Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Giver by Lois Lowry

There is lots of hype around about The Giver now that it is being made into a movie.  But that is not why I decided to revisit and reread this classic novel about a utopian society by Lois Lowry.  No, indeed!  I reread it because tonight is World Book Night 2014 and tonight I am a Giver - a book giver, that is.  In fact, tonight, all over the world, thousands of people will become givers just like me and will be handing out free books people who can and who want to read them.  This is a very different world than the one in Lowry's book, where only The Giver may read books, or possess memory, or see color, or have feelings.

The climate controlled society that 11 year-old Jonas lives in had chosen to live in a state of sameness long ago.  Now, all pain and suffering, all feeling has be eliminated.  There may be no more wars, but neither is there any of the good things about life - loving families, emotions, memories, the warmth of the summer sun, the cold of the first snowfall.   The world is colored in varying shades of gray and black, and a stilted politeness rules the day.  All children have the same December birthday, no matter when they are born, and on that day, each year, they go to the Ceremony where they are promoted to the next year.  For Jonas, this year is his Ceremony of Twelve where he will be assigned his life's career.

Jonas is the last to called because his life assignment is very different from the others.  Jonas is to be the new Receiver of Memory.  After his training, Jonas will replace the old Receiver of Memory, now called the Giver [of Memory].  Not only does the Receiver hold the collective memory of the whole community, he may also read all the books that no one else can see, and he must use his wisdom to advise the Committee of Elders when they require it.

Everyday after school, Jonas goes to see the Giver and receives more and more memories each day.  Soon, he knows things like pain of sunburn, the joy of sleigh riding, and, because the memories are becoming more and more painful for the Giver, Jonas learns about things like pain, starvation, war.  Once the Giver transfers memory to Jonas, they are lost to him, so his pain is relieved even as Jonas's increases.

At the same time that this is happening, Jonas' father begins brings home a newchild at the end of his workday to try and help it learn to sleep through the night.  He is given a year to do this or the child will be released.  No one really knows what being released means, but they all believe it means going to a wonderful place.  Jonas volunteers to have the baby, called Gabriel, sleep in his room and when the baby fusses, Jonas soothes it with some of the pleasant memories he has been given.

The more utopian a society seems to be, the more dystopian it really is.  Sure enough, the more memories Jonas acquires, the more unfair he sees the kind of life the community has chosen.  When he expresses his feelings to the Giver, he discovers that the Giver feels the same way.  He also tells Jonas that ff the Receiver of Memory leaves the community, he tells Jonas, the memories will all revert back to the community.  Little by little, a plan is hatched, but things suddenly change when Jonas witnesses his father releasing a new born twin baby, because twins are not allowed in the community) and learns that Gabriel, the baby he has become attached to, will also be released.

Jonas must make a big decision now.

The Giver is such a thought provoking novel about this community living in a state of sameness.  At first, life feels pleasant and serene, everything is orderly, done on schedule, and there are no sudden ups and downs, no disappointments, no pain.  It does feel utopian.  And, it takes a while before you realize that you don't know last names, nor place names - that would point to too much individuality, not enough sameness.  And it begins to not feel so wonderful anymore.  Jonas learns about life, about pleasure and pain through memory, and because he is an intelligent, thoughtful boy, he quickly sees that the community has been cheated out of these things.

When I read The Giver to my 4th grade class in the Bronx, they were stunned by the sameness of the community and it sparked lots of interesting dialogue in the classroom.  I also detected that there was some palpable rooting for Jonas as we read until we finished the book and  even heard some kids taking about it and Jonas in the schoolyard, which didn't even happen when we read Harry Potter.

The Giver, which won the Newbery in 1994, is also a favorite Banned Book each year somewhere in the country, which in a country that values freedom of speech, seems to be the height of irony.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was purchased for my personal library

By the way, I am pleased to say that I will be giving out Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.  CNV is one of my favorite WWII novels, and also happens to be my favorite friendship story.

The Giver is book 1 of my 2014 Newbery Reading Challenge hosted by Smiling Shelves

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black and White Jazz Band in History by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson traces the very different backgrounds of two very talented musicians who eventually met and formed the first interracial trio to play in public.

In the 1920s, Jazz was the music of the moment.  Benny Goodman, the son of Jewish immigrants and living in Chicago, learned to play the clarinet when he and his brothers were signed up for free lessons at their synagogue and playing in its marching band, but he much preferred the exciting sounds of Jazz.

Teddy Wilson, the son of music educators living in Tuskegee, Alabama, learned to play the piano, the oboe, the violin and the piano as a child, dutifully practicing classical music, but he, too, preferred the cool Jazz sounds of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Earl Hines.

