Monday, January 26, 2015

Reviews: Lowriders in Space by Cathry Camper and Half Spoon of Rice by Icy Smith for Multicultural Children's Book Day

Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper, illustrated by Raúl the Third
Chronicle Books, 2014, 112 pages

Three friends, Lupe Impala, a female mechanic extraordinaire, Elirio Malaria, a mosquito detail artist, and El Chavo Blackjack, the best eight armed octopus car washers/polisher for miles around, all work in a garage with a demanding boss, but dream of someday owning their own place.  But that takes lots of dinero (money) and that's something they don't have a much of.

Then the talented trio see a flyer announcing a Universal Car Competition, which means that kinds of Ranflas (lowriders) are eligible to enter.  The winner who has the "most mechanically inventive exquisitely detailed cosmic car" will receive the Golden Steering Wheel Award and a carload of money.  Suddenly the dream of their own garage seems to be a possibility.

All they need is a car and a way to fix it up.  Flappy knows where to find just the junker car they need, but it turns out to need more work than Lupe, Elirio and Flappy expected.  Trying to come up with all kinds of ideas, Elirio tells them they can find spare parts for their car at an abandoned airplane factory.

Finding some rocket parts, they fix up their car and suddenly find themselves taking a ride through space.  Space provides all kinds of cosmic fixes on their car, but they also run into some obstacles.  Will Lupe, Elirio and Flappy make it back to earth in time for their truly cosmic car to enter the competition?

 One of the goals of Multicultural Children's Book Day is to introduce young readers to different cultures and languages.  And, I have to confess, that is just what occurred when I read Lowriders in Space.  While I have seen lowriders, I had not idea there is a whole lowrider culture surrounding these cars, started by Mexican Americans in Southern California.  But Cathy Camper's graphic novel nicely highlights this culture and its Mexican American roots and therein lies the charm of this story.

Added to that, and giving the story a nice sense of authenticity, Camper has peppered Lowriders in Space with lots of automotive slang and Spanish words.  Be sure to look at the back matter, where there is an informative (I can vouch for that) Note About Lowriders, and a Glossary of both Spanish and English words.

The whimsical, highly energetic illustrations by Raúl the Third were done in red, blue and black Sharpie pen on dark buff colored paper that also add to the authenticity of the story.

This is a culturally diverse book that is both fun and informative and is sure to please young readers, especially those who like graphic novels.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Chronicle Books

Half Spoon of Rice: A Survival Story of Cambodian Genocide by Icy Smith, illustrated by Sopaul Nhem
East West Discovery Press, 2010, 42 pages

It's April 17, 1975 and the Cambodian New Year festival is about to start in Phnom Penh when suddenly soldiers wearing black pajama-like uniforms and red and white checkered scarves drive into the city, waving their guns and telling every one they must leave immediately, that the Americans are going to bomb the city.

Nat, 9, and his mom and dad gather a few things together, including a bag of rice and leave Phnom Penh with millions of other scared people.

Walking for days without rest or any real food, Nat, his parents and the other people are driven further and further into the countryside, passing the bodies of those would couldn't keep up and either died or were shot.  But Nat has heard not bombing yet.  This are the Khmer Rouge army, Nat's father tells him.  They probably want us in the country to grown rice, he speculates further, but at least the family is still together.

Finally, the survivors of this march arrive at a village where they are allowed to rest and eat whatever food they may have.  Nat sees a girl watching him.  Her name is Malis and she has lost her family.  Nat's family invites her to stay with them as they continue their walk deeper into the countryside.

When they finally come to another stop, the families are divided - men with men, women with women, boys with boys, girls with girls.  Everyone is put to work for long hours and given very little food, eventually only a half spoon of rice day a day, with the Khmer Rouge army always standing guard with their guns.

Nat begins to notice more and more people "disappearing" if they don't obey the Khmer Rouge guards, but one night hunger and sleeplessness drive him into the forest to look for food, even though it means death if caught.  But instead he meet Malis also looking for food.

Altogether, Nat and Malis spend four years in the camp.  But one day, the Khmer Rouge guards abandon the camp, running from the Vietnamese Liberation Army.   Nat, Malis and all the other survivors leave the camp, and go in search of their families, hoping they are still alive.  But will they be reunited?

