Review: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Words take my breath
Begging me to slowly reread
Savor each story

This is the review after I read it the first time. I was lent an ARC of this book from a #nerdybookclub friend and must pass it along to another reading friend. I can’t wait to get my own copy and read it again when it comes out in August. 

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. The poemic form helped me to slow down as I read. I read parts outloud. I reread. I want to reread it again. Put it on your list now and get it as soon as you can. Read it. Read it multiple times. 

Book Review: The Griffin and The Dinosaur

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I heard about this book from my good friend Donalyn at the Michigan Reading Association Conference. I’ve always admired Marc Aronson’s non-fiction books – the level of research and supporting information is always outstanding. This book continues in that tradition.

Chapter One introduces readers to young & curious Adrienne Mayor growing up on the prairies of South Dakota. The descriptions of Adrienne’s family history and childhood are brought to life with photographs, posters, and artwork. The book follows Adrienne’s curious mind and travels as she explores questions about how fossils might have inspired the Ancient Greek people to write about mythological creatures like the Griffin. Mayor’s instincts lead her to believe that perhaps there was a connection and that the griffin wasn’t just a myth.

Throughout the book, we are reminded of the importance of Mayor’s ability to notice and connect. She did it as a child on the prairie, and continued to explore and ask questions in the libraries of Greece, at archeological sites, and of professional archeaologists. Although not trained in either the classics or archeology, Mayor makes important discoveries. I appreciate that we experience the recursiveness of Mayor’s work. She would discover something in a book, go explore fossils or sites, discover something different that would send her back to books. Mayor’s understandings and discoveries did not happen in linear “straight line” but were at times messy and confusing. This made both Mayor and her work very real to me and also inspiring.

Using prints & sketches created by Mayor herself, along with photographs, maps, and gorgeous artwork by Chris Muller, this is a non-fiction book that is both interesting and visually appealing. A description by Aronson of his journey in meeting and working with Mayor provides helpful insight along with suggestions for further reading and a detailed glossary.

The notion that what has always been considered myth is actually based in scientific discovery by the ancients is fascinating. When I finished this book, it left me wanting to read more of Mayors work, but it also left me with a desire to be more curious.

The Griffin and The Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science
Written by Marc Aronson and Adrienne Mayor
Illustrations by Chris Muller
Published by National Geographic, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4263-1108-6
Checked out from East Lansing Public Library

Genres/Subjects:
Nonfiction, informational, mythology, dinosaurs, women scientists, Ancient Greece, scientific method, archeology,

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

NOTE: Contains some spoilers.    I’ve been doing book-talks for the students in my children’s literature course this semester. Book-talks serve 2 purposes in my class: 1) as a modeling strategy and 2) students are welcome to borrow any books from me to read for their independent reading project or for pleasure. Two weeks ago I book talked Grasshopper Jungle – more accurately, I tried book talking GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE. Granted I hadn’t finished reading it yet, but one of the reasons that I think I stumbled was because of how this book defies easy definition or description – which is one of the things I love about it. At the MRA conference, Cheryl Mizerney (@CherylTeaches) referred to it as “Kurt Vonnegut meets Stephen King.” Now that I’ve finished the book and talked about it, I think I can articulate my thoughts more clearly.

Character is almost always my favorite part of anything I read – this book is no different. The main character Austin is a clear and unapologetic narrator. There are aspects of his life that he is clear about (his love for his dog and his friends, his loathing for the bullies from the public school) but he also is confused about other parts of life. This felt so authentically “teenage” to me – perhaps because there is a teenager living in my house. 

Austin spends most of his time (while not in school at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy) hanging out with his best friend Robby and his girlfriend Shann. It sounds like a “typical young-adult” book (whatever that is) when I say it like that. But add in bullies from the public school that beat up Austin & his friend, breaking into the local consignment store, and a plague strain; and you have a book that defies typical anything. Not to mention family history vignettes, a brother stationed in Afghanistan, the Tipsy Cricket Liquor Store, a house with doors leading nowhere, and an underground bunker frozen in time.  I could go on… 

Ultimately, for me one of the themes of this book is about wrestling* with labels. For example, Austin wrestles with his own emotions and feelings. He is in love with Shann, he wonders if he is in love with Robby. Although he rarely (if ever) uses these terms – he is wrestling with wondering if he is gay, straight, or bisexual. We don’t know the extent of Austin & Robby’s physical relationship – other than a kiss on the roof of From Attic to Seller Consignment Store. But do we need to know it? Does physical intimacy define if Austin is gay or straight? I think that the vagueness is part of the point – that sometimes labels are more limiting than helpful. 

