beads

Diversity in Verse Novels – Part II

I love reading verse novels. There’s something so alluring about them. If you’re not familiar with the genre, it’s a form in which the entire story is told in a series of non-rhyming poems, usually from the perspective of the main character (or switching back and forth between several characters). I find it to be a unique and beautiful way to get inside the thoughts of a character.

It’s a wonderful genre for diverse stories. The format of narrative poems allows for such intimate access to each character’s point of view. I find that even if the character is very different from me, I can understand his or her perspective more easily when I engage with poems like these.

I’ve already written one post about diversity in verse novels (you can find Part I here), but I just had to share a few more of my favorites.

Brown Girl Dreaming – by Jacqueline Woodson

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This memoir, written as a series of narrative poems, tells the story of the author’s childhood during the 1960s and 70s. I was particularly struck by her comparisons of the culture of her home in New York with the culture of her mother’s family in South Carolina. Deftly written and inspiring.

The Crossover – by Kwame Alexander

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The language in this novel packs a punch. Each poem is full of movement and motion, sizzling across the page. The story is about basketball, but it’s also about brotherhood, about navigating adolescence, about working through family tension. It’s an engaging story, and a joy to read.

Audacity – by Melanie Crowder

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This powerfully written story was inspired by true events in the life of Clara Lemlich. It deals with immigration, antisemitism, women’s rights, labor rights, and protest, all in a very readable and accessible way. A Jewish immigrant from Russia in the early 20th century, Clara refuses to accept the terrible working conditions prevalent in her new community in New York. Her story is inspiring and expertly told.

Red Butterfly – by A.L. Sonnichsen

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Kara has never met her birth mother. She was abandoned as an infant but taken in and cared for by an American woman living in China. She’s knows that something is unusual — even wrong — about her life, but she can’t quite figure out what’s going on. Why is she kept out of sight in their tiny apartment in Tianjin? Why can’t she and her American mother join Daddy in the U.S.? An intriguing and compelling story about adoption, family, and being undocumented.

Serafina’s Promise – by Ann E. Burg

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Serafina dreams of becoming a doctor someday. But her dream would require her to attend school, and money for a uniform and supplies is non-existent. Besides, Serafina’s mother needs her at home, to prepare for the arrival of the new baby — the whole family is hoping against hope that this time the baby will live past infancy. Set in Haiti, against the backdrop of the 2010 earthquake, this book is filled with hope and determination.

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Best Books of 2016

There were so many wonderful books published in 2016, it was hard to pick my favorites. But there were a few that particularly stuck out to me. Here they are:

Fiction

War and Turpentine – by Stefan Hertmans

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This book took me completely off guard. It’s a fictionalized account of the author’s grandfather: his life as an artist, the trauma of WWI in Belgium, and the shattering of an old way of life. Perhaps because it’s fiction that borders on memoir, the characters seemed so real, so vivid, so fragile. I’m looking forward to re-reading it again and again over the years.

Memoir

Lab Girl – by Hope Jahren

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I’m fascinated by memoirs by people who are passionate about things I know very little about. That was definitely the case with Lab Girl. Hope Jahren is a scientist studying trees and plant life, but her memoir covers so much more than science. It’s the story of a woman trying desperately to prove herself in a field full of men. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship with her oddball lab partner Bill. It’s the story of a fight against mental illness and a tenuous questioning of the workings of the mind. Hope tells her story against the backdrop of short essays about the trees she studies, and it ties together to create a thing of beauty.

History

A House Full of Daughters – by Juliet Nicolson

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Not many people can trace the women in their family back seven generations the way that Juliet Nicolson can. But she has fascinating stories to tell of the women in her family all the way back to the 1830s. In the midst of telling her own family story through the eyes of its women, she traces the historical context of these women’s lives as well as exploring the angst-ridden relationships of mother and daughter that travel throughout the years. I found it to be beautifully written, and intriguing in its scope and focus.

Poetry

The Rain in Portugal – by Billy Collins

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I’ve loved Billy Collins’ poetry for years — he treats poetry so lightly and includes such winning humor, yet his poems have moments of true depth and poignancy as well. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. He covers topics as various as jazz music, a lonely summer from his childhood, and the ghosts of siblings he never had.

