Monday, August 21, 2017

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, translated by Helen Wang

Bronze and Sunflower is set in communist China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The goal of the cultural Revolution was to eliminate traditional Chinese life and thought, to replace it with communist ideology and get rid of any opponents. Artists and other intellectual were sent to remote Cadre Schools, where they did heavy manual labor during the day, and attended political re-education meetings at night. 

Sunflower, 7, and her father have been living in the country, in a Cadre School for a while. Her father is an artist, a sculptor, well-known for his beautiful sunflowers cast in bronze. Sunflower is the only child at the school and very lonely. Since she doesn’t go to school, she often watches the children across the river playing and laughing. When her father dies unexpectedly, women from the Cadre School take Sunflower across the river, to the small village of Damadai, to see if anyone there would take her in. 

Only Bronze’s family, the poorest in the village, are willing to accept Sunflower and make her their own. Bronze, a few years older than Sunflower and just as lonely, hasn’t spoken since he was 5 and witnessed what was to him a traumatic event.

Bronze and Sunflower are soon inseparable, seeming to understand each other without the need to speak. Over time, the now-siblings and their loving, but poor family, endure and survive many hardships such as famine, locusts, bitter cold winters, and a fire that destroys their home. The children share not just friendship, but many adventures and good times, as well, like punting little boats on the river, riding to school together on Bronze’s water buffalo, even though only Sunflower is a student, Bronze letting Sunflower sit on his shoulders so that she is high enough see the circus over everyone else's head, even working together as a family making reed shoes to sell in the January market to pay for Sunflowers schooling or grandmother Nainai's medical needs. 

Bronze and Sunflower is a beautifully written story about the many sacrifices that were made by Bronze's family when they decided to take in Sunflower, how they lived poor, but with great dignity and love, and how they continued to do that even when forced to make the greatest sacrifice of all. 

Chinese life during the cultural revolution is not a usual subject for a children’s book, but Cao has managed to present a picture of rural life that neither sugarcoats nor romanticizes it. In fact, he has produced such a heartwarming story that it has a feeling of timelessness about it despite the time it is actually set in, mainly because Mao’s China takes a backseat to the traditional values of family that the book really demonstrates.

Cao grew up during the 1960s and 1970s and experienced China at that time first hand, which gives his novel a real feeling of authenticity.  His descriptions, though beautifully rendered, are often heartbreaking at the same time. 

Bronze and Sunflower is a large book, 400 pages long. It is a story of day to day survival, so there is not really a big central conflict. I have to wonder if it will appeal to young readers as much as it appeals to adults. My 12 year old self would have loved getting immersed in the lives of Bronze and Sunflower, but I didn’t grow up with as many distractions as kids have today (video games, screens, instant gratification, etc. I’m not putting these things down, just pointing out how life have become faster). Though I highly recommend it for its thematic portrayals community, family, loyalty, and poverty.

One a personal note: my Kiddo has been home visiting this and when I asked her if her husband’s parents, who both grew up in the midst of the cultural revolution, ever talk about it, she said no, never. They refuse to say anything, but her husband’s grandparents did tell her how hard life was in those days. I’m guessing, they would have really appreciated Bronze and Sunflower.

Original Chinese Cover
Bronze and Sunflower won the 2016 Hans Christian Anderson award and was translated from Mandarin by Helen Wang, who won the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation for it. 

You can find out more about Cao Wenxuan in a New York Times interview HERE

And Zoe at Playing by the Book has a wonderfully informative interview with Helen Wang HERE 

If an interest in translated children’s Chinese books has been kindled, you might be interested in Helen Wang’s blog Chinese Books for Young Readers

Classroom and Home School teachers can find a useful PDF discussion guide HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal'd by Mary Losure

When most of us think of Isaac Newton, we think about an apple falling on his head and his formulating his law of gravity and his three laws of motion. But there is much more to his life and Mary Losure has written an extraordinary, well-researched biography of Isaac Newton, beginning with his childhood and a mother who essentially abandoned him as a young boy. 

Born on December 25, 1642, Isaac, a loner, spent much of his childhood living in a third floor room in an apothecary’s home in an English village called Grantham. His father was dead, and his mother remarried a man who didn’t want Isaac in the house. Isaac lived in a world dominated by Puritans, but one that still held many mysteries about the physical world and he spent much of his time pondering these mysteries and studying alchemy in the hope of creating a philosopher’s stone, believing such a stone would hold the answers to all his questions. As a result of his studies, he had to teach himself advanced mathematics, inventing what he called fluxions, a precursor to modern calculus, along the way. 

Eventually, Isaac ended up at Trinity College Cambridge, where he remained as a mathematics professor after his student days ended. Still a loner, and still studying alchemy, he continued his experiments there, still hoping to create a philosopher’s stone.

Sent home from Cambridge because of the plague in 1665-66, Isaac spent much of his time wondering about the rules that govern the paths moving objects took through space, paths he could calculate using fluxions. But what, he wondered, kept the moon on its path? But it was much later that the answer finally came to him, and again, using fluxions, he developed his three laws of motion, laws that would later be called Newtonian Physics.

I majored in philosophy as an undergrad, and we studied some Newtonian ideas, and I never really thought Isaac Newton was a terribly interesting person. However, Losure has given his life an interesting spin by referring to him most of the time as a alchemist/magician and focusing on his alchemical interests and experiments, one of which resulted in fireworks that lit up the night sky when he was still a boy. Much of what Losure writes is speculation based on what facts there are about Isaac Newton’s life. She has done this in part by presenting a believable picture of the kind of world Isaac lived in, adding real depth to her biography of this illusive magician/scientist. In fact, Newton still has the distinction of being the world’s greatest alchemist, and one of the world’s greatest scientists.

Losure has included copious reproductions of illustrations throughout the book, some by Isaac, some from other sources, but all from the time of Isaac’s life. There is also a Bibliography and list of Works Consulted for the very curious who might want to explore Isaac Newton’s life and/or times in more depth.

I have to admit, I put off reading Isaac the Alchemist for a long time despite the many wonderful reviews I had read about it, and am I sorry I did. This is probably one of the most compelling, interesting and accessible scientist biographies I’ve ever read. I think that whether your young readers are interested in science or magic (alchemy), or just big Harry Potter fans who already know about the philosopher’s stone, they will find Isaac Newton’s life and times as fascinating as I did.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was sent to my by the publisher, Candlewick Press

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Blog Tour: The Real Us by Tommy Greenwald

Eight-grader Calista Getz has always been the prettiest and most popular girl in school. And she’s also a pretty nice person, even if she has somehow ended up being friends with stuck up, superficial Ellie and Ella. And Calista still likes to play soccer. Laura Corbett used to be Calista’s best friend, but that seems to have changed now, though they still play on the soccer team together. But Laura has a weight problem that makes her the brunt of mean jokes, some made Ellie and Ella, straining what it left of her friendship with Calista. Damian White is an artist and a longer who has been watching Calista, fascinated by her ever since she gave him a tour of the school when he was a new student the year before. Damian also has hyperhidrosis, which causes him to sweat excessively. Small wonder his is also obsessed with drawing pictures of deserts.

The new school year has begun and Monday is pretty uneventful. Just lots of talk about the First Week Dance. Naturally Ellie and Ella think Calista should go with Peter Toole, best looking boy in the school and basically nice guy.. Later, at soccer practice, Laura accidentally hurts Calista during a scrimmage.Uh-oh…

Tuesday, Calista wakes up to her first pimple, right smack in the middle of her nose and in her panic, she pops it. So she puts her mother’s concealer on it and and covers it with a bandage. At school, she begins to break out in hives from the concealer, and runs into Damian in the nurse’s office, where he goes to change his shirt a few times a day. Later at lunch, Calista finds out that Peter doesn’t want to go to the dance with her now that she isn’t perfect. And to make matters worse, Damian accidentally smacks her in the nose with his elbow, causing bleeding. swelling and black and blue eyes. And superficial friends Ella and Ellie turn on her.

Let’s face it, middle school can be drama personified until everyone works out who they really are and how to really be that person. What makes this book really interesting is seeing how how everything works out Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. I love how Tommy Greenwald created main characters who defy stereotypes resulting in a much more interesting story. Normally, Calista who have been more like Ellie and Ella, but despite being so pretty, she is a smart, kind, and not afraid of getting dirty and sweating on the soccer field. 

The Real Us covers the first week of school, up to the First Week Dance. Each day is narrated in the first person, alternatively by Calista, Laura and Damian, so the reader experiences how each one feels about the same set of events. Normally, I don’t like multiple narrators, but it really worked here, probably because there wasn’t a lot of descriptive passages, yet you really get a complete picture of what is happening.  

A word about the adults in The Real Us - they really don’t give in to any of the middle school shenanigans that are going on. Calista’s mother tells her the pimple isn’t the end of the world, and makes her return to school on Wednesday despite the way her face now looks; the nurse sends her back to class because she is, after all, still a student. The art teacher doesn’t care what Calista looks like when she is asked to pose with Peter Toole for a poster for the dance, a poster drawn by Damian; and the soccer coach treats her like the other players, seeing her as a good player, not a pretty girl. I loved these adults. 

 The Real Us is a book every middle grade student should read. 

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from the publisher, Roaring Brook Press/mackids

Be sure to visit the other stops on The Real Us Blog Tour:
August 7      Ms. Yingling Reads                    review
August 8      Maria's Melange                         author interview
August 9      Log Cabin Library                      review
August 10    Diary of a Happy Librarian        review
August 11    Always in the Middle                 author interview
August 14    Randomly Reading                     review
August 15    One Great Book                          review
August 16    Unleashing Readers                    giveaway
August 17    Mr. D. Reads                               interview
August 18    Tommy Greenwald                     giveaway

Meet the author:
Tommy Greenwald is the author of the Charlie Joe Jackson series as well as its spin-offs and the Crimebiters! series and is now looking forward to his next challenge.

Find Tommy on Twitter @tommygreenwald

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

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Chester and Gus by Cammie McGovern

Chester, a chocolate lab, would have been a perfect service dog except for his fear of loud noises. Unable to be certified, Chester is chosen by the parents of a 10 year-old nonverbal boy with autism named Gus, hoping that Chester’s help, Gus will be able to attend public school. At first, Gus won’t even let Chester near him, but slowly allows to the dog near him. For his part, Chester knows he has found the person he was meant to be with.

Gus’s mother Sara is desperate for her son to be able to go the school with other children, and acting out of that desperation, she deceptively presents Chester as a certified service dog to the school’s principal. Placed in a classroom, Chester is a hit with the other students who basically ignore Gus. But not everyone is happy about having Chester around. A boy named Ed resents not being allowed to bring his dog to school, and the other fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Palmer, doesn’t want a dog distracting students and disrupting school routine. One bright spot for Gus is Mama, a cafeteria worker who loads the dishwasher and who simply accepts Gus for who he is.

But when it comes to light that Chester is not really a certified service dog, the principal tells Sara he can no longer accompany Gus to school until he is certified. But on Chester’s last day of school, he and Gus get separated during a fire drill, Gus is found in a closet unconscious and later diagnosed as having a seizure. Kept home from school for a few weeks, when Gus returns without Chester, he is badly beaten up by Ed, the class bully.

Sara decides to have Chester certified as a seizure response dog, and calls Penny, the person who originally trained him. But Penny has always had other ideas for Chester; convinced that he is an unusually intelligent dog, she wants to teach him to read and has not intention of returning Chester to Gus. 

 Will Chester ever return to his person, Gus?    

Chester and Gus is a story that will certainly pull at your heartstrings, particularly because the narrated point of view is done by a dog who connects with the boy for whom he was chosen. I thought this anthropomorphism was a particularly effective literary strategy for a book that is concerned with the limits of communication in order to be understood. Chester may understand much of what is going on with Gus, but he has no way of telling anyone. Gus can communicate with Chester, but not with the rest of the world. It feels like a real catch-22 and McGovern really has presented this frustrating situation successfully without resorting to being too ridiculous. 

And she has really captured Sara’s desperation for her son to be part of the world so well, but also the resistance from people who don’t understand or care about autistic children being able to gain some level of independent. When I was teaching, I didn’t run into too many Mrs. Palmers, but there were some who just couldn’t be flexible. 

Two things did bother me. While I could understand Sara’s motives, I didn’t like her deceiving the principal to get what she wanted. And I felt that Ms. Cooper, the teacher’s aide assigned to Gus, never really noticed what was going on with him at school, and she certainly should have been reprimanded for not staying with him during the fire drill. Instead. blame fell solely on Chester’s head for abandoning Gus.

Writing a book about an basically nonverbal autistic character isn’t an easy thing to do, but McGovern has succeeded at giving the reader a glimpse into what life is like for the children and their families.  

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was an EARC received from Edelweiss+

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Gone Camping: A Novel in Verse by Tamera Will Wissinger, illustrated by Matthew Cordell

In Gone Fishing, Sam and his younger sister Lucy has some sibling issues to work out on a fishing trip with dad. Now, they're back. This time they are going on a camping trip with dad, and while both kids are really look forward to this, as the trip gets closer, Lucy is feeling some apprehension - after all, she doesn't like the dark, and there are all those night critters that could crawl into their tent.

Then, all packed and ready to go, dad wakes up sick on the morning of the trip and has to stay home with mom. But rather than cancelling the trip, much to Sam and Lucy's disappointment, Grandpa has agreed to take over, adding to Lucy's anxiety. After all, he be a little absent minded, on the other hand

"...Grandpa's funny, shares his candy, drives, can barbecue
Maybe we'll still have fun without Mom, Dad, or the canoe."

But Grandpa actually turns out to be lots of fun, as the three campers do all the usual camping things like pitching the tent, building a campfire and cooking weenies and bean over it, and enjoying that favorite campsite dessert - S'mores.

But as bedtime draws closer, Lucy's fears begin to worry her again:

"Twinkle, Twinkle, Mighty Mars
In the sky among the stars. Ruby planet, bold and bright
Here's my wish this camping night. Let me be alert and strong
And keep the bears where they belong."

But leave it to Grandpa to provide just the right thing to help Lucy with her fears - a gumdrop that will keep away the bears. Little did Lucy or Sam expect that the thing that would keep them both awake would be neither excitement nor fear, but their Grandpa. Luckily, however, sleep catches up with the kids and next thing they know, it's early morning. Lucy has (sort of) conquered her nighttime fears and they are ready to enjoy a whole day of camping fun before heading home.

Using a variety of poetic forms, Wissinger has certainly captured the excitement, fun and fears of camping in the forest, where it can feel too dark and scary. Just as she did in Gone Fishing, Wissinger traces each aspect of the camping trip with its own poem in the voice of either Lucy, Sam, or Grandpa, beginning with packing up the equipment to returning home, safe and sound.

Gone Camping explores a nice range of emotions and themes from disappointment, anger, and fear to excitement, realizing that Grandpa can be lots of fun given the chance, and most importantly, facing and overcoming childhood fears. For Lucy, the camping trip is a real milestone.

At the back of the book, Wissinger has included a section called Provisioning for Poetry where she discusses rhyme and rhythm, and how rhythm patters come from syllable combinations, and how line lengths come from rhythm pattern combinations. There is also a section called Poetry Techniques which includes a variety of literary terms, and a section on Poetic Forms and Stanza Patterns.

Mathew Cordell's lively colorful pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations go far in capturing just what each poem is saying, using facial expression and bodily gestures, as well as Lucy's fears - did you catch that red fox running along side Grandpa's car as they enter the woods?

Looking at the poems in both Gone Fishing and Gone Camping, I can see where they are a wonderful resource for teachers teaching their students about poetry in a fun, lighthearted, yet relatable way.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

Here is a fun craft project that kids can do in connection with Gone Camping. It's a camping scene kids can cut and paste onto a piece of construction paper or card stock and put a picture of themselves into the middle of the campsite. You can find the free printable color template at Simply Learning

Used with permission of Kaitlyn at Simply Learning

Imagination Designs