Sunday, December 18, 2016

From Texas with Love (The Genius Files #4) by Dan Gutman


Hm. This installment seemed lacking.

First, I was taken by surprise by the finality of Evil Elvis's demise in the last book. Given Evil Elvis's true identity, I kept expecting him to re-appear, as Dr. Warsaw did. It seems a bit much to think about the kids' role in that death.

While still trying to stay one step ahead of Mrs. Higgins and the bowler dudes, for much of the book there was no defined antagonist masterminding opposition to the twins. They continued to receive ciphers, so there was the promise of a new adversary - who finally showed up in the last quarter of the book - but most of this book just felt like a lot of waiting for something to happen.

I also am continually tired of the sexism - intentional or not. I haven't been keeping tabs, but it seems like every time the twins get into trouble together, it's Pep who cries in desperation, and Coke who comes up with a clever means of escape.

I'm not sure I like the supernatural twist at the end of this book... That would be going too far, even for this crazy series!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

You Only Die Twice (The Genius Files #3) by Dan Gutman


Hmm... Still not crazy about how these books reinforce sexist ideas along the lines of, "girls like bunnies and shopping, boys like water balloons and car crashes."

The first cipher was uncharacteristically easy, and I was annoyed that Pepsi had such trouble figuring out something so simple! CLEARLY, the cipher was meant to read "EVIL LIVES", as a warning that all their troubles were NOT behind them. Well, imagine my surprise when I realized I was wrong! Ha. The actual meaning was certainly more comical, but I still don't see why Pepsi wouldn't have gone down the same path I did.

I continue to not understand why Bones and Mya insist on making their presence known by initially kidnapping Coke and Pepsi and giving them a scare instead of just walking up to them and talking to them!

It also didn't sit well with me that Coke and Pepsi managed to illegally purchase fireworks.

With so many negatives, you'd think my star rating would be lower. But I did manage to find 3 ciphers directed at the reader in this book, and that made me happy. Plus, there was another crazy twist at the end! This series is obviously not meant to be taken seriously, so if you suspend disbelief and just go with the flow, it's an entertaining read.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates


This book is written as a letter to the author's 15-year-old son, though I didn't find it particularly accessible. The subject matter is heavy, the writing itself at times poetic.

My rating is mostly a reflection of my belief that the content should be widely read, especially by people who might not spend a lot of time thinking about race. In this book, we have a first-person account of what it's like to grow up with no choice but to think about race, to think about race in every facet of life, and what that race means not only to your sense of identity, but how it relates to your very survival. As Coates explains, at the most basic level, a black person's greatest concern is his struggle to control what happens to his own body.

Part think piece, part memoir, the author puts on display the raw reality of growing up black in West Baltimore. There's a dichotomy between the streets and school, yet both institutions failed the author as equally unrealistic paths to achieving the American "Dream".

The author writes about "being 'politically conscious' - as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty." (p. 34) Coates's lack of religious faith is notable. He faced all the tough questions without being able to fall back on a "greater good" or "God's plan", forcing him to continually grapple with a search for answers and explanations. Though he struggled at first with finding a common narrative, a single truth, he learned at Howard University - his "Mecca" - to embrace the dialogue and debate as being worthwhile in themselves.

Early on, Coates states an important premise: "America believes itself exceptional... I propose to take our countrymen's claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard." (p. 8) Clearly, an "exceptional moral standard" would preclude pervasive and institutional racism, and at the end of the book, the author poignantly urges his son to "struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca." (p. 151) I get wanting to pass the torch, but I did wonder if maybe it's a heavy burden to place on a 15-year-old.

I found the memoir portions of the book most engaging, for example, the complete revelation he had when he traveled internationally for the first time, and his incredibly profound coming-to-terms in dealing with a friend's death at the hands of the police.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Never Say Genius (The Genius Files #2) by Dan Gutman


Coke and Pepsi and their parents continue their cross-country drive from CA to Washington, DC. Even more than in the first book, this book has the children caught up in outlandish situations. In between, we learn all sorts of random facts. In a way, this books actually seems less about The Genius Files and more about spreading quirky facts about Americana!