As men, both continued to play in different venues around the country, earning the admiration and respect of their fellow Jazz musicians.  But the stage was a segregated world, and it was only in jam sessions offstage that musicians from different races could play together.  Then one day, in Forest Hills, Queens, NY, their two men met and it was kismet - two different men who thought the same way musically.

Along with Gene Krupa, the Benny Goodman Trio was formed and beautiful music was made. There was just one problem - Goodman was reluctant to play onstage with a black musician.  But finally he said yes, and not just music, but history was made.  And people loved their sound!  Lionel Hampton later joined them and the trio became a quartet.

Can you tell I love this book?  Well, I love music, especially Jazz and Swing.  And the husband and wife duo of author Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrator James Ransome has done a suburb job of making the story of these two great musicians accessible to young readers.  The snappy language used to tell the story along with illustrations in cool blues and hot yellows make reading Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson feel like you are listening to a good Jazz performance.

There is plenty of back matter giving more information on Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson, a Jazz timeline focused on these two men, and a who's who in Jazz, including all the musicians mentioned in the book.  This is such an excellent addition to the growing body of Picture Books for Older Readers that are ideal for introducing young readers to new people and events.

I've often wished that there were books like this around when my Kiddo was young.  Every time I tried to introduce her to things like Jazz, Swing, Classical, even Classic Rock, I met resistance.  But as she grew older, she began to embrace these different musical genres and significantly expanded her musical appreciation and seriously wanted to know why didn't I ever tell her about this great music?
This book is for readers aged 7+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Here is the original Benny Goodman Quartet performing one of their biggest hits Sing, Sing, Sing in 1973.

This is book 3 of my 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Reading Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Children's Book-A-Day Almanac by Anita Silvey

The other day I bought something I have wanted for a while now - I purchased my very own copy of Anita Silvey's Children's Book-A-Day Almanac.  Oh sure, I know I could go to her website and read the book of the day there, but I kind of wanted to have the print version for those times that I want to look up something quickly, or for a little relaxing bedtime reading.

Silvey spotlights the best in children's literature one day at a time.  So, for instance, today, April 17th, the spotlight is shining on Because of Wiinn-Dixie, Kate DiCamillo's 2001 Newbery Honor book.  After a brief synopsis of the story, Silvey gives some background information about the author and the book.

This is the kind of book you will thumb through again and again, stopping to read the book of the day as they catch your fancy.  But, Silvey provides not just information about one book.  Since it is the job of a good almanac to provide information in conjunction with each calendar day, Silvey does just that.  She includes birthdays of authors living and deceased, book events of the past, and even book suggestions if the date has special significance.  For example, today is Bat Appreciation Day and the book she suggests we read is Bats at the Ballgame by Brian Lies.

There is two advantages the website has that the book doesn't - excerpts and links.  For today, April 17th, there is a link to DiCamillo's manuscript process for Because of Winn-Dixie, followed by an excerpt, and instructional material for teaching it.

So, if you can get all that and more, why buy the book?  Imagine it in your classroom, whether that is in a school or a home school, and your young readers using it as a reference book; or in your home, and your reader is looking for something to read but doesn't seem to be able to find a book that appeals to them, so the two of you sit down at the kitchen table (because it seems all important things happen at the kitchen table) and go through the Children's Book-A-Day looking for just the right book.  These are some of the real life scenarios that have happened in my house since I bought the book and they could happen at your home.

I have a shelf where I keep my go-to books on children's literature.  One that I use again and again is Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book by Leonard Marcus, another is Storied City: A Children's Book Walking-Tour Guide of New York City also by Leonard Marcus, and also 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before Your Grow Up by Judy Eccleshare and Quentin Blake, now I can add the Children's Book-A-Day Almanac.

If you are not familiar with Anita Silvey's work, be sure to visit her online version of the Children's Book A Day Almanac.  There are wonders to discover there.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth

Whenever a new book about bears is published, especially those that are about pandas or polar bears, my friends all send me messages about it.  They all know I tend to gush over bears and if I had a bucket list, playing with a panda would definitely be one it.

So, naturally, when Hi, Koo! came out, I had a flutter of email and Facebook activity.  But I was one step ahead of everyone on this one and already had a copy.  Hi, Koo! is a wonderful, gentle poetic journey through the four seasons in the company Koo.  Well versed in haiku, Koo is the enchantingly delightful nephew of Stillwater, a giant but gentle, Zen wise Panda first introduced to young readers in Zen Shorts (Scholastic, 2005).  We met Koo in 2008 when he visited he uncle in Zen Ties.

In Hi, Koo!, Jon Muth first explains the Japanese haiku and why the line pattern of five, seven, five sound parts won't work in English.  He then tells us that for him, a haiku is an "instant captured in words...using sensory images" that capture an emotion.

