Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Gaither Sisters Roundup

An excellent series for those interested in diverse characters and stories.

Taking place in 1968, the first book follows three sisters from Brooklyn as they travel to Oakland, CA one summer to meet their mother (who abandoned them seven years ago) for the first time. This book might be especially appealing for those interested in social justice.

The second book sees the girls return to Brooklyn, where they need to get used to a life that is suddenly very different from the one they left before the summer. This book includes some mature content (drug addiction), but is otherwise a more "typical" coming-of-age book.

The last book takes place in 1969, when the girls spend a summer down home in Alabama. While Oakland was a hotbed of activity for racial justice, and Brooklyn was modern if not radical in its take on social issues, rural Alabama was a throwback to segregation and the Klan. The girls learn about some old family history, and each individually becomes more of her own person.

Gone Crazy in Alabama (Gaither Sisters #3) by Rita Williams-Garcia


I think this book would make a good movie. It's the final installment of the series about the Gaither sisters, yet it stands well on its own.

The book takes us into the Deep South of 1969. Against the backdrop of the moon landing - which sets the context for the time period - the Gaither sisters visit their grandmother Big Ma and great-grandmother Ma Charles in Alabama. Slowly and gradually, the girls learn old family secrets - the family tree at the end of the book is helpful - with Ma Charles trying to impress upon them the importance of knowing where you came from, while Big Ma was content to let sleeping dogs lie.

This summer - perhaps with a bit of a push from the Mrs. always saying that Vonetta and Fern are capable beings, too - Vonetta and Fern started to stretch their wings. Delphine was left at a bit of a loss, as her identity, until then, had been wholly tied to being a substitute mother to her two younger sisters. I felt sad for Delphine, and happy for Fern, who was discovering herself. Regretfully, I came to dislike Vonetta. I couldn't see why Uncle Darnell and Jimmy Trotter favored her. Yes, she was entertaining and lively, but she was also selfish, stubborn, and sometimes downright mean.

The book ambled along until about 3/4 of the way through, when it took a totally unexpected and dramatic turn.

Without giving away too much of the surprise, I hope it's enough, but not too much, to say that something happens to Vonetta. It tore me apart that Delphine felt the need to defend herself against blame, that even Cecile said to Delphine, "I told you to look out for Vonetta,"(p. 232) and Jimmy Trotter said, "You're hard on Vonetta." (p. 255) As if Delphine hadn't spent most of her young life being a mother instead of a sister to Vonetta because her own mother had abandoned them and her father and grandfather expected her to be her sisters' guardian. It was hypocritical of Cecile to expect Delphine to look out for Vonetta, when she just spent an entire book - P.S. Be Eleven - trying to tell Delphine that she ought to act like the child she was, rather than trying to be her sisters' mother. That anyone could blame 12-year-old Delphine for what happened to Vonetta, and not Vonetta's own stubbornness and choice of behavior, was frustrating and infuriating. I was indignant on Delphine's behalf, and I wanted to reach through the book and hug her and tell her she was loved.

Towards the end of the book, there is an especially poignant moment between Delphine and Big Ma after Big Ma returns from the court house. In that brief interaction, we see how truly devoted and loyal and loving Delphine is to her Big Ma - and by extension, to her family as a whole.

Overall, I think the themes in this book surpass the middle grade audience it's intended for. I'm an adult, and this book gave me so much to think about.

Monday, November 13, 2017

P.S. Be Eleven (Gaither Sisters #2) by Rita Williams-Garcia


This book picks up exactly where One Crazy Summer leaves off. The girls are on the plane returning to Brooklyn, and right away you can see the influence the summer in Oakland has had on them.

This book, even more than the first one, I think is best read by middle schoolers, even though the reading level might be fine for upper elementary readers. In the book, Delphine wants to read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, but her mother tells her to wait until she's older, because "[i]t is a bad thing to bite into hard fruit with little teeth. You will say bad things about the fruit when the problem is your teeth." (p. 143) I feel like that advice applies to this book as well, even if this is a children's book; if you aren't ready for it, much of it will go over your head, and you won't appreciate it properly. Also, there are some heavy ideas in this book, including drug addiction, which might be a bit much for some young readers.

