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.