And so, with Koo's help, Muth takes us through the four season in twenty six different haiku's, and thrown in for good measure is the alphabet, each letter disguised within the haiku in its capital form.

There are 6 haiku dedicated to Fall, seven to Winter, six to Spring and seven to Summer.  Each one with its own beautiful watercolor and ink illustration featuring Koo, and sometimes a little black kitten friend.

I love the idea of introducing young readers to the beauty and expressiveness of poetry and this book goes far in achieving that goal.  Muth has captured some emotional instants we have all felt at one time or another.

But, wait, see for yourself.  Allow me to share one of my favorites from each season (but the are all good):

If your young readers are already familiar with Koo, they will certainly enjoy Hi, Koo! and if they haven't met this roly-poly panda yet, they are in for a real treat.  This is a book they will want to return to again and again, especially as the seasons change.  And what a wonderful read aloud book for quiet moments like bedtime.

This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick

Zane Dupree, a 12 year old biracial boy (father is black, mom is white), is happy living in New Hampshire with his mom and his little dog Bandy.  Zane's dad was killed in a car accident before he was born, so Zane really didn't him and it seems that all this dad's relatives were gone as well.  But then, his mom discovers that Zane has a great grandmother living in New Orleans, who didn't know he existed either.  Not only that, but she had raised his dad, James, like he was her own child...that is, until he ran away.

Now, it's the end of summer 2005, and Zane and Bandy are spending the last week of vacation before school begins visiting his great grandmother Beatrice Jackson, called Miss Trissy by everyone who knows her.  Bothered by the heat and humidity, Zane is, nevertheless, anxious to hear what Miss Trissy has to tell him about his dad.  But when he asks, she always puts off answering.  Before he has a chance to learn anything, warnings about a big hurricane named Katrina are issued for New Orleans and Zane's mom books him and his great grandmother on a flight to New Hampshire.

But when the flight is cancelled, and a mandatory evacuation is ordered for all of New Orleans, Zane, Miss Trissy and Bandy get a ride out in the church.  Traffic is at a stand still, and then, Bandy suddenly jumps out the open van window, running down the highway.  Zane jumps out to get him, but before he knows it, Bandy has brought him back to Miss Trissy's house.  And now, it is too late to go back to the van.

Stranded, alone and scared, the two weather out the hurricane in the house, but the next day, despite the sun shining, the levees break, putting most of New Orleans under water, including Miss Trissy's house, the water coming almost as high as the attic.  Luckily, Bandy's barking attracts a young girl and an older man in a canoe, and soon, Zane and Bandy are paddling away with new friends, Trudell Manning, called Mr. Tru, a New Orleans musician and his ward Malvina, a girl around Zane's age.

Thinking they will soon be safe and sound in a shelter somewhere, the three discover that the horror that is Hurricane Katrina isn't quite over for them.  Thinking they have found a quiet resprite at a school where people have gathered, they come face to face with the drug dealer who had supplied Malvina's mom with drugs before she entered rehab.  Now he wants to take Malvina with him, insurance that her mother won't tell the authorities the names of everyone involved in his drug dealing.

In their escape, Mr. Tru hurts his foot and they decide to head to the safety of the Superdome, where so many others who couldn't get out of New Orleans have gathered.  But when they finally get there, they find there is no one to help them or tend to Mr. Tru's now infected foot.

Caught up in all the chaos the followed Hurricane Katrina, will Zane ever get out of the hurricane nightmare he has found himself in and will he ever find out why his dad ran away?

My heart broke when Hurricane Katrina put New Orleans under water in 2005.  It was always a favorite city of mine, and I wondered if it would ever come back.  Happily, it has, but it hasn't been easy.  But Hurricane Katrina brought to light a lot of things that people may not have wanted to be aware of before.  And many of those things are present in this very carefully researched novel, narrated by Zane, an outsider who can make observations about what he sees and experiences.  As he and his new friends paddle through New Orleans seeking safety, class and race distinctions, especially who gets out in time and who ends up having to stay in the Superdome or on top of their roofs, are very clear to him as is whose house is on higher ground and whose ends up underwater.

 Philbrick does do a top notch job depicting the chaos, the sense of abandonment the black population in New Orleans felt by authorities who should have been able to help (remember those heartbreaking images on TV at the time), the oppressive heat and humidity, the smells, the snakes and dead bodies in the water as the trio paddle through, and the danger everyone faced, even after losing everything they owned.  However, these depictions are done in such a way that they won't turn off young readers.

And, this is still a coming of age story.  Zane has has much to learn about his personal family history, his cultural heritage and just who he is, even if it takes a hurricane to give him the impetus he needs to do that.   Some of the action may seem a little over the top and the ending might seem a little pat after some of the things the Zane experiences, but I think both are forgivable in this imminently readable, historically accurate novel.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from a friend

Monday, April 7, 2014

It's Monday! What are you reading?

