Friday, July 26, 2013

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Image from HarperCollins.com
HarperCollins, 2011
9780061962783

SUMMARY
It’s 1975 and 10 year old Ha lives in Saigon with her mother and three older brothers. There’s not much money or food because of the war, but Ha likes the routine of her life and she enjoys the little things, like the papayas she is growing in her backyard. But then the war escalates. School closes a month early. Food becomes scarce. So when a family friend provides a way for the family to flee South Vietnam Ha’s mother knows she must take this opportunity. Taking just one small bag each, the family squeezes onto a crowded ship bound for America. Sponsored by a family in Alabama, Ha’s family works hard to hold onto their culture and customs, while also fitting into their new life in the all-White town. In a year of incredible upheaval, Ha learns about life as she laughs, loves, grieves, struggles, and ultimately triumphs.

In this verse novel, Lai uses non-rhyming, free verse to give the reader a series of chronological snapshots of young Ha’s life.  Much of the first person text deals with Ha’s internal struggles, making this book more than just historical facts. Lai writes in the author’s note that this story is based on events from her own childhood when she fled from Vietnam to Alabama with her family. The emotional arc of the plot keeps the reader engaged and provides a window into the mind of a child trying to adapt to unavoidable changes in cultures, customs, and language. Ha’s comments on cultural differences and similarities are seamlessly woven into the text, sometimes in a humorous way and other times in a touching or even heartbreaking manner. Ha’s struggle to deal with the many changes in her life is what makes her such a realistic and compelling protagonist. Intelligent and well-read, she finds learning English difficult and is frustrated to feel and appear so dumb because she cannot express herself. This verse novel is a great recommendation for a quick historical fiction read.

Read a few pages of this verse novel or listen to a clip of the audiobook read by Doan Ly.

CONNECTIONS
*Encourage kids to rewrite a familiar story in verse or create their own original works based on their own experiences.

*Read some other verse novels and compare/contrast the voices of several authors. Try one or more of these:
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

*Readalikes:
All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 9+ / Grade 4+

-Amy

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Thing about Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, Illustrated by Julia Kuo

Image from Kira-Kira.us
Antheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013
9781416918820

SUMMARY
The year Summer was 12 was not a good year for her family. In fact, it was a year full of bad luck. Her parents must fly to Japan to take care of elderly relatives, her temperamental younger brother Jaz can’t make any friends, and Summer has just recovered from an extremely rare case of malaria from a mosquito bite. But life doesn’t stop for luck, good or bad, and so Summer, Jaz and their grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan, must fulfill the family’s contract to harvest wheat across the Midwest with a custom harvesting company. In a summer that includes a host of scary and thrilling firsts, Summer wonders, will her family’s luck ever change? Is luck something you can change? And if so, how can Summer make those changes happen without displeasing her irritable grandmother?

This unique coming of age story is told in first person from Summer’s perspective. The story unfolds quietly without fanfare. Summer’s comments on her family and life are humorous, but not in a laugh out loud sort of way. Instead they are more matter of fact, sprinkled with contemporary slang, and at times just a touch sarcastic. Kids will identify with her fear of mosquitos; Summer knows it’s ridiculous to be so scared and yet she can’t help herself. The short chapters of this character-driven story allow Kadohata to emphasis ideas and pose questions in a thoughtful manner. Kuo’s black and white illustrations, drawn from Summer’s point of view, provides context for readers unfamiliar with custom harvesting. The setting is a major element of the story and Kadohata brings the heat and humidity of a Midwest summer, as well as the challenges of harvesting wheat, to life in vivid detail. Summer’s family is Japanese-American (it seems she is part of the second or third generation born in America) and while Japanese words, customs, foods, and other cultural markers are woven into the narrative the multicultural aspect is not the focus of the story. Although it would be nice to have a glossary to define some of the Japanese terms, for the most part their meanings are inferred by the context.

CONNECTIONS
*Readalikes:
The Luck of the Buttons by Anne Ylvisaker
Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez

*More books by Kadohata:

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 9+ / Grade 4+

-Amy

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson

Image from BarnesandNoble.com
Dutton Children’s Books, 2008
9780525420644

SUMMARY
It’s 1939 and the threat of war is looming over 12 year old Tally Hamilton’s life in London. So when Tally is awarded a scholarship at a boarding school her father knows he must take this opportunity for his daughter to live safely in the country. Tally has never been to a boarding school and she’s terrified she will do or wear the wrong thing at the wrong time. But when she arrives at Delderton, Tally quickly realizes this school isn’t like the ones she read about in books. There are no uniforms or strict rules at Delderton, instead the children are encouraged to be creative and curious. As Europe hurdles toward World War II, the headmaster of Delderton receives an invitation for students to be a part of an international folk dance festival in the small European country of Bergania. The headmaster is sure the students will decline the offer as none of them know any folk dances, but Tally, who recently saw a film reel about the beautiful country, somehow feels she must get to Bergania. Tally rallies her new friends and soon the Delertonians are off to the festival. But the trip doesn’t go quite as planned. Bergania is thrown into chaos when the Nazis assassinate the king and it’s up to the Deldertonians to help the young crown prince Karil escape from imprisonment.

