Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chapter Book Review - The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Confession: I do not long for the bygone days of my youth. For the most part, they weren't all that great, and I've no secret longing to relive them in any way, shape, or form. But I do sometimes find myself hankering to have one childhood experience once again: that of picking up a book you've never read and cracking the spine to find yourself peeking back at you.

Ever had that happen? If you ever were a misfit somewhat-on-the-fringe bookworm like I was, it might just have been your biggest relief. Seriously, there was little I found more comforting than knowing that I surely couldn't be the only one for whom middle school was pretty much torture, and then reading a book that showed me someone out there felt the same (and wrote the book about it).

Even today I love finding books like that, because they can be a lifeline for kids who are having the same experience right now. I think that's especially true for kids who stand out in some way, and often that's due to cultural differences in their family life. That's certainly the case for the title character in Wendy Wan-Long Shang's The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. Lucy is relatable, accessible and someone that middle-grade readers will recognize in the mirror, even if they don't share her Chinese-American heritage.

When we meet Lucy, she's primed for a great year in sixth grade. This is going to be her moment to shine, and nothing symbolizes that more than the fact that she'll no longer be sharing a room with her older sister Regina, who's off to college soon. But everything crashes down on Lucy when she finds out that her family will be hosting a visit from Auntie Yi Po, a relative Lucy's never even heard of, much less met. And just guess where Yi Po will be staying, when she's with the family for several months. If you picked Lucy's almost-all-hers bedroom, you win (but in Lucy's view, she loses).

Shang absolutely nails Lucy's experience of feeling like an outsider even in her own family. While her sister Regina "majored in Being Chinese", Lucy can't speak much of the language and finds pretty much all the food more than she can handle. Now with Yi Po in the house, Lucy's off to Chinese school on the weekends and missing out on basketball - and she's not shy about voicing her opinion, just as her parents aren't shy about expressing theirs. Lucy feels the friction of her two worlds, and struggles to find a balancing point between them. It's a realistic struggle, and the dynamics between the family members are always believable. 

I love the resolution that comes about, mostly because it rings absolutely right and true. You can feel Wendy Wan-Long Shang's passion for her subject and her devotion to making sure that young readers have a denouement that is both positive and plausible. Lucy Wu is a character kids will root for and relate to; though Shang is a debut author, her skills speak for themselves. Hand this to kids who love Judy Blume, Grace Lin or Beverly Cleary - and then we'll all be waiting on pins and needles to read more from this talented author!

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang, published by Scholastic
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Sample: "Now the desk and bookcase formed a wall between the two beds. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. When I lay down on my bed, all I could see was my side of the desk and the front of the bookcase. And I hid my favorite picture of my grandmother, the last one we took before she got sick, in my bookcase."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Picture Book Review - Tap Tap Boom Boom by Elizabeth Bluemle

It's a rainy rainy day here in Northwest Washington, which is actually pretty unusual for us in July. Contrary to what the rest of the world thinks, it doesn't rain every single day here, and the summers can be quite lovely. But a little mid-summer rainstorm is pretty common, and is kind of nice to clear the air and freshen the vegetation. Plus, Sprout thrills at the sights and sounds of a good ol' summer thunderstorm (so does Mom!).

That's the spirit behind Elizabeth Bluemle's whimsical new picture book Tap Tap Boom Boom. I was so excited to read this one because we've loved Bluemle's other books, especially the delightfully be-bopping How Do You Wokka-Wokka?. And with this outing, Bluemle's paired with one of our favorite illustrators, G. Brian Karas, whose The Village Garage is a staple of our fall reading list. So we went into this one with pretty high expectations.

As you might imagine, in a work from two artists who are as dedicated to diversity as they are to their craft, Tap Tap Boom Boom hits all the right notes. Bluemle's all about the wordplay, making her books terrific (if tricky) to read aloud. In this outing, two young boys are playing in their urban neighborhood when it starts to rain. Everybody notices, because this rain starts out small but brings dark clouds and the threat of a big storm. And the promise comes true, because the tempo of the storm picks up quick, with rain, lightning and thunder! Our boys better get undercover pronto, which in the city means running down to the subway, where everyone gathers to ride out the storm. It pretty quick turns into a party, complete with music, pizza, and lots of friendly chatter. And after the rain? Why, a rainbow, of course, plus plenty of new friendships formed through circumstance.

Tap Tap Boom Boom is a great book to share when talking about community and friendship. We love the message that people of all stripes can be friends, regardless of their background or circumstance. There's nothing like the occasion of shared experience to bring people together, and Bluemle absolutely nails the spirit of sheltering out a storm. And the illustrations by Karas, featuring a nicely diverse cast, are the perfect match for the rhythmic text, a blend of collage and sketch that suits the situation to a T.

Young readers will feel like they're right in the center of a sudden storm, in the heart of the city. Next time the rain threatens, don't be surprised if your kiddo wants to go out and about -- Tap Tap Boom Boom makes a rainstorm cause for celebration!

Tap Tap Boom Boom by Elizabeth Bluemle, published by Candlewick Press
Ages 3-5
Source: Library
First line: "Tap tap, dark clouds. Tap tap, damp air. Tap tap, cold drops of rain dot hair."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Picture Book Review - Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of sharing a presentation on diversity in kidlit with a class of Early Childhood Education students. It was a serious honor to be asked to present, and warmed my heart to see all these future educators so excited about children's lit with diverse characters. The problem, though, was in choosing what books to share with them -- so many great choices, so little space (and time).

So I enlisted Sprout to help me pick, asking him what books we've read that he really liked. And among those he described was today's feature, the absolutely amazing Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales. I wasn't surprised that he mentioned this one, since we've had it checked out more or less nonstop since it debuted last summer. But I was a bit shocked that I hadn't blogged about it yet. Seriously, I had to check through the archives just to be sure!

Lo and behold, this one slipped through the cracks for us, I guess. Time to right that imbalance pronto. Because, my friends, Niño is one fantastically fun read-aloud and it deserves as wide an audience as it can possibly get. I mean, I dare you to read this one aloud and not collapse in a fit of giggles, just due to the sound effects alone.

The story follows our hero, Niño, who we right away discover is a pretty formidable wrestler in the lucha libre style of wrestling. Don't worry if you're not familiar with the concept - Morales has a very nice author note at the end that will answer your kiddos' questions about this type of wrestling. Suffice to say that lucha libre is pretty over the top, and that's exactly what our hero loves about it. Niño fights against all matter of crazy opponents and defeats them all handily, with plenty of awesome comic-inspired "whunks" and "zzwaps". But in the final measure, there is one pair of foes not even a fearless undie-clad hero can defeat -- his baby sisters!

I asked Sprout what he likes best about this one and he said "everything". I tend to agree. From the fast pace, to the zany opponents, to the colorful backdrops and sprinkling of Spanish phrases throughout, Niño is a total winner. . . even if he can't hold out against two little charmers (but who ever could?).

Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales, published by Roaring Brook Press
Ages 4-6
Source: Library
Highly recommended

Monday, July 14, 2014

Read Around the World Summer Series

If you haven't been following us on Facebook or Twitter (and why not?!), then you've been missing out. As part of the Multicultural Kid Bloggers group, we're happy to be sharing some terrific picks from the Read Around the World Summer Series. Today's it's our turn, so I've picked one of our favorite picture books set in Africa: Rain School by James Rumford. Read our review here, and hit up your library to find a copy of this one-of-a-kind picture book -- this is a great one to read before your kiddos start school!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

YA Review - Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

I'm finally getting around to writing reviews of some of those incredible books I read during the 48 Hour Book Challenge a few weeks ago! (It takes me a while, sometimes.) Part of the reason is that I needed to process what I read - my goal during this year's challenge was to maximize my reading time, so I pretty much read straight through, with only a few stopovers on social media and other participants' blogs. And so it was one big happy blur of diverse titles, all of which I needed to digest a bit before I sat down and put fingers to keyboard.

But I definitely don't want to forget about these books, so on with the reviews. First up is a teen pick, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina. This one caught my attention when it won the Pura Belpre award last year, and kept my attention when it started being challenged for various reasons. (I kind of secretly love when a great book is challenged, because what is a more sure-fire way to guarantee that teenagers read something, than to tell them not to?). So of course I knew this was going to be a 48 Hour Book Challenge title for me, and I'm so glad I included it with my list.

The story begins when Piddy Sanchez finds out that "Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass," from some other girl she doesn't even know. Piddy doesn't know Yaqui either -- she's new at the school, hardly knows anyone -- and is equally mystified as to why this unknown stranger would want to beat her up. She's sure she doesn't want trouble, though, so she decides to avoid Yaqui at all costs. And for a while that works, as Piddy focuses on her job, school and the mystery of who her father is and why her mother never speaks of him. But then things with Yaqui start to heat up, in a serious fashion, and suddenly Piddy finds herself doing whatever she can to avoid confrontation and to find a little peace - even if that means acting out in ways she's never thought of before. What will Piddy do to cope, and can she stay out of Yaqui's way without hurting her other relationships?

OK, first of all, let's get out of the way the fact that this title has the word "ass" in it.

Yep, a swear.

If that's a stumbling block for you, well, just stop reading now.

Because if it is, I guarantee you won't want to read the honest, soul-baring novel that carries this name. Yaqui Delgado is a tough book at times, not because of language or situations but because of the real human pain that bleeds through on the pages. Piddy is a character that many kids can relate to, and her struggles are so familiar that I'd venture to guess few high schools don't have a host of Piddys walking their halls. So for me, tough as it might be, this is a book that needs to be shared because I believe it can save the lives of kids who are experiencing Piddy's problems right now.

At its core, Yaqui Delgado is a novel about bullying that stands apart from the pack, because it shows how bullying is a problem that can't be easily solved like the movie-of-the-week wants us to think. Medina doesn't shrink from demonstrating how the conflict with Yaqui, undeserved as it turns out to be, changes Piddy's life in ways large and small. That's the real tragedy, that adults in Piddy's life turn out not to recognize the issue or aren't able to help in any meaningful way. The scary thing is all the little cracks that the bullying creates in Piddy's life, causing her to make choices like pulling away from some people and drawing close to others, all in an attempt to make some sense of this relentless, controlling force. I was moved to tears at some points by Piddy's desperation, and haunted by the idea that this conflict is shaping Piddy's life in ways she will forever feel.

Medina is a powerhouse of an author, one who's not afraid to show the hard truth and pose the difficult questions. There's a complexity here that belies the simple characterization of this as a bullying book - which it is, but so much more also. Though Piddy and Yaqui are both female, both Latina, they are very different, and the conflict between them speaks to concepts of race and gender that run deep within our society. This isn't a simple story and it isn't one that wraps up tidily. But it is a truthful one, a provocative one, and a story that teens and adults need to read and share.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina, published by Candlewick
Age 12+
Source: Library
First lines: "'Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass.' / A kid named Vanesa tells me this in the morning before school. She springs out with no warning and blocks my way, her textbook held at her chest like a shield. She's tall like me and caramel. I've seen her in the lunchroom, I think. Or maybe just in the halls. It's hard to remember. / Then, just like that, Vanesa disappears into the swell of bodies all around."
Highly recommended