Truth be told, I was disappointed not to find any ciphers directed at readers in this book. But, I did enjoy the big twist in the end!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Mission Impossible (The Genius Files #1) by Dan Gutman


A fun read about twins named Coke and Pepsi whose cross-country drive with their parents is overshadowed by their recent discovery of being secret members of The Genius Files.

The third person narrator frequently employs author intrusion, speaking directly to the reader for comedic effect. There is humor throughout the book, mostly of the "safe" kid-appropriate variety.

It's worth mentioning, though, that there is prominent scatological humor involving the dumping of waste from an RV. And I was slightly bothered by a reference to boys not having feelings; it just didn't seem like a productive thing to put in a book that many young boys are likely to read. We also see a bit of talking back to teachers, and the word "retarded" is used. Though effort is made to point out that "retarded" is not appropriate language, it's done somewhat dismissively. Oh, and the kids were required to keep The Genius Files secret from their parents. I don't know, I get that the appeal of many children's books is that the kids are supposed to figure things out for themselves, but the whole don't-tell-any-adults thing in kids' books always rubs me the wrong way.

All that aside, this book reminded me a bit of the 39 Clues series, not only because of the brother-sister pair who try to figure out clues while on the move with dangerous individuals on their tail, but also because the brother in each series is the funny one with a photographic memory, and the sister in each series is the more emotional but clever one. Also, like 39 Clues, the reader has lots of opportunities to learn about real people and places as the sibling duo travels from place to place. Only, in this book, the places and things that kids can learn about are not always educational, but more like fun facts, for example, the existence of a Pez museum in California, or giant balls of twine in Kansas and Minnesota. There are drawings and photos that are entertaining, too.

The book was published in 2011, so it's a very contemporary read, with references to Facebook and Twitter. The author even suggests that the reader follow along with the family's cross-country travels by mapping out their route on Google Maps.

There are some kind of mature ideas in this book, including assassins and references to genocide, cannibalism, and 9/11.

One last thing to mention, lest it is overlooked by readers as it was by my children! Three times in the book, a cipher is randomly printed along the side of a page. In each instance, curious readers will find that the same type of cipher is given to Coke and Pepsi a few pages later, and then several pages later the kids decode the cipher. Motivated readers can turn back to the cipher given to the reader and decode a secret message. It's fun!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

It Takes a Village, Tenth Anniversary Edition by Hillary Rodham Clinton


When this book was first published in 1996, I was in college and not at all interested in parenting or politics. Now, 20 years later, I'm all about parenting and politics!

In the introduction, Hillary Clinton makes clear that "parents are the most important influences on the lives of their children." (p. XII) However, since "no family exists in a vacuum" (p. XII), the well-being of all children also depends on the society in which they live. The "village", of course, is a metaphor for not just the neighbors and teachers and police officers in a community, but also the institutions like government, churches, schools, and medical facilities that all play a crucial role in every child's development. In matters of public policy, the bottom line should always be, "Is it good for our children?" (p. XVI)

Like her public persona, Clinton's writing style is not especially engaging, however, this book is dotted with personal anecdotes that I found relatable. It was especially fun to read about Hillary as a young mother, and Chelsea as a child.

While certainly not a "parenting book", I would readily recommend this book to first-time pregnant women and new parents. In discussions that reference studies and experts (many of which are further explained in the "Notes" section), Clinton explores what's best for children. Along the way, she provides not just information, but insights and suggestions that I think any new parent would find helpful.

Ultimately, the book is about public policy. For each issue discussed in this book, Clinton talks about her own experiences, lays out the conclusions of what studies show, and then describes existing programs that successfully address the issue at hand. A couple programs might be implemented at the national level, but for the most part, a lot of them are state-funded or church-run or even founded by community coalitions. The point is, people are already finding ways to fix problems, and we need those fixes to be prevalent in all areas where they are needed.

The book covers a wide range of issues including support for new mothers, vaccinations, nutrition, public safety, gun control, adolescent drug use, race, education, child care, and public service - and that's not even an exhaustive list! It even talks about faith and building good character. Clinton looks at every issue from the perspective of, "What is best for children, and how can we make that happen for all children?"

Even as a staunch supporter of Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, I do not agree with every position she took in this book. But her intentions are clear, and I have to respect that her motivation comes from a good place. Every issue from the environment to the global economy can be boiled down to whether or not a particular policy benefits children and/or the world in which children live.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The 39 Clues Roundup

Dan and Amy are on a world-wide adventure, searching for clues to some mysterious prize while trying to outrun and outsmart older and richer members of their extended family.

Much suspended disbelief must be employed, but it's a good premise for learning facts about famous people and places in history.

The Sword Thief (The 39 Clues #3) by Peter Lerangis


Another book, another author! Despite the multiple authors, the style seems mostly consistent. If anything, maybe both Dan and Amy's personalities came out a bit more in this installment.

It's mostly more of the same, only this time in Asia. There're hidden underground tunnels, alliances, and betrayals. I still find it distracting that you just have to accept that other people have uncovered other clues in ways that are never explained. Like how did the Kabras get that antique coin? And I'm a little bothered by how Amy and Dan keep leaving important items in random places while trying to outrun someone in pursuit. It just seems like such a huge risk; I can't believe that they manage to get their stuff back, again. But I guess suspended disbelief is a pre-requisite for this series already, given the whole premise of two minors competing in a world-wide challenge to find a mystery prize of unlimited power!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

One False Note (The 39 Clues #2) by Gordon Korman


The world-wide search continues!

Where the first book had Amy and Dan Cahill learning about Ben Franklin in Paris, this book has them learning about Mozart in Vienna, Salzburg, and Venice. The brother and sister pair travelling to different places and learning about important historical figures reminds me of the Magic Tree House series, but of course this series is written for an older audience.

I'm enjoying the chase for clues, but I have to get used to only having Amy and Dan's perspective. The first book of the series made a point to mention that there are multiple paths that lead to the actual clues that need to be found. So we follow Amy and Dan, but along the way, they keep getting intercepted by other Cahills. Since we don't know how other Cahills are figuring things out, I keep wondering about things like: How did Jonah Wizard know to go to Vienna? How did Alistair Oh get the paper that he hid in his cane? I guess none of those things are really important, you just have to accept them.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance


I am a staunch advocate for common sense gun control, but even I have to admit that in the first chapter, the author manages to describe a situation that could arguably be a case in which a 12-year-old child might be justified in using a gun. The shockingly eye-opening account went on to tell how that same 12-year-old girl got pregnant at 13 and married at 14 (her husband was 17). This girl eventually becomes the imposing matriarch of the Vance family - Mamaw - whose life and spirit were central to the book's themes.

I found Hillbilly Elegy to be compelling and informative. It provides ample context for discussion of race, poverty, socio-economics, education, and politics - especially in light of the 2016 presidential election. Still, this book is first and foremost a memoir. It's one man's family history, told in a conversational narrative voice. It's approachable and easy to read, though I sometimes got tripped up by some of the author's turns of phrases. From time to time, there are brief academic discourses, with references to sources and studies, but social commentary and analysis are not focal points of this book.

As a memoir, I might have given the book 4 stars. However, I think my enjoyment of the book was affected by my own misplaced expectations. I know that's probably not fair, but it was part of my reading experience, so I'll explain.

The reason I picked up this book is because I read some fascinating interviews with the author (including this one). These articles discussed two main ideas that struck me: 1) how poor, uneducated, working class white people (like hillbillies) make up the base of Trump supporters, and 2) the importance of "individual agency," i.e., the idea that whether or not you think the government is doing too much or too little to help the poor, poor people themselves still need to take responsibility for their own life decisions.

Reading this book, I was hoping to have a revelation to help me understand why Trump has garnered so much support, but I don't feel I got that. The book does not mention Trump at all, which, I realized while reading the book, is understandable since it was probably written before Trump burst onto the national political scene. The book does briefly discuss how white conservatives distrust Obama, actually doubting his citizenship and faith, but the author only acknowledges that some people think racism is a factor, and then quickly moves on to other possible explanations.

As for "individual agency" - the concept is exemplified in many anecdotes throughout the book, but the idea wasn't fleshed out in a comprehensive way like I had hoped.

The interview linked above also mentioned the idea that hillbillies, i.e., poor "white trash", are the only group of people that Americans are unashamed to look down upon. It would be unacceptably racist to openly disparage poor blacks, but somehow, thinking less of poor whites is okay. This book had a lot of potential for in-depth discussions of race, but it largely avoided the topic. In fact, the author's wife has an Indian-sounding name - Usha - but her ethnicity is not revealed in the book. Not knowing for sure, but assuming she was Indian, I found myself wondering how the author's family, given their deep white roots, might have reacted to Usha's non-whiteness, or how the author might have felt marrying into a non-white family. (Being in a mixed-race marriage myself, my experience is that race is not a non-issue.)