In this picture book for older readers, Icy Smith introduces the short but deadly history of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge dictatorship between 1975 and 1979.  The Khmer Rouge was a particularly harsh, brutal regime, and that comes across in Half Spoon of Rice, but without getting into so much detail that a young reader would become frightened.

And having a child narrator, who has little knowledge of the politics behind Khmer Rouge, helps to keep the story age appropriate.  Nat is a good observer, but doesn't always understand what he is seeing or experiencing.  It also means that his narration is simple, clear and easily understood by kids.

Half Spoon of Rice is based on the true stories of survivors of this terrible period in Cambodian history.   In fact, the talented artist Sopaul Nhem, who did the illustrations for this book, is the son of a talented Cambodian artist, Nhean Nhem, who is himself a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime.  Sopaul's realistic watercolors help tell this story that must have a great deal of meaning for him.

Be sure to read the informative Author's Note at the back of the book that is accompanied with photographs of the Khmer Rouge and the kind of camps that Nat was sent to.  Sadly, this is a story that will resonate in today's world.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was sent to me by the author/publisher (Icy Smith/East West Discovery Press)

"Our mission is to not only raise awareness for the kid's books that celebrate diversity,
but to get more of those books into classrooms and libraries"

Today is the 2nd annual Multicultural Children's Book Daya day set aside for celebrating and promoting children's books with diverse content.  This event was co-created by Valarie Budayr from Jump Into a Book/Audrey Press and Mia Wenjen from Pragmatic Mom.  I am very excited to be a participant in today's event.Valarie and Mia had a very specific mission in mind when they came up with the idea for Multicultural Children's Book Day:

Mission: Despite census data that shows 37% of the US population consists of people of color, only 10% of children’s books published have diversity content. Using the Multicultural Children’s Book Day, Mia and Valarie are on a mission to change all of that. Their mission is to not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these types of books into classrooms and libraries. Another goal of this exciting event is create a compilation of books and favorite reads that will provide not only a new reading list for the winter, but also a way to expose brilliant books to families, teachers, and libraries.

MCCBD team hopes to spread the word and raise awareness about the importance of diversity in children's literature.  Our young readers need to see themselves within the pages of a book and experience other cultures, languages, traditions, and religions within the pages of a book.  We encourage readers, parents, teachers, caregivers, and librarians to follow the fun book reviews, author visits, event details all week long.

Interest in this event has grown considerably since the first Multicultural Children's Book Day was held on January 27, 2014 and so has the list of publisher's who are sponsoring this year's event:

Platinum Sponsors: Wisdom Tales Press,Daybreak Press Global Bookshop,

Gold Sponsors:  Satya House,,   Author Stephen Hodges and the Magic Poof,

Silver SponsorsJunior Library Guild,  Capstone PublishingLee and Low Books,  The Omnibus Publishing.

Bronze Sponsors:Double Dutch DollsBliss Group BooksSnuggle with Picture Books Publishing,  Rainbow Books,   Author FeliciaCapers,  Chronicle Books   Muslim Writers Publishing,East West Discovery Press.

And be sure to visit our Author Sponsors to discover their really wonderful diverse books for young readers.

There will be lots of events this week, including giveaways.  In fact, Wisdom Tales is hosting a giveaway in honor of Children's Multicultural Book Week for 6 books of your choice, all beautifully produced and very diverse.

There will also be a Multicultural Children's Book Day Twitter party on January 27th at 9:00 PM EST. You can use the hashtag #ReadYourWorld to win 10 books.

You may also want to subscribe to the new Read Your World/Multicultural Children's Books Resource at

MCCBD is also partnering with First Book to be able to offer a Virtual Book Drive that will help donate multicultural children's books through their channels during the week of this event.  If you want to get diversity books into the hands of kids who most need it, now you have a way to do it!

And a big thank you to the Children's Book Council for collaborating with Multicultural Children's Book Day to highlight wonderful diversity books and authors on an ongoing basis all year.  The CBC's Diversity Initiative is dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children's and young adult literature.

Be sure to check out the Multicultral Books for Kids on Pinterest, where you will find all kinds of good book choices review by many different bloggers.

And finally, be sure to visit Valarie at Jump Into a Book and/or Mia at Pragmatic Mom for a link party featuring all of today's reviews.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Afternoon on a Hill by Edna St. Vincent Millay

This week's poetry party is being hosted by Tara at A Teaching Life.  Thanks for hosting today, Tara.  Be sure to hop on over there to see what other poems are being shared today.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) is one of my favorite poets, but so much of her poetry can be a little too sophisticated for young readers and would-be poets.  Here is one that I found always worked well for introducing Millay's poems to students and would-be poets:  

I will be the gladdest thing
   Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
   And not pick one.

