Category Archives: Book Reviews

Windows/Mirrors Book Review: Each Kindness

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

This bi-weekly #Windows/Mirrors series of book reviews, inspired by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, offers children’s books created by or about people of diversity.

“And every day after that…I looked away and didn’t smile back.”

Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis, Nancy Paulsen Books (An Imprint of Penguin Group), 2012, winner of a Coretta Scott King Honor and the Jane Addams Peace Award

This atypical story about unkindness at school centers on the bully and not the bullied.

Read this book because the narrator’s journey from complicit cruelty to regret at missed opportunities will open the eyes and hearts of children, allowing them to examine their own treatment of peers critically, and yet with compassion.

Writers will enjoy the way every word counts, builds and repeats, creating a vortex around the lonely eye of the storm, where the new girl waits to be loved.

Artists will savor E. B. White’s watercolor palette of light and the way he uses expression and perspective to reveal the tensions and center of the story. From the new girl’s downcast eyes or hopeful smile, to a classmate’s sneer or the main character’s scowl, children’s faces draw a painful story to our attention and into our hearts.

Add this book to your collection because we live in a time where each kindness matters.

More books by Jacqueline Woodson:

 

More books illustrated by E. B. Lewis:

“Every little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world.”

 

Windows/Mirrors Book Review: Harvesting Hope – The Story of César Chávez

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

This weekly #Windows/Mirrors series of book reviews, inspired by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, offers children’s books created by or about people of diversity.

I am so proud of the American people at this time in history. It seems that nothing can silence the dialogue we want to have about equity, oppression, privilege and inclusion. Although at times we may find it difficult or impossible to find common ground in our conversations with each other, we are talking and we are listening.

Join the conversation! Read a diverse book to a child in your life, and tell us what you talked about. Head over to #TimeToListenTuesday to read a perspective you might not normally seek. Leave a comment and tell me what you think. Thanks for reading!

“Nearly every crop caused torment.”

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Harvesting Hope: The Story of César Chávez, by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales, Scholastic, 2003, Pura Belpré Honor Book

Highlighting the fierce spirit and warm purpose of César Chávez, this book tells the story of his life from childhood to death, highlighting the birth of La Causa, the 1965 march to Sacramento, and the signing of the first contract for farmworkers in American history.

Read this book because it will evoke a deep empathy for the struggles of migrant workers to put food on America’s tables, and live with dignity and prosperity. From the mockery and punishment that César Chávez endured for speaking Spanish in school to the hunger strikes that changed the fortunes of huge produce companies, the story of César’s vision and determination will inspire all of us to fully inhabit our own power for change.

Writers will enjoy the language that quietly reveals the evolution of César from a beloved child to a fierce fighter for the rights of his fellow farmworkers. As a child, “César thought the whole world belonged to his family” when they still owned their ranch in Arizona. Later it becomes clear that this personal point of reference helped César develop his sense of injustice, first realizing that “farm chores on someone else’s farm instead of his own felt like a form of slavery,” then developing his conviction that “farmwork did not have to be so miserable.”

Artists will enjoy the warm palette and hopeful brushstrokes of Yuji Morales’ luminous artwork, as well as the thoughtful details of every spread. On a page where César’s mother cautions him against physical violence, her dress flows like the land beneath her child, embracing and connecting. When the family loses their ranch to drought, a stubborn horse and looming bulldozer in the background allude to the much larger conflict between family farms and industrial farming. The rounded body shapes in a spread describing the backbreaking conditions of farmworkers evoke Diego Rivera, and on a page where César begins recruiting people to join his fight “one by one,” a single farmworker makes eye contact with him from across the field as she hefts a flat of strawberries.

Add this book to your collection because like its title, this book grows hope that as individuals and as a people, we can make changes in our world for equity and humanity.

More books by Kathleen Krull:

More books by Yuyi Morales:

“In a fight for justice, he told everyone, truth was a better weapon than violence.”

 

 

The Crossover: A Windows/Mirrors Book Review

“If my hair were a tree, I’d climb it.”

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The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander, Houghton Mifflin, 2015

Rhythm, meaning, heart – all the elements of great poetry, employed to tell a story from a compelling point of view. Two young African American twins struggle with identity, competition, puberty and loss.

