Sam & Dave Dig A Hole by Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Jon Klassen

Sam & Dave Dig A Hole by Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Jon Klassen

20708761

Title: Sam & Dave Dig A Hole

Author: Mac Barnett

Illustrator: Jon Klassen

Published: 2014

Awards: 2015 Caldecott Honor Book

Summary: Sam and Dave (who appear to be brothers, but are at least related) dig a hole one Monday in search of something spectacular. The illustrations reveal that the boys are close to large gems at several points in their dig, but do not continue far enough or in the correct direction to hit the gems. Their dog, like the reader, however, can sense something below the surface and points to the gems several times. Just as the boys give up and fall asleep in the ground, the dog finds a bone and digs ever deeper, causing all three to fall a long way back to the front yard of their house. Deciding that the dig and the fall were spectacular enough, they go inside for some chocolate milk and animal cookies.

Commentary: The play between the pictures and the words is no doubt what earned this book a Caldecott nod. Young readers will be entertained by what the boys are not seeing in the dirt despite the dog’s desperate hints. I have to wonder about the ending of this book, however. It reminds me of the ending to Where the Wild Things Are where Max sails back into his bedroom to eat his supper. Are the readers to surmise that the hole was an exaggerated play idea and the depth we see is how far down Sam and Dave imagine they have gone? It seems more plausible than the alternative, certainly, but for some reason I wanted to buy into the idea of an actual hole until the last few pages. Either way, it’s a fun little read in the same vein of Rosie’s Walk.

Review of Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Review of Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Title: Midwinterblood

Author: Marcus Sedgwick

Year of Publication: 2011

Number of pages: 272

Awards: Printz award winner, Carnegie Medal Nominee, YALSA Top Ten (2014)

 

*** WARNING: THIS SYNOPSIS CONTAINS MANY SPOILERS

Synopsis: Eric Seven is a reporter traveling to the mysterious Scandinavian island of Blessed, where rumor has it that the inhabitants don’t age and there are no children. His focus for writing wanes, however, every time he consumes a cup of the tea brewed from a local plant. Though he cannot shake the feeling that the island, and specifically the young woman named Merle, are familiar to him, he is determined to write his story and return home. As he begins to investigate the untouched Western side of the island late one night, he is met by the islanders, who show him a rather gruesome fate-one that he feels he has met before. His last words, which are used many other times in the novel are, “Well, so it is.”

After this somewhat disturbing ending to part one follow six more stories, each with one character named Eric and one named Merle (with some slight variations). Each story take place in different time periods and involve the two characters in drastically different ways. In one story they are mother and son, in another they are brother and sister, and in another they are ill-fated lovers, kept apart by circumstance. All of the stories also take place on the island, and a few common elements are woven throughout: the symbol of a hare, the mysterious flower that looks like a dragon and seems to have healing properties, and the phrase, “Well, so it is.” The stories are each interesting by themselves, but it becomes clear that they have a dark underlying connection. The last part reveals the connection: in accordance with tradition, the Viking king Eirikr must be sacrificed to appease the gods when the crops have failed and all other actions have been taken. Before his death, however, Eirkr has a premonition that there are other lives for him, and in his last moments asks his wife, Melle, to follow him. Melle, devastated, agrees, and so begin their seven lives, until the last one, which is the first story told in the novel.

 

Commentary: This was a book I was not anticipating enjoying very much. I am not typically a fantasy reader, but am trying to read all of the recent award winners and read across genres. However, I was pleasantly surprised to not be able to put this book down, devouring it in a little over 48 hours. The sacrifice at the end of part one is unusual, and each story has a unique style, so that the divisions break up what might be monotony in other novels. The symbols provide enough familiarity to tie the stories together without re-telling the same story seven times. My one complaint with this novel was that fourth part (The Painter) gave away too much of the original story, so that I expected the very last part to be the act described in the painting. Because the ending had been spoiled for me, the emotion behind it seemed a little bit flat and cliche. I wanted a little bit more of a punch ending, similar to the ending of the first chapter.

As far as appropriateness is concerned, I would give this book to a more mature middle-schooler or a high school student. King Eirikr is naked in the last scene, but sex is alluded to at most. However, there are points where the book is dark and violently graphic, so it might not be for the more faint of heart. It would be a great read to recommend around Halloween though!