I will look at cliffs and clouds
   With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
   And the grass rise.

And when lights begin to show
   Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
   And then start down!
When I was still a classroom teacher, after a week of working hard, Friday afternoons were always set aside to do relaxing activities (that is, activities things that weren't graded).  It was the perfect time to bring in a little extra poetry and start a discussion.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson

When her mother refuses to drive her over to see about buying some new sled dogs, Victoria Secord, 14, an experienced and competitive dog musher, decides to take her dogs and sled and go by herself.  Jeremy Cook has a winning team, but now he's lost his job and may be getting out of competitive dog sledding.  Vicky thinks she has a good chance of winning the White Wild Classic dog sled race and honoring her dad's memory if she can get some good, strong sled dogs, Vicky figures she can get to Cook's and back before dark, so she packs the minimal amount of what she will need for the trip, hooks up the dogs and leaves.

But Vicky and the dogs now sooner set off, when she notices the sky darkening and that means snow, which happens just as she also realizes she hasn't found the right trail yet.  Then she notices a crashed snowmobile and a boy about her age lying in the snow, bleeding.  His name is Chris, he's from Toronto, and is a smart mouth who knows nothing about serious snow.

Thinking she can get Chris home quickly, Vicky take a trail that she doesn't know.  But, as the two journey on together and the snow turns into a blizzard, they get completely lost.  Vicky's dad had taught her good survival skills and now she must put them all to use.

The two teens end up spending days in the wilderness, facing incredible odds - hunger, wild animals and dangerous landscapes.  Vicky is angry at Chris for snowmobiling without knowing what or where he was going, and she is convinced he's useless, but it turns out he has an unusual skill that proves to be very useful to their plight.

And Vicky's anger goes much deeper than Chris.  She's angry at her dad for dying, especially considering the way he dies, angry at herself for not being there with him, and angry at her mom for not loving dogs, dog sledding and Alaska as much as she and her father.  Vicky needs more than anything to come to terms with all these issues and there is nothing like the challenges of raw nature to get to the bottom of things.

Ice Dogs is a real nail biter of a novel.  Even realizing that Vicky knows how to use the survival skills she has been taught, I still found myself sitting on the edge of my seat.  Vicky makes the reader well aware of the dangers she, Chris and the dogs face - dehydration and hp\ypothermia being the greatest of these, even more than predatory wolves or mean moose, and that it can all happen so quickly.

Terry Lynn Johnson's description of the Alaskan landscape that Vicky and Chris find themselves in was so realist that I could feel the cold, hear the wind, appreciate how quickly night seems to come so far up north. That's good writing! And I found myself envying the bond that Vicky has with her dogs, especially Bean, her favorite.  That's love, no doubt culled from Johnson's own feelings about dogs in general, and her own dogs in particular.

Only two things could have made this an even better books for me.  One would have been a map of the area between Vicky's home and Jermey Cook's place showing where she and Chris traveled.  The other would have been a picture showing the parts of a dog sled and how it works.  Otherwise...

this is an exciting coming of age story that should appeal to most young readers and I can't recommend it enough.  It would pair very nicely with another survival story, Ultra by David Carroll, the 2013 Cybils Middle Grace Fiction winner.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sequoyah and His Talking Leaves: a Play about the Cherokee Syllabary by Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin, illustrated by Siri Weber Feeney

Part picture book, part historical play, Sequoyah and His Talking Leaves tells about how one man devoted his life to developing a system of writing for the otherwise only spoken Cherokee language.   Sequoyah realized quickly how valuable a written language could be for the Cherokee people.  Based on the repetition of sounds, Sequoyah invented a written language based on syllables and called a syllabury.

The play is narrated by two historians and is set in the southern United States sometime between 1809 and 1820.  In the opening scene, Sequoyah, an illiterate metal smith, notices some of his friends looking at an newspaper, which he refers to as a talking leaf because of the writing on it, which his friends refer to as marks and believe were given to the white man by the Great Spirit.

There are two historians who introduce things or provide the reader with some important background information and just generally move the action along.   We don't know a lot a actual facts about what it was like for Sequoya while he worked on his written Cherokee language, but the historians also differentiate fact from inference.