I didn't find the storytelling in this book as tight as in One Crazy Summer. There's a lot going on as Delphine tries to reconcile her new woke-ness with the un-woke-ness of her Pa and Big Ma. She learns that relationships can be complex; before the summer, Pa and Big Ma were the sole arbiters of right and wrong, but now she realizes that she doesn't always agree with them, and it's possible to like someone for one reason, and dislike the same person for another reason, and all the while still love them. Meanwhile, Pa has a new girlfriend, Uncle Darnell is back from Vietnam, all three sisters are crazy for the Jackson Five, Delphine is still trying to figure out her relationship with her mother via letters, and through all this, Delphine is trying to navigate the sixth grade, including "some-timey" friends (p. 63), boys, and a new teacher she wants to impress.

I have to say, I'm not crazy about how this book ended. A few loose ends were tied up, but mostly it felt abrupt. Knowing this family, you can't rightfully expect a completely happy ending, but I admit I did hope.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

One Crazy Summer (Gaither Sisters #1) by Rita Williams-Garcia


Wow. This book is real, contemporary children's literature. The writing has has a rhythm to it, a kind of no-nonsense lyricism.

Set in 1968, the Gaither sisters - Delphine (11), Vonetta (9), and Fern (7) - are sent by themselves to spend a summer with their mother Cecile, who left them and their father when Fern was just a baby. The story is narrated by Delphine, and her voice is authentic and straightforward - there's no sugar-coating here. While Papa and Big Ma (their paternal grandmother) in Brooklyn have raised the girls to be ever-mindful of their place as "Negroes" and "colored" children, suddenly they find themselves in Oakland, CA, at the center of the Black Panther party, where they learn that everyone else around them is unabashedly "black" out loud.

I have a working knowledge of the Black Panthers, but I admit, never once before had I considered the question, "What about the children?" Surely there were children coming of age at this time, witnessing the police brutality and the Black Panthers' militant open-carry of rifles. How did they process the world around them?!

There's a lot that can be considered controversial in this book. Delphine is wary of the guns and secrecy of the Black Panthers, and she knows Big Ma doesn't like them, yet she gets caught up in the feelings of empowerment. Are they victims of propaganda? Maybe. But they are learning about justice, and their own identities. It occurs to me that the Black Panther summer camp they attend might not be so different from vacation bible schools sponsored by churches, with activities to engage children and also a specific message to deliver. Anyway, while Papa and Big Ma are deferential and careful around police officers, in Oakland they see black people being outrightly defiant, even calling the police "racist pigs". There is no "good cop" to counter the "bad cop" narrative. Also, it's just a raw depiction of hard lives: the Gaither sisters grow up without a mother, their mother shows no interest in them, and we eventually learn about Cecile's heartbreaking history.

For all those reasons, I'd consider this book most appropriate for middle school readers, or at least preteen readers. Even though the reading level and the characters themselves are suitable for upper elementary readers, I think there's just so much going on in this book, that a little more maturity and worldliness can help the reader to more fully understand and appreciate the events, the characters, and the exploration of race. Overall, an important read for any American, especially those interested in social justice.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan


This book uses the format in which each chapter is told from a particular character's first-person perspective. The chapters alternate between Ravi and Joe. Ravi is - in his words - "fresh off the boat" from India. Joe is one of Ravi's white American classmates. This book spans just one week, the first week of 5th grade.

I loved so many things about this book. I'll just try to lay them out.

I love that we hear the internal voice of a child immigrant. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other children's book that I've read that includes such a character - and I find that shocking. Why aren't there more children's books like this?! I'm going to try to seek out some more... Anyway, I love that the reader is put into a position of better understanding how big the divide is between an immigrant's home country and America. American children - like Joe - are sure to look upon new immigrant classmates like Ravi as odd and different. But Ravi's narration lets us know that Ravi is not only a typical kid in India, but the very things that make him a target for ridicule in America are what helped make him popular and successful in India!

Meanwhile, I love that Joe isn't just a "regular" kid in America - he's a good kid, but he feels different, too, because he has Auditory Processing Disorder (APD). He's thoughtful, but frequently misjudged. In this way, I love that this book includes a positive representation not only of cultural diversity, but also of special education diversity.

