Tag Archives: social issues

Follow Your Stuff by Kevin Sylvester and Michael Hlinka

9781773212548by Kevin Sylvester and Michael Hlinka
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

I am very interested in how things are made and this book does not disappoint. I loved their other book, Follow Your Money, and this one is even better, though possibly for slightly older kids. I’d say this book is great for middle schoolers; one of the items they track is cell phones and there’s a lot of references to “your phone.” Around Boston, kids seem to get a phone sometime in middle school; also some of the detail they get into would best be understood by a middle school-aged kid.

Sylvester and Hlinka track 4 different items: a t-shirt, an asthma inhaler, a book, and a smartphone. They do a really good job of simplifying the process and introducing it. Along the way they insert really thought-provoking questions and at the beginning of the book they said they wouldn’t try to answer them, but they’re questions you should be asking yourself as you buy things. Questions like, should workers be paid a fair wage, do you know the working conditions where [x] was made, and so on. Only at the end do they get outright preachy and say that you should never steal an artist’s work. They take some time to talk about how each of the links in the chain is a real live human being and even though the cost of living may be much lower in some places, that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be paid for their work. They also talk about how the artist might be a millionaire but the person who helped produce their CD isn’t and that person depends on their 50-cent earning from each CD.

The authors talk about how you are part of the system, and how you will someday enter it as a worker. Two questions are posed at the end: “How Big is Too Big?” (about monopolies) and “How Much Profit is Too Much?” (which raises one of my pet issues, shareholders). They also get into a fifth product, eyeglasses, and explain why they couldn’t, in the end, include it – because most eyeglasses are made by one company and it wasn’t possible to accurately calculate how much it would cost to make. This is interesting in itself and I’m glad they included it.

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

3900147_origby John David Anderson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Sixth-grade teacher Maggie Bixby announces to her class near the end of the school year that she won’t be finishing out the year with them. She has cancer and needs to take some time for treatment. The class plans a last-day party for her but she ends up leaving before it happens. So when best friends Steve, Topher, and Brand overhear that Ms. Bixby is going to Boston for urgent intensive treatment, they decide to skip school and bring her all the elements of her perfect last day. However, things go quickly awry, and in the ensuing adventure, they learn a lot about each other, their individual relationships to Ms. Bixby, and their friendship. Spoiler: They do eventually make it to her hospital room and manage to have their last moments with her, which was touching and I wasn’t sure it was going to happen.

Steve and his sister Christina are pressured to be perfect children, students, musicians, etc. Steve frequently feels inadequate and is possibly on the spectrum, given his lack of understanding of social cues and jokes, but ability to regurgitate facts on a moment’s notice. Topher was an only child until a few years ago; now his parents barely have time to look at his art between caring for his kid sister and taking on extra jobs to support their larger family. These two have been best friends for years but only Steve can really explain why; Topher just doesn’t seem to need Steve as much, or so he thinks. Brand moved to town a year or so ago, after his father was paralyzed on the job. Brand takes care of his father, who is spiraling into depression after the accident, but it’s a lot for a sixth grader to handle. Enter Ms. Bixby, who was especially important to him for the help and attention she gave him. The boys’ adventures have them asking a stranger to buy them wine and he then takes off with their cash; they later get into a physical fight with him in an alley. Steve takes a punch to the face and Topher trips and sprains his ankle chasing after him. They also ask Christina to lie to her and Steve’s parents for them, and smuggle Ms. Bixby out of her hospital room, against the hospital’s rules. And that is basically the extent of their shenanigans. There is plenty of what I call “extreme foreshadowing” but it looks like Anderson toned it down a bit from Posted (though Ms. Bixby’s Last Day was published earlier).

I had seen this book come in and out and didn’t really give it much thought until I was browsing recently and came across it. Upon reading the flap, I wasn’t sure I would get through it without being a sobbing mess, given that I just lost a librarianteacherfriend to cancer a few months ago who similarly had to tell her students (a whole school full of them) that she wasn’t finishing out the year with them. The entire town turned out to her memorial service, which was quite a testament that she was the same kind of teacher and person that Ms. Bixby was, only a bit older and more embedded in the community. However, this book was much more about the boys and their stories than about Ms. Bixby, so I made it through relatively dry-eyed. But Ms. Bixby sounds like a hell of a teacher, and they were lucky to have her.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood by Mister Rogers

9781683691136by Mister Rogers
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

What a lovely little collection of Mr. Rogers’ songs. Luke Flowers’ drawings are charming and reflect diversity in the world. This collection would not be nearly as delightful without the illustrations. My only real critique is that these were originally songs and they do not really work as poems, words on paper. I would have loved a CD or DVD with the songs to listen to as you read. (It apparently does exist as an e-audiobook.)

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.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

9781368022828by Carlos Hernandez
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

This book starts with a bang and never looks back or slows down, which is partly due to a forward by Rick Riordan, though beginning the story with Hernandez’s skillful first chapter would be plenty gripping. Our hero, Sal Vidon, is always at the center of the action, of which there is plenty. Sal is able to reach through some sort of wormhole to other parallel universes and bring things or people through to our universe. Sometimes they come with things that then disappear back with them when they return, which is inconvenient (or in the case of food already in your tummy, very sad). Sometimes it’s your dead Mami or a sick baby you’re trying to make better and you wish you could keep. Sal’s father works on fixing wormholes.

