Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Boy Named Queen by Sara Cassidy

A Boy Named Queen is an ideal book for kids just starting middle school, where everything is different, but being different isn't always welcomed.  Free-spirited Queen is unlike anyone Evelyn, 10, has ever known and she is fascinated with him.  Queen and his loving, free spirited family represent everything Evelyn's life is not supposed to be according to her conventional mother. But underneath the ordinary exterior her mother has created for her, Evelyn is a girl with a lively imagination, a girl who just wants to be liberated from the conventions of her life.

Evelyn's mother is a person who loves order and routine (Evelyn not so much).  But when it comes time to buy new school shoes for beginning fifth grade, Evelyn's mother is dismayed to find that their regular shoe store has been sold to a franchise called Budget Shoes.  What it means for Evelyn is that she can get something other than the loafers her mother routinely buys her, something like a pair of blue canvas shoes. So what if they are a little tight, they're different.

On the first day of school, there is a new kid in Evelyn's class, a boy with long hair, wearing jeans with holey, stringy tears and a faded pink t-shirt accented with several bead necklaces.  Introduced as Queen, he is assigned to a seat next the Evelyn. And it doesn't take long for the bullying and the sarcastic, snide comments to begin, especially among the boys in the class.  When Evelyn sees Queen trying to shoot hoops during lunch, she goes over and shows him how to do it right.  It doesn't take long before the two are friends with each other.

At first, Evelyn thinks Queen should give in and become more like everyone else, so the other kids would leave him alone.  But when she says something to him about it, he teaches her how he deals with all the negativity directed his way.  Queen simply creates a colorful force field in him mind, allowing only the good things that come his way into it, while bad things are left outside of it.  To her surprise, Evelyn discovers it really works.

By the time, Evelyn is invited to Queen's birthday party, Queen's influence has been working on her little by little.  And even though her mother insists that they buy a present, even though Queen doesn't want any, and that she dress up, even though that isn't necessary for this party, Evelyn goes along with it, knowing this was going to be a different kind of party.  And it is, one that will change her in wonderful way so that she will never be the same afterward.  

A Boy Named Queen is a short, but powerful book, more novella than novel.  And it should be remembered that this is Evelyn's story, not Queen's.  It is about Evelyn learning to embrace her individuality, her uniqueness, and discovering ways to express it.  Queen can be seen as both a friend and a mentor, and he is a wonderful mentor.  Evelyn already has a vivid inner life, but it takes Queen to show her how to release it and still get along in the world with confidence.  And those too tight new blue canvas shoes are symbolic of the changes Evelyn is about to undergo, breaking with her mother's control on her life, and becoming more of an independent individual.

I think the writing in A Boy Named Queen is just beautiful: fluid, expressive and Sara Cassidy is really spot on in her descriptions. Using few words, she creates a full picture of both characters and settings, not an easy thing to do in a book with only 77 pages.  This is a book I would give to every fifth-grader to read before beginning middle school, but don't get me wrong, it is perfect for any young reader.  I have to be honest and say I wish I had this beautifully written book to give to my Kiddo when she was 10 years old.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Groundwood Books

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is a weekly event hosted by Shannon Messenger at Book Ramblings, and Plenty of Shenanigans

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Colin Bootman

Tiny Stitches is an excellent picture book for older readers about this fascinating life-saving pioneer in heart surgery.

When Vivien Thomas was a young boy, his dream was to enter the medical field.  As a teen, Vivien helped his father, a master carpenter in Nashville, Tennessee, who taught him the value of patient measuring, cutting and fitting together pieces of wood, skills that would definitely be valuable to Vivien later on.

Vivien saved his money for medical school, but by the time he was ready to go, the stock market had crashed and he lost all his savings. Luckily, he was able to get a job as a lab assistant working in Dr. Alfred Blalock's Vanderbilt University laboratory.