I also think that the book itself defies labels. In terms of genre, it is part contemporary realistic fiction, part historical fiction, part science fiction. Taking away any of these genres changes the story, it is all three at the same time – and also something completely different. There are gay characters and straight characters. There are family dynamics and a town struggling financially. There are enormous bug that eat humans. But none of these make it a “gay book” or a “friend book” or a “contemporary issue book”. It is all of these things, with enormous, human-eating insects. It defies a genre label – much like Austin does. So maybe this isn’t as clear as I thought it would be, I’m still wrestling with my thinking about the book – which I love. Ultimately, Smith has written characters and a story that is intriguing, thought-provoking, hysterically funny, poignant, and engaging.

Andrew Smith’s website
Follow Smith on Twitter: @marburyjack

*I prefer the term wrestling to struggling. Struggling implies a negativity and need for resolution. Wrestling implies something that is more fluid and doesn’t require being “solved”. 

Review: Bluffton by Matt Phelan

Bluffton by Matt Phelan
Candlewick Press
Publish date: July 23, 2013
obtained on NetGalley

Because I received this as an electronic advanced review copy via NetGalley, I read it on my iPad. I can’t wait to get my hands on a print copy not only to see the illustrations in color, but also to see the nuanced details that just can’t be replicated electronically. That being said – read it however you can get your hands on it.

This delightful graphic novel tells the story of a boy named Henry who lives in Muskegon, Michigan. Life was going along “as usual” until the summer of 1908, “The summer they arrived” (p. 2). Henry befriends a young Buster Keaton who arrived with his family and a group of Vaudeville Actors for the summer months. They return each summer to The Actor’s Colony at Bluffton, founded by Buster’s father Joe Keaton. This book is part historical fiction and part coming of age as the boys play baseball, fish for perch, and execute practical jokes carefully planned by Buster.

I love that a book that features actors – who depend largely on visual – using primarily illustrations. Phelan uses the graphic novel format to enhance the story, not detract from it. He uses just enough text to fill in gaps, but the rest of the story is told on the faces of the characters, the settings, and actions. I think what I’m looking most forward to about reading this in print form is the opportunity to slow down and really read the illustrations. I have a tendency to not read graphic novels slowly enough – this book made me want to go slower.

Matt Phelan’s Website: http://www.mattphelan.com/
Candlewick Publisher Page for Bluffton – there is a link to a flyer about the book including an interview with Matt Phelan

Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

I came across this book during a conversation with my colleague and friend Jon Wargo (@wargojon). Jon and I have both taught a course titled “Issues of Diversity in Children’s and Adolescent Literature” at Michigan State University in the College of Education. Jon is a fantastic teacher educator who does work around gender and sexuality in education (among other topics). He and I have had a number of conversations about labels, in particular the ways that he sees the “alphabet soup” of LGBTQ can sometimes be prohibitive in terms of how we think of ourselves and others.

As Jon prepares to teach a new section of TE448 focused on gender and sexuality, Bill Konigsberg‘s new book Openly Straight was suggested to him as a possible title over on child_lit (a fabulous list serv). Conveniently, I had downloaded it from NetGalley the day before and so I could start reading it immediately. I read it in 2 days (maybe 3), it was one that I didn’t want to put down because I became so invested in the characters.

Here are some initial thoughts about Openly Straight (no spoilers):

  • the character development of Rafe. I LOVE character, it is my favorite literary element hands down. Rafe is complex and interesting. He is consistent enough that as a reader I felt like I knew him; but also changed and grew as the book went on in very believable ways.
  • This book really made me think about labels; something that Jon has made me more aware of as we have worked together. I finished the book 3 days ago and I’m still thinking about how labels impact our perceptions of others as well as ourselves. When I teach children’s literature, I bring up these concepts to students and we discuss them in terms of representations in books. The fact is – the are SUPER complex and multi-layered. This book reminded me of that in terms of my own self and also in terms of societal labels.
  • This book wasn’t all neat and tidy. There were times when I was uncomfortable because the characters were – I love this because it is real.
  • I strive to have students in my classes read books that can serve as both mirrors and windows. This book did that for me. It helped me not only think about friendships, parenting, gender, and relationships (all in mirror ways); but it also helped me to think about “window” experiences of out students, single-gendered school experiences, and frankly, male perspectives.

I’m still “chewing” on this book. I want to read it again. Jon is reading it as well, as are some other friends and I can not wait to talk with others about it. If you’ve read it, please share your thoughts, ideas and ponderings…

Openly Straight

The Raven Boys

I just finished The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. It was quite an enjoyable read. Earlier this year I took Eldest daughter to hear Maggie speak at our local Schuler Bookstore. I hadn’t actually read anything of hers, but my daughter wants to be an author and so I take to her as many author talks as I can. I had started reading The Scorpio Races prior to the event so I would have some sense of Stiefvater’s writing style.

