Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Wolf Hollow

There is no shortage of books about bullying out there today. Publishers know this is a relevant topic across the country and it seems that multiple strong works of fiction are released each and every year on the issue. Often times, an author will approach the subject by creating empathy for a character who is being bullied. Usually, the bully learns some acceptance along the way. Sometimes even, an author will attempt to create empathy for the bully, by showing where their behavior stems from.  

WOLF HOLLOW is definitely a book about bullying, but it is different than your typical bullying book in a number of ways. For one, the bully in this book is evil to her core. There is no sympathy to be had for Betty. Zero. She is pure evil. Also, the victim in this book doesn’t ever put up with the bullying. She doesn’t learn how to stand up for herself.  Annabelle is fighting back from the first moment we’re introduced to her. The lessons Annabelle learns in this story are not just about bullying. And finally, another way this book is different from other bullying books out there, is that it is set in rural Pennsylvania, in 1943. Many bully books are set in modern day, so they can speak to today’s students.

A synopsis: 11-year-old Annabelle’s life is pretty normal in rural Pennsylvania. She works hard to help out on her family farm and watches over her two younger brothers on their trek to school each day. Her life is simple. Until Betty moves to town. Betty is immediately cruel to Annabelle, bullying her out of sight of adults on their way to and from school. Betty’s threats (and later, her actions) prove her to be dangerous and Annabelle begins fearing for her safety. Until she discovers that she has a bodyguard. Toby, a misunderstood, reclusive World War I vet and family friend, is watching from the shadows, protecting Annabelle. However, Annabelle's world is rocked when Betty suddenly goes missing and Toby is suspected of foul play.

You would be hard pressed to find a better written book this year than WOLF HOLLOW. From the structure of the story, to the foreshadowing throughout, down to the individual sentence, Wolk's writing is beautifully descriptive. My first reaction upon finishing it however, was that it was a book written for adults that featured a child narrator. I wasn't shocked when I read up on author Lauren Wolk and learned that she began the story as a novel for adults but changed her mind about its audience later on. I loved the book. I was enthralled by the story. But I couldn't help but wonder if kids would get it. Since then, a 5th grade boy in my class read it as part of a book club at our local public library. He loved it. I saw a 6th grade girl walking down our hallway the other day holding a copy of WOLF HOLLOW in her hands. I called to her, "Isn't that book awesome?!? Isn't Betty just pure evil?!?" The girl's face lit up and she talked a blue streak about the book for 10 minutes! This first hand experience tells me that I needn't be concerned about WOLF HOLLOW's kid appeal!

What had me worried was Wolk's voice. Annabelle is a mature 11-year-old girl. She is responsible and wise beyond her years. There is an edge of maturity in not just her dialogue with other characters but in the way she narrates scenes and shares her thinking. Wolk really trusts her child readers to connect to Annabelle and in the end, I suppose this is easy because like most kids, Annabelle is not perfect. She makes decisions that she probably shouldn't. She reacts from her gut and from her heart and gets herself into trouble. She lies. She hides truths. But she also has compassion. Despite all of Betty's viciousness toward her, Annabelle is compelled to help her in the end. I found myself looking out for Annabelle in a fatherly way as the book reached its climax and resolution. I wanted nothing more than for her life to return to some normalcy.

Another thing that worried me about a child audience was the violence. WOLF HOLLOW isn't necessarily a violent book, but there are times it reminded me of a Martin Scorsese movie. A chapter would be going along, I would get the feeling that Betty would do something bad, and then BAM! Out of the blue, something very, very violent would occur and make me cringe. The violence comes and goes but it is the result of these violent moments that is sad and stays with you. Even for a character as mature as Annabelle, there is a loss of innocence in a few of these violent moments that is heartbreaking. Lives are changed forever because of this evil, evil girl. I wasn't sure if kids could handle this, but in talking with a few, I think they can. I think they need to.

Betty ranks right up there with Hannibal Lecter, Hans Gruber, the Joker, and Lord Voldemort. She is that sadistically bad to the bone. But to say that she gets what is coming to her would still be insensitive of me. The ending of this story is dark and sad. Sorry for the spoiler. There is no happy ending here. Not really. Life will go on for these characters, but not without some deep, deep scars.

I can't say enough about WOLF HOLLOW. The plot is nerve-wracking, the setting is vividly described, and the characters are all richly drawn, even the supporting characters like Annabelle's aunt Lily and Betty's boyfriend Andy. The layered story pulls you in and the beauty of Wolk's writing leaves you in awe.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Booked

Sports books for kids are a tough sell. Typically, the ideal audience for a sports book is a boy who likes sports and in my experience, boys who like sports are often reluctant readers. In other words, the ideal audience for children’s sports books, are boys who would rather be out playing sports than reading about kids playing sports! The sports genre bookshelf in my classroom is widely untouched as boys who enjoy reading tend to choose fantasy books and nonfiction books. Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventure books are read, while Mike Lupica is not. When Kwame Alexander’s THE CROSSOVER won the Newbery Medal a few years ago, I tried selling kids on it and found that it had some appeal. The verse style of narrative makes for a quick read and boys who read it felt they were reading something sporty and distinguished at the same time. It lifted them up as readers. Can the same be said for Kwame Alexander’s follow-up, BOOKED?

Nick is 12 years old and loves soccer. Nick’s father is a wordsmith, college professor and Nick’s mother does not work but was once a promising race horse trainer. Nick and his best friend Coby are friendly soccer rivals and are excited about playing for the prestigious Dallas Cup, albeit against each other. Nick has a serious crush on April, who he attends ballroom dancing lessons with (on the behest of his mother), but the bullish twins Dean and Don keep getting in between the couple. Amidst all of this, Nick’s attempt to keep his sanity when his parents announce they are separating, is challenged greatly.

The problem with marketing BOOKED as a sports book or a soccer book, is that it is not really about sports or soccer. I would describe BOOKED as a middle grade coming-of-age story about a boy who happens to like soccer. The book has a lot going on, arguably too much. It’s deeper than most sports books tend to be and it includes very little actual soccer playing. The soccer scenes are few, fast, and fleeting. I think Nick would love to devote more time to playing soccer or thinking about soccer, but he has so much else going on in his life with his parents impending separation, his anxiety around April, his competitiveness with Coby, and putting up with the bullying behavior of the twins Dean and Don. Soccer is tossed in for good measure but it’s one of many things going on in this book.

So BOOKED is not really a sports book. That’s fine. I don’t want to complain about what the book isn’t. It has a lot to say about friendship and family. I like Nick’s relationship with Coby. Their friendship feels genuine to me as does their competitive rivalry. They seem like realistic kids. I also appreciated Nick’s shy nature toward April. In fact, this brought back middle school memories!

Verse novels are hard to read when the voice does not feel authentic, but this is not the case with BOOKED. Nick seems like the kind of kid that I could imagine thinking thoughts in verse. Because of his father’s linguistic background, Nick is a wordsmith himself, as his teachers discover. There’s depth to him. Depth that pours out in the slam poetry style narrative. It seems that Kwame Alexander has found his niche with this style of writing.

My praise ends there though. My main problem with BOOKED is that the story underneath the brilliant verse poetry, is rather boring. Nick is not all that compelling of a character and his supporting cast is rather thinly drawn. Kids with separated parents may be able to relate to some of the inner thinking Nick works through but all of the other problems Nick faces are very normal, boring middle school problems. He likes April but doesn’t know how to act confident around her. The twins pick on him but they are obviously just jerks. Nick isn’t mistreated by anyone else. Everything about Nick and his story is pretty ho-hum. Kwame Alexander attempts to raise the stakes at different times throughout the story but these attempts seem unnatural.

Kwame Alexander's voice is so different than anything else that is out there for kids right now. The man has talent. While I wasn't personally compelled by BOOKED, I admire and appreciate the style. I'm intrigued to read THE CROSSOVER now and see if the hype for BOOKED was well-deserved!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Heavy Medal Shortlist

This morning, Heavy Medal released their Mock Newbery shortlist. The list is:

  1. FULL OF BEANS by Jenni Holm
  2. GHOST by Jason Reynolds
  3. JUANA & LUCAS by Juana Medina
  4. PAX by Sara Pennypacker
  5. SAMURAI RISING by Pamela Turner
  6. SOME WRITER: THE STORY OF E.B. WHITE by Melissa Sweet
  7. WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES by Julie Fogliano
  8. WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER by Grace Lin
  9. WOLF HOLLOW by Lauren Wolk
I have read four of these titles (FULL OF BEANS, PAX, WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES, and WOLF HOLLOW). PAX remains my personal favorite but WOLF HOLLOW contains the best writing. I am still blown away by the poetry in WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES and find myself cheering that title on.