One completely random but interesting side note. The author credits his Yale professor Amy Chua - of Tiger Mom fame! - for giving him good advice and encouraging him to write this book. Just seemed like a small world type connection - perhaps an example of the kind of elite networking the author describes in the book!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Maze of Bones (The 39 Clues #1) by Rick Riordan


I really enjoyed this book! It's like the movie National Treasure; there's a series of clues that are buried in time and based on history (so there's even some educational value beyond the reading itself), and it all leads to some kind of mystery treasure. Except this book has more teams competing to find the treasure, and a couple of the teams include kids. Lots of over-the-top espionage and action, but if you can commit to the suspended disbelief, it's a lot of fun. There's a good deal of chuckle-worthy humor, too, especially in the form of random kid-typical comments from Dan.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Friendship Matchmaker by Randa Abdel-Fattah


I had a shaky start with this one. Lara Zany is the official "friendship matchmaker" at her school. She comes across as sincerely wanting to help others make friends, yet she's got a misguided list of "rules" about how to make and keep friends in school. She's not very likable at first, but I have to admit, by the end - when she learns a thing or two about how to really make friends - I was glad everything worked out for her.

I'm always on the lookout for diversity in books, so I'll mention that this book happens to have a character named Emily Wong. She is the new girl in school who just happens to be Chinese. She is an independent-minded individual and is immediately skeptical of Lara's "rules". Again, she was strangely not entirely likable. I liked her confidence and sense of self, but she kind of bordered on impertinent.

Finally, I was a little put off by how the characters in this book were meant to be 7th graders. They actually seemed to behave more like 5th or 6th graders to me. It's weird, because I just read another book about 5th graders who seemed more like 7th graders to me!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Auggie & Me by R.J. Palacio


Auggie & Me consists of three separate stories, each previously published as an ebook. Wonder left me downright yearning to read Julian and Charlotte's stories, so I was eager to read this collection that includes both Julian and Charlotte's perspectives.

The Julian Chapter ★★★★

I started out not really liking this story, with Julian's actions basically being explained away with excuses. Still, it made sense from Julian's perspective, and I could understand Julian's parents being blinded by love for their son; it's hard for any parent to believe that their child could actually be the bully.

The school administrators, however, were another story. Mr. Tushman and Dr. Jansen were in a position to do more for both Julian and Auggie. Why didn't they arrange some kind of mediation between Julian and Auggie to address the issues between them? In this book more so than in Wonder, it was clear that the administrators all knew there were problems, but instead of stepping in to help with the root cause, they just took disciplinary action after events unfolded. Yes, Julian was responsible for his own behavior, but I felt the school should have done more to help diffuse the situation.

It wasn't until Julian went to visit his grandmother in Paris that things started to fall into place. Grandmere and Mr. Browne were finally able to identify the root problem - which, again, should have happened much earlier - and Julian finally received some empathy and understanding as Grandmere told him a rather incredible story of her own with a similar theme, and a worthy lesson.

Pluto ★★★★★

This story surprised me! I wasn't at all curious to know more about Christopher when reading Wonder, but I really enjoyed his story. His perspective was honest and sweet, yet still believably realistic. Suddenly, Christopher is one of my favorite characters from Wonder!

Shingaling ★★★★★

One of the things I liked about Pluto and Shingaling is that both stories felt down-to-earth, more realistic. Nothing too over-the-top.

My one complaint about Shingaling is that, like Wonder, it had a lot of relationship dynamics that I think are more typical of 7th graders than 5th graders.

Putting that aside, I think Charlotte's story was more representative of how most kids would deal with someone like Auggie. Charlotte put it well at the end of her story - she was "nice", but Summer was "kind", a more genuine and meaningful sort of friendliness. Could Charlotte have been kinder to Auggie? Sure. But Auggie just wasn't a high priority for her. She had her own troubles, mostly worrying about changing friendships - which she cleverly outlined in Venn diagrams. When she wasn't trying to figure out middle school relationships, she had a dance performance to rehearse, regular school work to attend to, not to mention the mystery of the accordian-man to solve.

