old, can become one of those people who makes a difference.  As I mentioned the other day, the Ordinary People Change the World series by Brad Meltzer shows how people like Jackie Robinson and Jane Goodall started on the path to change.  Or you could read A Hat for Mrs. Goldman by Michelle Edwards and G. Brian Karas.

Mrs. Goldman knits for others but never seems to have a hat of her own on the cold, blustery days.  Sophia, who knits poorly but makes awesome pom-poms, sets out to right that small wrong in the world.  It’s that simple.  We can all make metaphorical hats for our communities.  Whether you’re Mrs. Goldman or Sophia, you have the power!  Get out there and do something kind, people.

Read, enjoy, start making hats.

A Hat for Mrs. Goldman by Michelle Edwards and G. Brian Karas

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Asteroids, the prom and life

learningYuri is really, really good at physics.  He’s so good that when NASA figures out that an asteroid will hit Earth in less than a month, they convince the Russians to let Yuri come to the U.S. to help stop it.  Yuri’s life has always been about school, science, and eventually getting a Nobel Prize.  “Normal” things – girls, relationships, politics—are a bit beyond him.

His story becomes about more than a complicated math problem when he meets Dovie.  She and her family provide him an escape from the situation at the lab, and suddenly he’s doing things he’s never done before – going to prom, sneaking out of his room, talking back to authority figures, and learning to swear in English.   It’s not just about saving the world from an asteroid now.  Yuri realizes that the life he wants to live has fundamentally changed and yet not changed at all.

Yuri’s internal dialogue, his humor, the reality of the daily petty stuff he has to deal with, and his confidence and insecurity carry the story along.  (I know…but it works.  He knows he’s often the smartest guy in the room, but at the same time, he’s enough of a perfectionist to be terrified of ever being wrong about anything at all.)  There are a lot of balls in the air here – the asteroid, his cultural confusion, his feelings for Dovie, his past as a prodigy, the Russians—but they’re juggled effectively, and in the end, he gets the life he isn’t sure he wants but is happy with it.  And he maybe saves the world, too.

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy

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6 so far – middle grade favorites of 2016

I haven’t been reading as much this summer as I have in the past, but in looking back at the spring, I can see that it’s still been a wonderful year for middle grade books.  As a recap, here are some faves of the first half or so of 2016.  (My previous “reviews” are linked to the titles — sometimes I end up writing less about the actual book than you might expect for a “book review.”)

Raymie Nightingale – Kate DiCamillo

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel – Firoozeh Dumas

The Seventh Wish – Kate Messner

Poison is Not Polite – Robin Stevens

Maybe  a Fox – Kathi Appelt with Allison McGhee

The Wild Robot – Peter Brown

How can it already be the beginning of August?  I’ll start volunteering at my neighborhood elementary school again soon, switching out fifth grade for kindergarten but staying with the library and third grade.  Before you know it, a new crop of 9th graders will be showing up after school at the library.  I’ll find out some of my favorite  story time kids have headed to kindergarten, and we’ll start seeing more adults who have headed back to college but need help with research projects.  Time just flies along, but fortunately, there are more good books still in the stack.  Next?  Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

 

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Not Awful. Love falafel…and the book, too

falafel

Cindy/Zomorod Yousefzadeh is living in 1970s California, just trying to be like everyone else.  She dreams of things like beanbags and gauchos and is frustrated by her parents’ insistence on hanging on to their life in Iran.  Sure, Cindy – as she wants to be known (like one of the Brady Bunch) – misses her cousins and other family still in Iran, but she would maybe like to fit in, too.

Her neighbors and friends at school don’t seem to really know much about Iran, at least not until the Shah is overthrown.  Suddenly, everyone has an opinion, and she has to explain her culture constantly, attention which she would happily avoid.  Before long, she finds herself trying to protect herself and her parents from ignorance and stereotyping.