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

Title: Each Kindness

Author: Jacqueline Woodson

Illustrator: E. B. Lewis

Plot: A little girl named Maya moves to the narrator’s school. The only seat left is next to the narrator, and when Maya sits down, she smiles. The narrator (another little girl) does not smile back. The narrator and her friends instead shun Maya and call her “Never new” because of the second-hand clothing she wears. On the same day that Maya disappears from school, the teacher tells the class about kindness and tells them that kindness is like a stone dropped into the water-it creates a ripple effect that touches others and keeps reaching out. Each student takes a turn dropping a stone into the water and saying one kind thing they have done, but the narrator cannot think of anything. She instead thinks of the way that she treated Maya and regrets it. Unfortunately, Maya and her family have moved away and the narrator never gets the chance to make things right.

Connection: This would be great for a lesson about not bullying. I have heard of an activity where students crumple up a paper and then try to smooth it back out. The fact that the wrinkles remain shows students that their actions have consequences. I would probably do the activity first and then read the story to cement the concept. Students could also draw the name of a classmate and fill out a sheet of paper that says, “The best thing about _____ is _____.” We did this in high school for part of a project at the end of the year called “The Most Important Book”. In the book we wrote kind blurbs about our classmates and the whole class got to come up with a  comic story about each student’s future after high school. While this might be a little too complex, older students might be able to craft a paragraph about a classmate following the template “The most important thing about ______ is ______. [at least three filler sentences with other good qualities.] But remember, the most important thing about ______ is ______.”

Almost Perfect Review

Almost Perfect Review

Title: Almost Perfect
Author: Brian Katcher
Published: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2009
Awards: Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award, 2011

Summary: Logan Winchester is still reeling from being cheated on and subsequently dumped by ex-girlfriend Brenda when new girl Sage Hendricks moves into town. Logan is perplexed when he learns that Sage is not allowed to date and was home-schooled from eighth grade to the present. Her mysterious circumstances are revealed when, after sharing a first kiss, Sage reveals that she is physically male. Logan is outraged at this revelation, but the last few months of their senior year will bring plenty more hurdles for both Logan and Sage as they grapple to figure out what they mean to each other and struggle to keep Sage’s “condition” a secret.

Analysis: This book started out like several others that I had began reading: love-sick teenage boy chasing after an extraverted, mysterious female. I was disappointed to know from the back cover that Sage was transgender, as the secret is not revealed to Logan until several chapters in. As a reader, I would have preferred to be surprised, but I understand where the theme needs to be advertised with the book to reach the audience that most needs this book. (I can also imagine several complaints and challenges if a reader checked out the book and was later surprised by its content.) Still, it was a little disappointing and made me think, “Just SAY IT already.”

Past this scene though, the story picks up in pace and gets to the heart of the message. Personally, I am thankful I picked up this book because I feel that I needed to make the journey with Logan from shock, disbelief, and, frankly, a bit of awkward avoidance, to one of understanding and acceptance. Gay marriage has been a huge issue in the news, and homosexuality is slowly becoming more accepted, but transgendered individuals do not always seem to find the same acceptance, even within the LGBT community. Beyond knowing that this book exists and being able to put it in the hands of those that might need it, confronting my own personal biases and misunderstandings about this group of people is important for creating a climate of tolerance within the library. Every person deserves to see him- or herself portrayed in works of literature, and I think that this one makes a great stride in that arena.

Logan is certainly not blameless in the story-he comes close to reacting violently when Sage reveals her secret, and his white-hot anger and disgust is evident. His wavering faithfulness to Sage, denial of his attraction to her, and shame at caring for someone so different is painful to read, but it feels authentic. It causes the reader to take a stance and sympathize with Logan or despise him-most likely a little of each at varying points throughout the novel. At times the novel is tense and emotionally draining, but the real-life circumstances are likely the same.

Overall, I find very little to fault with this book, although I will be the first to point out that I cannot vouch for its accuracy. I have read mixed reviews of those who consider it to be too stereotypical and tell a tragic, somewhat cliche narrative for the subject. Personally I will have to read a few others from this genre before I can criticize. I hope that this book would be helpful for those who are considering transition or in the process thereof, but I am fairly confident that it would at least be helpful to the friends and family members of transgender individuals. All I know for sure is that this is a book that will stay with me for several days.