This book includes a little recap of the different-books-for-different-perspectives style of writing that is used in these Auggie books: On page 280 of my edition, Charlotte says, "Funny how all our stories kind of intertwine. Every person's story weaves in and out of someone else's story." And that's just it. Every single person has a rich and complex life that can't be understood solely through their interactions with just one other person. Through Charlotte's story, we see how Ximena - just a marginal character in Wonder - was much more fleshed out in this book. We can imagine that even Charlotte's friend Maya must have a pretty compelling story of her own, if we just took the time to get to know her, too.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang


A bold graphic novel about racism, identity, and acceptance.

Being Chinese-American myself, my personal experience definitely played a role in my reading of this book.

American Born Chinese consists of three separate stories that eventually tie together in a meaningful way. The first involves the Monkey King, a well-known character in Chinese folk tales. I don't know enough about Chinese folk tales to know which parts of this story were authentic to Chinese legends, and which parts were made up by Gene Luen Yang. But I know just enough about the Monkey King so that this character felt very familiar to me, giving me an instant feeling of connection with the book.

The second story involves a Chinese-American boy named Jin who has trouble fitting in, mainly because he's the only Chinese boy in school. While my personal experiences were not quite as extreme as Jin's, his story was something of a mirror of my own childhood, and so I identified with him immediately.

The third story is presented as if it were a sitcom. A boy named Danny is mortified when his cousin Chin-Kee comes to visit. Yes, that's right, Chin-Kee like "chinky". This story line was cringe-worthy in its depiction of racist Chinese stereotypes, even as it was obviously meant to be a wild caricature of the worst of Chinese representation in American popular culture. (Think Breakfast at Tiffany's.)

The three seemingly unrelated stories come together in the end to help Jin deal head-on with his self-loathing and finally come to terms with the Chinese part of his identity. It was a satisfying ending, but I sort of felt like the final resolution came about a little too quickly.

There was one other thing I found interesting, and I wasn't sure what to make of it. In the Monkey King story line, there is an all-powerful creator named Tze-Yo-Tzuh. A lot of his lines sounded reminiscent of Christian Bible verses, and it was another review that tipped me off to the fact that some of his lines were actually variations of Proverbs 139.

On page 80 of my edition, Tze-Yo-Tzuh says, "I have searched your soul... I know your most hidden thoughts. I know when you sit and when you stand, when you journey and when you rest. Even before a word is upon your tongue, I have known it."

The corresponding verses in Proverbs 139: "You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise. You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down... Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely."

Later, the Monkey King is seen having gone on a "Journey to the West" to bring gifts to Baby Jesus. It was a strange blending of Christian tradition and Chinese folk lore. Was the combining of east and west philosophies a metaphor for how Chinese-Americans must intertwine their Chinese and American identities? Or was it a statement meant to show that east and west philosophies aren't really so different? Or is the author himself Christian, and simply wanted to interject his faith into the story?

This book definitely has a place in helping to define the Asian-American experience - yes, it is actually a realistic portrayal of how many Asian-Americans feel - and I imagine it would serve as an effective window for non-Asian-Americans.

Btw, here's an interesting anecdote unrelated to my actual review... When I first read this book, there were 16 pages towards the beginning that made absolutely no sense to me. The illustration style was completely different, and I had no idea what was going on. I read the entire book, feeling a little confused all the time, never quite understanding how those 16 pages fit in. When I went to write my review, I took a peek at some other reviews to see if they could shed light on the mysterious 16 pages. Nothing I read mentioned anything like those 16 pages, but several reviews mentioned things that were definitely not in the book that I read! After some online sleuthing, I finally figured out that the copy I had read - borrowed from the library - actually included 16 pages of another book, Missouri Boy by Leland Myrick, spliced in!! They completely replaced the 16 pages that ought to have been in the book.

I got myself another copy of the book, and thankfully the second one was fine. I re-read the whole thing to make sure I got the proper experience start to finish. When I return both books to the library, I will definitely let them know about the mistake in the first copy!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

I Survived the San Francisco Earthquake, 1906 by Lauren Tarshis


This is my fifth I Survived book, and I'm still wondering why the protagonist is always a boy. I get that this is a great series for boys, but maybe that's all the more reason to throw a brave young girl into the mix - to show young boys that girls can be survivors, too.