I loved The Scorpio Races, particularly the way that Stiefvater incorporates elements of mythology into her fantasy story. This is the same thing that I love about the amazing series The Immortal Secrets of Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott. She has done it again with The Raven Boys, bringing in psychics, ley lines, and ghosts – Stiefvater has created characters that are trying to make sense of themselves in their own world as well as intangible dimensions. And this woman does her research – she talked about going to Scotland and getting lost looking for a ley line in the foggy mist with her mother and sister.

I also love that she wrote female characters that aren’t weak or dependent on men. They interact with them, yes – and there is a bit of romantic tension for those they like it. But Blue, her mother, and her “aunts” aren’t reliant on men for either their income or their identifies  They are not treated badly, and are not looking outside themselves to define themselves. For this an other reasons – I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. I’m also looking forward to sharing it with my preteen daughter.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

I made a huge discovery about myself. I can walk on the treadmill and read at the same time! I love reading and I am very undisciplined about exercise so it is a perfect combination. As a result, I’ve finally finished a book I’ve been trying to finish for more than a week, started on another, and completed one that has been on top of my tbr pile for far too long.

I finished The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater. A lovely example of a fantasy novel that draws on folklore (something we just talked about in my children’s literature class last week!) I also like the way that we hear the story told from boy Puck and Sean’s points of view – but I tend to love multi-vocal stories. The way that Steifvater writes about the connections that both characters have with horses and the land felt so very authentic to me. I immediately recommended it to my cousin, who could BE Puck (you know, if it weren’t a fantasy fictional story).

I finally read A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban. This has been on my tbr pile for a while. My friend, Colby Sharp, is a big fan of Linda’s and I’ve been wanting to read it. I read it in an evening, immediately gave it 5 stars on goodreads, and handed it to my 12-year-old daughter as a “must read”. For more, see yesterday’s blog post. (It needed it’s own post, it was that amazing.)

I reread The Arrival, The Red Tree, Eric, and Sketches from a Nameless Land by Shaun Tan. My children’s literature students read, wrote about, and discussed The Arrival last week. Every time I read Tan’s books, I’m blown away by the way he creates multiple levels of story, and therefore, response. I picked up Sketches from A Nameless Land when I was in Australia this summer, it is amazing to be able to read about Tan’s process and get a glimpse at his creative process. Hoping that this will be available in the US soon.

I started reading A Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz. I absolutely loved A Tale Dark and Grimm because of the way that Gidwitz turns upside down (and inside out) what we think we know about fairy tales. This follow up is not disappointing. I also love that the narrator talks to the reader – nothing like breaking the fourth wall in an artful way.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect

This book has been sitting on my tbr pile for quite a while now. I read Hound Dog True last year (based on my friend Colby Sharp’s gushing about it, yes he gushed) and loved it. Urban is clearly a gifted storyteller, particularly when it comes to character and voice.

I sat down last evening with my daughters for “family reading time” and decided it was time to read A Crooked Kind of Perfect. I finished it before going to sleep and am still thinking about it today, right now even. I love books that stay with me like that – make me want to go back, reread them, mull over the language, and think about what it is that made me respond this way.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect hits home with me personally in a variety of ways – but I think perhaps one of the reasons I haven’t read it yet is because I needed to read it this week. I’m going to defend my practicum study this thursday. I’ve been working on it for far longer than I thought I would due to a variety of reasons (like breaking my arm). It had gotten to a point where every time I looked at it all I could see was the “crooked” – the holes, and time that felt wasted, and paper that hadn’t been defended. It seemed like I would never finish it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quit my ph.d. program in the past two years – just so I wouldn’t have to deal with finishing it.

The chapters in the middle of the book where Zoe decides to quit were so spot on. The way that the sentence length shortens, she blocks out all possibilities, and is just sure that quitting is the only way to go.

Quitting

It is no big deal that I am quitting.
It isn’t.
It really isn’t.
It’s not like quitting the piano.
That would be a tragedy. (p. 84)

What I love about this is that it’s ok for Zoe to quit. She does it for a few pages. Her parents don’t chastise her or push her, they just sit with her, and let her quit. And eventually there is a key change, and she decides not to quit. My husband, writing group and friends have done this for me with my practicum. They have watched me struggle, and listened, and pushed at just the right times. But ultimately I am the one that decided not to quit.

Perfectionism is rampant in our society. It is something that is presented in movies, television shows, the news, books, and each other; often in ways that we aren’t even aware of. We judge each other harshly and don’t stop to acknowledge that there is more to life than first place, a gold medal, or the most money.