On the one hand, I love that this book takes place in just one week. The kids are not bottling up their feelings for weeks and weeks, hiding them from their parents, letting things get worse. Though there is some hesitancy, both kids eventually open up to their parents, and things get resolved. I love that. These kids have parents and grandparents who care about them, and they really can help.

On the other hand, I was somewhat disappointed that the book only spans one week, because at the end, I wasn't ready to leave Ravi and Joe. I wanted to read more, and see how their friendship developed!

I love that this book had the ethnic-food-for-lunch quandary that is like a rite of passage for all immigrant children. I also love that the author gave it a bit of a different spin - Ravi did not have to feel ashamed of his lunch to realize that his lunch made him different. He recognized the difference, but was also proud and happy to eat the Indian food in his Indian-style lunch box.

When I got to the end, I loved that this book has two glossaries - one for Indian words, and one for American words! It really helps to drive home the point that different cultures are tied to the language they use to describe every-day things. Just as an American reader would need a little context to understand words like kho kho (an Indian children's game), Shakti Kapoor (a Bollywood actor), and uppuma (an Indian food), a non-American reader would need a little context to understand words like Hacky Sack, Kohl's, and salsa! Not to mention American slang like "puke" and "crud".

Finally, I loved realizing that the Ravi and Joe portions were written by different authors; presumably the Indian author wrote the Ravi chapters, and the non-Indian author wrote the Joe chapters. Their voices are distinct, you can hear their characters' personalities through their narration, and it may or may not have been relevant, but I just like the idea that both authors had two boys of their own, from whom maybe they drew some inspiration.

So with all that being said, I gave this book just shy of 5 stars because of something that seems to bother me in a lot of children's books - the bully. I don't know why, but when it comes to realistic children's fiction, I always sympathize with the child bully just a little bit - I want the bully to be fleshed out enough so that we all realize that bullies aren't just evil, mean-spirited people, especially when they're kids. Usually, they have some issues they need to work out themselves, probably involving their home life, or how they're treated by their parents. In this case, the bully is a rich, probably spoiled Indian-American boy. He gets his comeuppance, but does he learn anything? Also, I wonder if Indian-American readers might resent how poorly American-born Indians are portrayed in this book, especially in the way they are depicted as being wholly different in every way from immigrant Indians. I would have liked to have seen some kind of resolution that might have brought Ravi and Dillon together in some way, even if only briefly.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Millicent Min Roundup

This an excellent series telling the story of one summer in Rancho Rosetta. Each book is told from the perspective of its main character.

Millicent Min is a precocious 11-year-old Chinese-American girl who is heading into her senior year in high school and taking her first college course over the summer. To her dismay, she is also roped into tutoring Stanford Wong, whom she considers a dumb jock. Happily, she finds her first real same-age friend in Emily Ebers, who just moved to town, but she's afraid that her being a genius might ruin the relationship. Her story is cleverly told through a series of journal entries.

Stanford Wong, also Chinese-American, is the star basketball player on his school's A-Team, but he failed 6th grade English. In order to advance into 7th grade - and stay on the A-Team - he needs to go to summer school, and Millicent Min is hired to tutor him. Stanford is a pretty complex character: he struggles with living up to his tiger dad's high academic expectations, he values his friendships but is embarrassed to tell them about summer school; he has a real soft spot for his aging grandmother who is slowly losing her mental faculties; and to top it all off, he has his first real crush on Emily Ebers. Not being the type to keep a journal, his story is told in the present tense, with both date and time stamps, giving the impression that we're reading his internal monologue narration of his life.

Emily Ebers is blond, bubbly, a little on the heavy side, confident in herself, but not in the world around her. She and her mom just moved to Rancho Rosetta, CA from New Jersey following a heart-breaking divorce. Emily struggles with accepting her parents' divorce; she yearns for attention from her far-away father while icing out her mother and blaming her mother for the divorce. She keeps a letter journal, addressing each entry to her father and planning to send the entire journal to her father at the end of the summer.

I loved so much about each of the books, but what really impressed me was Lisa Yee's ability to get into the mind of whichever main character was narrating the story. I've read books in which each chapter is written from the perspective of a certain character, but in many cases, the only way you would know who the narrator is is by the name in the chapter title. In this series, each character has such a clear personality and distinctive voice that comes through in the writing, and you can imagine real middle schoolers finding so many authentic connections throughout the books.

So Totally Emily Ebers (Millicent Min #3) by Lisa Yee


Lisa Yee just gets better with each book! I have read other books and series in which different chapters or books are meant to be narrated from the perspective of different characters, but so often the only way to tell who is narrating each chapter or book is to read the name in the title. Not so with this series! Millicent, Stanford, and Emily have such distinctive personalities and voices that come through so clearly in the writing.

This is the third book in the Millicent Min series. This time, we are seeing the events of the summer from Emily Ebers's perspective. Emily is a bubbly, life-loving 12-year-old who loves fashion, is a little on the heavy side, and confident in who she is as a person. What she isn't sure of is how to deal with all the life changes around her. Her parents just got a divorce, and she's reeling. Her mother is trying, but is herself struggling with heartbreak and change, and can't yet be the solid source of support that Emily needs. Emily blames her mother for the divorce and continually ices her out. Meanwhile, Emily yearns for attention from her father, yet rarely gets any. Young readers whose parents have divorced may find Emily relatable.

In this book, the story is told in a series of letters written in a journal from Emily to her father. Emily's plan is to send her dad the journal at the end of the summer. Like Millicent Min, there are times when the narration is unreliable; we the reader know what's going on, but poor Emily still has her eyes closed to the truth.

Meanwhile, Emily is trying to make new friends in town before school starts in the fall. Beside befriending Millicent, she also makes friends with other girls in middle school, including Wendy and the "popular girls", Julie and the "Triple A's" (three girls who tag along with Julie and all have names starting with "A"). Emily is already too self-confident to truly fall under Julie's spell, but it does take some time for Emily to stand up and assert herself. I love that Emily is able to tell off Julie without actually telling her off in a rude way - it's just so totally Emily Ebers to stand up for herself in a way that spreads kindness and confidence.

Much of this book also focuses on Emily's first real crush on Stanford Wong. I love how Emily is white - actually, Jewish - and just happens to have a Chinese-American best friend and a Chinese-American crush. It also turns out - from one mention of someone's last name - that one of Emily's best friends back in New Jersey was also Asian-American. It's that flavor of diversity where the multiculturalism is not at all a central or even minor concern; the characters just happen to be Asian-American.

One last thought, just in case anyone appreciates this kind of heads-up. During the course of this eventful summer, Emily also has her Judy Blume moment - that is, she gets her period. It's just something that happens!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time (Millicent Min #2) by Lisa Yee


This book is a clever companion book to Millicent Min, Girl Genius. It covers the same time period as Millicent Min, and sometimes the exact same events, only the story is told from Stanford Wong's perspective.

I was impressed that this book is more than just the same story from a different angle. While I pegged Millicent Min for audiences as young as "upper elementary grades", this book I would put solidly in the middle school grades. Stanford's life is somewhat more complex than Millicent's. Not only is he struggling to pass summer school English, but he's hiding his summer school from his closest friends, he has a strained relationship with his parents, he has an aging grandparent who is slowly losing her mental faculties, and he likes a girl. (The book mentions "hickeys" and "second base", both in a vague manner showing that Stanford himself doesn't quite understand what those words mean.)

From a multicultural point of view, I liked that this book was about a Chinese-American boy, but while his Chinese-American-ness was central to his character, it was also clear that Stanford was just another American kid trying to make his way through adolescence. On the one hand, this book is about a kid who just happens to be Chinese-American; the main plot is that Stanford loves basketball, but has failed English, so he needs to go to summer school. I imagine he's relatable to many young readers, and he's non-stereotypical because he doesn't fit the model minority mold. On the other hand, Stanford does have a tiger dad, and his family's dynamics were a pretty realistic portrayal of a Chinese-American family. Plus, Chinese culture makes regular appearances, mostly in the way Stanford's grandmother likes to make dim sum.

A couple things led me to rate this book just shy of 5 stars. First, for much of the book, it really bothered me that Stanford lied so easily. While he eventually comes clean with all the big lies, I'm not sure he ever had any kind of realization that all the little lies along the way were detrimental, too, like in the way they hindered his ability to communicate meaningfully with his parents.

Also, I didn't feel like I got enough closure with Digger. He's only a supporting character, but he was fleshed out enough that we know he acts out partly - or mostly - because he does not have a supportive home life. He is not a one-dimensional bully - we see his vulnerability a couple times - and yet there is no indication that he might change for the better after we leave the characters to their imagined futures. Too bad there isn't a book from HIS perspective!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Millicent Min #1) by Lisa Yee


I picked up this book because of my interest in diverse books, especially for children. The main character is an 11-year-old girl who happens to be Chinese. Race is not a central issue of the book, but Chinese-ness does make occasional appearances. (I found it interesting, perhaps even a little disappointing, that Millicent did not call her grandmother by any of the typical Chinese words for grandmother.)

For the first few chapters, I felt uneasy. Millicent Min is a child genius, an 11-year-old who is just finishing up her junior year in high school. Each chapter is a journal entry, and Millicent's voice is both informal and pedantic, making for great humor. The first-person narration, however, is unreliable; Millicent seems unaware that other students treat her poorly, yet the reader sees the situation more clearly. I felt bad for Millicent, and wondered if other readers might laugh at her, just like her classmates. As the book progressed, though, Millicent became much more self-aware, her character more likable (she reminded me of the endearing Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory), and the uneasiness lifted.

Heading into the book, I was also concerned that a Chinese child genius might feed too much into the model minority stereotype of all Chinese students being academically successful. This may have been true, but I think the other non-stereotypical Chinese characters more than balanced it out. Millicent tutors Stanford Wong, a Chinese boy who is a jock and not at all academically oriented; her parents are laid back and goofy, the opposite of tiger parents; her grandmother does have an interest in Feng Shui, but otherwise her grandparents were known mostly for being community activists.

Mostly this book is about Millicent trying to figure out where she belongs, and how that sense of belonging relates to happiness. There is a very meaningful thread about the loss of a grandparent, perhaps making this book a relatable option for someone who has experienced the same.

I have to admit that both Stanford and Emily (Millicent's best friend) had to grow on me, but in the end they won me over - Stanford by growing as a character, and Emily by being loyal and just the kind of friend Millicent needed.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy by Richard Michelson


My to-read list is way too long, and I have yet to find time to read Leonard Nimoy's two autobiographies, I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock. When I saw this children's book in the library, I snatched it up, figuring it could serve as a quick introduction and tide me over until I get around to the autobiographies.

It's a decent book, but I'm not sure who the intended audience is. On the one hand, it's a picture book, but I'm afraid I didn't find the illustrations very compelling. They did a great job portraying the content of the book, but they just seemed sad to me. All the illustrations were colored in muted tones, and it looks like many of them were depicting night-time scenes, to fit with the "Reach for the Stars" theme. That darkness - despite the peppering of stars - conveyed a sense of loneliness to me. I do, though, have to give credit to the illustrator for very effectively rendering human likeness; before reading the text on one page, I looked at the accompanying drawing and immediately thought, "What's John F. Kennedy doing here?" - and lo and behold, Leonard Nimoy did indeed have an interaction with John F. Kennedy!

On the other hand, the reading level seemed more appropriate for middle elementary grades. I can see elementary students reading this book on their own, but then I was bothered that the book assumed a certain amount of broad knowledge. For example, the book references "jump shot" and "soda jerk" without any context whatsoever for young readers to figure out what those phrases mean. Maybe it's just meant to be read aloud by older, more knowledgable readers.

I did like the book, and was happy to learn more about how the Vulcan hand greeting was inspired by a Jewish hand gesture - something I was only vaguely aware of before. Also, it was fun to see that Leonard Nimoy's Boston in 1949 included a few places still quite familiar to modern-day Bostonians.

But then - suddenly! - the book was over. It was such an abrupt ending.

The last four pages consists of two afterwords. The first provides more information about Leonard Nimoy's work and accomplishments, and the second was an Author's Note describing the author's personal relationship with Leonard Nimoy. Clearly the story was meant to bring the reader from Leonard Nimoy's childhood to his success with Star Trek, but I think the content of those last 2 sections were just as informative and interesting as the main body of the book.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class by Elizabeth Warren


I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Warren, and Ken pre-ordered this book for me even before it was released. Life being busy, however, I hadn't gotten around to reading it until now. I was actually spurred on by having had the amazing opportunity to see Senator Warren speak live at a town hall event. Now, reading this book, I could easily imagine her voice speaking the words, full of passion and intensity.

Without going through a full post-mortem of the 2016 presidential election, suffice it to say that I, personally, do not subscribe to the idea that "economic anxiety of the poor white working class" was the primary reason for why we got the results we did. But the "economic anxiety of the poor white working class" was certainly a factor, and the bulk of this book goes a long way towards explaining the economic reality faced by the poor working class - people who used to be able to live as middle class.

I really enjoyed the personal anecdotes from Elizabeth Warren's own life (and the accompanying photos). She had a humble upbringing, and after a medical emergency, her family was saved from the brink of financial disaster because of a government that ensured a livable minimum wage. As a young adult, she took an unconventional path towards college graduation, which was only possible because of a government that supported affordable commuter colleges and the infrastructure that allowed students to physically get there. For Elizabeth Warren, the fight is personal: she wants every American to be given the same kinds of second chances that she and her family got in the 1960s.

This book provides an eye-opening history of how, after the Great Depression, government policies and regulations leveled the playing field and helped set the stage for long-term economic stability and prosperity for all Americans, regardless of class. (Brief asides do admit that the vast majority of benefits were enjoyed by white people, and racial inequality is an issue in itself.) But then, wealthy corporate leaders systematically stacked the deck in their own favor by promoting pro-business and anti-government rhetoric and policies, breaking the system that had already been proven effective, and leading to wider and wider disparities in income growth - the rich got richer while the poor and middle class stayed where they were, or became worse off.

Elizabeth Warren makes the argument for the kind of social contract Americans enjoyed after the Great Depression, one in which "we worked together to form a giant insurance program, with each of us contributing through taxes. When we needed a hand, we could turn to each other, through our government, to help us make it through... [W]e were all in one big American boat together - rich and poor, working and nonworking, young and old." (p. 99-100) I know some people will reject that kind of philosophy as "socialist" - as if "socialist" were, by definition, a bad thing. And yet, I would think that Christians (who make up a significant portion of the Republican base) especially would find that kind of social contract appealing, because it seems like the most efficient way to ensure that we "value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." (Philippians 2:3-4)

To implement that social contract, Elizabeth Warren believes strongly in two specifics tenets: 1) trickle-down economics is total bunk, and 2) the most important thing the government can do to promote opportunity for all is to invest in education, infrastructure, and research. And she brings the receipts, with data and sources backing up her position, all listed out in the Notes section. I also found her no-nonsense attitude - with lines like, "That idea is stupid on its face." (p. 182) - pretty entertaining.

Though most of the book focuses on economics, policies, and the powers that influence them, a few pages towards the end of the book directly addresses the racism, prejudices, and bigotry of the Republican party - and Donald Trump, specifically.

The book wraps up with Elizabeth Warren's perspectives during the 2016 presidential campaign, and her reaction to the results. She doesn't hold back when she paints a bleak picture of the kind of damage a government run by Trump and his Cabinet can do - and has already done - to Americans and the world we live in. But, the book closes with optimism. Elizabeth Warren lays out exactly what this fight entails - we have to fight bigotry, create opportunity, and demand democracy - and what we each have to do. Specifically, she urges all of us to use whatever platform we have to stand up, speak out, get involved, and even call out other people to do the same. She commits herself to fighting this fight for all Americans, and she invites us to join her.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Ranger's Apprentice Roundup

Worth a read for any fan of medieval fantasy in the vein of King Arthur. There actually isn't any sorcery, but there are knights and castles and kingdoms. At first I was also reminded of Lord of the Rings because Halt struck me so much like a shorter and smaller version of Strider. Also, the first couple books had a fantasy component involving non-human creatures and legendary monsters, but that quickly died away and was not an element in later books.

Also, a tip: If you want to read the books chronologically, after Book 4, read Book 7, and then go back to Books 5 and 6! There is an Author's Note in Book 7 explaining how he realized after the fact that he should have filled in the period of time between Books 4 and 5.

The Royal Ranger (Ranger's Apprentice #12) by John Flanagan


*** Warning: This review contains spoilers! ***

I surprised myself by giving this book 5 stars. Especially since I started this book with such wariness.

I thought The Lost Stories did such a great job wrapping up the series, I really didn't want to read another installment. Then, after just a few pages, we find out Alyss is dead!? No!! Why!? Finally, we meet Maddie, who wasn't so likable. So, from the beginning, I wasn't crazy about the book.

Along the way, though, I found myself enjoying the read. I was glad to see Will being stern and unflinching with Maddie, and sure enough, Maddie eventually won me over. In the end, this book was like a satisfying epilogue to the whole series.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, A Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship by Michelle Kuo


If I could give this book more than 5 stars, I would. Normally a slow reader, I started and finished this book within 24 hours. It is both eye-opening and heartbreaking. Putting this book down, I have a lingering hopefulness in the humanity of individuals.

This is the true story of Michelle Kuo, a daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, who graduated from Harvard, then joined Teach for America and lived for two years in Helena, Arkansas, a town in the Mississippi Delta. A few years later, while a student at Harvard Law School, she learns that a former standout student is in jail for murder. She returns to Helena and visits him in jail. In this book, Kuo deftly presents a story at the intersection of race, education, poetry, privilege, economics, immigration, law, and the vestiges of slavery in the south, including the prison-industrial complex. Perhaps unexpectedly, this book is, in the way it weaves together so many important issues, quintessentially American.

Along the way, I did fear that the telling of the story might be a kind of white savior narrative. Even though Michelle Kuo isn't white, didn't she swoop in and save Patrick? Maybe... But in the way she portrayed their time together, it seemed like she was just figuring things out as she went. At one point, towards the end, when she realizes that Patrick had surpassed her expectations, had expressed himself in ways that didn't result from her direct guidance, she thinks of herself as a conduit. Just a conduit through which Patrick could realize his true self.

Finally, some personal thoughts on why this book affected me so much. My maiden name is Kuo, I, too, attended an elite university, and my parents were immigrants from Taiwan. Many of the author's experiences, especially her relationship with her parents, were entirely familiar in every way. I'm also a part-time teacher, albeit in predominantly white upper middle class neighborhoods. But every year I've taught, I've taught a particular course that usually meant that my roster was not a typical slice of the rest of the school; in my classes, I'd have students of color, students on special education plans, and students with less than ideal home lives - and frequently one student fit all three descriptions. I wouldn't for a second even begin to try to compare the students in this book with my students in a wealthy suburb who had teachers and guidance counselors and special education liaisons looking out for them. Still, every time a student addressed the author as "Ms. Kuo," I let myself imagine some kind of alternate universe in which I might have been in a situation similar to hers. And when I think about how two of my former students dropped out of school within a year of having taken my class, I can't help but think, "How could I have done more?"

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Lost Stories (Ranger's Apprentice #11) by John Flanagan


I very much enjoyed this collection of short stories! In some ways, they are the type of stories I wanted to read early on the series, giving us a broader view of the comings and goings of daily life in Araluen.

At the same time, many of these stories couldn't have been written earlier, because they nicely tied up the loose ends I complained about in earlier books! We finally find out what happened to Foldar, Morgarath's second in command who Halt was supposed to be chasing down when he got himself banished. We get to see a bit more of both Jenny and Gilan, and it was fun to see everyone together again for Horace and Cassandra's wedding. In fact, this collection of stories had such a nice finality to them that I am surprised there is still one last book in this series... I'll certainly plan to read it, but at this point, I think this book would have served as a good ending to the series.

The only thing preventing me from giving this book 5 stars were a few minor complaints along the way. For example, in "Death of a Hero", I just wish Halt had told Will's mom, before she died, that her husband died a hero. And in "The Wolf", it really bothered me that Will seemed to act out of character by brushing off Tug's warnings of nearby danger. You'd think that Will would perk up and be more alert at the first sign of Tug's rumblings. And then, it bothered me even more that Will never apologized to Tug for ignoring him. Perhaps if Will had heeded Tug's warnings, things might have turned out differently!