Anyway, as usual, Lauren Tarshis gives us a pretty good impression of what living through the earthquake must have been like. I've come to expect happy endings, and this book did not disappoint in that regard.

It was interesting to think about young orphan boys living entirely on their own at the turn of the century. Was that really common back then? Or was the author purposely trying to shine a light on homeless youth? It was a little odd how Fletch and Wilkie were no-good troublemakers who lived on the street, while Leo and Morris were more like boys who just happened to live alone. They even had jobs.

It was clear that Leo had recently lost his father, but what about his mother? She was never mentioned at all, and the total omission kept me wondering.

I wasn't crazy about the story that brought Leo, Morris, Fletch, and Wilkie together. It was all a bit too convoluted... I mean, impersonating a ghost?! Like, really? Unlike the other books in this series that I've read so far, this one seemed to put more weight on the personal stories of the characters than on the event itself.

Tuesday, August 30, 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 the Sinking of the Titanic, 1912 by Lauren Tarshis


I really enjoyed this one! Characters are fleshed out, and I teared up. I especially liked the way a couple different pieces came together in the end.

Even though the whole series is about disasters, when I first started this book, I was afraid that the description of the actual sinking would be too much, too awful for young readers to imagine. But Lauren Tarshis has really found a method that works: The first chapter describes the most terrifying part of the disaster that is experienced by the main character. Just when you think it might be too difficult for young readers to handle, the chapter ends. The second chapters goes back in time and sets up the characters and the context. Towards the end of the book, after the worst of the disaster has passed, Lauren Tarshis pulls back from the story, like a fade to black in movies. The next chapter opens in a calming way, after much of the immediate aftermath has already passed. Some details are retroactively explained, and we see our main character in a good place. As far as I can tell from the books I've read so far, the author always gives us a happy ending. I like that. With so much death and destruction embedded in each story, it's nice to imagine that maybe, just maybe, some people came through alright.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Wonder by R.J. Palacio


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

A heartwarming story with a clear message of kindness.

This book gets a lot of high praise, and rightly so! August Pullman's story is told from multiple perspectives, making for lots of opportunities for the reader to practice empathy and to identify with one emotion or another. I especially appreciated Via's narration because it has always seemed to me that it's not uncommon for the siblings of kids with medical conditions to get overlooked. I know the part about Grans favoring Via might not sit well with some people, but I think that is exactly what Via needed to hear - that she mattered, too.

Grans and Mrs. Pullman are Brazilian, and I appreciated the matter-of-fact bit of diversity, including Summer being biracial. One small detail that I was perhaps overly sensitive to - because I'm Asian-American - was how Ximena Chin, the only character with an Asian-sounding name, was stereotypically the smartest girl in the class. Similarly, not diversity-related, but I didn't like the way the students who played Dungeons & Dragons were stereotypically portrayed as always being at the bottom of the social ladder.

While we're on the topic of small details... When Mrs. Pullman asked August about Summer, August said she was not in any of his classes (pg. 55). But just a few chapters later (pg. 68), August said Summer was in his English class, which seemed a peculiar oversight because several chapters had been devoted to August's first impressions of his English class, and Summer had no role in it.

I really loved Summer's character. Certainly she was set forth as the ideal, the kind of person we all wish we could be. If only every school had a Summer! Jack Will was, for me, the more relatable student. He was a good kid, but not eagerly so, and through him, it was clear how much peer pressure can play a role in children's behavior.

I really, really liked how all the kids in the book did not keep information from their parents. When there was something worth telling, they did tell - within a reasonable amount of time, before things got worse - either a parent or a trusted older character. I hope the message is not lost on young readers that when something bothers you, it helps to talk to someone.

I understand not wanting to complicate the story too much, but I found myself really wanting to read the perspectives of Julian and Charlotte. Julian, of course, never found it in him to be kind to August (and we see a glimpse of why in his mother's emails), and Charlotte - despite being portrayed as a goody two-shoes - only did the very minimum that was asked of her. Honestly, truth be told, I think a lot of children, in real life, would behave more like Julian and Charlotte than Summer and Jack. We don't want to promote or excuse their behavior, perhaps not even pass judgment, but I think some exploration of their feelings and emotions would have been valuable.