These Mock Newbery groups are great because you can really get a sense for how difficult it is to build consensus around a title. For that reason, I am betting that PAX falls. Its early hype has simmered and the discussion around it on Heavy Medal was surprisingly divisive. The initial conversation around SAMURAI RISING proved to illicit divisive feelings as well. Age appropriateness seemed to be an issue with WOLF HOLLOW

GHOST seems to be gaining hype among kidlit types online and everyone seems to love WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. As a Jenni Holm fan, I'm excited for the conversation to begin on FULL OF BEANS because my initial instinct was that it was okay. Grace Lin always seems to have a fan base and I've read some positive thoughts about Melissa Sweet's E.B. White book. I haven't heard much about JUANA & LUCAS.

I would have loved to see Adam Gidwitz's THE INQUISITOR'S TALE or Kelly Barnhill's THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON make the list, but Jonathan noted that their long length makes it a challenge to include them on a list of this nature. 

For now, my money is on GHOST or WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

When Green Becomes Tomatoes

Poetry and the Newbery Medal. Hmm… The two typically do not go hand in hand. Get a load of these stats:

The first Newbery Medal was awarded in 1922. That means there have been 95 Newbery Medal winning books. Most, but not all, years award Honors to runner-up books and these vary in amount. In total, 309 books have received a Newbery Honor since 1922. In total, that is 404 children’s books that sport either a gold or silver Medal.

How many of those were poetry books, would you assume?

Five.

That’s right. Five. Twice, a book of poetry has won the Newbery Medal, A VISIT TO WILLIAM BLAKE’S INN in 1982 and JOYFUL NOISE in 1989. Three times, a book of poetry has been awarded an Honor, ANAPO in 1978, THE SURRENDER TREE in 2009, and DARK EMPEROR in 2011. Five times in 404 opportunities. That is a rate of 1% of the time! Disclaimer: I did not include books like INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN, which is a novel written in verse. I was simply looking for books of poetry.

The Newbery Medal is awarded to the “most distinguished contribution to children’s literature.” Maybe it’s the term “literature” that steers the committee away from poetry. Nonetheless, based on the history (if my research is accurate), it would appear that poetry has to be truly exceptional to stand out in a field of strong fiction work each year to rise to the top and win a Newbery Medal.

Well, WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES by Julie Fogliano is truly exceptional.

The book starts in the spring:

March 20
From a snow-covered tree
One bird singing
Each tweet poking
A tiny hole
Through the edge of winter
And landing carefully
Balancing gently
On the tip of spring

Each poem advances the reader further through each season, from Spring, to Summer, to Fall, to Winter, and ending with the same March 20 poem in Spring bringing closure to the year. The poems vary in length and style. Each poem is perfectly paired with a beautiful illustration by Julie Morstad.

June 10 (“I don’t know much about flowers”), July 10 (“When green becomes tomatoes”), and October 31 (“Pumpkin sprout”) are personal favorites but too long to reprint here. Go check the book out and read them! But to give more of a taste of the quality, rhythm and style, here are a few shorter favorites from the book:

August 3
If you want to be sure
That you are nothing more than small
Stand at the edge of the ocean
Looking out

January 30
It is the best kind of day
When it is snowing
And the house
Sounds like slippers
And sipping
And there is nowhere to go
But the kitchen
For a cookie

I've never really understood poetry, the same way I've never really understood fine wine. I've never had the palate for it, no matter how hard I try to get into it. But occasionally, I'll taste a wine that I don't need a sophisticated palate to understand how good it is. It's just good. The same can be said for WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES. It's not hard to see how brilliant these poems are, and how perfect the collection is as a whole. You don't have to be familiar with, or understand poetry, to appreciate this collection. I read it once through and sat back and marveled at it. Then I shared it with my wife and kids and bragged it up to my mom and my coworkers. It's that good.

I am a reader of fiction. Poetry is outside of my comfort zone. WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES is so good though, that any reader will be able to recognize its distinguished qualities. I'm certain that the Newbery Medal committee members will as well.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

GHOSTS

I love comic books. I have a massive collection of Superman comic books. So you would think that graphic novels would be a natural fit. Yet, I really haven’t read many graphic novels for kids. My incorrect theory is that graphic novels came about in children’s literature to appeal to the reluctant reader and I’m not a reluctant reader. Maybe I just get my fill from reading the Man of Steel. Who knows! Either way, it’s hard to ignore the uptick in quality among graphic novels for children in recent years (EL DEAFO, ROLLER GIRL). Is GHOSTS by Raina Telgemeier a valuable contribution to the genre?

Catrina isn’t happy about moving to a new town and starting a new school but she takes one for the team like she always does when her sister’s well-being is at stake. Cat’s sister Maya has cystic fibrosis and the girls’ family is moving to a Northern California coastal town because they believe the sea air will be good for Maya’s breathing. While exploring their new community, the sisters meet Carlos who lets them in on a not-so-secret secret about Bahia de la Luna… It’s visited by ghosts! As Cat prepares for the town’s annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival, she wrestles with anxiety over new friendships and her sister’s health.

