Monday, November 28, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Sylvia & Aki by Winifred Conkling

Winifred Conkling's Sylvia and Aki is a deceptively slim little book, the kind kids are drawn to for book reports or school projects because it's so skinny. And yet, for all its brevity, Sylvia and Aki packs a punch.

The story is a fictionalized account of the lives of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, opening in 1941. Aki's family has been evacuated from their farm, sent to a Japanese internment camp in the furor that resulted from the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Aki's father is taken away first, with no notice -- she is terrified that she will never see him again, that their family will always be separated. Because of the restrictions about what the family could take with them, Aki has had to leave some of her most precious things behind, including her favorite doll, which she tucks onto the shelf in her closet, hoping she'll be back to reclaim her.

Sylvia finds Aki's doll, on a very bad day when she is in need of comfort. Sylvia and her family are renting the farm from the Munemitsus, and Sylvia's father is the boss, something the family is very proud of. But the day Sylvia's aunt takes the children to enroll in the closest school, they discover that Mexicans must attend the migrant school. Everything about the Hoover School is second-best, from the rundown buildings to the battered supplies. And Sylvia's father is determined to get his daughter into the Westminster School, which so far is white students only.

Each family struggles. Each girl feels lost, alone, uncertain. But as time passes the girls come into contact with one another, and a friendship slowly blossoms, borne of shared hardship and isolation. Life for the girls is not easy, but knowing that there is someone else, someone like them who feels on the outside of things, makes it all just a little easier to bear.

Conkling weaves the girls' stories together skillfully, showing how both Sylvia and Aki were outsiders because of something they had no control over, the color of their skin. Aki's time in the camp is particularly poignant, as we feel with her the pain of loss and the fear that her family will never be whole again. Like Aki, Sylvia is made to feel foreign, an outsider, as school district officials assume she is unclean or tell her to go back to Mexico (with the irony being that she is American). Conkling depicts the quiet heroism mirrored in each girls' individual heartbreak. Because the girls experience a similar day-to-day reality, as victims of prejudice and open racism, when they find friendship in one another, it is all the more sweet.

One of the readings in my multicultural kidlit class last week pointed out that children's books with a diverse cast almost always include white characters in the mix. This hadn't occurred to me, but flipping through some of Sprout's books I can see it's true. Sylvia and Aki is that rare thing, a book that examines racism from the inside without casting a white person in the role of savior. For these girls, breaking down barriers just meant living the lives they dreamed of. It's hard to think of a more inspiring tale, no matter what your skin color.

Sylvia and Aki by Winifred Conkling, published by Tricycle Press
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Then Aki said good-bye to the nurse, picked up her suitcase, and took her mother's hand. She missed her father. She missed her home. She missed the life she used to have. But when she felt her mother's hand in hers, she knew that she was ready to face Poston."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chapter Book Review - What Happened on Fox Street by Tricia Springstubb

What Happened on Fox Street by Tricia Springstubb is one of those books that's been on my TBR list for a long time but which I wasn't really excited about. To be honest, though it was receiving rave reviews, it didn't seem like something that felt terribly relevant to me, probably because the cover just didn't draw me in. All that white space, I think, and the cutesy fox taking a nap in the O of "Fox". Adorable, but maybe a little too much so.

But with all the heavy-duty reading I've been doing for school of late, I felt like I needed something frothy and light. Enter Fox Street -- but frothy and light? Try substantive and thought-provoking.

Mo Wren's lived on Fox Street her whole life, with her father and her crazy little sister Dottie. Mo knows everything about everyone on Fox Street, and she can't imagine ever living anywhere else, because whatever she needs is all around her. Most of all, the neighbors on Fox Street have looked after Mo and Dottie since their mother died, particularly Da, the persnickety former school teacher whose red beans and rice are Mo's favorite food. Da's granddaughter Mercedes is Mo's best friend, and she spends every summer on Fox Street.

The whole thing is pretty idyllic, really. But this summer things in Mo's world are starting to unravel. First Mercedes shows up with fancy new clothes and an attitude to match, telling Mo that this will be her last summer visit. And then there's the strange behavior of cranky old Mrs. Steinbott -- Starchbutt to the Fox Street kids. Is she really having a change of heart? Then Mo's dad gets a mysterious letter in the mail, and suddenly he's making plans -- plans that Mo fears will take the family away from Fox Street for good.

So my initial assessment of Fox Street was basically dead wrong. Here's a book that's anything but frothy, about a character who is spirited, determined and deeply introspective. Mo Wren is one of those girls who sticks with you, as devoted to her family and friends as she is frustrated by them and determined to always do the right thing. Mercedes is far more than a sidekick, but a fully developed character in her own right, struggling to integrate her new stepfather into a place in her life where only a hole had been. And Dottie -- oh, Dottie! A little bit of Dottie goes a very long way, which is a good thing. Just when you count her out as nothing more than the "wild child", Dottie does something to stir everything up again. I'd love to see more of Dottie in later books about the Wren family; I have a feeling she, like many other literary little sisters, is in for some fascinating adventures of her own.

And here's a lesson in not judging a book, literally. Though the cover art features a decidedly Caucasian Mo, there's a great multiracial storyline in here that decidedly increases the appeal to children of color. Mercedes is biracial, but she's never known anything about her father except that he is white. Without giving away any plot spoilers, suffice to say that this becomes a major subplot of the book, and one that is handled brilliantly by Springstubb. Though the resolution comes a little too neatly, this is a minor point in an otherwise engaging and realistic story thread.

Overall, a great read and one that will appeal to kids and adults alike. Can't wait for the next adventure of the family in Mo Wren, Lost and Found.

What Happened on Fox Street by Tricia Springstubb, published by Balzer + Bray
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Climbing down the hill, she took her time, making as little noise as she could, her eyes peeled. Fox Street had gotten its name for a reason, and sometimes, especially toward dusck, the air took on a mysterious, deep red texture. At those moments, Mo felt a beautiful pair of amber-colored eyes watching her. She'd sense a rust-colored tail, tip dipped in cream, disappearing just behind her. But no matter how quickly she turned, Mo never saw anything."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Picture Book Review - I'm Adopted! by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly

It's a fact well known that babies and toddlers love to look at pictures of other little ones. I've read a number of theories about why this is, but I suspect it might just add up to the fact that babies of all races are stinkin' cute, and they captivate kids as much as they do (most) adults. Many books and movies have taken advantage of that to great effect. The recent film Babies is a prime example -- with no dialogue and very little footage of other family members, this movie manages to catch and hold your interest throughout. As we see the babies growing and changing, we notice a lot about culture and social norms, but we also notice just how adorable these kiddos are, every last one uniquely individual.

We watched Babies as a family not long after Sprout came into our family, and like us he was taken with it,. His most-requested book during that period was Global Babies, a vibrant pictorial board book that represents little ones from around the globe. I recommend this book highly to all adoptive parents, particularly those who are bringing home babies and toddlers -- it's a great way to express to a small child, especially one with whom you might not have a shared language, that people come in a rainbow of colors and that though they may look different, the kids your new son or daughter will play with are babies just like them. Sound like too much to read into a simple board book? Well maybe, but it's what I hope for, anyway.

Fast forward to now, when reading books together is a treasured part of our daily routine. Now, interspersed with books like Snow Day and What's Up, Duck are titles that share with Sprout the journey of our becoming a family through adoption. Though he's heard the word "adoption" since day one, and though we've told him his story many times already, we recognize that this isn't a concept he can yet grasp -- but still, we feel it's essential to introduce it now.

Having read and loved some of Shelley Rotner's earlier books (click here to read my review of Shades of People), I was thrilled to see her listed as one of the authors of I'm Adopted!. Rotner and frequent collaborator Sheila M. Kelly bring readers a sensitive yet factual look at adoption that's geared for the youngest readers. No easy feat, this, and yet Rotner and Kelly pull it off enormously well. First because of the format of their book -- those aforementioned pictures of babies, toddlers and kids of all races. Gorgeous shots abound, from the copper-skinned beauty on the cover to the adorable Asian, African American, Caucasian, Latino/a, and multiracial darlings inside. Serious cuteness here!

Then there's the text. You wouldn't think that adoption would be a topic you could boil down succintly and yet thoroughly, but Rotner and Kelly have nailed it. Their explanations are clear without being drawn out, and encompass all perspectives. I've seen great picture books that take the adoptive family's point of view, and equally well-done titles from the adoptee's angle. But this is the first picture book I've run across that addresses the birth mother's side of things, and discusses reasons that children may not have been able to stay with their family of origin. This is handled frankly but sensitively, and presents a great opportunity to open discussion about your particular situation.

International and domestic adoption are both mentioned as well, leading into a discussion about transracial families. "I don't look like my sister, but we like to do the same things" reads one bit of dialogue, and really, how much better could one sum up the essence of multiracial families? In a brief afterword, the authors address the fact that not all adoption situations can be adequately discussed in such a format; this sensitive recognition of the uniqueness of every adoptive family is reflected throughout the book, as the authors honor every child they depict.

I truly believe this title belongs on the shelf of every adoptive family and should be part of every school or library's collection. Bravo, Shelley Rotner and Sheila Kelly -- you've given us an adoption classic for the ages!