Of the perspectives included, the first-person narration by the 10-year-olds felt not quite believable to me. It was a bit odd, because I did find their dialogue, writing assignments, emails, and texts to be pretty typical of 5th graders. But their narrative voices just seemed too mature and articulate for their age. They sounded - and acted, what with all the talk about boyfriends and girlfriends - more like 7th graders, to me. I frequently wondered why the characters just weren't written to be 7th graders. Beecher Prep could have been a junior high school, and the "lots of kids will be new at the same time" idea could still have worked. Although, another thing I very much appreciated about the book is how August would just break down and cry sometimes. That did seem perfectly fitting for a 5th grader, but might not have had the same effect if he were a 7th grader.

Even though Amazon says this book is appropriate for grades 3-7, I would recommend it more for grades 5 and up. To me, this book is really a thinking book. What would you do if August went to your school? Would you be like Julian or Summer? Jack or Charlotte? Or maybe even one of the peripheral characters, who exist at a distance and never actually get into the fray? I think this book can have the most impact when it leads to some introspection, and I just think older readers would be better able to internalize the book's situations and explore the character's motivations and psychology, rather than just take the book at face value as just another story. On top of that, there are a number of heavy concepts in this book, including two deaths, talk about reincarnation, and a rather light mention of suicide that plays a big role. When I first started this book, I encouraged Isabelle to read it, too. By the end, I told her not to rush, that if she wants to wait another year two to read it, that's fine. But I would like her to read it some day.

I'm kind of surprised at how much I have to say about this book, but I'm just going to keep going...

In some ways, this book felt like it had a lot of potential as a young adult, or even adult, novel. In Via's narration, she goes into genetics, lets us know that she, too, carries the gene that could result in her children having a condition like August's, and then she drops a heart-wrenching line: "Countless babies who'll never be born, like mine." (pg. 106) Wow. So affected by her brother's life, she has already decided that she will never have children, not willing to risk that one of them might be born like August. I expected more exploration or discussion later on, especially when her boyfriend Justin's narration revealed, "i'm going to be an overprotective dad some day... my kids are going to know i care." (pg. 197) Wow! So many questions. Would having or not having kids be a deal-breaker, either for Via or her partner? Would Via be willing to have children if she could guarantee her partner didn't carry the gene? At what point in a relationship do you ask your partner to get genetic testing, in order to determine if you're willing to move forward!?! Crazy questions, all of which are beyond the purview of a children's book, especially with Via and Justin just being 9th graders, after all.

Every now and then, someone would point out that August does not have special needs. This detail was important to show that August only looked different, but was otherwise intellectually and emotionally just like any other 10-year-old kid. However, whenever it came up, it just never sat right with me... Via saying, "Unless you want to be treated like a baby the rest of your life, or like a kid with special needs..." (pg. 115) and Charlotte explaining that Beecher is not an inclusion school, which "mixes normal kids with kids with special needs." (pg. 171) I don't know. It just had a small tinge of, "Well, good thing Auggie is not special needs, because those kids aren't normal, and we don't want to have to deal with one of them."

I was taken aback by August winning a medal at the 5th grade graduation. When they first started talking about the last award, I thought, "Oh, this is great, Jack will get an award for being brave, for being kind and befriending August even though it meant losing all his other friends!" And then I thought, "Oh, maybe it will be Summer, because she never wavered, and was super kind and befriended August in the beginning without even being asked." Turns out, it was August who won. It's not that I don't think he was brave for going to school, or that he was in any way undeserving! It's great that he won. But one of the major themes of the book is how August just wants to be an ordinary kid, just wants to be treated like a normal kid like everyone else, not singled out for being who he is. In light of that particular theme, the award seemed too much. Yes, it was August who, just by being who he is, inspired other people to step up, to be braver than they thought they could be, to be kinder and more compassionate. But... he didn't actually do anything.

Clearly, this book got me thinking. It's a valuable read.

Oh, a couple random thoughts. I loved that Mr. Browne taught precepts, as a way to get kids thinking. And I enjoyed all the references to pop culture, though I don't think kids today would necessarily understand them all.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin


I have to admit, I had several false starts with this book. I tried reading it aloud to Isabelle more than once, and somehow we never got into it. We put it back on the shelf, and there it was forgotten - until recently. With When the Sea Turned to Silver (a third book in this series) coming out soon, I figured it was high time to finish this book.

Starry River of the Sky is a companion story to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. It's not a sequel, and you don't have to read the books in order. Rather, the main character in this book is connected to one of the supporting characters in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

This book follows the same style as WTMMTM. Written with lots of descriptive metaphors, and gorgeously paired with full-page color illustrations that are as much a part of the book as the text, both books tell the story of a child - a girl in WTMMTM, a boy in SROTS - who leaves home for some reason. Chinese folk tales are woven throughout, and the tales turn out to be central to the themes of the main character's story. There's the feeling that the primary story could take place in real life, but as magical things happen, and you realize the story itself is a folk tale as well.

The books are not entirely similar, however, and a fan of WTMMTM should not expect "more of the same" from this book. Where WTMMTM had Minli going on an epic quest, meeting a dragon along the way, SROTS has no real adventure. Instead, SROTS centers on an inn, where characters gather and stories are told. Only Rendi realizes that there is something wrong in the night sky, and the clues to solving the mystery seem to be in the folk tales he hears.

I love the way all the stories tie together. I am familiar enough with Chinese folk tales that there were some characters and concepts that I recognized. However, I don't know them well enough to know which parts were "authentic" and which parts were imagined by Grace Lin. Many Chinese folk tales have several versions anyway, so the idea of Grace Lin adding new twists - while keeping within the traditions of Chinese folk tales - is rather fitting. She writes in the Author's Note: "I hope my book makes those unfamiliar with the tales curious to read them. For those who already know the mythology, I hope that prior knowledge only makes my versions more enjoyable." Indeed, I felt my limited prior knowledge helped me to better enjoy the stories, and the stories made me curious to read the original Chinese versions!

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 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


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


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


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


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.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Half and Half by Lensey Namioka


I am purposely seeking out children's books about mixed race kids, and with so few options out there, I really wanted to like this one. Unfortunately, I just had too many misgivings while reading it.

First, it jumps right in and is very explicit about the main character Fiona feeling conflicted about whether she considers herself "Caucasian" or "Asian" or "Other". There's no nuance, no character set-up, just straight-up race exploration. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, except that I think it makes the book less appealing to people in general, and it feels like it's targeting an audience of young people conflicted about their cultural identities, or people seeking multiracial reading options (which, to be honest, is exactly how I found the book).

It may be that, as a Chinese-American myself, I was too sensitive about the way Chinese-ness was represented. I think in the end, the book balanced the Chinese and Scottish sides of Fiona, but in the beginning, it seemed like the book was down on the Chinese side. The most blatant example was when Fiona's Scottish grandfather jokingly called Fiona's brother Ron "Fu Manchu". I'm sorry, but that's racist, and a pretty infuriating thing to read in a children's book, as if it's a totally acceptable thing to do. The book just barely manages to get across that being called "Fu Manchu" isn't exactly complimentary, but Ron reacted by laughing, and the grandfather wasn't called out on its inappropriateness.

I also disliked the way filial piety was introduced in the book. Filial piety is a huge part of Chinese culture, a Confucian virtue of respect, humility, and consideration towards one's parents. In the book, Fiona's father shows filial piety towards his mother, yet his behavior is portrayed as pouty and superficial, and is even described as "acting like a child." It came across more like a ridiculous aspect of Chinese culture, rather than an honorable one.

A major component of the story is about how Fiona is learning traditional Scottish dance. The book makes it clear that Scottish folk dancing is traditionally performed by boys, and Fiona's Scottish grandfather has his heart set on Fiona's brother Ron - who even looks more Scottish - joining his Scottish dance troupe. At one point, Fiona - who looks more Chinese - laments that there are no traditional Chinese folk dances for her to learn. Her father tells her that Western ballroom dancing is what is popular in China. As a former member of a traditional Chinese folk dance troupe comprised entirely of Chinese-American girls, I took exception to the idea that there was no Chinese folk dancing for Fiona to learn!

In the end, Fiona does come to terms with her half-Scottish, half-Chinese identity. It may be worth a read if you're an elementary-school aged kid who actually feels conflicted about being mixed race, but otherwise, it didn't much appeal to me.