Sunday, August 21, 2016

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

★★★★

I liked this book.

The main character is Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who comes to America and then, many years later, decides to return to Nigeria. Through non-chronological storytelling including flashbacks, we follow her growth through childhood and adolescence in Nigeria, and then adulthood in America and back in Nigeria. While the driving narrative is the relationship between Ifemelu and her first love, Obinze, this book offers so much more than just a love story. It talks openly about race and immigration, and puts into perspective the first-world problems of America and the third-world problems of Nigeria.

So, I consider myself pretty well-informed on race issues in America. I am non-white, and I read a lot of articles and think pieces about race. From where I'm coming from, this book reiterated much of what I already understand about race, and I thought it was remarkable just how openly race was addressed. I once participated in an employer-sponsored race workshop, and it was not so much a discussion about race as it was a lot of dancing around the topic. I left feeling frustrated and annoyed, wanting to shout, "Let's just TALK already!" Compared to that workshop, I think a much more effective way to talk about race would be to require everyone to read this book and then have small book group type discussions led by those trained workshop leaders. For a person who has not yet given much thought to race, or who maybe doesn't know how to go about talking about it, this book offers much food for thought. If exploring race doesn't interest you, then this book is not for you.

Beyond race, this book did open my eyes to the struggling world of immigrants - both legal and illegal. Again, I consider myself pretty well-informed on immigration, and coming from an immigrant family myself, I think I have a pretty good understanding of the challenges faced by immigrants. But this book shined an additional light on the troubles faced specifically by illegal immigrants. I found myself invested in the characters' stories, and therefore rooted for them throughout the book, but I do wonder... Would a person who is politically unsympathetic to illegal immigrants be able to sympathize with these characters, or would they feel disgusted with them as illegal immigrants?

I got a little hung up at one point in the book, when Ifemelu changed her career in America. Her new career eventually required a whole slew of different skills and abilities that seemed uncharacteristic of what we knew of her before. It was just a little strange that she suddenly was capable of doing these things that she never did before. I also was disappointed that the book did not delve further into Dike's psyche. He was only a supporting character, but his experiences as a non-American black growing up being treated as an African-American black were valuable, and I constantly wanted to know more about him.

In the end - without giving away the ending - I felt not quite satisfied. It was not a tragic ending, but also not quite uplifting. I think it was an important part of the book that Ifemelu's sense of self was strong enough to withstand years of American influence - that she put herself in a position to learn much in America, and in the end, realized she only needed to be true to herself, no matter where she lived. It's a good message, but maybe she could have learned the same things in Nigeria? Of all the many characters in the book, only Ifemelu, Obinze, and maybe Iloba, remained fundamentally unchanged despite their time abroad - and that seemed a bit contrived, especially given how much everybody else had changed. The way events unfolded, I actually felt sadness and regret that she had "wasted" so many years in America, when her alternate life path - that she would have led if she had stayed in Nigeria - would probably have turned out just fine, maybe even better.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

★★★★★

I read this play knowing NOTHING except the fact that Harry, Ron, and Hermione are now adults.

I think part of the fun was going in without any expectations whatsoever, and just enjoying being immersed in the wizarding world again. For that reason, I'm going to keep this review spoiler-free, which means I can't really say much, except in broad strokes.

The bottom line is, this play was written for Harry Potter fans. Reading this play is downright FUN! I enjoyed every minute of it, which is why I gave it 5 stars. All the nostalgia factors are there. Think of this play as the Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII) of the Harry Potter franchise. We have a new story with new characters, but at the same time, we still have our old favorite characters - who are literally older - and we're just traveling down memory lane, paying homage to the original story. All the characters are just how we remember them, Ron being in especially good form as comic relief.

Intentionally or not, this play did have a couple "Harry Potter moments" when you wanted to shake the book and ask, "Why did you do THAT instead of doing this other thing that would obviously be a better idea!?" But perhaps that is part of the Harry Potter charm. There may be some shortcomings or inconsistencies in the plot, but the mere existence of the wizarding world itself just makes up for it.

So, let's be honest. My 5-star rating is more a result of my fandom than a critical analysis of the play. If I had to rate this STORY as a stand-alone entity... Maybe I'd give it 3 1/2 stars. Without giving away spoilers, I'll just say that the story includes elements that I find very difficult to do well in any book, and also, I didn't feel as much sympathy for the main character as I think I was supposed to.

Friday, August 5, 2016

I Survived the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, 1941 (#4) by Lauren Tarshis

★★★

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

This is the first book of the series that I've read in which I myself did not live through the event. So, there was more of a distance in reading this book than when reading about Hurricane Katrina or September 11th.

The first thing I noticed is that the protagonist is, yet again, a young boy. I took a cursory glance at the covers of the other books in the series we happen to have, and they do appear to all feature boys. I'll have to read them all to be sure, but at this point, I do wonder... Since each book tells a different story, why not spotlight a girl every now and then?

The second thing I noticed is that the main character in this book, Danny, is a Caucasian boy who recently moved to Hawaii from New York City. I don't have anything against Danny, but why not make the book about a native Hawaiian, since the story takes place in Hawaii, after all? Danny's neighbor is little Aki, a Japanese boy. Why couldn't the main character have been Aki's older brother?

The thing about reading series books is that you can't help but compare them to each other. In the other two I Survived books I've read, the boys just happened to find themselves in the middle of the event. They didn't go running carelessly into danger; they exercised good judgment, and just did their best, given the situation. In this book, for the first time, the main character actually leaves a place of safety and goes running alone towards trouble. Sure, Danny probably wasn't thinking straight, but you'd think Mrs. Sudo would be a little more forceful in insisting that Danny stay put.

The part about Danny seeing the face of the pilot in a plane was a bit over-the-top dramatic for me. It's clear the author wanted the reader to know that that's just how close the planes got to land, but it almost seemed as if she had Danny running into the middle of the bombing just to set up that detail.

I was actually quite impressed that the book went beyond the events of Pearl Harbor and touched upon the treatment of Japanese-Americans that followed (even mentioning the Japanese internment in one of the afterwords). However, I was then taken aback by the implication that a gangster in New York City could get a Japanese-American released from prison in Hawaii. I mean, what? The book admits that maybe the gangster had nothing to do with the release, but then, we are left wondering what made the police finally release Mr. Sudo, since they believed they had circumstantial evidence against him.

In the end, I appreciated the happy ending. I don't know if that's just part of the M.O. for these books, but I have to admit, after the fear and terror of the event itself, it's nice to see a positive snapshot of normalcy.

This book ends with a "Pearl Harbor Time Line", some questions and answers about Pearl Harbor, a list of resources for additional reading, and a brief note from the author.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

I Survived Roundup

A good series of historical fiction to motivate a reluctant reader!

All the books feature a young boy as the protagonist, and I do wish they could have equally featured girls.

I Survived Hurricane Katrina, 2005 (#3) by Lauren Tarshis

★★★★

This is the second I Survived book I've read. Again, we have a young boy who gets separated from his family for some time during the event in question.

Despite the short nature of these books, I feel like I got a nicely fleshed-out portrait of Barry and his family.

For a while, Barry is facing down Hurricane Katrina on his own, but he soon finds a companion in a neighborhood dog who was left behind. This pairing seems well-planned to help reduce the anxiety of us readers; without knowing how Barry's story will end, at least we know he is not alone.

As with the September 11th book, I appreciate that the author is able to take a well-known catastrophic event in recent history and make it approachable for children. I like how the story was set up - the family had planned to evacuate, but was unable to do so due to unexpected developments. (It's not that the family purposely ignored all the hurricane warnings.)

The book makes only brief mentions of the Superdome, and for the most part it sidestepped the issue of having to address the ordeal faced by those who sought refuge there. At first, the book hinted that the Superdome was overcrowded. Later, the book described the "tens of thousands of people who'd been stranded for days in the hot and terrifying Superdome." (p. 91) So, you know something was up, but the book doesn't go into it. After giving this some thought, I think the Superdome was handled appropriately for the age group of the book's target audience.

At the end of the book, there is a section called "After the Storm: Questions about Katrina." Here, the author goes into some of the aftermath, and I was impressed that she did not hold back with hard-hitting questions like, "Why was help so slow to arrive to the survivors?" She describes just a little more some of the conditions at the Superdome, and gives the reader just enough information so that if they want to learn more, they have a starting point for questions they can ask a parent or teacher.

The final section is a list of "Facts About Hurricane Katrina".

I Survived the Attacks of September 11th, 2001 (#6) by Lauren Tarshis

★★★½

This is my first I Survived book. It occurs to me that after I read more books, I might want to change this book's rating, relative to other books in the series.

I wanted to start with September 11, 2001, because this book's whole existence intrigued me. I can understand writing a historical fiction for children centered around the Battle of Gettysburg, set in 1863. But every adult in America has the shocking and tragic events of September 11 seared into their memories, even their hearts. How is the author going to pivot that into material for a children's book?

Even before reading this book, I recognized the need for something like this. The events of September 11 are now so much a part of the fabric of America that it's easy to forget that children today may not have any idea what actually happened. They hear "September 11" and know that something bad happened. We owe it to our children to at some point explain why that date matters.

So, I was pleased to find that this book is not only age-appropriate in its language, but the bigger 9/11 story is couched in a more personal story about a boy and his love for football. The language is matter-of-fact, yet there is warmth in the characters. Still, the gravity of the day comes through. At times, the narrative is downright intense - especially if your own memories start to kick in. But the boy in the book, named Lucas, is never really in a position of feeling completely lost or alone, so there's safety in learning about the events through his story.

This book fell short of being 4 stars for me mainly because of the way in which it abruptly stopped the story once it was established that Lucas was safe. The final chapter filled in the gaps with broad strokes, but I think much more could have been written in regards to the second tower falling, and the challenges Lucas would have faced in returning home that day. Sebastien reminded me that the book couldn't be too long, and I admit I thought that the chapters were well-paced. On the one hand it seems like a lost opportunity to write more, but on the other hand, I can understand not wanting to prolong the disaster for too long, especially given the young audience.

I really appreciated the author's note at the end explaining "Why I Wrote About September 11". She answered a lot of the questions I had myself - regarding characters in the book as well as why she wrote it in the first place - and I appreciated her honesty. She revealed additional facts as well as some of her own personal experiences.

The book includes two additional sections at the end, one about the "Time Line for the Morning of September 11, 2001" and another on "Questions and Answers about 9/11".

Overall, a good read, and an appropriate introduction to 9/11 for children.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Lunch Money by Andrew Clements

★★★

I decided to pick up this book because Isabelle once named Andrew Clements as her favorite author.

In many ways, this book had to grow on me. When the main character Greg was first introduced, I thought he was completely unrelatable! A kid who's good at everything!? How is that interesting? It took a few chapters, but Greg's creativity and industriousness finally grew on me.

Just as things were getting interesting, we met Maura. And again! I found her just as annoying and frustrating as Greg did - though perhaps that's a testament to the author's writing ability! Gradually, I grew to accept her, though I fell short of actually liking her.

The story is good. Greg comes up with a way to make money at school - an idea that impressively requires quite a lot of work and preparation - but his plans are foiled by the school principal. Meanwhile, he surprisingly finds himself in a position of sort of befriending Maura and working with her on a new plan. Together, they want to find a way to convince the principal to allow them to run their business in school.

I like that there's a lot of development - character development, product development, relationship development. There are also a lot of opportunities to learn something - how to go about figuring out how to get something done, how some things are worth more than money, how important it is to adapt in certain situations. There's a bit of humor, and the events unfold at a good pace.

I can see why this book might appeal to upper elementary readers. As realistic fiction, there's a sense of, "Wow, I could do that, too!"

I was disappointed, then, at the very end, when the story suddenly became over-the-top and not at all realistic.

Final note: There are a lot of math references in this book, making it possibly a good selection for young readers who generally like math more than reading.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, and Other Tourist Attractions (#6) by Lenore Look

★★★½

I LOVE that this book introduces young readers to China and many aspects of Chinese culture.

But, for the first time in this series, I found myself feeling frustrated and annoyed with Alvin. He is his usual scared and sensitive self, but now - on this big international trip - his actions aren't just cute and funny. They have some serious consequences! He inadvertently causes trouble in the airport security line and on the flight, and his antics deprive his family of a meaningful visit at both the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden Palace. As someone who loves to travel, sightsee, and take photos, I just couldn't forgive Alvin as easily and as quickly as his own family did. :P

Like all Alvin Ho books, this one includes a fun glossary at the end. I think this book was paced well, and I understand it would have been difficult to include many more points of interest while also maintaining the desired length and flow. Still, the glossary included so many interesting places and things - the terracotta army in Xian, the panda research center in Chengdu, the dinosaur pit in Zhucheng - that it was a disappointment to see those things mentioned in passing, but not explored in more depth.

Friday, July 1, 2016

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

★★★★

A very short, very quick read that is a modified version of a TED talk the author gave in 2012. It's very easy to imagine the words being spoken on a stage, with a pause here, an emphasis there.

Adichie acknowledges the negative connotations associated with the word "feminism", but through personal anecdotes, challenges the reader to embrace the term.

Basically, Adichie points out that most people - despite being unwilling to take on the label of "feminist" - are, indeed, feminists. Do you believe that men and women should be treated equally? Well, congratulations! You're a feminist!

The author encourages readers - both men and women - to help fix the problem of gender inequity by first raising our own awareness of instances in which women are slighted in favor of men. Our goal, then, is to raise the next generation of boys and girls in a society without the gender expectations that have been imposed on us in years past.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Alvin Ho Roundup

This funny and quirky series features a second grade boy who happens to be Chinese-American. With the exception of one surprising incident of racial insensitivity in Book #3, I like the way multiculturalism and diversity are included matter-of-factly.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Babies, Burglars, and Other Bumps in the Night (#5) by Lenore Look

★★★★½

It's been about 5 years since Isabelle and I last read Alvin Ho. Now that Sebastien just finished 2nd grade - and has suddenly become more open-minded in regards to reading material! - I had a feeling he might enjoy reading about a Chinese boy in 2nd grade. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that since we last left Alvin, two more books have been published in the series! Hooray!

I picked up this book, and it was like those 5 years hadn't passed at all. Alvin is still in 2nd grade, and he's still scared of pretty much everything. Through humor and empathy, we see how sensitive, lovable Alvin comes to terms with his mother's pregnancy.

Alvin is such a sweet boy, my heart just about melted when he and his siblings built the birthing nest for their mom.

The only reason I didn't give this book 5 stars is because I felt it left one loose thread hanging. A little closure on that bit about the burglar would have been nice.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

★★★

This book is sort of a companion to Smile. It was published later, but it's not quite a sequel because the events in this book take place during the summer before Raina enters high school, which is also included in Smile.

As Raina and her family take a road trip from CA to CO, we see the tension in Raina's current relationship with her younger sister Amara. Through flashbacks, we see their history. Surprisingly, despite sharing a passion and talent for art, Raina and Amara never really "got" each other; they butt heads again and again, and we never really see them bonding.

This book is a particularly fast read, even for a graphic novel. There are lots of frames without any words. I found myself frequently flipping through pages faster than expected, and I wonder if that sense of physically skimming over the pages was a factor in my impression that the book sort of only skimmed the surface of any number of issues.

Through the expressive illustrations, we see that Raina was disappointed that Amara didn't turn out to be the playmate she always wanted - but how did she handle that revelation as a child? And why was Amara so difficult, so withdrawn as a child, that she didn't even enjoy the attentions of her older sister? We see the girls bicker over just the types of things sisters will bicker about - yet we never see a moment of tenderness, not even when Amara loses her first pet. Surely both Raina and Amara must have been grappling with all sorts of mixed emotions when they arrived at the family reunion and found themselves marginalized and ignored. Yet, even then, they didn't stick together as comrades in arms might.

Overall, this book held my interest, but it was not nearly as compelling as Smile, for me. It seemed like any time anything happened, I wanted to know more, but was always disappointed when the story just quickly carried on to the next event, instead of exploring previous events more deeply. Even the character development seemed thin; I don't feel like I got to know Raina any better, and at the end of the book, it still seemed like anything I knew about Raina as a person I knew from having read Smile.

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

★★★★½

This book has a lot of the same themes as Roller Girl, which I know was published after Smile, but which I happened to read first.

Raina is a middle schooler who struggles with all the expected challenges of puberty - frenemies, boys, acne, etc. Unfortunately, she also has a freak accident in which her top two front teeth are knocked out!! Aagh!! The poor girl has to endure frequent and painful orthodontist visits and a series of uncomfortable dental procedures and equipment.

There are so many things that I like about this book! Raina is, understandably, unhappy about her dental situation, but she is not distraught and does not wallow in self-pity. She kind of just keeps picking herself up and going back to school. She is as insecure as any other middle schooler, yet she makes good decisions; if she's uncomfortable in a situation, she'll do what's best for her, and won't just follow the crowd.

I often feel that there is too much emphasis these days on people having BFFs, so I really liked the fact that Raina does not seem to have one "best friend". She has a group of friends with whom she feels comfortable hanging out.

One of the great life lessons of this book is finding out who your friends really are, and what it means to be a friend to somebody. For much of this book, I was a little underwhelmed with Raina's friendships, and I worried that these relationships were being portrayed as "typical friendships" for middle schoolers. Thankfully, by the end of the book, Raina made some pretty keen realizations, and I LOVED that she entered high school with an attitude of excitement and optimism about meeting new people and making new friends. I liked especially that the transition happened without any ill-will towards her old friends.

One small note about the cast of characters. Even though the main character and her family are Caucasian, I appreciate that other races made appearances in the book, including an African-American boy on whom Raina develops a crush. The book's diversity factor appears mainly as details in the illustrations, but it's still meaningful to see multiculturalism depicted in a normalized way.

This book would be a great selection for any upper elementary or middle school reader who is in the midst of or on the cusp of hitting puberty. There's a sense of, "Well, if Raina can get through that, then I can get through whatever is going on in my own life, too!"

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

★★★★

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

This book was my first foray into graphic novels, and I have to admit, I enjoyed it more than I expected.

Astrid is a 12-year-old girl heading into junior high. She discovers a love for roller derby at the same time that her friendship with her best friend Nicole starts to fall apart. Suddenly, she's hit with a whirlwind of different and unfamiliar emotions and experiences. With the help of a new friend, some encouragement from a star roller derby player, and - finally - a meaningful talk with her mom, Astrid manages to find solid ground.

Through dialogue, narration, and illustrations, this book effectively portrays the range of emotions with which Astrid struggles - confusion, sadness, anger, frustration, fear, disappointment, etc. I think it would make good reading for any upper elementary school student who will one day soon enter the minefield of puberty and middle school relationships. I like that in the end, Astrid learns how to be a good friend and what it means to be on a team.

As an aside, I'll mention that Astrid appears to have a single mom - at least, there is no father figure in the book. This detail is not highlighted, but just treated matter-of-factly. I appreciate the diversity factor that this family structure offers.

The ending, however, I found too bittersweet. Sadly, I know that it is not uncommon for friendships to really end as individuals grow and develop. But after Astrid and Nicole finally cleared the air with an honest, if awkward, heart-to-heart, I hoped that they could maintain a fondness for each other, even if they did not stay close friends. One of the last frames has Astrid leaving behind a token from Nicole, and it just seemed too final, like an indication that their friendship was truly over. I can see the value in such an ending, but I would have preferred to see Astrid cherish the final token of friendship offered by Nicole, and then I would have loved to see Astrid return the thoughtful gesture at Nicole's ballet recital a week later.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Favorite Daughter by Allen Say

★★★

A picture book for lower elementary grades.

Yuriko is a mixed-race girl (half-Caucasian, half-Japanese) who is teased because of her Japanese name and her non-Japanese-looking blond hair.

I picked up this book specifically because I am interested in books about mixed-race kids. There are not a lot of books out there, but from what I've seen, they seem to fall into two camps: either the book is a story that happens to feature a mixed-race child, or the feature story is explicitly about how the mixed-race child deals with being mixed-race. I think there is value in both kinds of books, and this one falls into the latter category.

There is quite a bit about Japanese culture, from food and fashion to art and architecture. In that regard, this book can certainly broaden some young horizons.

Most of the book is dialogue, which makes for an engaging read. It's a picture book, and just having a series of illustrations featuring a mixed-race child is so rare that it seems worthwhile in itself.

Interestingly, the first line in the book implies that Yuriko's parents are divorced. The book features Yuriko and her father, and her mother is never mentioned. Other than that first sentence, there is no further insight into her family structure. I couldn't figure out how I felt about that. Is it a good thing, that divorce is just something in the background, so matter-of-fact that it's not even worth mentioning? This book is NOT a book about being a child of divorce, so does it normalize the experience for children of divorce to see a child of divorce in a book, and the divorce itself isn't a big deal? On the other hand, why not just explicitly explain where the mother is? Even as an adult reading the book, I kept wondering, "Where's mom? Are they even going to mention her?" It was something of a mystery, which distracted from the real point of the book.

And the real point of the book was Yuriko being mixed-race. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and in fact, there is quite a lot to be proud of. The message was couched in another message about being creative and original, which was a nice touch, so that the race-related message wasn't too heavy-handed.