Read this book because it’s the real deal, taking on big topics like first love, brotherly love, injury and forgiveness, and especially health, illness and death.

Writers will enjoy the satisfying playfulness of the language, rhythm and onomatopoeia perfectly placed to convey emotion and energy and the ups and downs of growing up.

Add this book to your collection because there are not enough basketball-bouncing, brothers trouncing, soul-sifting, heart-uplifting stories for African American teens out there, and certainly not ones written in flawless verse.

Other books by Kwame Alexander include:

Read more about The Crossover here:

At the 2015 SCBWI LA Conference, Kwame’s keynote presentation features this advice to writers and basketball players and boys alike:

“Hustle dig

Grind push

Run fast

Change pivot

Chase pull

Aim shoot

Work smart

Live smarter

Play hard

Practice harder.”

 

 

Windows and Mirrors Book Review: The Lost Celt

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

“The Celt relaxes his fists. Something changes because his eyes aren’t fierce anymore. They’re a warm, bright blue like two penny-sized chunks of sky stuck in a face as weathered as our redwood deck, and he looks like he wants to cry.”

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The Lost Celt
, by A.E. ConranGosling Press, an imprint of Goosebottom Books, 2016

Fourth Graders Mikey and Kyler are convinced that they’ve seen a real live Celtic warrior transported to the present as part of a secret defense project. If they track him down, they’re sure to reveal the secrets of time-travel once and for all, and write the best Veteran’s Day report in the history of fourth grade while they’re at it. Instead, they discover a different secret: the invisible effects of war on veterans of all generations and their families and the transcendent power of friendship.

Read this book because of its complex exploration of what it means to be a warrior for young boys obsessed with “war games.” A. E. Conran, who grew up in England listening to the stories of older generations who lived through the World Wars on home soil, both honors the contribution warriors make to our world and also illuminates the burdens they bear on our behalf. Rich with family relationships across the generations, real with mixed-race families and absent parents, this book elevates the allure of a mystery (the cover is printed in Hardy Boys blue and yellow) with the diversity and depth of its world.

Writers will enjoy the way Conran perfectly crafts her middle grade voice. The central role of Mikey’s relationships—with his mom who requires that he “breathe toothpaste on her” to prove he’s brushed his teeth, and his Grandpa who makes him ”chocolate-spread sandwich[es] the size of [his] military history book”—ring true for a fourth grade boy still connected to his family but old enough to sneak out after dark for the adventure of a lifetime. Conran gets every detail of voice right, from Mikey’s gullibility to his desire to impress a kind teacher with his Veteran’s Day report to his confusion about a class bully.

Add this book to your collection because there are not many books for children on post-traumatic stress that tell soldiers’ stories with so much compassion and depth. Conran delivers a sensitive examination of this intergenerational and societal problem in a gripping adventure story.

Read more about debut author A. E. Conran here:

Buy the book here:

“It’s a hard battle to get back to normal.”

Windows and Mirrors Book Review: Watch the Sky

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

“Jory’s stepfather “was fickle with explanations. Sometimes he shared them. Sometimes he didn’t. But he had no problem giving orders, mostly camouflaged as suggestions.”

Watch the SkyWatch the Sky, by Kirsten Hubbard, Disney-Hyperion, 2015

“Remember: you can’t trust anyone but your family.” Caleb rescued Jory’s agoraphobic mom from an ugly confrontation in the restaurant where she was forced to work after his dad left them. For a while, Caleb offers a sense of safety to the entire family. But now that Jory’s in the fifth grade, he’s starting to doubt the direction of his stepdad’s leadership. Especially since the “signs” have initiated a secretive night-time schedule of digging for the entire family. Worried that the Officials will find out about the little sister he’s not supposed to have, confused about the friendship offered by his peers, Jory’s questions threaten the foundation of trust that has anchored his family for the last few years. But when he realizes what loyalty to his family will really mean, he’s faced with hard truths and new choices.

Read this book because the spare language leads straight into the characters’ inner lives, revealing their fears and doubts as well as their strengths and loyalties. Hubbard flawlessly filters the story through Jory’s ten-year old perspective, illuminating the world as he sees and understands it, creating page-turning tension as his awareness unfolds.

Add this book to your collection because “Jory’s family was a different kind of different.” Middle-grade children are busy building perspective on their families. Developing healthy boundaries depends on the kind of insight that Jory earns in his story; readers puzzling over their own family dynamics will learn from him.

