Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park


A truly remarkable and inspiring story based on real people and real events. This book is written for a middle school audience, and it's almost mind-boggling to think that many of the young people who read this book are about the same age as the two main characters, Salva and Nya. A true "window" of a book, allowing young readers a look into the kind of lives other children their own age may be living.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Pants Project by Cat Clarke


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

First off, it's worth saying that The Pants Project is just a well-written, funny book! It was really enjoyable to read.

Reading this book on the heels of George, I can't help but compare the two. This write-up is going to be less of a "review", and more of just "my impressions".

While George was written for an upper elementary audience, and features a transgender girl in the 4th grade, The Pants Project was written for a middle school audience, and features a transgender boy in the 6th grade. Both books were well-written for their relative age groups.

In both books, the main character had already realized they were transgender, but it was a secret they kept to themselves. Both George and Liv unfortunately attended schools that had gender-specific policies that exacerbated their discomfort, and in both cases, it was something school-related that helped to precipitate their coming out - first to a trusted friend, and then to their family.

George was written in the third person, and female pronouns were used throughout. In The Pants Project, Liv narrates in the first person, so we don't know what pronouns he/she would prefer... I honestly wasn't sure what pronoun to use in this write-up, and I guess I settled on "they".

Anyway. Both George and Liv had that one awesome friend who didn't bat an eye about their being transgender. I kind of wonder how realistic that is, but it seems like a good thing for kids to read books that portray that kind of compassionate friendship.

Both George and Liv also happened to have "non-standard" families - George had a single mother, and Liv had two moms. While single motherhood was not at all an issue in George, Liv did have to face some cruel bullying directed at their moms. In that way, The Pants Project was about more than just being transgender; Liv faced other typical middle school problems, like friend drama and family struggles.

George's mom had a bit of a harder time coming to terms with George's transgender identity, while Liv's moms were immediately 100% accepting. I do suspect that in real life, most parents are not nearly as readily supportive as George and Liv's parents, but again, it seems like a good thing for readers to see that kind of acceptance modeled in books.

Both books had happy endings that stopped short of exploring what a transgender student might go through to come out in school. I'm sure that's a huge, difficult-to-tackle topic that maybe is best addressed separately from these brave stories about children coming out to close friends and family. Still, it's the logical next step, and I'd be interested in seeing Liv continue to challenge her classmates, teachers, and school administrators.

I also wish The Pants Project could have revealed what Mom said to Jade, to make Jade stop bullying Liv. It just seems like it would be really useful to have a model of a speech that people could emulate if they ever have to tell off a bully - which I'm sure is quite common.

Monday, February 19, 2018

George by Alex Gino


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

George is a transgender girl in the fourth grade.

Right from the beginning, the book jumps into the story by referring to George with female pronouns like "she" and "her", even though she is not yet out, and everyone around her refers to her as a boy. It's a bit jarring, but drives home the point that George is a girl, and her whole existence feels wrong to her, with her name and appearance not actually matching her sense of gender. In fact, it was interesting how the grammar paralleled George's story; when George finally went out in public as a girl and used the name Melissa - and the book's pronouns finally matched her name - it really just felt right.

Admittedly, I was not especially impressed by the writing at first. There seemed to be a lot more "telling" than "showing" when it came to introducing the characters. I thought I might give the book's rating an extra bump just because of its socially relevant content, but as the story developed, I think it earned the full four stars. I was won over by the way the story referenced Charlotte's Web (one of my favorite books), and I found the final chapter with Melissa and her best friend Kelly just so heartwarming and uplifting.

It may be helpful to know that this book is not a book that just happens to feature a transgender character - the entire plot of the book revolves around directly addressing the topic of what it means to be transgender in an age-appropriate way for upper elementary readers. Both George and Kelly do just happen to have single parents, though, which was a nice change from the typical all-families-have-happily-married-parents set-up that we usually see in children's books.

Being cisgender myself, I can't speak to the accuracy or authenticity of George's experiences, though it all seemed pretty believable to me. I think George's mom's reaction - at first dismissive, then unpleasantly surprised, and ultimately supportive in a we'll-figure-this-out-together type of way - was realistic and appropriate for the intended audience. If she had been outrightly accepting from the beginning, it would have seemed too pat. If she had been too harshly intolerant, it could have been too much for young readers to bear. I loved that George's teenage brother was matter-of-fact accepting, and that Kelly welcomed Melissa with open arms. I imagine that not all transgender kids would be lucky enough to have a friend like Kelly, but I appreciate seeing that kind of friendship modeled in the book.

It's nice that the book ended as it did, but I would have liked to have seen George take Principal Maldonado up on her offer of support, maybe see how the principal could have helped George's mom, perhaps even connect her with a support group or other resources. Maybe it would have been too much to go into for a book at this level, but I also would have liked to read more about how George/Melissa might have handled her transition in school, and how Ms. Udell and the other students might have reacted.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

This is Our Constitution by Khizr Khan


After a few introductory chapters, Khizr Khan provides an easy-to-read modern-day "translation" of the Constitution, paraphrasing the original text article by article, section by section, using every-day words that are easy to understand. There's a bit more summarizing with some of the amendments, but the idea is the same. There are also a few sections about landmark Supreme Court cases that shed light on how the Constitution has been interpreted over the years.

I wanted to be able to say that I've actually read the Constitution, so I made the dubious decision to read the original text - which is included in full towards the end of the book - alongside Khizr Khan's "translation". What a slog. :P It was hard for me to parse, and I couldn't figure out what some of the phrases meant. Khizr Khan's version was indispensable in helping me to actually understand the Constitution.

In a book geared towards middle schoolers that carefully explains a number of words, I was a little bothered that "tyranny" and "tyrant" weren't explicitly defined. Also, the "translation" could have been a little clearer in regards to one part of the 12th Amendment; I was confused because the original text referenced a date of March 4, but the paraphrased version stated January 20. I did a little Googling, and it turns out, the date of March 4 (as the start of the new president's term) was changed to January 20 in the 20th Amendment. So both dates were "correct", but the use of January 20 in the "translation" assumes knowledge of the 20th Amendment.