Not all Cherokees thought the invention of a written language was a good idea.  Sequoyah meets with resistance from some Cherokee Conjurers who think he has been possessed by a demon, or shed-leh.  Enemies burned down the hut he worked in, along with all he has accomplished up until then.  Sequoyah, his wife Sally and daughter Ayoka set about trying to reconstruct what they could of his syllabury and eventually had a total of 86 sounds that represented the Cherokee language.  It was long before literacy spread among the Cherokee people, thanks to Sequoyah and his syllabury.

In the end, the historians tells us that Sequoyah wrote a book, took it with him on a trip to Mexico where he died of old age.  They think that perhaps the book was buried with him.  Just imagine what this very intelligent, clever man might have written about his life and his invented written language.

Sequoyah and his Talking Leaves is a play with14 characters and perfect for kids in a grades 3 and 4.  The writing is easy to understand, fact and inference are clearly defined and the back matter has a list of words to know, as well as books, websites for further investigation into the life of Sequoyah in particular and the Cherokee Nation in general.  But keep in mind that this is a short play intended to introduce young readers to Sequoyah and his achievement, and encourage a more in-depth exploration and appreciation of his life and of the Cherokee Nation.  In fact, you might want to read Sequoyah's biography on the website of the Cherokee Nation

I wasn't 100% positive that Sequoyah and his Talking Leaves was a true nonfiction book, but according to the NYPL, it is listed in their catalogue that way.  This play is also part of a series called Setting the Stage for Fluency, designed around Core Learning Standards to help students engage more with the text, both written and illustrated.

This play is recommended for readers age 8+
This play is an EARC received from NetGalley

This is book 2 of my 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Reading Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy

Monday, January 12, 2015

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Sixth grader Grayson Sender has always known he wasn't who he appeared to be, that he was really a girl in a boy's body.  After her parents were killed in a car accident when she was very young, Grayson went to live with her Aunt Sally and Uncle Evan and their two children, Jack and Brett.  When she was younger, she and Jack hung out and goofed around together, but that changed as they grew older.  Now, Grayson has no friends, prefers to eat alone in the library than to eat alone in the cafeteria where she would be open to bullying, and spends a lot of time doodling princesses and pretending to be one in front of her bedroom mirror.

When new student Amelia befriends Grayson, she seems to come out of her shell somewhat, but so does the desire to be the girl that she knows she truly is grow stronger and stronger, itching to come out.  When a favorite Humanities teacher, Mr. Finnegan, holds auditions for the school play, The Myth of Persephone, Grayson tries out for the lead role - Persephone - and to everyone's surprise and over Aunt Sally's strong objections, s/he gets the part.

Grayson's wish to be able to have her mother back helps her identify with Persephone's longing to return to her mother Demeter.  As result, she makes a great Persephone.  During rehearsals, she even begins to make friends among the other cast members.  When the girls sit around braiding each others hair, they braid Grayson's hair as well.  But even as rehearsals go on through the winter, Aunt Sally continues to strongly object.  Grayson is surprised when she rejoins the PTA, but doesn't think much about it.  On the other hand, her uncle is much more supportive, even helping Grayson memorize her lines at night.

When her grandmother dies, some letters are found from her mother that had been put away for Grayson.  Grayson is surprised by the content, and while it only makes her feel closer to her mom and more confident about her true gender identity, they enrage Aunt Sally.

Contending with Aunt Sally and Jack at home, and a few bullies at school, the only time Grayson is truly happy is at rehearsals, where she feels like she has understanding friends, and where she can really be who she is.

As the night of the play approaches, things start to come to a head.  Rehearsals are not going smoothly anymore, Mr. Finnegan is always late for class and rehearsals, and refuses to look at Grayson, and the bullies just can't contain themselves anymore.

In the face of all the contention swirling around her, will Grayson continue to find enough inner strength and external support to remain herself?    

Gracefully Grayson is a story about being brave, and about the process of coming out as a transgender 12 year old.  The story is narrated by Grayson, so that the reader not only experiences her thoughts and emotions, but also how she perceives the people and their reactions to who she is and her playing the female lead in the school play.  Aunt Sally and the school bullies aren't the only ones for whom this becomes a firestorm.