Science

The Gene – by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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This fascinating and highly readable book offers the history of genetics in a way that blends history, science, sociology, and personal narrative in a compelling way. Mukherjee draws us in with his own family story of genetically transmitted mental illness, and then takes us on a fascinating history of how the gene was discovered and explored. He starts with Pythagoras and Aristotle and takes us through the mapping of the human genome. In an age of so much change and discovery in the field of genetics, I found this book to be particularly intriguing.

Science Fiction

The Paper Menagerie – by Ken Liu

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This grouping of science fiction short stories blew me away. Each story is original, unusual, and written with subtlety and grace. The sheer diversity among the stories caught my attention — some are more traditional science fiction with astronauts on ships; others are speculative fiction about how history could have been different; some are set in our own world with one thing slightly “off.” There’s a murder mystery with a cyborg detective, a tale about the last living Japanese man, a story about humanity’s shift into a robotic form. Overall, it’s a book with gripping storytelling, compelling new ideas, and beautiful prose.

Fantasy

The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

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This is the story of an enmagicked girl, a snarky witch, a disgruntled swamp monster, and paper cranes that come to life. The world-building is beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, and the story wends between humor and pathos in a compelling way.

Middle Grades Fiction

The Wild Robot – by Peter Brown

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I found myself utterly charmed by the antics of Roz, a robot who comes to consciousness one day, finding herself alone on a wilderness island. She explores the secrets of her own existence and develops relationships with the animals who inhabit the island. The juxtaposition of the mechanical and the wild creates an intriguing world, and the illustrations that appear throughout the book only add to the delight.

If you have a middle grades reader in your house, be sure to check out my post on the 10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016 as well!

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10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016

So much fantastic middle grades fiction came out this past year. Here are the 10 that particularly captivated me:

1. Wild Robot – by Peter Brown

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This quirky and charming story follows the adventures of Roz, a robot who wakes up alone on a wilderness island.

2. The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

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This evocative fantasy tells the tale of an oppressed village, a enmagicked girl who drinks light from the moon, and a snarky witch.

3. When the Sea Turned to Silver – by Grace Lin

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An exciting tale of adventure and discovery that features a variety of Chinese folk tales and beautifully rendered illustrations.

4. Wolf Hollow – by Lauren Wolk

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At times rather brutal in its content, this book follows the compelling tale of a young girl caught up in the defense of an ostracized World War I veteran in small town Pennsylvania.

5. Anna and the Swallow Man – by Gavriel Savit

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The haunting tale of a young girl and the stranger she meets as they both try to escape from Nazi-occupied Poland.

6. Paper Wishes – by Lois Stepahban

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A moving story about a young Japanese-American girl in a World War II era internment camp.

7. Grayling’s Song – by Karen Cushman

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An engaging journey-style fantasy, with a memorable cast of characters.

8. Full of Beans – by Jennifer Holm

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A mischievous boy in Depression-era Florida tries to earn money and interacts with the “New Dealers” who come to implement changes in his town.

9. It Ain’t So Awful Falafel – by Firoozeh Dumas

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The charming story of an Iranian girl adjusting to life in the states during the 1970s. Funny and serious at the same time, it explores the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis.

10. The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price – by Jennifer Maschari

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This unusual and compelling story makes use of magical realism in its exploration of a young boy’s grief over losing his mother.

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Diverse Books for Back-to-School

The voices vary. But whether it’s a girl from Iran adjusting to school in America, a deaf girl learning to incorporate her hearing aid into her school life, or a native boy attending a white school off the reservation, they all have stories to tell and perspectives to share. School isn’t the only topic addressed in any of these books, but it serves as a central space in all of these stories, as the characters work out their struggles and identities.

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel – by Firoozeh Dumas

it ain't so awful

This is the funny and heart-warming story of Zomorod, a young Iranian girl who changes her name to Cindy in order to fit into 1970s America. The Iranian hostage crisis occurs as the story progresses, forcing Cindy to confront her cultural identity in new ways. (Ages 10+)

Save Me a Seat – by Sarah Weeks and Rita Varadarajan

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It’s the first week of 5th grade for both Ravi and Joe. Ravi was the star student in his school in India, but he can’t seem to get the hang of this new school in the US. School has always been difficult for Joe because of his auditory processing disorder, but he’s expecting this year to be even worse. A difficult first week of school unites the boys in ways they didn’t expect. (Ages 8+)

Unidentified Suburban Object – by Mike Jung

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Chloe is fed up with being the only Korean-American in her school. She’s tired of her band director comparing her to the famous Korean violinist, Abigail Yang, and she’s tired of everyone assuming that she’ll be good at math and music just because of her heritage. Her frustration and confusion isn’t helped by the fact that her parents refuse to discuss their Korean heritage. Told in Chloe’s spunky first-person voice, and ramping up into a fun sci-fi themed adventure, this book is hard to put down. (Ages 8+)

