Tag Archives: historical

Two by Lois Lowry: On the Horizon and Looking Back

books_looking1_m  9780358129400by Lois Lowry
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I am a big Lois Lowry fan and always pleased to dive into a previously unknown (to me) book by her. I know there are a few lesser-known works (ones that are among her favorites, as it happens) and I confess I’m sort of saving them, because I know one day she’ll stop writing (she’s 83 now!).

I was excited to see that she had a new book out, On the Horizon, about her childhood in Hawaii and Japan in the 1930s/40s. It’s a memoir in verse, beautifully illustrated by Kenard Pak. The black and white illustrations, done in pencil, are surprisingly complex in shading. Two in particular were back to back, of Lowry as a girl meeting illustrator Allen Say as a boy, a moment they both recalled when they met for real years later (which I just learned and can’t get over!). In one picture, Lowry is foregrounded and Say is behind a fence, far away with friends. In the other, Say is foregrounded and blond Lowry and her memorable green bike are behind the fence and far away. The different perspectives really help drive home her text which attempts to show both sides, a tension she must have been aware of as an American living in the post-war years in Japan. (If you can, I recommend looking at this in a physical book rather than e-book as I did; some of the formatting was a bit wonky and I’m betting that the layout helps with the impact of the illustrations as well as the flow.)

Lowry did a lot of research into the details of the historic events that she lived through as a child, especially the lives of the American sailors who died in the Pearl Harbor attack and the Japanese civilians who died in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. The verse is sometimes rhyming and sometimes not, even within the same poem, which is jarring and maybe partly the point – sometimes we can see the rhyme and reason in why things happen, and a lot of times, especially in troubling times, we can’t. I did learn a new style of poetry called a triolet, which Lowry does three times well and is moving in its repetition (and reminds me of a pantoum, but I digress).

Lowry had such a unique childhood experience and I’m glad she finally delved into it. While looking for On the Horizon I also found her 1998 memoir, Looking Back, which helped give more context to On the HorizonLooking Back got a much-needed update in 2016. I loved the way she connected in each chapter a book she wrote to an event from her life that helped inspire it, even the ones I haven’t read yet.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

bk_long_walk_200pxby Linda Sue Park
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I picked this one up because it’s been on our 6th graders’ summer reading list for a while and I’ve never read it. I was also looking for a quick easy read because it’s been a while since I’ve posted, which leads me to a quick update: I’m away for the majority of 2020 and while I’ll try to keep posting regularly, my book access seems limited to what I can snag as an e-book. I’ll still try to get to newer stuff, but might have to rely on whacking through the huge to-read list of older titles.

However, this book was hardly easy – sure, it only took me a little while to read it, but Salva’s story is a tough one. I did not realize, going in, that this was based on a single true story; I thought it was a composite story. Park knows Salva and had read his written accounts of his life to write her book. The story opens in 1985, when Salva is almost 11 years old and war comes to his village in southern Sudan, and is told alongside the story of a girl in Sudan in 2008, Nya, facing the same water struggles from when Salva was young. War comes to Salva, finally, and all at once, while he is at school and the teacher sends all the young boys into the bush – run away from the village, he says, fearing that the boys would otherwise be forced to become soldiers on one side or the other.

Salva, on his own, meets up with a group of people walking east toward Ethiopia. He meets his uncle along the way, who helps him come to terms with the fact that his family is likely all dead. His uncle and his new friend both die along the way, in pretty gruesome ways that are described quickly and pretty matter-of-factly, but still disturbing especially once you know that this is a true story. Salva’s story includes accounts of life in refugee camps, but at that point the story picks up a lot in pace and much of the interesting narrative elements are lost as we speed through the years to the end of the story. Salva moves to a few different refugee camps, in Ethiopia and then Kenya (when the Ethiopians kick them out), becoming a leader of a group of Lost Boys, and then gets sent to the US to live with a family in Rochester, NY, even though he is no longer a minor. He goes to college and returns to Sudan to help build wells – including the well that Nya’s community gets. Salva is eventually reunited with his father and learns that most of his family survived as well.

I appreciated that there was a note from Salva and an author’s note, both from 2010/2011, and then an updated note from 2015 about the publicity that the books has generated for Salva’s organization, Water for South Sudan. The book is so short that I would have loved more fleshing out of the second half of the story, instead of nearly straight narration. However, the shortness of the book means that a lot of kids choose it for summer reading, and I think it describes a world so utterly unfamiliar to most kids in my community that I really appreciate its inclusion in the curriculum.