Thanks to Dr. Blalock, Vivien learned how to write lab reports and conduct experiments with the same kind of meticulous care he had used while working for his father, so it wasn't long before he was doing his own experiments.  But when he learned that his official job title was janitor because he was African American, he was insulted.  He confronted Dr. Blalock, asking for and receiving the same paid as white technicians.

When Dr. Blalock moved to Johns Hopkins in Maryland, Vivien and his wife and two daughters went with him.  Maryland is a southern state, and Johns Hopkins was more segregated that Vanderbilt was, so Vivien faced a more strident racism than he was used to.

But it was there that Vivien got involved in the research Dr. Helen Taussig's research on "blue babies," patients born with a heart defect that made their skin appear bluish because they did not get enough oxygen and usually died.

Thanks to his patient and meticulous research and experiments, Vivien was able to develop a procedure for delivering blood directly to the lungs to provide oxygen to a baby's body, using the tiny needle Vivien invented to make the tiny stitches needed to suture the arteries involved.

Was Vivien's procedure a success?  Yes, it was, with articles about it in Time and Life magazines, and eventually a Nobel Prize nomination.  Was Vivien given credit along with Dr. Blalock and Dr. Taussig?  No, not until 26 years after the first successful blue baby surgery.

It remained up to the doctors he has subsequently trained in his procedure to do that in 1971, and finally, in 1976, Johns Hopkins awarded Vivien an honorary doctorate and appointed him to the faculty as Instructor of Surgery (with the appropriate salary, hopefully).

I thought that Gwendolyn Hooks presented the obstacles Vivien Thomas faced because of his race with clarity and dignity.  I have to admit I was disappointed that there was no indication (and I'm sure that is because it didn't happen) that the two doctors Vivien had worked so closely with and whose life saving surgery was successful because of his experiments never insisted that he also be given credit.

I found this to be an excellent and inspiring story.  Colin Bootman's soft, realistic watercolor illustrations add depth and respect to a man who had to give up his dream of medical school and deal with the racism he faced at every turn, but who accomplished so much despite the obstacles in his way.

Hooks has included some interesting back matter, namely more about blue babies and Vivien Thomas, a useful glossary, and the source's she used to write this book.

Tiny Stitches is an excellent addition to any STEM library.  It is also the kind of book I never would have read as a young reader simply because it probably wouldn't have existed.  But, thankfully, that's beginning to change now so that more and more we are being introduced to heroes of color that we never would have known about otherwise.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was iBook received from Edelweiss/Above the Treeline and the publisher, Lee & Low Books

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge is a weekly celebration of 
nonfiction books hosted by Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy 

Monday, September 19, 2016

It's Monday! What are you reading?

It's Monday! What are you reading? is the original weekly meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, but is now hosted by Kathryn at Book Date It's Monday! What are you reading? - from Picture Books to YA is a kidlit focused meme just like the original and is hosted weekly by Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers .  The purpose is the same: to recap what you have read and/or reviewed and to plan out your reading and reviews for the upcoming week. Twitter for #IMWAYR

Last week was a really busy week for me and, with the exception of Dear Mr. Henshaw, I didn't get to post as many reviews as I wanted to, but here are the books I did read (reviews to follow shortly):

1- Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

2- Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor's Story by Caren Stelson

3- A Boy Named Queen by Sara Cassidy

4- Aim by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

5- Liberty by Kirby Larson

This week, I would like to catch up on my picture books, my favorite to read after middle grade fiction, and some chapter books.  Among our choices for the week:

1- Mercy Watson to the Rescue by Kate DiCamillo
2- Junie B., First Grader (at last) by Barbara Park
3- The Year of the Book by Andrea Cheng
4- The Kid Who Ran for President by Dan Gutman (timely)

What are you reading this week?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Six-grader Leigh Botts hasn't been a very happy boy since his parents got divorced, and so he has decided to pick up where he left off in his correspondence with author Boyd Henshaw.  Leigh has been sending Mr. Henshaw one or two letters year since first grade, but now his sixth grade teacher has assigned the class an author report to improve their writing skills.