It's Monday! What are you reading? is a weekly meme hosted by Sheila of Book Journey.  Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleasing Readers have adapted it to focus on Picture Books to Young Adult Books.

Last week, I read and reviewed several really good books.

First up is Moon at Nine by Deborah Ellis.  This is historical fiction based on a true story about two 15 year old girls who are attracted to each other.  The problem is that they are living in Iran in 1988, and homosexuality is a crime punishable by death.

Next, I read  The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton.  This is a novel about a girl born with a pair of wings.  She goes on a journey through her family history to try to figure out who she is and where she came from.  While I think this is a beautifully, lyrical book, I think it is for mature teens.

I also read Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai.  This is a nice middle grade novel about two cousins, on an Afghani American, the other newly arrived from Afghanistan who are at first rivals, but then come together with friends to solve the mystery of who is vandalizing Afghani grocery stores in the same strip mall.

And lastly,  I reread Harriet the Spy.  This is her 50th Anniversary and a new edition was issued that includes the thoughts and memories of some of Harriet's more famous readers, like Judy Blume, Lenore Look, Rebecca Stead and Meg Cabot.  Harriet wasn't the nicest of protagonists, but she still has something for kids today to learn.

And right now, I am in the middle of The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson.

These are the books on this week's TBR shelf:

Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick
Threatened by Eliot Schrefer
The Finisher by David Baldacci
Dear Blue Sky by Mary Sullivan

 What are you reading this week?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Saving Kabul Corner by N.H.Senzai

Twelve-year old-Ariana Shinwari can't wait to have her own room in the new house that her parents have just put a deposit on.  But for now, she must share her small bedroom with her grandmother Hava Bibi and her cousin Laila, who has just recently arrived from Afghanistan with her mother.  Laila's father is still in Afghanistan, working as a translator for the Americans army, a dangerous job that makes him a traitor as far as the Taliban is concerned.

Everyone makes such a fuss over Laila and everything she does, much to the annoyance of Ariana.  Not only that, Laila was the perfect Afghani girl - she can cook, sew, recite classical Afghani poetry and speak three languages _ Pukhto, Farsi and English.  The only thing Ariana felt she could do in comparison is speak English.  Ariana's jealousy of her cousin reaches the boiling point when it looks like Laila is trying to take away her best friend, Mariam.

But soon there are even bigger problems than Laila's presence in Ariana's world.  In the same strip mall, Wong Plaza, that the Shinwari's have their Afghani grocery store, providing the income that will pay for the house with Ariana's new private bedroom, another Afgani grocery store is about to open at the other end of the mall - Pamir Market, owned by the Ghilzai family.  And to make things worse still, the Shinwaris and the Ghilzais were part of a feud that began back in Afghanistan, according to Hava Bibi.

Supposedly, that feud had been resolved and left behind in Afghanistan when the families migrated to America, or so everyone thought.  But when a flyer shows up all over the mall claiming that Pamir Market doesn't sell Halal meat, and when Kabul Corner is broken into and all their stock destroyed, everyone thinks the feud has been resurrected and retaliations seem to be getting more and more dangerous.

Yet, even as the rivalry between the two stores heats up and escalates, Ariana and Laila discover that maybe they can be friends after all.  And it a good thing, because they are going to have to work together, along with Mariam and fellow classmate Wali Ghilzai to solve the mystery behind who is now trying to destroy both grocery stores after Ariana makes an interesting discovery.

There is so much going on in Saving Kabul Corner and yet it isn't overwhelming or confusing.  I actually liked how the feud between the Shinwari and Ghilzai families paralleled that of Ariana and Laila, as did that fact that these feuds were resolved amicably.  Young readers will easily see the connection and understand the resolution.  And bringing in Laila and Wali to help them figure out who is trying to reignite the old Afghani feud shows some real growth on Ariana's part in learning to get along.  

Saving Kabul Corner is a well-written novel that gives the reader some nice insight into what life is like for Afghan Americans struggling to make better lives for themselves.  And, through Laila's story, the reader also sees what life is often like now in war torn Afghanistan.  When her father goes missing, just thinking that he might be in the hands of the Taliban makes it clear that for families like the Shinwarls the violence in Afghanistan still impacts their lives.

Author N.H. Senzai includes a nice glossary at the back of the book for terms that may not be familiar to non-Afghani readers, and an Author's Note that should definitely be read. Though some readers may find the ending a little predictable, or a little too pat, but Saving Kabul Corner is still a book not to be missed and a nice chance to learn something about a different culture.  And even though Saving Kabul Corner is a companion book to Shooting Kabul (which is the story of how Ariana's best friend Mariam left Afghanistan), both books also stand alone very nicely.

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