All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker

atg-cover_1_670by Laura Tucker
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

12-year-old Olympia – Ollie to friends – lives in SoHo in 1981. Like her parents, she is an artist, and they live as Artists-in-Residence in a loft. There is a mystery of where her father has gone, and with whom, and her mother becomes severely depressed and goes to bed for several weeks and doesn’t get up. Ollie tells one of her best friends, Richard, and has urges to tell an adult what’s going on, but doesn’t until it’s quite far along. She finally tells her parents’ friend Apollo, who quickly makes arrangements for Ollie to go to “the Island” (unclear what island this would be) with her other best friend, Alex, and his family. When she gets back, her apartment building is on fire with her mom still stuck in bed. Trying to rescue her mother, Ollie, Alex, and possibly Apollo are injured, but it is in this physical healing that Ollie – and her mother – are finally able to mentally heal.

I loved most of the beginning of this book, all the vivid details about art and the world that Olympia inhabits. She has a lot of freedom as a city kid in the 1980s. As a result, she is very capable of taking care of herself (with a little help from Apollo). However, I was confused and annoyed about why Apollo didn’t go to her apartment and drag her mom out and get her help the moment he shipped Olympia off to the island. Why else would he send her away so immediately like that? If he just wanted to make sure she was looked after, he would have let her stay with him or found her another friend to stay with. There were some things about her dad’s situation that didn’t totally make sense to me either, and she seemed surprisingly okay with how her parents eventually ended up. (Spoiler alert: they break up and each have a new love interest.)

Historical mental health like: Secret of Nightingale Wood, Nest
Jarring plot twist like: Blended
Best boy friend with added girl friend like: Focused

YA Graphic Novels like whoa, part 2

9781596436206Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity by Dave Roman
Overall: 1 out of 5 stars (unfinished)

I had to stop reading this one because it gave me a headache. I mostly picked it up on a recommendation from a colleague, and because Roman was married to Raina Telgemeier (not just gossip – this GN spree was brought to you by a spunky 8-year-old who loves Raina so I’ve been looking for other graphic novels that she could read while she waits for Raina’s next book HURRY UP RAINA). Anyway, plot. Was there a plot? I’m not sure. A kid starts school at Astronaut Academy. There are other kids. There are teachers. There are dinosaurs you learn to ride…? There are magic flying buses that join up Power Ranger / Transformer style to create Metador. I couldn’t really follow what was going on because it reads like a little kid wrote it and makes no sense. But maybe some kids would like that? Probably kids who like Captain Underpants. I feel no need to finish this.

9781608868988Goldie Vance, Volume 1 by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Goldie Vance has been compared to Nancy Drew, and very rightly so, but with a modern feel. Goldie still lives in the 1960s, but is interested in (and holds hands with) a girl. She is very precocious and also a very good detective. She gets into far more action-movie sequences than Nancy, which were exciting to read (if you like suspending belief). Goldie is also in high school (she works as a valet at the hotel her dad runs) and has a vendetta with the daughter of the owner of the hotel. She races cars like in Grease, which was also fun. I liked that the mystery wasn’t straightforward and took actual brainpower and observational skills to solve.

9780375865909Peanut by Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Peanut tells the story of Sadie, who wants to stand out at her new high school and decides to tell everyone that she’s deathly allergic to peanuts. However, her lie soon gets much more complicated than she imagined, having to lie about epi-pens and reading ingredients carefully and even keeping her boyfriend away from her mother. Eventually, as you might guess, she gets caught in rather a dramatic way when someone catches her eating something suspected to have nuts in it. EMTs are called and the school nurse and teachers are panicked. Sadie, who has wanted to come clean at least with her close friends, is left a laughingstock, especially by the popular girls she had once wanted to befriend. The story ends with hope, though, of her earning back her boyfriend’s trust, if not exactly all her new friends. I thought this made for an excellent cautionary tale about the very likely outcome of a lie like this. The flipside, where real allergies are not taken seriously, is not really addressed, which is too bad. I was right with Sadie as she made every decision and felt for her desire to fit in, even as I knew where this was heading. We squirmed uncomfortably together as she realized how much she had to lose by confessing her lie, and just had to sit and watch it play out.