What’s nice about this book is that it captures a moment – the 1979 Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis – from a unique perspective, one with a lot of humor which could provoke some really interesting conversations with kids.  Cindy and her family are not refugees, but as immigrants, they are outsiders.  Her father is a businessman working in the oil industry, but that doesn’t make them any less affected by the crisis when it happens.  How would moving to another country affect our perspective?  Would we be able to laugh about the embarrassing mistakes we made?  How would we react in Cindy’s situation?  How can you defend your country and culture without agreeing with what’s happening there?

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

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Kate DiCamillo – cheerleader, life coach or Jedi knight?

bk_raymieWhat is it with Kate DiCamillo, and how is it that I don’t hate her?  Her writing about everyday life is so good, so luminous, that I have laughed, cried, and gasped while reading her books.  Her characters are so perfect and imperfect that I feel like I know them, and yet they are 5,000 times more interesting than anyone I’ve actually known.  She could write my shopping list and make it a million times better, funnier, and more interesting, joining Kathi Appelt and J.K. Rowling in a rather exclusive little club I’ve created in my head for awesome writers.

I mean, really.  You hear these people have new books coming out, and you think, “Ok, excellent!  I have something to look forward to now!”  Sometimes, almost always, the books live up to what you are hoping for, because these writers are just that good.  But once in a while, you get a Raymie Nightingale, which has not just several baton twirlers, but also a few crazy old ladies, many strong women, and some difficult and delusional new friends.  And there’s Mrs. Sylvester, with her voice like a cartoon bird, and the ever-mysterious Marsha Jean, who’s got Louisiana Elefante and her grandma always on the run.  And there’s more!  There are sentences you would not believe – “People left and people died and people went to memorial services and put orange blocks of cheese into their purses” – which are completely crazy but always work perfectly somehow.

Kate DiCamillo is like a high school cheerleader, the one who’s nice to absolutely everyone and manages to pull off the Farrah Fawcett haircut to boot.  She’s the college professor who’s everyone’s life coach, who’s unfailingly supportive when others are not and who seems to honestly believe you really can do what you dream of,  She’s a Jedi knight, bringing light to a dark, scary world, fighting for something bigger, and recognizing the remarkable humanity inside all of us imperfect humans.  I’ve known these people (except for the Jedi knight, although I have some pretty wonderful friends who might stand in) and while you’d kind of like to hate them sometimes, you can’t.  They are just too good.

And Raymie Nightingale?  It’s too good, too.

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Graduates, retirees, job-changers…really just about everybody will like this book

bearpiano

High school graduations are coming soon to a family or neighborhood near you, and finding the right gift can be tough.  When I graduated from high school, one of my uncles gave me a luggage cart instead of his traditional dictionary/thesaurus combo.  I’ve always been grateful for that.  He saw in me something that I didn’t see in myself yet.

Well, my friends, The Bear and the Piano is here to help solve your problem.  And even if you don’t have any graduations or major life changes coming up around you, you should still read it.  Really.

I read The Bear and the Piano without even thinking about the two family favorites who are finishing high school this year until one of the last pages – you’ll know what I mean when you see the book yourself.   This amazing bear heads off into the world, completely out of his element, and when he decides to return home, he wonders if everyone he’s missed will have forgotten him.  The ending is such a powerful reminder of how leaving your home can be a challenge and full of exciting opportunities, but that going away doesn’t mean all of the people who’ve cared about you will forget you.

What a beautiful book!  I can’t shut up about it, partly because the message is such a positive and beautiful one which could remind children (big and small) that they connect with and carry with them many people – family, friends, neighbors, teachers, school custodians, librarians…  We have such mobile lives, and this book is also a way to acknowledge that people retire or move to different jobs or find a new home and still don’t forget about the people they love.

So, if Kate or Shelby’s parents are reading this, DO NOT get them this book.  It will come from me, along with a note to remind them that we’re all excited about their great new adventures, and we’ll be loving them and cheering them on from a distance

The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield

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