And so, Leigh decides to write to Mr. Henshaw again with a list of questions for his report, including any writing tips since Leigh would also like to be a famous author someday.  Although he gets a reply to his questions, Mr. Henshaw's answers are sometimes funny, other times snarky, but Leigh does think his writing tips are OK.  Oh yes, and Mr. Henshaw sends back a list of questions for Leigh to answer.  He has no intention of doing this until his mother finds the questions and tells him that since Mr. Henshaw answered his questions, Leigh needs to do the same.

As Leigh writes his answers to Mr. Henshaw's questions in a series of letters, it becomes clear that he is not handling his parents divorce well.  He misses his father, who keeps making promises to visit, promises which are broken.  And because of the divorce, Leigh and his mother have moved into a small apartment next to a gas station.  She has had taken two jobs to help make ends meet, but that means that Leigh is often home alone.  And to make matters worse, Leigh is the new kid in his class, so he has no friends yet, except for Mr. Fridley, the school janitor.  One positive aspect to his life is that his mother's second job is with a caterer, so there is often special treats in his lunch bag.  On the negative, someone is stealing these special treats out of his lunch bag almost every day.

Annoyed about this, Leigh decides to build an alarm to try and catch the person stealing his treats. When the alarm works, the kids in his class are totally impressed and Leigh finally makes a friend in school, though he doesn't catch the lunch bag thief.

And when he is encouraged by his teacher to write a story for the Young Writers' Yearbook, he decides to write about riding in his dad's rig, a story that gets him an honorable mention and a chance to meet a famous author.  Things begin to look up for Leigh, though he does learn that some things in his life won't change, but he slowly begins to accept that and more forward.

Dear Mr. Henshaw is an interesting epistolary novel.  Although the reader never gets to read any of Mr. Henshaw's replies to Leigh, what he writes can be surmised from Leigh's references to them. And since the story is told in the first person by Leigh, the reader has only his interpretation of Mr. Henshaw's letters, so the story's perspective is very limited.  Fortunately, for all his complaining, Leigh wants to be a writer, and so the things his writes are very informative as far as what is going on in his life.

I have to admit that at the beginning of the novel, I found Leigh to be a rather cranky, irksome protagonist, but as the novel progressed, and the problems he was trying to cope with became more and more apparent, I found him a much more sympathetic character.  There is a lot on Leigh's plate and Cleary handles it just right given the age of the intended readers.  Although, at times, I found the loneliness Leigh feels at school and at home is so palpable, it was difficult to read about it, even when I wasn't feeling very empathic towards him.

Beverly Cleary has crafted a beautifully plotted story that may feel a little dated (no cell phones, no computers - would his life have been different if these were available?), but the kinds of things Leigh must deal with are still very much relatable in today's world.  It is no surprise she won the Newbery in 1984 for Dear Mr. Henshaw.  

Cleary wrote what sounds like a great coming of age sequel to Dear Mr. Henshaw called Strider, and I am really looking forward to reading it and finding out how Leigh manages.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Back to School Picture Book Round-Up

A new school year is always exciting.  It means new school supplies, a new teacher, maybe some new friends, and some new books along with some old favorites.  Here are some of our favorites that we read to get in a school mood.

I'm New Here written and illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien
Charlesbridge, 2015, 32 pages, age 5+

Starting school can be hard for kids, so imagine starting school in a new country, not knowing the language, or any of the other kids.  Three kids - Maria from Guatemala, Jin from Korea, and Fatimah from Somalia - feel sad, lonely and confused in their new elementary school.  They had felt so confident in their own countries, but here the words fly by, and it's hard to understand what is being said.  Little by little, however, as the language begins to make sense, friends are found and confidence returns.  Luckily, they are in an open-minded, accepting classrooms with an understanding, patient teacher.   And while this is a nice book for kids like Maria, Jin and Fatimah, it is also excellent for helping American kids develop empathy for these new arrivals in a country where the language and culture are so different from their own.  Simple text is complimented with simple, colorful watercolor illustrations.