YA Graphic Novel Reviews like whoa

After repeated requests from a very picky second grader for “books like Smile and Drama” (full-color, realistic, about girls), I decided it was time to get more acquainted with our YA graphic novel section so I could more easily pull out things for her (we have a couple of second graders who read in that section). So far I’ve only read one book that I would give her, but I already knew the author’s work and would have taken a chance on it. I will persevere – and the results will be here! Four for today:

9780062851062Just Jaime by Terri Libenson
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Oh how I felt for Jaime. Libenson has a way of hitting the nail on the head with middle school emotions. I was very impressed with Invisible Emmie, her first book in what appears to be this series, but this one lacked the same twist at the end. Nevertheless, it’s a solid read and also solidly in the Drama/Smile camp, all about those middle school friendships that change on you and the popularity games that take over your life. Jaime, who is kicked out of her friend group by stereotypical mean-girl Celia for not being mature, turns out to be more mature and eloquent than Celia. She stops gossiping and becomes friends with some of the kids they used to make fun of. Eventually her best friend, Maya, also leaves Celia and joins her, and they all live happily ever after. I also loved the small storyline with her mom reuniting with an old friend, and one teacher who is very nice to her, which was also lovely. There’s a fair amount of narration in the Jaime chapters (as opposed to the Maya chapters; the narration alternates between the two, in echoes of Invisible Emmie), making it a nice choice for patrons whose parents favor more text.

9781250068163Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I felt the title was misleading, because other than her brothers (who arguably don’t count as boys who are friends), Maggie’s main friendship in this story is with a girl, Lucy. But let me back up. Maggie has been homeschooled her whole life and is entering high school with her three older brothers, who have each entered as freshmen. Part (or all?) of the reason is that their mom, who did the homeschooling, has left. Maggie is surprised to learn that her brothers are well-established in school, something that is both to her benefit and has surprising repercussions in complicated school drama. Her oldest brother has some beef with some other guys, but being his sister gives her some street cred. Even Lucy, whose older brother is tied up in some of the drama, is aware of him. Maggie’s twin brothers are also well-known and have their own storyline of going through growing pains of establishing individuality. To round out the storyline, Maggie sees a ghost. Her and Lucy’s attempts to get rid of the ghost land them in trouble and mixed up with the older boys. I wouldn’t exactly call the boys friends though (hence feeling misled). Eventually, Maggie rounds up her brothers and they resolve things, and she and Lucy go on their merry way.

Homeschool-to-school transition like: All’s Faire in Middle School

9781416935858Mercury by Hope Larson
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I found the story a little hard to follow, and not just because it jumped back and forth between two time periods. I was intrigued to re-read my review of another of Larson’s graphic novels, Chiggers, from 5 years ago and see that I also had trouble following that story, which possibly has to do with it being black-and-white (I tend to have more trouble with those than comics that have even one additional color). One story line is of Josie in 1859 in Nova Scotia whose family is taken in by a con man, Asa Curry, who discovers gold on the family’s farm. He intends to marry Josie and when her father won’t allow it, apparently kills him. He leaves Josie with a necklace with something inside it that acts as a metal detector. Meanwhile, in 2009, Josie’s descendant, Tara, finds the necklace. Tara had been homeschooled for a couple of years until her house burns down and her mother moves elsewhere to work, leaving her with her aunt and uncle, who are a little weird about her mom, and same-aged cousin, Lindsay. Tara re-enters school with a bunch of kids who all know her story and joins the track team, which allows her to get to know Ben better, who she apparently looks like and has a crush on. Josie’s story ends with her father’s funeral (and Asa’s death as he is shot trying to escape from jail for the cons and murder) and Tara’s ends with finding some gold, with a touch of magic/magical realism.

Out of Left Field by Ellen Klages

9780425288597

by Ellen Klages
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Ten-year-old Katy Gordon is the best pitcher in the neighborhood. Even a Little League scout thinks so – until he learns she’s a girl, and then it’s game over. With two tomboy sisters and a self-made woman for a single mom, it’s no surprise that Katy dreams big. But for 1957, she’s stuck in her gender role, until she learns about all the other women who have played professionally for the past 60 years. Katy’s best friend, Jules, isn’t quite as much of a tomboy as she is, but it’s easy to see why the two are friends, even through the awkward reunion scene when Jules gets back from camp. Katy’s story is set against the backdrop of the beginnings of the civil rights movement, the space race, and the end of San Francisco’s minor league era with the arrival of major league Giants.

There are some seriously strong women in this story. Katy’s family, for starters; but also her Aunt Babs, who is as into baseball as she is and takes her and Jules to a double header for her birthday. There’s also Jules’ student teacher; the middle school gym teacher; and her classmate Chip’s aunt, who played for the Negro Leagues (based on a real woman). There’s a scene where Katy goes to Chip’s family barbecue to talk to his aunt and is the only white person there; not much is made of it, but in the year of the Little Rock integration (which they had been discussing in school), I was surprised not to get more internal reaction from Katy. I did like that she got in the newspaper in the end, and that she got to spend a day shadowing a sports reporter to cover the brand new San Francisco Giants major league team.

Nothing changes for Katy on the Little League front, and won’t until she’s too old to play, but she learns that some rewards for your work come for others down the line, and the story ends with a sweet scene between her and a younger neighbor girl who looks up to her. I loved Katy’s relationship with her mother, who has two older daughters and is very relaxed about parenting Katy, talking to her like a grownup a lot and knowing when to let her play hooky for important life experiences. My partner’s aunt grew up in San Francisco in the 1940s and 50s and loves baseball; I plan to get her this book as a gift. I’ll also see how the kids in my 4th/5th grade book club like it! I also learned that Klages wrote two other books which appear to be about Katy’s older sisters, and this is not listed as being part of that series, which is curious to me.

(Update: After I finished this, I was very much in the mood to rewatch A League of Their Own, which held up exceedingly well. I had forgotten entire scenes, like when the African American woman throws a baseball back to the main characters – the briefest and subtlest of nods to the fact that there were African American female baseball players then too, and I wondered why the movie didn’t talk more about them. And then, the next day, the Jewish Women’s Archive shared an article about one of the Jewish women who played on the team, and I realized I forgot to address Katy’s Jewish heritage! Both Katy (and, to a lesser extent, Jules) are very assimilated, which is maybe not surprising for post-Holocaust Jewish Americans. There’s also an article called The Hidden Queer History Behind a League of Their Own, which was really good, and reminds me that Katy’s aunt, who loves baseball, is very briefly referred to as having a roommate, subtly informing the reader that she might be gay.)

For fans of: The Lions of Little Rock and It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel (though not as funny)

Paperboy by Vince Vawter

9780307931511

by Vince Vawter
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Set in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1959, this is the mostly autobiographical story of Victor, aka Little Man, who has a stutter and doesn’t talk a lot. He sticks to people he’s most comfortable with: his best friend, Rat (Art, but Rat is easier for him to say), and his maid/nanny/speech therapist, Mam. When Little Man is 12, Rat goes away for all of July, leaving him in charge of Rat’s paper route for the month. Over the four weeks, Little Man lets us into his world, explaining how he gets around words that are hard for him to say: substituting words with easier starting sounds, starting hard words with an extra s on the front, and typing instead of speaking.

Little Man also gets to know some of his neighbors in Memphis, including Mrs. Worthington, a beautiful but tragic alcoholic trapped in an abusive marriage; Mr. Spiro, who always takes time to talk (and listen) to Little Man; and, eventually, another boy who is also different and becomes a friend (spoiler: he’s deaf, and Little Man discovers that he can talk with his hands without stuttering). Little Man’s paper route, while challenging on collection day when he has to talk to people to collect money, also brings to a head his interactions with his neighborhood’s colored junkman, Ara T. He asks Ara T to sharpen his pocketknife so he can use it to cut open the newspaper bundles and Ara T just keeps it for his own, but eventually Mam gets involved and gets it back in a dramatic and somewhat violent scene. Little Man also discovers that his father isn’t who he thinks and grapples with that for much of the month. The ending is not neat but is satisfactory, and Little Man’s growth is satisfying.

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

9781338157475

by Lucy Strange

Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Ok, this one comes with some caveats. Yes, it was very well written, but OH MAN am I not sure this is a book for kids. It is super dark in terms of mental health stuff and asylums. But let’s back up a sec.

Henrietta and her family move from London to a small town in 1911 after a tragic incident in which her brother died. The nanny takes care of Henry’s baby sister, born just after, when neither of Henry’s parents can deal with life. Mama has never held the baby and slowly goes down a dark spiral in her own mind, overcome with grief and unable to heal. Father just plain leaves, escaping to Italy and his work. Eventually the sinister-seeming doctor manages to wrest Mama away from the house and up to the asylum; he then sets his sights on Henry and the baby, whom the family calls Piglet because she accidentally got named Roberta after her brother, Robert). Dr. Hardy takes Piglet to his house for safety and then seems to indicate he would like to sedate and lock up Henry, too. But before he can, she calls on the mysterious woman living in the woods behind the house for help.

I liked that there were a lot of layers to this story, and lots of bits of information to put together, some doable, some not. The upsetting, more adult-oriented, nature of the story reminded me strongly of Nest, though I think the historical aspect (of both stories but especially this one which feels much more dated) helps to temper it a bit. People are generally not sedated and carted off to asylums in straitjackets anymore, so this seems a bit more far-fetched and not quite as “gonna happen to me” scary. I also like that Henry saves the day in a more or less believable way. I also loved the relationship between her and the cook and her husband, and the lawyer handling the rental of the house they’re staying in. All sorts of help from good grownups to balance out the bad few.

Double Review: YA Graphic Novels (Jane and A Year Without Mom)

Jane, by Aline Brosh McKenna and Ramon K. Perez; Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

9781608869817

This graphic novel is based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, but Brosh McKenna took some liberties with the story in making it believable for a modern era. Jane is orphaned and raised by her aunt, but very few pages are dedicated to this. A modern Jane would not write away for a job as a governess, take the job and move away sight unseen, so in this telling she just moves to New York City for art school. Upon registering she is told that she must acquire a job by the end of the week in order to keep her scholarship, so she takes a mysterious job as a nanny for a wealthy single father. She is told never to go to the third floor, which is where the “single” father’s wife is in a coma, but their daughter, who is 6, doesn’t know. Jane falls in love (and sleeps) with the father, but it turns out that the wife’s brother is out to get the father because he’s in love with his own sister and wants her husband dead. So that was weird. But ultimately it gets the essence of Jane, an orphan who finds a place in another family. The art is incredibly well done and easy to follow and I enjoyed most the relationship between Jane and Adele (the little girl) and the twist at the end.

A Year Without Mom, by Dasha Tolstikova; Overall: 3 out of 5 stars

9781554986927 Dasha (yup, it’s memoir time) was 12 the year her mom went to the United States from Soviet Russia to get her master’s degree, leaving her to live with her grandparents. This graphic novel chronicles the ups and downs of her friendships and romantic interests that year, and ends with her going to the U.S. to be with her mom for the second year of the program.

Fellow book clubbers liked this one overall, though there were some in my camp who didn’t really get why it was written. One book clubber had studied abroad in Russia and gave us a little background. The spare use of red tended to highlight the perpetually-embarrassed cheeks of middle school girls. I suggested it would be good for kids who might not want a story with any conflict in it. That’s about all I’ve got for you. I didn’t love it.

Swing It, Sunny by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm

9780545741729

by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm
Overall: 3 out of 5 stars

So, there’s nothing really overtly wrong with this, but it doesn’t really have much to say and I just didn’t like it all that much. It was fine, but nothing earth-shattering. As with the first book, Sunny Side Up, the cover and inside flap make it sound like a really light, fun read, when really Sunny is grappling with her brother’s problems again. This time he’s out of rehab and sent off to military school, which he absolutely hates and withdraws from the little sister who adores him and who is crushed at his behavior. There’s also an older girl who moves in next door to Sunny and is teaching her how to twirl a flag like she does in the high school marching band. Sunny also has a best friend who seems boring, but again, no big breakdown or revelation with that; all they do is watch tv together and don’t really have much in common. It’s historical fiction, set in the 1970s with references to pet rocks, tv dinners, Donny and Marie Osmond, and the Brady Bunch, but no real point to them (with the exception of Sunny imagining her family in the Brady Bunch squares, missing Dale – a point that could have been made another way). It took me about an hour to read, so if you’re looking for a quick read and you’re already a Jennifer Holm fan, then give it a go. Otherwise, maybe find something more worth your time.