There’s a lot to love about this book. We open on a scene with new-kid-at-school Sal, bully Yasmany, and Yasmany’s “lawyer” and student council president Gabi (like a 7th grade Cuban Hillary Clinton). The relationships between the three of them are very rich. Gabi’s family is fascinating and includes many adults she refers to as Dad, some of whom are male, plus a mom, and Sal doesn’t make a big deal of this when he learns it, so we never learn more. Gabi also has a baby brother who is in the NICU, so a fair amount of the story takes place there. Sal himself has type-1 diabetes, which is one reason my (also type-1 diabetic) boss shoved it in my hands to read. The information about diabetes is skillfully, if not own-voices-y, presented, not really didactic. Sal is a magician, which is how he gains entry into his performing arts magnet middle school in Miami, and magic plays a large role in the story, not just a quirky thing about him. Sal’s mother passed away several years ago and his dad married his vice principal – again, not incidental to the story. Sal loved his mother and loves his American Stepmom (which is how he refers to her almost always). He also has a habit of bringing back his mother from other universes (part of why they moved). Finally, Yasmany’s home life is, predictably, rough – and it’s his mother who is the abuser (unclear if his father is in the picture).

There are also relationships with teachers and other kids, as well as the same cast of characters from other universes with whom Sal and Gabi interact, all of which add richness and depth to the story. There’s also a fair amount of Spanish and spanglish, and some interesting slang (apparently in Sal’s world, being called a “sandwich” is an insult?). Altogether very well done and I’m looking forward to book 2, which should be out next year!

The Sad Little Fact by Jonah Winter

9780525581796by Jonah Winter
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Oh man. I am conflicted about how many stars to give this book. If we are looking at it purely as a picture book story for kids, then I would rank it maybe a 3 out of 5 stars. But if we are seeing it as part of this moment in time and a reaction to the political climate, I would say 5 out of 5 stars! I read this aloud to my “adults who read kids’ books” book club last night and we were all in stitches. We agreed that it earns the award for “least subtle picture book” – it stole the crown from The Wall in the Middle of The Book!

The eponymous fact in this story gets ignored and then worse, the Authorities claim it is not a fact and that it must say it is a lie! But the fact cannot do that, and so they lock it up in a box and bury it underground. But there it finds the other facts that have been buried, and together they break out. When they emerge, they find that the authorities have been producing lies and calling them facts. Even more heavy-handed are the actual facts, ranging from the benign “two plus two equals four” to “humans are descended from apes” to the blatant “humans are causing the earth to get warmer.” This book is not for the politically sensitive!

Up for Air by Laurie Morrison

9781419733666by Laurie Morrison
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Annabelle is looking forward to another summer of competitive swimming and hanging out with her best friends Mia and Jeremy. But her school year ends harder than she thought, even with accommodations made for her learning disabilities (ADHD?), Mia is busy with her new lacrosse friends, and Jeremy is leaving for camp in Boston for a month. When Annabelle gets recruited to the high school swim team and gets to spend more time with cute Connor Madison, things start to look up. But it turns out that Annabelle isn’t really mature enough for high school shenanigans and makes some bad choices that get her injured enough to be off the swim team. After an adventure into Boston to track down her newly-back-in-the-picture dad (who turns out to have a new family and be in recovery from alcoholism), she comes to be more comfortable with where she is and stop rushing to grow up.

This book is rich in relationships and the reader is really inside Annabelle’s head. I thought it was extremely realistic to how kids can know what the right thing is and still be conflicted and want to fit in, and therefore make bad decisions. All the parts of dissecting a boy’s texts and actions felt exactly right and yet I could see, from an adult’s point of view, that Connor was just a player. Even once Annabelle is off the team, her teammates want to hang out with her and try to help her through this in an amazing show of female solidarity, which was another excellent piece of wisdom imparted with this story. I also liked how Annabelle’s mother and stepfather, Mitch (with whom she is close), relate to her not just as parents but as people at the end of the story. That seems like a huge piece of growing up and navigating changing relationships and I was very pleased to read it. Annabelle also makes peace with Mia and Jeremy, though things don’t go exactly back to how they were before, which was also satisfying.

One note on race is that Annabelle’s summer tutor, Janine, is black, which we learn through a comment on her hair and then on her outsider status, which could have been handled differently. The other social issues of note are that Jeremy’s older sister, Kayla, who is on the high school swim team with Annabelle, was treated for an eating disorder the previous year, so note that as a sensitive topic. (The author thanks Jen Petro-Roy for her assistance in understanding and representing eating disorder aftermath accurately.) And finally, Annabelle, Mia, and Jeremy are all day students at the private school on Gray Island (which is I think supposed to be Martha’s Vineyard?), so neither fully fit in with the other boarding students or the public school kids who are there for the summer. Annabelle’s learning differences make her feel even more like she doesn’t belong – but that’s another issue that gets resolved over the course of the story.

Adventure like: Nest by Esther Ehrlich
Relationship growth like: A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass