Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner

Twelve-year-old Charlie (Charlotte) Brennan loves Irish step dancing, and for Christmas, her parents had given her a $300. promise towards a dress in which to compete at a Feis or Irish dancing competition.  Charlie and her friend Dasha both are hoping to move up to advance in the next Feis. Charlie decides to do some ice fishing with her friend Drew and his Nana, Mrs. McNeil, to earn some extra dress money by selling the fish she catches.

The only problem is that Charlie is actually afraid of the ice and decides not to go too far out her first day fishing.  Her first fish is a little small, but it tells Charlie she can have a wish if she releases it back into the water.  Not taking it seriously, she  wishes that Roberto Sullivan will like her, but even though it is Robert O'Sullivan who is suddenly infatuated with her, Charlie goes back for more from the wish-granting fish.  She wishes that she would not be afraid of the ice, and sure enough, her fear vanishes and Charlie is able to catch a fair amount of perch and her dress money steadily grows.

Soon, more wishes follow: friend Drew makes the basketball team, to his father's delight and his chagrin, friend Dasha passes her ESL test but discovers she is in over her head in classes where the English words just whiz by her; and Charlie's mom gets a new, better job, but it means that she can't drive Charlie and Dasha to their next Feis.  But when Charlie wishes her beloved older sister home from college so she can drive them to the Feis, no one is prepared for the phone call from the Student Health Center that Abby is quite sick and needs to be picked up.  Charlie not only misses her Feis, but she begins to realize that she needs to be careful about how she phrases her wishes.

Recovered, Abby returns to school, but not for long.  Another phone call from the Student Health Center brings the truth about Abby - she is addicted to heroin and needs help.  Charlie's life soon becomes one of hiding the truth from her friends because she must go to visit her sister in rehab every Sunday instead of working on a group science fair project.  But more importantly is Charlie's struggle to understand how her smart, funny, athletic sister could turn into a liar and a heroin addict even before her first year of college is over.  Abby just doesn't fit the picture of the drug addicts she saw in the D.A.R.E video at school, and who even signed the pledge not to do drugs.  But there is support for Charlie while her sister is in rehab in the form of Mrs. McNeil and even the 8th grade, prizewinner Irish dancer Leah, both of whom have dealt with a family member's alcohol addiction, and their relapses.

This is a very readable novel.  I was pulled in from page one and really couldn't put it down until I finished, even though I already knew what the novel is about.  I thought Kate Messner created a main character who is very nicely fully realized and relatable, in a setting that is also believable - January in upstate New York is mighty cold, just as it is in the novel. And, despite the use of magical realism, in this novel, it is a very realistic story.

I liked how Messner introduces the reader to Charlie's life, depicting it as just ordinary but so wonderfully middle class and middle grade - dancing, friends, crushes, school projects - and how she decides to work for a dress nicer than what $300. would buy because Irish dancing is that important to her.  And I thought Messner did a spot on job showing readers that when Abby's addiction becomes part of the Brennan family's life, everything suddenly centers on her and her needs, and everyone else's needs, including Charlie's, simply become secondary or are just forgotten about.  That is one of the sad truths about addiction.  And yet, Messner cleverly never lets the story turn preachy or didactic, and always manages to keep it Charlie's story from start to finish, never letting Abby's story take over, even as it takes over Charlie's life.

But, don't be put too off by the wish-granting fish in the midst of a realistic novel, that bit of magical realism that is really a means to an end with a bit of a moral about being careful about what you wish for.  But more importantly, it demonstrates, as Charlie learns, that even magic is useless in that face of life's serious issues.

Kudos to Kate Messner for taking on the difficult topic of drug addiction head on, for coming right out and using the word heroin and not skirting around it with some opaque word for it, and writing a book that is so needed right now.  Heroin addiction is really on the increase among middle class kids eighteen to twenty-five, so be sure to read her author's note about this and places where families can learn more and find treatment help.

By now, most of you know that Messner was disinvited from a school visit by a principal who felt the novel's theme showing the impact of drug addiction on families would generate questions they would "not be able to adequately answer and discuss."  You might read Messner's own thoughts about this sad occurrence HERE, rather than my second-hand recounting of it.

I should add that I also learned quite a bit about ice fishing and Irish step dancing competitions, two things I will never do, but for which I now definitely have a new appreciation.

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Friday, July 22, 2016

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great by Judy Blume

Like so many of her books, my Kiddo's
copy was a hand-me-down from an older cousin
I always enjoy re-reading a Judy Blume book, but Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great is actually a first read for me.  I found it on my Kiddo's bookshelf and thought it would be a nice summer novel.

Sheila Tubman, 10, lives in NYC with her parents and older sister Libby.  She also lives with a lot of fears and phobias, beginning with the usual - dogs, spiders, the dark - and adding to that now is swimming pools (or at least, the water in the pool).  This makes for a difficult summer for Sheila when her father announces that the family will be house-sitting at the home of a colleague in Tarrytown, NY for the summer.  Sheila is pretty excited about getting her own room, even if it is filled with models put together by one of the owner's sons, along with a note telling her not to touch anything or else.  And on top of that, the first night there, Sheila sees a spider on her ceiling.  But worse than a spider, is the little dog named Jennifer that the Tubman's will be taking care of for the summer.

So far, Sheila's Tarrytown vacation is not getting off to a good start, but then she meets Merle Ellis, called Mouse, a girl her age who is pretty good at doing tricks with a Duncan yo-yo.  Sheila likes to think she is perfect and has learned to cover her fears with a combination of false bravado and little white lies, but Mouse sees right through her and even confronts her about her fears.  Perhaps capitalizing on Sheila's on that, Mouse tells her about nearby Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane and the legend of the Headless Horseman. Yes, it creates a new worry for Sheila.

Meanwhile, at the pool, Sheila's swimming lessons are very slow-going but her swimming teacher, a college student named Marty, needs the money for college, so he can afford to be patient, but if Sheila isn't swimming by the end of summer, Marty forfeits the money her mother is willing to pay.

There is an awful lot of appealing, fun things for Sheila to do during her Tarrytown vacation, but will she be able to overcome her fears and get around her phobias in order to enjoy it?

And after I read Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, I totally understood why my Kiddo like it.  Like Sheila, she also had a few fears and phobias growing up.  And Judy Blume was (is) a favorite writer of hers.  Blume has a remarkable ability to take issues that are common among kids and look at them with humor and honesty, so that kids seem to trust that everything will work out eventually, for her characters and for her readers.

If you've already read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, the first book in the Fudge series, then you've also run into Sheila Tubman.  She is Peter Hatcher's neighbor and nemesis.  Peter, older brother of Fudge, does make a brief appearance in Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great with his dog, mostly to introduce the idea of Sheila's fears and phobias.  And although this is part of the Fudge series, it is a nice stand alone chapter book.

I like the way Blume tackled themes like friendship, siblings, courage in this novel and shows that while it isn't always easy to overcome fears, it does feel really good when one succeeds at getting past them enough to enjoy a real sense of accomplishment.  Sheila doesn't go home at the end of summer completely over her fears and phobias but she does make a good start and that's what counts.

When I asked my Kiddo if she liked this book when she read it, she said it helped her realize that her own fears and phobias could be overcome, and that, for the most part, they have been conquered.  She said Judy Blume was her favorite childhood author, so much so that she read and enjoyed every book Blume has written, including her adult fiction.  

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great was originally published in 1972.  It was updated once to reflect technological changes but there are still no cell phones or computers easily available to the kids in the novel, which is kind of nice.  So things may still feel a little dated, like playing with yo-yos and mimeograph machines, but not so much that kids won't enjoy it today.  I know from experience that everything old becomes new again, sometimes, so maybe I should dust off my own Duncan YoYo and pass it on to another kid.

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great has been in continuous print since it was first published and here are some of the Sheila covers from 1972 to 2016:

1972, 1976, 1984
1986, 2003, 2011
All the Fudge books are sitting on the shelf where I found this one.  I think I'll revisit those soon.  

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from my Kiddo

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Towers Falling by Jewel Parker Rhodes

I have to admit that I wasn't sure if I was ready to read a book about 9/11 15 years after it happened. Which is why I decided to read Towers Falling - a novel that takes place 15 years after 9/11.

It's 2016 and ten year-old African Jamaican American Dèja Barnes has a lot on her plate at the moment.  Her family is living in one room without a window in a homeless shelter.  Her father is sick, both physically and emotionally, but she doesn't know what's actually wrong with him.  Her mother works all day and more if she can, while Dèja takes care of her younger brother Ray and sister Leda.  On top of that, she is starting fifth grade at a new school - Brooklyn Collective Elementary.

But to her surprise, Dèja likes her new school and her new teacher, Miss Garcia.  She even makes two friends - Mexican American Ben, an artistic boy who has just moved from Arizona after his parent's divorce, and the very friendly, seemingly always happy Sabeen, a proud Muslim Turkish American.

The fifth grade curriculum for the year is focused on the past and how it connects to the present and future.  After exploring ways in which people connect to each other, the students go on to learn about how events do, too, particularly one event, one that Dèja knows nothing about - September 11, 2001.  One day, during a study get together at Ben's house, he shows Dèja a video of that day and what happened.   Dèja has never wanted to think about the past when her life was better and her family was happy, and now, she doesn't want to think about what she saw on that video either.  After all, it's ancient history as far as she's concerned.

Still, when she gets home and blurts out that she didn't know about the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center being hit by two planes, her father decides to take her out of Brooklyn Collective, his daughter does not need to go to the kind of school that would teach her about that terrible event. But, Dèja wonders, why would he have such a strong, emotional reaction to her learning about 9/11? Does it have something to do with her dad's being physically and emotionally sick?
Confused and curious, Dèja is determined to find out what is really going on.

In Towers Falling, Jewel Parker Rhodes approaches the events of 9/11 slowly and carefully, so the reader has time to digest Dèja's experiences just as she does.  After all, this is a character-driven coming-of-age novel and Dèja is in the driver's seat as we see her go from being completely ignorant about what happened on 9/11 to the realization that it has impacted the lives of everyone in the Barnes family every day since, as well as the lives of all Americans.  In fact, the whole novel made me think of William Faulkner's words "The past is never dead.  It's not even past."

As a character, Dèja was great.  She is spunky, angry, combative, inquisitive, friendly, and caring.  I really liked the diversity in her school and how she fit in so easily, even though her family's circumstances were so very different than her friend's Ben and Sabeen and the other students.  I also like that Rhodes shows the reader that, while their families are better off financially,  Ben and Sabeen's lives are not without problems, despite how things look on the surface.  Most importantly, as Dèja learns about how she connects to the past, she also learns what it means to be an American, connected to other Americans.

This is a sensitively and cautiously written novel about a family in crisis facing the events that precipitated that crisis.  Like so many people that were at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Dèja's father is dealing with some serious problems - guilt, respiratory distress, and a critical case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that makes it impossible for him to move forward and help himself, and Rhodes has dealt with these issues in a very age-appropriate way.

In addition, there is no bullying, as we have almost come to expect in a novel about a kid who is different from the other kids in the new school, so that was refreshing.  But, be warned, there is some violence in the description of the 9/11 video Dèja watches that may not be appropriate for sensitive readers.

Ironically, I was teaching New York history to 10 year-olds in the Bronx on 9/11.  When we heard the news, it was hard to comprehend at first, but as the day went by, reality hit us all.  It was an unforgettable day but one that I think a lot of kids today, like Dèja, may not know about, making Towers Falling an excellent addition to what will be an important 9/11 body of work.

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

You can find information about the 9/11 Memorial HERE and if you are ever in NYC, be sure to go down to Ground Zero and see it for yourself (bring tissues).

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

The Birchbark House begins with a rather grim prologue that describes a baby girl crawling around the bodies of her family and crying while a group of men stand watching her on the shoreline of a small Lake Superior island.  Knowing sickness has claimed the lives of everyone on the island except this little girl, the men get back into their canoes and leave, afraid and sure the baby will soon die of the same sickness as her family.  One of the men decides to tells his wife about the baby, sure that this brave, fearless woman named Old Tallow would rescue the baby.

The baby is rescued and brought to an Anishinabe or Ojibwe family to be raised on another Lake Superior island they call Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker, in a village called LaPointe.  The baby was named Omakayas, or Little Frog because her first step a hop, and she lives with her new family her DeyDey, her Mama Yellow Kettle, Nokomis (grandma), beautiful older sister Angeline, greedy and annoying younger brother Pinch and baby brother Neewo.  Omakayas is unaware of what happened to her as a baby, but knows that Old Tallow had a special affection for her.

Now in the Summer of 1947, Omakayas begins to slowly and in great detail narrate the life of her family and other Ojibwe over a period of four seasons.  There is a lot of work to be done during each season, most of it in preparation for surviving the winter when food is scare and the cold is bitter. There are hides to be scrapes and tanned, new makazins to be made, food to be planted, harvested, dried and stored in the cold earth, fish to be caught and dried, and wood to be chopped and stacked. But even though there is a lot of work, there is a lot of fun to be had, socializing to be done and pleasure in nature, in Nokomis's storytelling and celebrations with other Ojibwe to be had.

Into the hard, but contented life, comes talk of the chimookoman or white people wanted to push further west and the possibility that the Ojibwe will have to be moved.  But before that happens, a sick visitor, a fur trader, arrives at the traditional dance the Ojibwe have in the late fall and dies of smallpox.  In no time, the disease spreads to Ojibwe family in LaPointe, including Omakaysas's family.  Everyone except Omakaysas is affected.  When Old Tallow tells Omakayas the story her survival, it becomes clear that the year that has just passed was a year of growth and maturity for the young girl, one that leads a path to the possibility that she could eventually become a healer among the Ojibwe.

The Birchbark House has to be one of the most beautifully written, lyrical books I've ever read. Louise Erdrich has a way with words that is just mesmerizing, and yet so straightforward and simple. I often felt as if I were there, listening to a story told by Nokomis on a cold winter's night even though I actually read it on a warm June night.

Overall, The Birchbark House is a very descriptive book, thanks to Omakayas and her observations. Through them, the reader is introduced to Ojibwe culture, tradition and language.  It is amazing to read of closely connected to nature Native Americans were, in particular how they lived with, used and totally respected the world around them.  When an animal is killed for food, it's like is never taken for granted.  Erdrich has sprinkled Ojibwe words throughout the novel, and there is a very useful glossary at the end of the book, with pronunciation help.

Omakayas is a wonderfully enchanting protagonist.  She seems to understand so much at such a young age.  But she isn't without spunk and daring.  Not unlike most kids, she envies Angeleine's beauty, can't stand brother Pinch, loves Neewo and likes to pretend he is her baby, complains about chores she doesn't like, is devoted to her rescued crow Andeg, loves a good story, and feels totally at home in the natural world.

The Birchbark House is part of a series consisting of four novels.  In August, a fifth novel, Makoons, will be added to this wonderful series written from an authentic Native American perspective.  I can't wait to read and reread all of the Birchbark House series this summer, and can't recommend them highly enough.

A printable teaching guide that includes discussion questions, activities and projects is available for the first three books in the Birchbark House series HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library

This is a short but informative and beautifully illustrated video about the Ojibwe Naming Tradition, an important point brought up in the book as regards Neewo, which only indicates that he is the fourth child of the family and isn't the name will would ultimately be given:

FYI: Erdrich has claimed that the smallpox epidemic she writes about in this novel did indeed happen in 1847, although some readers have expressed skepticism about it.  I did find a creditable reference to it in Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community by Brenda J. Child, published in 2012 by Penguin.  Child writes that a fur trader named Lyman Warren died of smallpox on Madeline Island, spreading the disease that ultimately killed 18 Ojibwe there.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island by Dana Alison Levy

If you have already read the first book, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, then you are familiar with the make-up of this wonderfully diverse family.  If not, let me introduce you.  There is white, gentile Dad, white, Jewish Papa, blond, white Sam, 13, white Eli,11,  African American Jax, 11, and Indian American Froggie, 6.

Now, it's August and that means it's time for the Family Fletcher to go on vacation.  Fitting four (adopted) boys, one dog, two cats and two dads into their small cottage on Rock Island isn't easy, but luckily there has always been the vacant lighthouse next door in which the boys can play and even have sleepovers.  Everyone is pretty excited about their month long vacation and, for all the boys, part of the beauty of Rock Island is that everything is always wonderfully, traditionally the same - that is, until this year.

First, the boys discover that the lighthouse is off limits, surrounded by a giant chain link fence, and on further exploration, a sign that reads For Sale: Contact Town Clerk.  Not only is it now off-limits, but there is the possibility that the lighthouse may have to be demolished if it is found unsafe.  And then they discover that the family who owns the house next door, the Galindo-Greens, are actually vacationing there this summer.  At first, they seem to be pretty annoying, but when their visiting friend Janie leaves, all that changes.  Val Galindo is around Sam's age and is obsessed with making videos, filming everything going on around her.  Alex Galindo is not only the same age Jax, but likes to do the same kinds of things he does, and it doesn't take long for them to become fast friends.

And then there is the artist Chase Kark, who has plans to buy the lighthouse, and who carries an easel everywhere he goes, but who has never been seen painting.  It doesn't take long for the Fletcher/Galindo kids to wonder what's up with him and why he wants to buy the lighthouse so badly, and so they do exactly what I would have done at that age - they follow him and make some surprising discoveries.

Meanwhile, Sam, is once again bitten by the acting bug and finds himself in a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Eli is told that if he can overcome his fear of kayaking, he can name the baby seal that was rescued after her mother deserted her.  And Frog is just beside himself with excitement after finding out that there is now an ice cream truck that drives up and down the streets of Rock Island - no more having riving into town for it.

As much as I anticipated it, I was afraid that the sequel would fall short, but in the case of The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island, Levy has managed to maintain her character's individual personalities throughout, giving the reader a sense a continuity even as they grow and change.

I've spent almost every summer of my life on beaches - from Jones Beach to Rockaway Beach to Coney Island and the Jersey Shore and I could practically smell the salt air, hear the sea gulls cry and taste the ice cream reading The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island.  I thought Levy really did a spot on job of creating the Rock Island setting and that glorious feeling of waking up mornings at the beach (despite all the sand that gets everywhere), feeling that I know I share with the Fletcher boys.

And even though the mystery of the lighthouse and its future takes center stage in this novel, it doesn't overwhelm the wonderful chronicle of the family Fletcher's vacation and all the endearing everyday things that happen.  The Fletchers are well-known and well-liked by almost everyone on the island and for the most part, the boys have the freedom to roam around, have fun and just be who they are.

For the most part, that is, until African American Jax and Latina Alex are profiled and accused of trying to steal the wallet of Kark's business associate.  Jax is understandably very upset by the accusation and it's implication, leading to a serious talk with Papa about race and racists, handled sensitively by Levy.  And while Levy doesn't really go into the Fletcher's diverse backgrounds as much in this novel as in her first one, I think she makes a very compelling point here about judging people by the color of their skin and the psychological damage it can cause.

And though the novel has its serious moments, there's also lots of gentle action and humor as well making this a book I highly recommend - it makes for especially wonderful summer reading.

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

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