Raina Telgemeier’s books (SMILE, SISTERS, DRAMA) have always been popular with my students (girls, mostly) but I’ve never been interested enough to read one myself. One year I noticed that my classroom copy of SMILE just kept getting passed from girl to girl to girl and when I asked a few why they liked the book so much they were all in agreement that the characters spoke and behaved like real kids. Telgemeier seems to have the ability to tap into today’s children and speak their language through her characters. In GHOSTS, Maya’s energy is infectious (despite her weakening health) while any protective sibling will be able to relate to Cat’s anxiety and concern (Cat is more concerned about Maya’s health that Maya is). I think the inclusion of ghosts brings in a whole new set of readers for Telgemeier (not just girls) and with the backgrounds and ethnicities of my own students becoming more and more diverse every year, I appreciate the Mexican background of these characters.

However, I would be remiss not to mention, or share my thoughts on the controversy brewing about some of the cultural story elements of GHOSTS. There are two criticisms, really. The first is in regards to the ghosts that inhabit Bahia de la Luna. The ghosts come to Bahia de la Luna through a Spanish mission. Carlos explains to the girls that the Mission serves as a gateway to the undead. The ghosts are happy and interact peacefully with Bahia de la Luna’s citizens (as long as orange soda is supplied). However, the history of Spanish missions are not pleasant. Catholics used the missions to forcefully spread Christianity, wiping out large numbers of natives and their culture. Some readers have taken offense to the idea of Telgemeier’s ghosts having no recollection of this history. Is this cultural appropriation?

The other criticism is in regards to the Day of the Dead celebration at the end of the book. The Day of the Dead celebration in Bahia de la Luna takes on a whole new meaning when the dead literally visit and participate in the celebration. Critics of the book believe that Telgemeier has been disrespectful of the real event, whitewashing it in a way, and even confusing it with Halloween.

In my opinion, Telgemeier’s heart is in the right place. Carlos explains to the girls that the mission in Bahia de la Luna serves as a gateway for many ghosts, implying that the ghosts that visit did not live at the mission. They are merely using it to cross over. The mission is a set piece, nothing more, and I don’t feel that Telgemeier purposely misleads or misinforms readers. If anything, curious readers may choose to investigate the missions further and learn about their brutal history on their own. Telgemeier’s work of fiction here, doesn’t need to be their guide. As for the Day of the Dead celebration, I feel the same way. Telgemeier includes enough accurate details about the celebration (ofrendas, Catrina figure, November 1 celebration) to not mislead readers. She even draws upon her own actual experiences and includes an accurate description of the celebration in the back of her book. In this work of fiction, it would be perfectly understandable if the Day of the Dead celebration took on a different look than its traditional one since actual ghosts are participating. And as with the missions, readers are invited to investigate on their own. I think the perspectives offered by those criticizing the book are valuable and thought-provoking, but I also find them a little unfair toward Telgemeier because I don’t think they actually apply to her book.

Criticisms aside, GHOSTS doesn't spend much time on the bookshelf in my classroom. It is always in some student's hands, like most of Telgemeier's books. Even boys are giving this one a go and enjoying it. The Scholastic book fair rolled into town this week for parent conferences and Maya and Cat are plastered on most of the marketing around my school too! In my opinion, GHOSTS does not compare to recent graphic novel tour de forces like EL DEAFO or ROLLER GIRL. Telgemeier's attempt at magical realism falls a little flat because the details of this world are not fully explored (Where do the ghosts come from? Why do they love orange soda?). Like EL DEAFO and ROLLER GIRL however, GHOSTS is a touching story that will broaden readers' perspectives.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Diverse Picture Books

Last year when LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET won the Newbery Medal, I was a bit skeptical. Out of all the incredible novels and works of nonfiction that are released within a given year, how was it that the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" was a book of no more than 32 pages with pictures supporting most of its text? Then I read it, and found some respect for the committee that chose it. It's text is sparse, but fantastic. While I still would personally rather see a longer novel or work of nonfiction win the Newbery Medal, LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET opened my eyes up to the text within picture books. I picked up the following books at my public library for a change of pace...

FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE tells the story of slaves in New Orleans and the unique French law that allowed them a free day from work, on Sunday. Slaves would gather together in many locations until 1817 when a city law designated one location for slaves to gather: Congo Square. It was here, where slaves sang and danced, socialized, and bought and sold goods and produce. Congo Square, at the time, truly was "freedom's heart."

"Mondays, there were hogs to slop, mules to train, and logs to chop. Slavery was no ways fair. Six more days to Congo Square." The story is told as a poem, just a few lines to a page, each day as strenuous as the one before but one day closer to freedom in Congo Square. The poetry is beautifully descriptive and its cadence is perfect. Each word, each line is carefully crafted. The illustrations are colorful and pair perfectly with each couplet. The glossary at the back of the book highlights 11 words from the text, a nice attempt to build vocabulary. The book is surprisingly celebratory and hopeful, considering its subject matter.

FREEDOM OVER ME is a difficult book to digest. The book centers around an appraisal completed for a Mrs. Fairchilds. Mrs. Fairchilds' husband passed away and concerned with stories of runaway and revolting slaves, she decided to have her slaves appraised with her estate so she could move back to England. Author Ashley Bryan tells the story of Mrs. Fairchilds eleven slaves, detailing what their lives in the Fairchilds' estate are like and what their dreams are from Africa.

"In recognizing our skills and labor, how can owners say we are property, priced and valued like cotton, cattle, hogs?" Each slave gets two pages of verse poetry and beautiful accompanying illustrations. One page details their responsibilities in the Big House, the other page shares their hopes and dreams. The verse poetry is more straightforward here, not as rhythmic as the poetry in CONGO SQUARE. The format however, is emotionally effective. Your heart aches for these people, who had their freedom, families, and cultures ripped away from them. An actual appraisal scan makes up the last page, further confounding how we ever as a race felt it was okay to buy and sell humans like crops and cattle.

JAZZ DAY is one cool book, honoring one cool group of musicians! It tells the story behind creating a famous 1958 Esquire magazine photo, titled Harlem 1958. Art Kane is the photographer who attempted to gather as many jazz musicians as possible in front of a New York brownstone to photograph as a group. Each page is its own separate poem (with a title) honoring a jazz artist or memory from that day. I particularly liked the poems about the neighborhood boys (Scuffle) getting into trouble throughout the 4-5 hour shoot. Together, the separate poems tell the crazy, joyous story of gathering together for that photograph.

Incorporating the real photograph was clever and I appreciated the profiles in the back of the book that provide information on each of the musicians highlighted throughout the story. The poetry threw me a bit. It was a bit disjointed, sometimes verse, sometimes free form, and I'm not sure kids (who aren't jazz fans) will be able to take away much meaning. I admire the project though and the illustrations are awesome.

FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE is probably my favorite of this group, but I liked all of them. CONGO SQUARE reminds me of LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET the most, in the powerful simplicity of its poetry and its celebratory tone. FREEDOM OVER ME and JAZZ DAY both exceed in creativity however and would both surely broaden the minds of young readers who happen to pick them up.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Raymie Nightingale

Raymie Clarke’s father left town with a dental hygienist. Raymie is sure that if she wins Little Miss Central Florida Tire, her father will come home to her and her mother. In order to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire though, Raymie needs to learn how to twirl a baton and its at her baton twirling lessons where Raymie meets two other girls hoping to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire: whimsical Louisiana Elefante and saboteur Beverly Tapinski. Over the course of the summer, the three girls bond over the sadness in each of their lives.

In my opinion, the best way to talk about RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE is to pretend that Kate DiCamillo didn’t write it. That way, bias can be set aside. DiCamillo has a well-earned following. THE TIGER RISING and BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE are widely studied in elementary classrooms across the country. She has multiple Newbery Medals and Honors to her name. She’s a talented wordsmith and storyteller. But does that mean RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE is any good?

When you discover that you are not the ideal reader for a book, it seems a little unfair to continue reading it with a critical eye. DiCamillo’s fans will undoubtedly adore this book. I can’t say that I did. Maybe it’s because I keep trying to imagine Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly in my 5th grade classroom. I can’t imagine them fitting in socially with many other kids. This is why they are drawn to each other. They are equally quirky and desperate. Sure, the friendship they form is sweet, but it’s also clunky and convenient. Their lives are filled with sadness and the resolution of the story brings no real closure to their glum situations. They call themselves the “Three Rancheros,” but I’m not sure if they actually like each other, or if they are just forced to because they have no one else.

This was probably DiCamillo’s point, and if the plot of this story would not have been so thin I could have forgiven the similarly drawn characters, but events transpire for the sake of the story and not in a genuine fashion. I found myself caring for the characters only because they were drawn so sad and not because of their development or depth.

There is no question that DiCamillo is one of the best, but this sad little story of convenient friendship doesn't compare to her other accomplished work.