Other books by Kirsten Hubbard include:

Trust. Jory tried to hang on to it—trust in one hand, son in the other–even after he glimpsed the chain saw.”

Windows/Mirrors Book Review: A Thirst for Home

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

A Thirst for Home“Emaye cried, and her tears were like raindrops so precious that I tried to collect them with the scarf she gave me.”

A Thirst for Home, by Christine Ieronimo, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Walker Books for Young Readers (Bloomsbury imprint), 2014

In a spare, lyrical and moving debut, Christine Ieronimo tells a story inspired by her newly adopted Ethiopian daughter, whom she discovered one morning drinking from a puddle in the driveway. With deep empathy, the author portrays the complex issues of international adoption through the story of water, which “connects us to everyone and everywhere.”

Read this book because Eric Velasquez’s illustrations convey grief, love, privation, doubt, connection and transformation with uplifting composition and color. From beginning to end, this story honors the place Alemitu/Eva’s birth mother will always have in her life, beautifully symbolized by a long, floating yellow scarf her Emaye gave her when they parted. Alemitu’s bond with her adoptive mother grows from introduction to feeling “safe again” in just one spread, which feels a bit fast and unrealistic, especially for the the older girl depicted. However, Eva carries her homeland with her as she experiences her new world—whenever she gets water from a faucet, carries a backpack of books to school, takes off her shoes because she misses her feet, or remembers her mother. Without portraying either the birth family or adoptive family as “better” or “worse,” the story emphasizes both families’ fierce commitment to the bright future of this child.

Writers will enjoy the gentle cycling of lyrical language and ideas, such as when the sun whispering “my name with its hot, sticky breath” early in the book becomes the wind whispering “my name with its crisp, cool sigh.” The magnificent structure of the book centers around a key metaphor that occurs on the third spread, when Alemitu looks at her reflection in the watering hole and imagines that it contains a secret passage to “the other side.” The story balances on the moment when Alemitu leaves Ethiopia with her adoptive mom to become Eva, and the meaning of her name changes from “world” to “life.” The images that come up in the first seven spreads, all set in Ethiopia—names, water sources, shimmering surfaces of water, strong feet, “the fierce lion” of hunger, bundles of wood and sleeping with a parent—all recur in the next seven spreads in her new setting, on the other side of the journey—creating a subtle and satisfying resonance for readers.

Add this book to your collection because Ieronimo as a writer and a mother (see interview here)  grapples with an adopted child’s loss and culture shock in a way that is both honest and hopeful, and Velasquez paints his characters with realism and heart.

Other books illustrated by Eric Velasquez include:

Beautiful Moon: A Child’s Prayer

Twice as Good: The Story of William Powell and Clearview

Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper

Written and illustrated by Eric Velasquez:

Grandma’s Gift

Grandma’s Records

Watch a video of the author’s experience visiting her daughter’s home village here.

“The water has connected my two worlds, and I know who I am.”

Windows/Mirrors Book Review: Ling & Ting, Not Exactly the Same

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

Ellen Oh‘s article Dear White Writers poses some interesting questions for me as a curator of this Diverse Book Review series. She challenges white writers to support #WNDB by reading, buying and promoting diverse books, not necessarily by attempting to write them. That is not to say that authors can never cross color/other lines in their fiction–many writers of many backgrounds do this successfully. But what happens when privileged writers claim the diverse spaces on publishers’ booklists when we know that those spaces are limited? Writers of color and other diverse backgrounds can get edged out of the opportunity to tell their own stories, as described by Jacqueline Woodson in her post “Who Can Tell My Story?”. Not okay.

So for today’s Windows/Mirrors Book Review, and in honor of the Year of the Monkey, I am pleased to present, telling her own story:

Ling & TIng Not Exactly the SameLing & Ting: Not Exactly the Same, by Grace Lin, Little, Brown and Company, 2010

“‘Oh good,” Ling says. ‘I know this story.’”

If you were ever a fan of Frog & Toad, you will love Ling & Ting. Grace Lin perfectly captures the back and forth of a close friendship between two very different people, and like Arnold Lobel, highlights those differences as the root of the loving humor in her stories.