Here is a book that celebrates hard work, at something that wasn’t exactly the way Zoe imagines, but that turns out to be about more than being a prodigy, more than getting applause for a performance. It is realistic in so many fabulous possible ways.

Zoe’s mom works hard, she misses some of her daughters events – but Zoe doesn’t hate her for it.

Zoe’s dad lives with OCD, or at least symptoms similar to it. He does not “struggle” with his issues, he lives with them. He is a father who loves not only his daughter and wife, but extends it to another child who needs a positive adult presence in his life.

Zoe deals with friend problems, something not uncommon for middle school aged children. But those problems do not define her, she feels yucky about them and moves on. Just like she does with quitting. This is a book about real people, living real lives.

So this thursday, I will defend my practicum (I might wear multi-colored toe socks). It will not be perfect – because such a thing does not exist. It will however be mine and it will be done and I will move forward with my dissertation and finish. That will by my crooked kind of perfect. I think we’ll get a cake and some Vernor’s to celebrate.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading…

Be sure to check out the fabulous teachmentortexts to see what others are reading!

This week I read:

Homer written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper

The calm and steady character of Homer the dog are integrated into every aspect of this book; from a simple yet meaningful text to gorgeous water color illustrations. Framed, single-page spreads show Homer’s vantage point from the porch throughout the day. Occasional double-page spreads with full bleeds “speak” for Homer without needing text. This is a dog who is completely satisfied with his life.

House Held Up By Trees written by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klassen

I reread this book in preparation for a discussion about realistic fiction in my children’s literature course this week. Kooser’s prose is beautifully written and the accompanying illustrations showcase a variety of points of view. The color palate is subtle and is a great example of green representing life, even when it seems it may not go on.

Grandpa Green written and illustrated by Lane Smith

I’ve read this book many times and was not disappointed on this reread. The students in my children’s literature course are also reading (and rereading) it in preparation for our first class discussion and their first papers. I’m always struck by the intricacies of the illustrations and the different ways that I think about the grandson and his grandfather.

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

This story has not disappointed. Schlitz’s ability to weave together magic, history, social class, and mystery create a tale that engaged me from the first page. She gives enough information to bring me in without making things predictable. I’m looking forward to finishing off the last few chapters tonight!

This coming week:

I’m still working on No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, it’s next on my tbr stack. I also picked up The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater at the library yesterday. I’ve not read any of her books, but she is going to be at our local independent bookstore this coming friday and I’m planning on taking my daughter. I was hoping to get her newest, The Raven Boys, but it was checked out.

It’s Monday, What Are YOU Reading?!

Thanks to my amazing colleagues over at Teach Mentor Texts for hosting this meme each week. Please check out their blog if you haven’t already!!!

This past week I read:

Same Sun Here by Silas House & Neela Vaswani 

I’m still processing this book. What I love best about it is the way that it can push against adult assumptions about the ways that children and young people think. So often I hear statements like, “kids don’t notice that” but THEY DO. This is a lovely story told through an exchange of letters between pen pals. Though at times a bit didactic, the overall premise and story are lovely and thought-provoking.

The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech

This book did NOT disappoint. I love stories that push you to figure out connections when it seems as if there isn’t one. As an Irish girl myself, I’m particularly fond of the ways that Creech’s writing is similar to some oral storytelling traditions. Both Naomi and Lizzy are multi-dimensional, rich, intriguing characters who are accompanied by an intriguiging supporting cast.

I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson

I read this in preparation for an upcoming meeting. An instructor of one of our sections of multicultural and diverse children’s literature course selected this as a required text for students. All three instructors for the course invited the rest of us from the MSU Children’s Literature Team to read the book and discuss it at our next meeting. I’m looking forward to the discussion. This book hung over me for a good while after I finished it. It is a multi-dimensional story that invites the reader to consider classicism, racism, family, friendship, and incest.

Voice in the Park by Anthony Browne

This is a book that I have read more times than I can remember. It used to be the first book that students in my children’s literature course discussed and wrote about. We still use it in the course as a model. The richness of the illustrations and multi-vocal text never cease to provide new insights and responses. I reread it every semester 2-3 times in preparation for our “elements of illustrations” discussion.

This coming week I’ll be reading:

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the LIfe and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson with artwork by R. Gregory Christie

I’m super excited to read this book. I had requested in from my local library before I left for Australia but didn’t have time to give it a good read. I love historical pieces that stretch me as a reader and this one has that potential.

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Another book that I’ve heard some buzz about that I can’t wait to read. I met Laura at a conference last year and she was absolutely lovely and so generous with her time. I loved Good Masters Sweet Ladies and can’t wait to read this one!