First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg, illustrated by Judy Love
Charlesbridge, 2000, 32 pages, age 5+

When Mr. Hartwell goes in to wake Sarah Jane Hartwell up for the first day of school, he is met with a lot of resistance.  Sarah just does not want to get up.  If she can stay under the covers, she won't have to start a new school - again.  No one will know her, she won't know anyone, it's just better to stay home. But when Mr. Hartwell finally puts his foot down, Sarah reluctantly gets up and gets dressed.  Mr. Hartwell hands Sarah some toast and her lunchbox, and the two head off to school, where Sarah is enthusiastically welcomed by the principal, Mrs. Burton, who takes her to new classroom.  Yes, we've all felt those first day jitters and even though I figured out the twist before the end of this story, I still thought it was pretty funny, and I can see where kids would love it.  I loved the way the whimsical ink and watercolor illustrations captured all the emotions of that first day, including the chaos in the hallways of the school.  What I also like is that this book is available in Spanish: ¡QuĂ© nervios! El primer dia de escuela

Spoiler Alert: What was the giveaway?  Sarah wears a slip, but kids don't anymore.  I haven't worn one since I was a classroom teacher.

The Class by Boni Ashburn, illustrated by Kimberly Gee
Beach Lane Books, 2016, 40 pages, age 4+

Written in a light-hearted rhyme, twenty diverse kids get ready for their first day of school - each in their own way, some slow and sleepy, some bouncing with energy and get-up-and-go.  Everything is covered here from getting up, to deciding what to wear (Six have clothes laid on a chair/Three don't have a thing to wear/Five pull on their favorite jeans/ Two are fashionista queens), to combing hair, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, packing backpacks and lunches (Pack up backpacks! Ten have new/Three get hand-me-downs. One makes do), to getting on the bus or walking to school, and then Over concrete, asphalt, grass, through the doors, they all must pass.  And then...Welcome, students, to our class. Ashburn has managed to capture the individual personalities of 20 kids with humor and more than a touch of reality, so there is someone for everyone to identify with in this charming first day of school book.  Young readers will have fun following the different kids throughout the book.  It took a few readings to figure out the twenty different kids at the beginning, and because of the way it is done, you could even use it as a counting book, albeit it's not the usual counting book fare.  But that was part of the fun.  The digitally colored illustrations are simple and nicely diverse.  And there's lots of white space on each page, what I like to think of as "speculation space" for young readers.  This has definitely become a new favorite.

Danitra Brown, Class Clown by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
Amistad, 2005, 32 pages, age 5+

It's a new school year for Zuri Jackson and her best friend Danitra Brown.  Zuri is dreading it, but Danitra is excited. And even though these two friends couldn't be more different, Danitra always has her friend Zuri's back. When their strict new teacher separates them in class for talking, and Zuri's note to Danitra get snatched by a boy, Danitra stands up and acts like a clown to save Zuri from being embarrassed.  When math confuses Zuri, Danitra is there with help and encouragement.  And when a big math test looms, and Zuri feels sick about it, it is Danitra who is sticks by her, helping her through her case of nerves. Grimes has really captured and defined their friendship despite their differences - Zuri, so shy and introspective, not a girl who embraces new situations easily, and Danitra, a happy, confident girl, who embraces each day with joy. The 14 poems included here are all written in Zuri's voice, so readers really get to experience how a friend can help someone face their fears. Grimes is a poet par excellence and knows just how to give the reader the story she wants them to have with a minimum of very carefully chosen words, words complimented by the realistically painted illustrations of E.B. Lewis.