I thought this was a sensitively written, yet eye-opening look at the struggles a transgender preteen must contend with, often without any adult support, but with lots of rejection.  Gracefully Grayson is Ami Polonsky's debut novel and I thought she handled her subject with respect and dignity.  There aren't many middle grade novels out there for young transgender kids to read, so Gracefully Grayson is certainly a needed and welcomed addition.  

As good as I think this book is, it is not without flaws.  Other characters in the book are not as well fleshed out as Grayson.  I don't know if that was to spotlight Grayson, but I would have liked a little more depth to the other characters.  They were more like a Greek chorus than people with thoughts, feelings, and opinions.   I was also sorry to see that Grayson's 'role model' was a princess in a castle.  Princesses are so unrealistic for 12 year old, more the ideal of 5-7 year olds, and living in a castle is just as isolating as the life Grayson already has.  A more concrete role model would have been more palatable.

On the other hand, spotlighting Grayson also captures the loneliness and longing for friendship that she experiences every day in school and at home.  Grayson self-isolates out of fear that she will be found out and to avoid any potentially ugly confrontations.

It is my hope that Gracefully Grayson will be read not only by any preteen struggling with their gender identity, but by their friends, family, and teachers as well.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Friday, January 9, 2015

Poetry Friday: January by John Updike

Poetry Friday is a weekly event.  It is hosted this week by Tabatha Yeatts: The Opposite of Indifference.  Thank you for hosting, Tabatha.

This is the first time I have participated in Poetry Friday and I'm so happy to be here.  The poem I chose to share with everyone today is called January and it's from a book called A Child's Calendar by John Updike and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.  It was originally published in 1965 and later, reissued in 1999 by Holiday House and it was a 2000 Caldecott Honor Book.



The days are short,
The sun a spark
Hung thin between
The dark and dark.

Fat snowy footsteps
Track the floor,
And parkas pile up
Near the door.

The river is
A frozen place
Held still beneath
The trees' black lace.

The sky is low.
The wind is gray.
 The radiator
 Purrs all day.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Jamel Akib

When Muhammad Yunus was a boy growing up in Chittagong, Bangladesh, he witnessed a lot of poverty in this bustling city, on the streets and even at home, where his mother often gave food to hungry people who came to her door.  But Muhammad was lucky, he lived in a two story house and was encouraged to go to school, and even join the Boy Scouts.

While still young, Muhammad began to notice that when people had just a few coins, it could feed a family for a week.  His father had always told him to learn from the world, and so, when he traveled to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, he saw how young college students like him were effectively demonstrating to against the Vietnam war.

While still in the US as a teacher, Muhammad began to organize rallies, too, calling for peace between Bangladesh and Pakistan, where fighting had broken out when British rule ended.  When peace finally came, Muhammad went home.  Now he was the head of the Economics Department at Chittagong University.

By then, Muhammad has accomplished much, but he wasn't done.  He still saw poverty all around him. In 1976, he met a woman named Sufiya Begum.  She and her children were very poor but she had to borrow money at a high interest rate from a moneylender in order to buy bamboo to weave her beautiful baskets.  Paying back the loan left her with not enough money to feed her kids.  It was a terrible cycle of poverty she and so many other women were caught up in.

Muhammad decided something needed to be done, so despite obstacles, he opened a new kind of bank, a microbank, that lent small amounts of money to women at low interest.  The bank was called Grameen Bank, meaning village bank.  What was different was that the borrowers were divided into groups and it was the group that borrowed and the group that made sure everyone in to paid back their individual loan.  What a difference Muhammad's idea made in the lives of so many women and their children.  So much of a difference that Muhammad was given a Noble Prize in 2006 for it.  Not only that, but his banks were by now all over the world, helping other people like Sufiya.

What a wonderful job Paula Yoo has done writing not just the story of one man's life and how he helped change the lives of many other people, but also for bringing economic ideas to a level that young readers can understand without talking down to them.

Twenty-two Cents is a book every teacher or homeschooler will want to use to teach their students something about economics, about life in other countries and about how one person can make a difference.  I thought how inspiring for kids to read about one man, one idea and a whole of lot of change for the better.

The pastel chalk illustrations by Jamel Akib add so much to the story.  Done in a mixed palette of colors they at once reflect the richness of Bangladesh and the harshness of poverty.

Backmatter includes an Afterword, which should not be skipped, and a list of sources Yoo used for writing her excellent book.

Twenty-two Cents is a picture book for older readers you won't want to miss.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Lee & Low

This is book 1 of my 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy