This is a blog specifically created for the purposes of my Literature for Children and Young Adults class at Texas Woman's University. Coming soon will be reviews of titles ranging from children's fiction to poetry to young adult novels. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Looking For Alaska

Green, John. 2005. Looking For Alaska. New York: Dutton Books. ISBN 0525475060.

Looking For Alaska may sound like a geography book or a tale of a wild journey of discovery—well, it is the latter, but not in the way you might think. It is the story of Miles Halter’s academic year spent at Culver Creek, a boarding school in Alabama, where the only things there are to do is sneak away to smoke, play video games, and terrorize the rich locals. Miles, who his new roommate Chip calls Pudge, has come to the school to have enough of an experience so as to be able to earn a great quote as his last words. Chip has a fixation with doing pranks, each one outdoing the one before it and he now has a new recruit in Pudge, who along with a few other buddies—also including Alaska Young, their knockout booze and cigarette connection—put their minds together to do a prank so big it will go down in the annals of the school’s history. While Alaska is gorgeous, outgoing and great-smelling, she also has a turbulent, tornadic temper. AND she’s taken… by a boyfriend who is far away. This doesn’t stop every guy in the school from falling in love with her, including Pudge. When Alaska gets into a wreck and dies, Miles and Chip spend the rest of the book trying to answer the question no one wants to ask: Did Alaska commit suicide?

What an incredibly wonderful, uplifting, dangerously tragic story. The language is true and real, every scrap of dialogue jumps up off of the page as though the reader is in the room with Pudge, Chip and Alaska. The themes presented—confronting authority, first crushes, self-destructive tendencies in our friends and ourselves—are all ones to which young people of any era have had to face. The characters are funny and smart and masterfully written, each having his or her own distinct and colorful personality and voice. The setting is one to which every young person can relate—a situation of strict guidelines just begging to be challenged—in a physical place that is easy to picture and fun to imagine. The richness of the language, the story and the intense emotion make the reader join Miles and his friends as they spent their time Looking For Alaska.

The following is a representative sample of the language and personality of two of the main characters:

“All right, so my mom was something of a hippie when I was a kid. You know, wore oversized sweaters she knitted herself, smoked a lot of pot, et cetera. And my dad was a real Republican type, and so when I was born, my mom wanted to name me Harmony Springs Young, and my dad wanted to name my Mary Frances Young.” As she talked, she bobbed her head back and forth to the MTV music, even though the song was the kind of manufactured pop ballad she professed to hate.

“So instead of naming me Harmony or Mary, they agreed to let me decide. So when I was little, they called me Mary. I mean, they called me sweetie or whatever, but like on school forms and stuff, they wrote Mary Young. And then, on my seventh birthday, my present was that I got to pick my name. Cool, huh? So I spent the whole day looking at my dad’s globe for a really cool name. And so my first choice was Chad, like the country in Africa. But then my dad said that was a boy’s name, so I picked Alaska.”

I wish my parents had let me pick my name. But they went ahead and picked the only name firstborn male Halters have had for a century. “But why Alaska?” I asked her.

She smiled with the right side of her mouth. “Well, later, I found out what it means. It’s from an Aleut word, Alyeska. It means ‘that which the sea breaks against,’ and I love that. But at the time, I just saw Alaska up there. And it was big, just like I wanted to be. And it was damn far away from Vine Station, Alabama, just like I wanted to be.”

I laughed. “And now you’re all grown up and fairly far away from home,” I said, smiling. “So congratulations.” She stopped the head bobbing and let go of my (unfortunately sweaty) hand.

“Getting out isn’t that easy,” she said seriously, her eyes on mine like I knew the way out and wouldn’t tell her. And then she seemed to switch conversational horses in midstream. “Like after college, know what I’m going to do? Teach disabled kids. I’m a good teacher, right? Shit, if I can teach you precalc, I can teach anybody. Like maybe kids with autism.”

She talked softly and thoughtfully, like she was telling me a secret, and I leaned in toward her suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that we must kiss, that we ought to kiss right now on the dusty orange couch with its cigarette burns and its decades of collected dust. And I would have: I would have kept leaning toward her until it became necessary to tilt my face so as to miss her ski-slope nose, and I would have felt the shock of her so-soft lips. I would have. But then she snapped out of it.”

“No,” she said, and I couldn’t tell at first whether she was reading my kiss-obsessed mind or responding to herself out loud. She turned away from me, and softly, maybe to herself, said, “Jesus, I’m not going to be one of those people who just sits around talking about what they’re gonna do. I’m just going to do it. Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.”

“Huh?” I aked.

“You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining the future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.”