An A from Miss Keller written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco
Putnam's BFYR, 2015, 40 pages, age 5+

Young Trisha has been accepted into Miss Keller's writing class, but everyone knows she is "killer Keller" who never ever gives anyone an A.  Trisha is a little nervous and talks to her neighbor Pop Schloss about it.  He knows all about Miss Keller since both of his sons had her.  When her first writing assignment isn't well received, he gives her his son's  old Thesaurus to use.  Miss Keller is hard on Trisha, but thinks she has some real writing talent, if she could only emotionally connect with her readers.  Trisha knows that Pop Schloss has something wrong with him because he keeps putting little pills under his tongue.  But when Miss Keller takes Trisha to the office at school one day, she is devastated when she is told that Pop Schloss had passed away from a heart attack that morning.  That night, in her grief, Trisha starts writing and writing, handing in her work long after the assignment was due.  Will this be the paper in which she connects with her reader?  This is one of six picture books Patricia Palacco has written that pays homage to the teachers who made a difference in her life, and it is a sad, but inspiring story. The illustrations, done in pencil and markers, are done in Palacco's signature style, and she most definitely emotionally connects to her readers.

Miss Nelson is Back written by Harry Allard, illustrated by James Marshall
HMH BFYR, 1982, 32 pages, age 5+

When Miss Nelson tells her class she will not be in school for a week, they are warned by the older kids about Miss Swamp, the substitute they had when Miss Nelson disappeared.  But instead they get Mr. Blandsworth, the principal and a big BORE.  After a few days of this, the kids decide it is time for Miss Nelson to return, or at least a close facsimile  of her.  And when Mr. Blandsworth falls for their version of Miss Nelson, the class figures they are home free.  There's a trip to the movies, then to the sweet shop, then back to school.  But when they pass Miss Nelson's house, and she sees her facsimile, she decides it is time to bring back substitute teacher Miss Swamp to teach these smart-alecky kids a lesson they won't forget.  This is the second story in the Miss Nelson is Missing trilogy and it is just as funny as the first story.  This was one of my Kiddos favorite books and I was very surprised to see that when I read this to my 4th grades kids in school, they also loved it (but I suspect that I loved it more).     

Teachers Rock! written and illustrated by Todd Parr
Little, Brown BFYR, 2016, 32 pages, age 3+

I know from experience how much teachers do for the kids in their classes, all those simple everyday things that make school a more pleasant environment for their students.  Sometimes, especially at the end of summer vacation, it's good to remind kids about the positive aspects of school and teachers.  And that is just what Todd Parr has done in Teachers Rock!  Parr has included all the big things and the small ones that teachers do, from helping kids to learn and be creative to buying supplies for their classroom (and often using their own money to do that) and arranging fun field trips.  But, as Parr reminds his young readers, teachers are people, too, just like everyone else.  Most importantly, he wants kids to know that teacher's really want them to succeed.  This is a delightful book for young kids just starting school, or kids going from pre-K to Kindergarten or even first grade.  The nicely diverse illustrations done in a palette of bright colors that reminded me of a box of crayons were Photoshopped in, and look like they might have been done by a young school child.  Pair up Teachers Rock! with Reading Makes You Feel Good and It's Okay to be Different for a nice Welcome (Back) to School trilogy.

School's First Day of School written by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Roaring Brook Press, 2016, 40 pages, age 4+

Anyone who has gone to school knows what that first day is like, but in this clever reversal, readers learn all about that important first day from the school's perspective.  Built over the summer on an empty lot, and named Frederick Douglass Elementary, for a while the only person the school sees is the janitor, who says soon there will be lots of kids and not to worry, the school will like them.  On the first day of the new school year, there is a nicely diverse group of kids everywhere and the school slowly adjusts to have them around, though school's feeling are hurt when one freckle-faced little girl has to be carried in by her mom because she doesn't want to be there.  But by the end of the day, the school wants to invite everyone back the next day, so things work out pretty well for the new Frederick Douglass Elementary School.  This is a great book for kids just beginning school and having some first day jitters. Christian Robinson's folk art style acrylic paint and college illustrations give this book just the right about of whimsy so that none of the seriousness of beginning school gets lost.  And sometimes a change in perspective is just what's needed to make a potentially scary first school day a little easier for everyone.  


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