Sunday, January 28, 2007

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

I still don't know what I think about this book. I think I should like it, because it just won the Printz award for Young Adult Literature, but I don't really quite get it. The metaphor of the transformer and all of the transformations seems a bit too complicated for me. What I really need to do is to read it again. I read it rather quickly during an SSR time while I was subbing, so I was a bit more distracted than I would have been, had I read it at home. I do like most of the art work, though. I am still not sure what I think about graphic novels. I really like character development more than they allow, but this novel has more character development than I would have expected. Must re-read.

Replay by Sharon Creech

I wouldn't say this is Sharon Creech's best book ever, but it was enjoyable. I especially like dreamer Leo, who sometimes feels he disappears in his big active family. And I like how the kids in the play are thinking about what people were like when they were younger. It is interesting to see what goes through their minds as they watch the children and adults around them through the lens of "How have they changed from when they were younger?".

Something's Fishy, Hazel Green by Odo Hirsch

This book is for a slightly younger set than what I usually read - the blurb on Amazon says 3rd through 5th grade, which I would judge to be about right. The plot revolves around the mystery of some stolen lobsters, but the thing that is most interesting about the book is the way the main character, Hazel Green, interacts with the people in her neighborhood and school. Hazel seems to know all of the shop keepers and visits them regularly. She also has some interesting child friends - a mostly faithful follower and a mathematician kid. And Hazel herself is quite an interesting character. I love the way she muses about people and things that happen around her - I guess it is because I am rather that way, too - with my mind going off on rather chaotic tangents at times. All in all, a rather enjoyable read.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Shug by Jenny Han

The first thing I want to write is that Shug is pronounced like sugar and not like Thug or Rug. That makes the title of this book a little more bearable. I am still not overly fond of it (the title), but I did enjoy the book. The author really gets down well what it is like to be 12 years old in our current culture. I enjoyed this book - read it in one day. It is targeted for a slightly younger group than YA novels are usually set for - the early adolescent, not the later one - and it plays that role well. The only complaint that I would have is that Annemarie (Shug) is a bit more self-aware than most kids her age, but that is probably necessary in order to get all of the rest out in the open.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Kalpana's Dream by Judith Clarke

I like several things about this book. I like the English essay assignment and the glimpses at how several students dealt with it ("Who Am I?"). I like the intergenerational conflict - the great grandmother who speaks only Hindi and the great granddaughter who speaks only English. There is really only one aspect of the book that just doesn't work for me and that is the Dracula / Bride of Dracula sub-theme. I got really tired of the descriptions of the English teacher as being very pale and getting paler. And her male friend with his Count Dracula allusions. It seems like all of that is just a hook to get kids to tolerate the real story. I would like to have had more of the part of the story about the Nirolimi, the great granddaughter, and the great grandmother.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples

This book is about the war in Afghanistan. Although written for children, it doesn't spare much of the violence and pain of war. It is toned down a bit, but is still devastating. Najmah's brother and father are taken from their poor mountain home by the Taliban and Najmah and her mother are left alone, as the rest of the village flees to neighboring Pakistan. Najmah's mother is expecting a baby any day and cannot travel. The baby is born, but soon the war returns to their village, and it is bombed. Najmah's mother and infant brother are killed. Najmah is taken in by a villager's relative who is on his way to Pakistan with his family. Najmah's hair is cut and she is dressed like a boy for safety. After a dangerous and exhausting trip, they finally make it to one refugee center, but Najmah escapes to a second, the most likely place for her father and brother to find her. There she is taken in by an American woman who keeps a small school for the refugees while her Afghani husband works as a doctor in field hospitals. Eventually the American woman finds that her husband has most likely been killed and Nur, Najmah's brother shows up to tell her that their father was also killed.

We always hear of American casualties in these wars, but this book brings home the casualties of the common people in those countries.

This book isn't quite as good as Shabanu, but it is certainly close.

P.S. Later. There is one minor detail that keeps nagging at me. The way the American woman finds out that her husband has probably been killed is that there are several people who talk about a field hospital having been bombed and an American doctor having been killed. The problem is that, although he was trained in the U.S., her husband is/was Afghani. It seems strange to me that people would refer to him as an American doctor. I would think that they would think of him as an Afghani, not as an American.

Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan

This book reads like a memoir or a biography rather than a work of fiction. It seems so real, you can almost feel that it really happened. Rachel is growing up in Africa in a remote area where her father, a doctor, and her mother, a teacher, work together to provide education and health care to the Kikuye and Maasai people who live in the rural area. But, this is shortly after World War I and even remote African villages are not far enough away to escape the influenza epidemic. Rachel's parent both die, as does a neighboring white child who just happens to have had red hair, just like Rachel. The neighbor's parents, self-centered and typical colonial overlords, decide to take in Rachel and to pretend that she is their daughter. They tell everyone that it is Rachel who died and not Valerie. Then they send Rachel in Valerie's place to visit her rich grandfather in England - to beg for more money and favors. They tell Rachel that she will be saving the old man's life, since he dotes on his granddaughter. Rachel agrees to the scheme, because, having just lost both her parents, she is powerless to figure out how to resist and she is taken in by their claim that she will let an old man die in peace when he sees his granddaughter.

But, when she arrives in England, determined to tell everyone the truth, she does find the old man virtually at death's door. So she plays along, discovering mutual interests and loves in the process - the birds, the estate, the people who are tenants on the estate. Though he doesn't tell her, the grandfather eventually figures out the truth. The story comes to a head, when the parents return to England, supposedly to visit their daughter. The grandfather throws them out, since they have a past history of drinking, gambling, and abuse of the family. They insist on taking their "daughter" with them, but she manages to escape and make her way to the grandfather's lawyer. She confesses and expects to be thrown out, but instead, she is returned to the grandfather, whom she genuinely adores.

She is sent to school. Eventually, the old man does die, leaving his estate to the Bird Society. Rachel is also left with sufficient income so that she can attend medical school, which she is determined to do, so that she can return to Africa and rebuild the hospital her parents worked so hard to establish.

This is a good story - a bit too good in some minor aspects - how lucky it is that her benefactor is so rich. But it examines the tension between honesty and kindness and the difficulty of doing the right thing at times - or even knowing exactly what the right thing is. Eventually Rachel seems to figure her way out and it is an uplifting ending.

All in all, a quite satisfying book.

Anastasia Has the Answers by Lois Lowry

All of the Anastasia books are relatively light weight, but there are certainly times when this is exactly what is wanted. In this book, Anastasia learns to persist towards a goal - climbing a rope in gym class. Like all of these books, this one harkens back to a time when 8th graders were much more innocent and unsophisticated - although I seem to remember that, even in the 80s, when they were first written, Anastasia seemed too naive and too uncomplicated for an 8th grader. At any rate, I enjoy these books. They are good hearted, relatively innocent and don't threaten me with dire worries.

The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck

When I am subbing and the teacher has a silent reading time scheduled, I like to read, too, as a model for the students. The other day, I read Pearl Buck's The Big Wave. It is a very short book - almost an extended short story, but it is also quite lovely. It deals with the lives of two boys, one the son of a farmer, the other the son of a fisherman. The fisherman's son escapes the tidal wave that claims the lives of his family, as well as many of the other fishermen and their families. Their homes and their boats are all lost. The fisherman's son goes to live with the farmer's son. In simple, clear language, the children and their families learn to live and deal with nature's forces and the inevitability of death.