On my blog last week:
- A curation of a few of my favorite online links
- A celebration of a most excellent Christmas day, with many photos
- A list of the books I got for Christmas
- A list of the books I gave for Christmas
- A list of books I almost put down in 2014 but was glad I finished
I am in the middle of a reading emergency! I miscounted my annual book total. I thought I was at 196, just four away from my goal of 200. But when I counted on Sunday morning, I discovered that I was only at 188! Several more recounts confirmed it: 188. Four titles seemed very doable in four days. But TWELVE?!
I still haven’t given up hope. Never say die!
I read a lot of great books last week:
Christine Mari Inzer’s self-published graphic novel, Halfway Home: Drawing My Way Through Japan, is a delightful short travel narrative chronicling Inzer’s trip to Japan to visit her grandparents. I really like graphic novel travel narratives, and this one reminded me of Lucy Knisley’s French Milk and Craig Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage, which is not bad company for a teenaged graphic novelist to be in. Inzer reflects a bit on what it means to be both an insider and an outsider. She was born in Japan and lived there until she was six, but then moved to America with her Japanese mother and American father. Mostly, though, her narrative captures snapshots of excellent meals and sightseeing, usually accompanied by her grandmother. This is a sweet and often funny book, made more special by the age of its author/illustrator. A great choice for a classroom library–and a terrific mentor text for student writers/graphic novelists.
Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s Fish in a Tree (published Feb 5, 2015) was one of my two most coveted NCTE ARCs (the other was Lisa Graff’s new novel). Fish in a Tree isn’t one I wanted for me so much as for my students, however. Hunt’s first novel, One for the Murphys, was one of the most popular books in my Children’s Lit class last spring. It was that “just right” book for more than one reluctant reader: I had so many requests for “another book just like One for the Murphys.” And I think my students will be equally excited about Fish in a Tree, maybe even more so, since they are all pre-service teachers, and Fish in a Tree is about the relationship between a girl with undiagnosed dyslexia and a special teacher who figures out what’s wrong and how to help. For me, this book didn’t entirely work–for the same reasons that I thought her first novel didn’t entirely work (unrealistic, underdeveloped secondary characters, too feel-good of an ending)–but I still liked it quite a bit, I think it’s important, and I can’t wait to give this to many of my readers next semester.
Monica Edinger began writing Africa Is My Home: A Child of The Amistad as a nonfiction biography but then decided she didn’t have enough information for a straight biography. Instead, she used the archival information she found to fictionalize the story of an actual African girl who was on the Amistad. Magulu, a nine-year-old girl from Sierra Leone, is pawned for food by her father and ends up on the Amistad, sailing to Cuba with other captured slaves. The best thing about this book is the information about African and African-American history, especially the rebellion on the Amistad and the subsequent trial, which makes me wish that Edinger had stuck to her original plan of writing nonfiction. The writing itself is competent but not special. Robert Byrd’s colorful illustrations and the overall elegance of the book design elevated the story for me.
The Voice That Challenged A Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Civil Rights is another excellent photo-biography by Russell Freedman. One thing I really admire about Freedman is his ability to narrow and focus, to select a particular perspective for telling a nonfiction story. Marian Anderson’s long career is an effective lens for viewing the Civil Rights movement. Informative, engaging, and full of wonderful photographs that bring the subject and time period to life.
I don’t think I’d so much as heard of John Himmelman’s Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny until it showed up on the Jonker-Schu Top Books of 2014 list. What a delight! It’s a 100+ page illustrated chapter book whose short stories feature Zenlike life lessons as learned and experienced by Isabel, the Bunjitsu bunny. I read it in one sitting but think it would be best spread over several readings.
Criss Cross is one of those polarizing Newberys, and now that I’ve read it, I understand why. I LOVED this book, but I also understand why many readers HATE it or just don’t get it. Very, very little happens in the 300+ pages of the story. There is almost no plot to speak of. The characters are difficult to tell apart through much of the story. The setting is vague. (It’s set in the 1970s but you wouldn’t often know it, and I have no idea where in the U.S. it takes place, though I’m guessing Michigan, since that’s where the author is from.) The format occasionally varies (a chapter in haiku, one of my favorites; a chapter in Q&A form) but not consistently or to any great purpose. The writing is sometimes lyrical and sometimes incredibly flat and repetitive. There are illustrations (photos and drawings) throughout, though they don’t seem to contribute much. I cannot imagine a single reader I would give this book to. But I still loved it and think it absolutely deserved the Newbery, and here’s why: it’s incredibly rich in theme, and all of the craft choices that may make some readers scratch their heads wondering how THIS book won the Newbery actually enact the theme. The book is about what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being”–moments in our lives when maybe nothing outwardly is happening but we experience life with intense awareness. Everything feels connected. That’s a part of this story too–those little moments of connection in life–connections sometimes made but often just barely missed. I marveled at the craft of this book throughout. All of the different literary elements contribute to the theme. So incredibly hard to do!
Lost in Translation is a beautiful small illustrated book of untranslatable words from other languages. Some of these words we absolutely need to adopt in English. Akihi, for instance, happens to me all the time. That’s a Hawaiian word for “listening to directions and then walking off and promptly forgetting them.”
I’m not quite sure what I would do with this book in the classroom, but I feel like there must be some mentor text or research possibilities here.
Na Liu’s Little White Duck: A Childhood in China is a graphic novel memoir I’ve had on my shelf for awhile. I’ve been waiting for just the right moment to read it–and it turns out that the right moment is when you’re trying to read 12 books in 4 days. I loved this memoir of the author’s childhood in China in the 1970s and early 1980s, but I don’t understand why it ended so abruptly. It’s about half the length it actually needs to be!
Nicola Davies’s informative nonfiction book, Deadly!: The Truth About the Most Dangerous Creatures on Earth, hilariously illustrated by Neal Layton, is another book I’ve been saving to meet a particular reading need (12 books in 4 days!) I learned so many interesting things about dangerous creatures and shared many facts with my husband and son as I was reading. I’m looking forward to book talking this one in my children’s lit class.
I have been reading Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma very slowly over the past three months or so. Van Der Kolk is an expert on innovative, effective ways of treating trauma. This book is essential reading for anyone whose life is affected by trauma (which means virtually all teachers, since so many of the children we teach have trauma in their backgrounds). I’m hoping to post a longer review next week.
Wonderful haiku by Bob Raczka telling the story of Santa Claus’s December.
This is a picture book that I just didn’t get. I mean, I “got” it. But the story and the artwork bored me. I’m going to have to read someone else’s rave review before trying it again. That’s one of the many beauties of the picture book: you can easily reread and re-experience.
Angela Johnson’s All Different Now, a lyrical picture book about Juneteenth, the first day of freedom for slaves in Texas, is a must-read both for the quality of the writing and the quality of the art. E.B. Lewis is so, so, SO good.
And now that I’ve finished writing this post, I am off to read. I have three books to finish today!