Read this book because it’s the first of four, so you will get to spend a lot of time with these spunky sisters. The language of each chapter cycles back on itself in a way that always moves the story forward, so it supports readers without becoming repetitive. Likewise, the structure of the book builds a cumulative story to a satisfying ending.

Add this book to your collection because Lin has thoughtfully layered her work to be engaging, accessible to new readers, culturally normative AND culturally informative. Its main characters—two twin girls of Chinese descent—challenge the racist stereotype that “all Asians look alike,” something that Lin considered carefully when developing her story. In the illustrations, the Ling & Ting not only dress identically, but also look identical, until the fateful moment early in the series when the irrepressible Ting cannot sit still for her haircut. But in personality the girls could not be more distinct, even though they amiably share interests and activities in all the stories.

“Making Dumplings” was one of my favorite stories, especially with the artistic reference to In the Night Kitchen on the title page. Lin manages to weave in the cultural meaning of dumplings  without being the least bit didactic, in a way that further illuminates the premise of the entire book—to be twins does not mean to be exactly the same. The following story, “Chopsticks,” hilariously relates a common childhood experience for many—the challenge of chopsticks.

As a writer, I particularly admire the metaliterary element of the stories “The Library Book,” in which a book refers Ting back to an earlier story, and “Mixed Up,” which like Lobel’s “The Story,” contains a story within a story.

More Books by Grace Lin include:

Novels—

Chapter Books—

Picture Books—

Illustrated by Grace Lin—

More from Grace Lin:

“Books erase bias, they make the uncommon every day, and the mundane exotic. A book makes all cultures universal.” —Grace Lin

Windows/Mirrors Book Reviews

Reflect/Refract by Pablo Fernández, Creative Commons license via flickr

Reflect/Refract by Pablo Fernández, Creative Commons license via flickr

“So, was your father Pashtun?” someone recently asked me at an SCBWI conference. I had to say that I don’t really know. My father, born in Peshawar, Pakistan, was my only window into my Pakistani heritage. And it was a cloudy window, unreliable, streaked with wishful thinking and invented memories. Growing up I searched the mirrors in our house as well, seeking the story of my ancestors in my own image. I found only warped shards of mirror, cursed to reflect an immigrant’s dream to start over in America, never the old world left behind. For people like me, daughter of an immigrant and mixed marriage, what allows us to know ourselves and understand where we come from? What encourages the people of this country to know and understand each other?

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign has jolted the world of writers, readers and makers of books into the realization that the books on our shelves offer only an incomplete view of the world to children. When the dominant culture and our own families fail to expose us to the realities of ourselves and others, where can we turn for this truth? Glass both reflects and refracts. The images we find in windows and mirrors slip sideways and don’t show reality exactly as it is. But a looking glass, like a good story, allows readers to slip into a view that, although not real, retains the power to connect us with ourselves and with one another.

This Windows/Mirrors Book Review series documents my own journey through children’s literature, in search of better ways to be myself, better ways to connect with others and better ways to write a good story.

I hope you enjoy some of these books as much as I have.

Ruby on the Outside, by Nora Raleigh Baskin, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2015

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“There are consequences for accidents, too.”

Ruby on the Outside weaves complex layers into a simple, beautiful thread with page-turning tension: Ruby’s coming of age as she wrestles with family secrets and the desire to trust her new friend Margalit. Ruby has never had a friend, because she doesn’t feel she can tell anyone that her mother was incarcerated when she was just a little girl. Ruby doesn’t know the truth of the night her mother was arrested; she only knows that it’s time to ask the question. What she discovers may threaten her growing friendship, and leads to a confrontation with her mother that transforms the way Ruby moves through the outside.

Read this book because it tells the truth about the cycle of abuse from a flawless middle grade perspective. Add this book to your collection because it tells a story with heart and hope about the child of an incarcerated mother, describes with humanity the indignities of prison, and reveals the complicated and enduring bond between a parent and child.

Other books by this author include:

  • The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah
  • Anything But Typical
  • The Summer Before Boys
  • Runt

“And I make a little sound….It comes from a place that is so deep, so old, and so wounded. It just escapes your heart without your consent. Like finding a piece of your own body that was broken off and now, there you see it.”

Check out the YouTube video of Nora Raleigh Baskin speaking about Ruby on the Outside here.

Buy the book here.