Although this story is obviously one of good versus evil, Ibbotson handles these themes with grace, humor, and hope creating a compelling story. Published just a few years ago, there is nevertheless a quality to Ibbotson’s writing that makes it feel as though it was written in the 1930's. Deftly mixing humor and heartfelt emotions, Ibbotson creates an engaging story of suspense, drama, friendship, and most of all, the difference each of us can make in the world. Although the children in the book are sometimes restricted by adults, it is through the collaboration and determination of the children that the day is saved. Ibbotson’s characters are wonderfully unique and colorful. Tally, determined, optimistic, and loyal, is clearly the heroine of the story and the glue that holds her diverse gang of friends together. The book is divided into three parts, beginning with the building action in England, the happenings in Bergania, and finally what happens when all the children get back to England. The story ends with a satisfying epilogue 6 years after the story finishes that gives the readers a glimpse into the futures of Tally and Karil, their friends, and the fictional country of Bergania. I would recommend this book to historical fiction fans. Additionally, lovers of Greek mythology will enjoy the spirited production of Persephone put on by the Deldertonians.

I listened to the audiobook version, beautifully narrated by Patricia Conolly, and greatly enjoyed it. There is also a version narrated by Tracy-Ann Oberman, but unfortunately I lack the luxury of time to listen to both versions.

CONNECTIONS
*The children in the book put on a play of Persephone, so read the story from an anthology of Greek mythology. Try the versions in these kid-friendly collections:
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
The McElderry Book of Greek Myths by Eric A. Kimmel, Illustrated by Pep Montserrat

*More books by Ibbotson:

*Readalikes:
Ballet Shoes, Dancing Shoes, & Theater Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 9+ / Grade 4+

-Amy

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Pi in the Sky by Wendy Mass


Image from HachetteBookGroup.com
Little, Brown, and Company, 2013
9780316089166

SUMMARY
Joss, the seventh son of the Supreme Overlord of the Universe, is pretty sure he has the lamest job of all his brothers. Ty works in the Scenery and Design Department of the Afterlives, Ash oversees species creation, and Greyden inspires artists on planets across the universe. Joss delivers pies, which is just not fair. Sure, the pies hold the secret to the universe, but he doesn't make them, he just delivers them. Joss lives in The Realms, kind of like the Headquarters of the Universe, which is overseen by the PTB (The Powers That Be). When he's not at school or making deliveries he's hanging out with his best friend Kal until the day Kal disappears. Due to an unfortunate incident, Kal is replaced with a human girl from Earth, the outspoken and spunky Annika. Now it’s up to Joss to figure out how to get Annika back home and get his best friend back. Oh, yeah, and recreate an exact replica of Earth, which has been erased from space and time.

This humorous, yet thought-provoking story is told from Joss’ point of view. A short prologue entitled, “What You Need to Know” introduces readers to the concept of dark matter and Mass’s fictional place, The Realms. Chapters begin with quotes from famous astronomers, physicists, writers, and philosophers. These quotes bring up ideas that are further explored in the chapter, usually in a humorous, often ironic manner. Mass is able to convey big ideas about space and time in kid-friendly and hilarious terms without ever patronizing or preaching to young readers. Although space and time are a pivotal part of the plot, what makes the story interesting is Joss’ intense loyalty to his friends and his willingness to do anything to be a good friend. Even though only one character in the book is a human, Mass’ main characters are highly relatable and likable. Annika is something of a livewire, which allows Mass to take the story in exciting directions that obedient Joss would never imagine. A great fiction recommendation for a kid who usually likes reading non-fiction.

Read the beginning of the book to find out more about The Realms.

CONNECTIONS
*Use this book as part of a unit on outer space. Have each student pick one of the quotes in the book and research its author. Carl Sagan has a cameo in the book, so kids maybe interested in learning more about him as well.

*Several species from fictional planets are mentioned in the book. Ask kids to draw their version of these species or to create their own. Extend this art activity into writing by having kids write a short paragraph describing their creature and its home planet.

*This is a great title to feature around Pi Day (March 14). Continue the celebration by making and/or eating pies!

*Readalikes:
Boom! by Mark Haddon
Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

*More books by Wendy Mass:

RECOMMENDED AGE/GRADE LEVEL
Age 9+ / Grade 4+

-Amy