I'm Adopted! by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, published by Holiday House
All ages
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Children are happy in their families, no matter where they were born. . . when they know they are cared for and loved."
Highly recommended

Monday, November 14, 2011

Audio Review - Schooled by Gordon Korman

I'm a sucker for the fish-out-of-water novel, mostly because I think there's not a kid or adult alive who hasn't felt that way. Especially in middle school, when it's kind of a revolving door of outside-inside, where every day brings a fresh new opportunity to end up labeled a complete loser. And in Schooled, Gordon Korman gives us a doozy of kid out of his depth, in the character of Cap Anderson.

Cap -- as in short for Capricorn -- does that give you a clue why this boy might be a bit of an outsider? Cap's grown up on Garland Farm, a commune run by his grandmother Rain, and it's the only world he's ever known. Garland's kind of small -- in fact, Cap and Rain are the only members left -- and so when Rain has an accident and has to go into the hospital for a while, there's no one for Cap to turn to. Suddenly Cap finds himself living with a social worker and her snarky daughter, and enrolled at Claverage Middle School, better known as C Average by the student body. Can life get any weirder? As it turns out, it can, when Cap's elected 8th grade president, has to plan the Halloween dance, and starts teaching a high schooler to drive. Oh, and becomes the greatest philanthropist in the history of middle school.

Just when you think you've figured out where Korman's going with this one, he throws another twist in the mix. And while the cast of characters is huge, the audio sorts this out nicely by having a different actor voice each part. (Even so, I'll admit I occasionally got lost and forgot who was who.) Cap is a wholly original character, a blend of modern kid with a whole lot of sixties hippie thrown in for good measure. The way he approaches life is unique, but believable in the context of a boy who has grown up only knowing one other person, his grandmother. And the lessons Cap teaches his fellow middle schoolers follow right along with his worldview, that of a boy who's never seen television and honestly thinks he needs to learn every students name.

Schooled moves along at a rapid clip, with plenty of hilarity along the way, but manages to wrap in some important lessons too -- about being true to yourself, sure, but also about being true to others, and being the kind of friend we all really need.

Schooled by Gordon Korman, published by Hyperion Books
Ages 10-13
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Something tingled directly beneath the peace sign I wore around my neck. I was developing a sixth sense for when trouble was coming my way. But what good was advance warning? Advance warning of what? I wasn't going to understand it anyway."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book Review - Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same! by Grace Lin

On my weekly trips to the library with Sprout, one of the first sections we hit is the easy reader shelves. These books -- a step above picture books, a step below full-on chapter books -- are great for reading readiness. Many of them are broken up into small chapters, short stories really; Frog and Toad is a good example. The vocabulary used is generally pretty basic, particularly for the first readers, and when I read them with Sprout I make sure to run my finger along the text to help connect the dots between printed and spoken words. He loves the character titles, and we usually bring home at least one or two of the Thomas books (here's the current favorite, which I suspect I'm going to have to break down and buy because he loves it SO MUCH).

But, the thing about easy readers is that it can be tough to find multicultural titles. This is definitely a segment of kidlit that is screaming for diversity -- for every Little Bill title there's a dozen Barbies or Caillous. Authors take note: let's have some culture here please!

Enter Grace Lin. I've been a huge fan of Lin ever since I read her semi-autobiographical novel The Year of the Dog for my kidlit class last year. She's got a great sense of humor, which comes through in her characters, whose escapades echo Ramona Quimby in all the best ways. She writes fantastic girls -- curious, mischievous, smart and inventive girls whose world a reader will recognize as much like their own. And best of all, her characters are usually Chinese, like Lin herself, but her plots aren't always about race. Refreshingly relatable and always fun!

Ling and Ting is no exception. The title characters are twins, but no one can tell them apart. Until they get haircuts, that is -- then there is one big difference. And when you get to know the girls through the pages of this book, you'll see that though they are similar, they are NOT just alike. Which is fine with these sisters, who really like being their own unique people! Kids will love Ling and Ting for lots of reasons, not least because of their spunky personalities. Lin mixes in lovely notes of Chinese-ness -- the girls make their own (scrumptious-looking) dumplings, and talk about the relative ease of using chopsticks -- along with library books and magic tricks. Really, there's something here for everyone! And beginning readers especially will be proud of themselves for reading through this "chapter book" all on their own.

Ling and Ting may not be exactly the same in every way, but they are both completely adorable. Don't wait until your little one is learning to read before you check out these hilarious twins. Ling and Ting is destined to be an easy reader classic! 

Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same! by Grace Lin, published by Little, Brown and Company
Ages 5-8 (or younger, if you read together)
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Ling and Ting are twins. They have the same brown eyes. They have the same pink cheeks. They have the same happy smiles. People see them and they say, 'You two are exactly the same!' "

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Picture Book Month!

November is National Picture Book Month -- what fun!

I LOVE picture books and I will confess that having an excuse to read them has been my motivation for many major life decisions, including a career as a bookseller, studying to be a librarian and even having a kid. OK, maybe not that last one exactly, but getting to read picture books to Sprout every night is in fact one of the very best things about parenthood. No question.

A while back there was a big fuss made over "the death of the picture book". Parents are no longer reading them to their children, at least according to one article. Huh? Maybe that's true for some parents, but not in our house or with any of the families we know. In fact, we're on the constant hunt for picture book titles, and every one we love sparks the desire for more, more, more! Picture books have a whole lot to offer for everyone involved, from developmental benefits to social factors to positive bonding. The act of sharing pictures and stories together not only boosts literacy skills but also makes a strong association that reading is a pleasure activity. Isn't that what we all want for our kids, anyway?

In support of picture books, several authors and illustrators have banded together to promote Picture Book Month. Each day features a new blog post demonstrating why and how picture books are important, not just to individual kids and their adults, but also to our society as a whole. Reading through some of these entries confirms for me that the picture book is very far from dead. Many of the books we all loved from childhood are picture books, and as School Library Journal points out, by keeping the focus on good stories, the picture book can have a long and happy life.

Picture books make us better people, I think. They teach us about the world, our surroundings and those of people much like us and much different as well. If you're looking for some great picture books to share with the kids in your life, or if, like many of us, you're still a sucker for them yourself, start with some of the authors participating in National Picture Book Month. Check out best-of lists and read a blog that celebrates the artform.

Picture books are the gift that keeps on giving, so let's give a little love right back to them!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Crazy Fun Read-Alouds

A big part of making sure that you and your kids connect during read-aloud time is choosing books with a wide appeal. This isn't to say that every book will be everyone's favorite -- trust me, I've suffered through enough Thomas titles already to know that isn't the case -- but there should be something in each stack that's just downright fun for everybody. Pulling together a good mix of book titles is the best way to make this happen. It's kind of like a good movie -- high points, low points, dramatic tension, a little humor, and a satisfying resolution.

For us the highlight of the nightly read-aloud is what we call the "shout-it-out" title. These are the ones where Sprout's two-year-old sensibilities burst out, as he yells out lines, jumps up and down (or splashes, if he's in the bath) and makes goofy animal noises. This is usually the first or second title of the night, because as we progress I try to gradually gear down with gentler storylines and "sleepy" titles. So he's all revved up and ready to roll, and these books take full advantage of all that energy.

Sprout's current favorite along this line is Bark, George by Jules Feiffer. This is one of those books that I've loved forever and always wanted to share with my own little one. And it's perfect for toddlers, where obvious jokes play right into their burgeoning senses of humor. The plot's pretty simple: George's mama wants him to bark, but he makes nothing but other animal sounds instead. So naturally Mama takes George to the vet, whereupon we discover that -- well, I won't spoil it for you, but suffice to say it's a pretty unlikely condition that's plaguing this sweet little puppy. Thankfully the vet fixes George's problem. . . or does he? Trust me when I say that this is one you won't mind reading a lot, which is a good thing because boy will it tickle that little one's funny bone!

Another great one for boys and girls is The Little, Little Girl with the Big, Big Voice by Kristen Balouch. Lots to love here -- insanely colorful (and playful) illustrations, plenty of exotic animals (an orange snake! Sprout adores it), and best of all for us a little girl with brown skin! Again, a simple plot carries the day: one little girl has an awfully huge voice, which scares away every critter she wants to play with. All except one, that is, and he is the perfect match for this sweet but noisy darling. Kids will love shouting along -- we read it "there was a little, little girl with a BIG, BIG VOICE" -- and they'll be just as surprised by the ending as our heroine is. Perfect!

Just about every time we go to the library we look to see if this next title is in stock. Judging by the fact that it never is, I think the secret's out. But if you don't know it yet, Jump! by Scott M. Fischer is a sure-fire favorite in the making. Can't say enough about the power of rhyme in a successful read-aloud -- a couple times through and your little one will be finishing the sentences with you. The sing-song rhythm is infectious, and the surprise of each snoozing animal, resting quietly until someone else comes along, will spread to readers in equal measure. Fischer knows how to draw animals that kids will like, straddling the line between authenticity and cartoon goofiness. Don't even try to keep quiet with this one, because the punch line -- "JUMP!" --  is best when you shout it loud and long!

Got a favorite shout-it-out title of your own? Pass it on and keep the read-aloud joy alive!