Review of Thirteen Reasons Why

Review of Thirteen Reasons Why

Title: Thirteen Reasons Why

Author: Jay Asher

Published: 2007

Awards: California Book Award, Georgia Peach Honor Book Award, South Carolina Book Award

Summary: Hannah Baker is the new kid in high school, and since freshman year her life seems to have been one traumatic incident after another. After several cries for help that go unanswered, she ends up committing suicide, but not before recording a set of cassette tapes voicing her grievances and orchestrating a plan for them to be passed along to the thirteen people who have wronged her, the thirteen “reasons” she killed herself. Clay Jensen is one recipient of the tapes, and the reader follows his journey as he works his way through each story, finally reaching his own part in Hannah’s tale.

Analysis: I waver between how much credit I give this book. I think that Jay Asher had a noble purpose and message for the book, but that it falls short in its delivery. Hannah’s voiceover and re-telling of events does a decent job of illustrating that even minor events can have major consequences, especially as a young adult. Peers do have an influence, a rather large one in middle and high school. If it makes even one student consider the ramifications before acting, then this book is worth it.

However, I think the idea that she orchestrated the tapes and her tone in some of them feel petty, as if the gesture’s sentiment is “I’ll make you pay for hurting me,” instead of “I want you to understand how your actions affected me.” I think this is dangerous, as it plays depression and suicide into the light of just being an angry teenager, instead of a situation where teens truly feel they have no other option. Her message seems melodramatic and overly didactic, seemingly beating readers over the head with a message we’re all used to hearing- how we *should* be treating other people. This is definitely an instance of telling instead of showing, and showing would have been much more powerful. At times it came close to being cleverly crafted, but in the end I feel that it fell short. It could have had more of an impact had Clay had more of a hand in Hannah’s demise, coming to regret his own actions and change at the end. This would put a voice to the other side, possibly causing readers to feel themselves mirrored in the bullying. Instead Clay seems a bit like the archetypical choir boy, effectively distancing the bullying as something that the “villains” of the story are a part of and leaving readers guilt-free. A sad story, perhaps, but a mistake that other people make. We can pretend that we are the Clays of the world, and shake our metaphorical fingers at the Justins, Jessicas, Alexs, Tylers, Courtneys, Ryans, and other bullies of the world. Maybe I just prefer books that blur the lines of black and white a bit more than Asher does in this novel. I wanted to be touched by this book, but the portrayal of a very real and complicated scenario felt a little bit two-dimensional for my taste.

That all being said, I re-iterate that if this book reachers even a few readers then it is still worth owning. (I read just as many positive reviews on Goodreads as negative, so I suspect it does/can impact several readers.)

I would hesitate to place it in the hands of middle-schoolers or immature freshmen without heavy guidance and discussion due to the rape scene at the end, but, without knowing a better alternative, I think it could be helpful for discouraging bullying and preventing suicide.

Anansi the Spider: A tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott

Anansi the Spider: A tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott

anansi

Publishing: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, New York, 1972

Awards: 1973 Caldecott Honor

Description: Anansi the spider has six sons that are all good sons. They all have to come to his aid and rescue him when he gets into trouble, so when he finds a prize-a great globe of light-he is not sure which son should be rewarded. He gives it to the god of all things, Nyame, and when she sees them arguing over it, she puts it in the sky. It is still there-the moon. The illustrations are bold and geometric, almost tribal.

Programming: Have students point out Ghana on the map. Do a little bit of outside research about the Ashanti people and how they live before reading the story. Read other folktales, especially those that explain why something is the way it is, such as Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears. Compare and contrast the tales.

The Village of Round and Square Houses by Ann Grifalconi

The Village of Round and Square Houses by Ann Grifalconi

the-village-of-round-and-square-houses_01

Publishing: Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, 1986

Awards: 1987 Caldecott Honor

Description: A little girl is told the story of why the men live in square houses in her village and the women live separately in round houses. According to the girl’s grandmother, the people used to live in any kind of house they wanted, until Mother Naka (the volcano nearby) erupted to show her anger, and the only houses left from the destruction were one round and one square. The people took it as a sign and the chief told the women to go stay in the round house and the men in the square one, and it has been that way ever since, with both sides coming together for dinner.

Programming: This has a lot of really great scenes and explanation about the culture of the village (dinner procedures, order of respect, foods served, etc). Have students research this village or others and discuss how their practices are similar and different to ours and to other cultures. For example, respect is an important concept in many Chinese culture as well.