Full Cicada Moon – by Marilyn Hilton

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The year is 1969, and Mimi has just moved to a small town in Vermont with her Japanese mother and African-American father. Her mixed ethnicity is enough to set her apart, but she’s also a girl with stereotypically “male interests” — she’d much rather attend shop class rather than home-ec, and wants to go to the moon someday. Told in a series of narrative poems, this story is strikingly beautiful and stays in the imagination long after the book is put down. (Ages 8+)

El Deafo – by Cece Bell

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Cece lost her hearing in a childhood bout of meningitis. This is her warm and funny memoir (told in the format of a graphic novel) about what it was like to grow up and attend school with a bulky hearing aid strapped to her chest. (Ages 8+)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – by Sherman Alexie

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When Junior decides to attend a mostly white school that’s off of his reservation, he’s almost immediately confronted by the issue of his split identity. The other members of his native tribe consider him a traitor and white-lover for attending the new school, and his classmates single him out as the only Indian in the school. Written in a strong, robust voice, and dealing with issues of racism, poverty, and alcoholism in a realistic yet compassionate way, this book is a powerful addition to the conversation around diversity. The book doesn’t shy away from confronting difficult subject matter, and is recommended for ages 12+.

 

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Save Me a Seat – by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

save me a seatIt’s the first week of 5th grade for both Joe and Ravi, and things are not going well. Joe was expecting trouble — he’s been the target of the school bully for years, and he knew this year would be worse for him since his mom just took a job as the school lunch monitor. School has never been easy for him, since he struggles with Auditory Processing Disorder, but until this year, lunchtime was his favorite part of the day. Now that is ruined too.

Ravi, on the other hand, was not expecting any difficulty. He was the top student at his school in Bangalore, as well as being popular and a good cricket player to boot. He’s sure he’ll fit right in at his new school in the US. Yet it seems that misunderstanding and humiliation are waiting for him at every turn. His teacher mispronounces his name, and the class as a whole can’t seem to understand his accent. He’s sent to the resource room for help with his English skills, even though English is his first language. Everything he does to try to establish his competence and identity winds up slapping him in the face. He’s bullied and teased by the people he thought would be his friends, and he can’t seem to find his footing at this new school.

The book switches back and forth between Joe and Ravi’s perspectives, often addressing the same events from different points of view. The narration flows seamlessly, and the reader comes to know and understand both boys individually. They have very distinct voices, and the immediacy of the writing makes it seem as though they’re talking to us. This is a story about the dangers of relying on assumptions and stereotypes, and about the trust and growth that come from learning to see another person’s point of view. Both boys grow and mature in their own ways over the course of this difficult week in their lives.

My only complaint was that the book ended too abruptly. The two boys recount their experiences throughout the first week of school, but it’s not until Friday that they give each other a chance and end up becoming friends. There is so much potential in their friendship, and I would have loved to see a more fleshed out exploration of their relationship. So much of the book takes place when both boys are isolated and alone. I wanted to see how they worked through their differences and became close.

At the end of the book, the authors provide some additional cultural resources. There are two separate dictionaries (one with terms that Ravi uses and another with terms that Joe uses) — a tool that could surpass its obvious use as a source of definitions. American students who are needing to look up terms like “dosa” or “tennikoit” might find it thought-provoking to see entries for “M&Ms” or “snow globe” in the accompanying dictionary. It can be enlightening to see how many things are familiar to us simply because of our cultural context. The book also closes with two recipes — one for the apple crisp that Joe’s mom makes, and the other for naan khatais that Ravi’s mom makes. Making and sharing food cross-culturally is always a good starting point in building solidarity and understanding.

Overall I found this book to a very satisfying read. I came to feel a close connection to both boys, and was drawn in to see what would happen to them. It’s a beautiful reminder to seek to understand the people around us, and not to judge based on preconceptions and assumptions.

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Just Like Me – by Nancy Cavanaugh

just like me.jpgThe three girls were all adopted from the same orphanage in China. They all have the same donated baby blankets, and the same posed snapshots of themselves at the orphanage. Their adoptive parents have remained close after sharing the life changing experience of travelling to China to pick up their new daughters.

But now the girls are eleven, and they’ve become very different people. Becca and Avery live in the same neighborhood and are best friends. Becca is a soccer star and Avery is a whiz at school, and both girls share an interest in their Chinese heritage — they’re studying both Mandarin and Cantonese, and they enjoy eating with chopsticks and carrying Chinese fans.

Julia, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with her Chinese heritage. She doesn’t feel Chinese at all, and wishes people would stop bringing it up. Julia feels like she barely knows Becca and Avery, and doesn’t see why the fact that they were at a Chinese orphanage together should give them any sort of special connection.

But now Ms. Maricia, the International Adoption Co-ordinator, has asked the three girls if she can write a follow-up article about their stories. The three girls are sent off to a summer church camp together for a week, to bond together and discuss their adoption stories. Julia grudgingly agrees to go along with the plan, although spending a week “bonding with” Becca and Avery is the last thing she wants to do.

Now, this book could have been a pretty cliché summer camp story, with the grumbling girl who ends up having a great time, and the fighting cabin that learns to get along. But it ended up being so much more than that. There’s an empathy that develops as the girls learn to trust each other that reaches far beyond the traditional “frenemy” trope. And while the story of the three girls’ adoption from China is a strong theme throughout the book, it doesn’t come at the cost of the other campers’ stories — one girl in the cabin admits that her parents are recently separated; another is in the foster care system. It’s a beautiful picture of how isolating “being different” can feel, but how in reality we are often surrounded by other people who feel just as isolated and “different” as we do.

The author of this book is an adoptive mom herself, and while every experience of adoption is unique, this book deals in a complex and authentic way with the emotions and issues it addresses. The setting of summer camp is perfect — there’s lots of action and fun, but it still allows space for self discovery in the characters. I grew to love the characters in this book — not only Julia and her “Chinese sisters,” but the rest of the girls in her cabin as well. It was also beautiful to watch Julia, Becca, and Avery respond to their adoptions stories and their Chinese heritage in their own individual way. I felt the book acknowledged the unique journey that each individual must take in response his or her own adoption story, while also showing how helpful it can be to share the journey with someone else who has been through the same thing.

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The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price – by Jennifer Maschari

charlie priceCharlie Price, a 12-year old boy who loves math and scavenger hunts, is trying to hold things together after his mother’s death from cancer. Sometimes it seems to be working: he’s back on the mathletes team and has some wonderful friends around him. When he answers a difficult math problem correctly, he has the feeling that some questions do actually have answers. But other times, when his dad is working late (again), and he and his sister Imogen try to make spaghetti like their mom used to (and fail rather spectacularly in the attempt) — it all seems to be falling apart.

Then he notices that Imogen is starting to behave rather oddly. She disappears during the middle of the day and doesn’t show up for scheduled activities. She seems to be tired all the time, and even quits theater — an activity that she used to live for. Charlie discovers her secret: she’s found a portal to an alternate reality where their mom is still alive. Charlie is blown away — they can spend time with their mom again! — what could be better? But soon he realizes that this seemingly perfect world hides a dark and dangerous secret of its own. After he spends time with this alternate-Mom, his real memories of his Mom start to disappear. Also, the photographs of himself and Imogen are fading from the real world — fading more and more quickly as they spend more and more time in the alternate world. Can he save himself and his sister before it’s too late?

This poignant book deals with one of the most difficult hypothetical situations that I can imagine — if you had the choice between a world that was real but filled with loss and grief or a world that wasn’t real but where you could be with a lost loved-one, which would you choose? The issues of grief and memory are handled in a beautiful and compelling way, and in a way that I think will be very accessible to its intended audience of young people. This book is definitely on the heavy side for middle grades fiction, but it’s big-hearted and genuine in its acknowledgement of the difficulty of grief and also the importance of holding on to life.

I found the magical realism elements in this book to be very compelling as well. It’s the sort of middle grades magical realism that I associate with books like Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me — the supernatural elements are woven seamlessly and un-selfconsciously into the narrative flow of highly realistic fiction. The author uses these elements of magical realism to explore the landscape of grief in a way that also makes for an exciting and suspenseful story. The emotional journey is made through actions and choices in an alternate realm — not just locked up in someone’s head.

This is a beautiful book, but be prepared to “feel all the feels.” It’s about choosing life over grief. Choosing to make new memories rather than live in a world solely composed of past memories. There’s deep sadness but also hope. Grief and anger but also love and friendship. It’s a book that I think will stay with me for a long time.