School Library Journal says, “Green's dialogue is crisp, especially between Miles and Chip. His descriptions and Miles's inner monologues can be philosophically dense, but are well within the comprehension of sensitive teen readers…These placeholders sustain the mood of possibility and foreboding, and the story moves methodically to its ambiguous climax. The language and sexual situations are aptly and realistically drawn, but sophisticated in nature… Like Phineas in John Knowles's A Separate Peace(S & S, 1960), Green draws Alaska so lovingly, in self-loathing darkness as well as energetic light, that readers mourn her loss along with her friends.”

Publisher’s Weekly says, “Readers will only hope that this is not the last word from this promising new author.”

Awards: 2006 Michael Prinz Award Winner

This book is a great book for opening discussions on many topics, a few of them including the following: the thrill of confronting authority and breaking rules, the strength of adolescent friendship, the solidarity that comes with sharing the same socio-economic status, bipolar personality disorder and teen depression, suicide and loss of friends, and moving on with one’s life after tragedy.

Review by Joelie Key-Tissot 11/25/06.

The Giver

Lowry, Lois. 1993. The Giver. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0395645662.

Imagine what it is like to live in a perfect world. One without pain, war, hunger or loss. Jonas, the main character of The Giver, could imagine no other world. That is, until the day he turned twelve. Life in Jonas’ Community is well-structured and immaculately ordered. There is even a time of day for sharing the day’s emotions among one’s family unit—a somewhat “adoptive” family made up of a man and woman who have earned the privilege and who are assigned children with the limit of one boy and one girl. When, on Assignment day, Jonas is passed over, his heart catches in his throat. However, imagine his excitement and then trepidation when he learns that he is to be the Receiver of the Memories, a prestigious but responsibility-laden assignment. While other Twelves of his Community are given fairly mundane trainings to prepare for their eventually permanent roles, Jonas’ is conducted in secret. The reason for that is that as Receiver, he must spend his days with the Giver—who was at his own turn, the Receiver of all the memories of all the events before the establishment of the Community. Now, Jonas must carry the torch. But he soon learns what a painfully heavy burden it is. On the other hand, like Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, the emotions and experiences he has at the hands of the Giver’s memory-pregnant hands, conjures up new ideas and yearnings Jonas has never known. He begins to understand the limitations and hypocrisy of his world and like the Receiver before him who failed, wants to escape. In the end, he does, but is he rewarded for his sacrifice? And the baby he takes with him? Do they survive out in the painful, cold, “real” world? The best way to find out is to read the book.

The beginning of this book is believable. Realistic. We might have been fooled into believing this “community” was some remote, experimental town in some socialistic or communistic country. Up until, that is, Jonas starts to have visions. It is when he begins to see tangible things differently that we understand it is fantasy—about the time the Elders of the community see that Jonas has the faculties it will take to be the Receiver of Memories. Because the setting is so, well, possible and because there are so many things about Jonas to which we can relate as humans, this story hooks us from very early on and keeps us turning the pages throughout. There are so many themes common with our every day life—or that of a young person (fear, yearning for acceptance and reward, socialization, dealing with ridicule or the consequences of our actions, expectations of self and ultimately, our humanity) that we can’t help but become attached to Jonas and to root him on in his plight. The language is vivid and uncorrupted by ego and the story is clear and direct, making this book an easy read without sacrificing intrigue and suspense. It is obvious why it won the 1994 Newbery Medal. It earned it.

The following passage is representative of the voice and tone of the book through its two main characters:

The daily training continued, and now it always included pain. The agony of the fractured leg began to seem no more than a mild discomfort as The Giver led Jonas firmly, little by little, into the deep and terrible suffering of the past. Each time, in his kindness, The Giver ended the afternoon with a color-filled memory of pleasure: a brisk sail on a blue-green lake; a meadow dotted with yellow wildflowers; an orange sunset behind mountains.

It was not enough to assuage the pain that Jonas was beginning, now, to know.

“Why?” Jonas asked him after he had received a torturous memory in which he had been neglected and unfed; the hunger had caused excruciating spasms in his empty, distended stomach. He lay on the bed, aching. “Why do you and I have to hold these memories?”

“It gives us wisdom,” The Giver replied. “Without wisdom, I could not fulfill my function of advising the Committee of Elders when they call upon me.”

“But what wisdom do you get from hunger?” Jonas groaned. His stomach still hurt, though the memory had ended.

“Some years ago,” The Giver told him, “before your birth, a lot of citizens petitioned the Committee of Elders. They wanted to increase the rate of births. They wanted each Birthmother to be assigned four births instead of three, so that the population would increase and there would be more Laborers available.”

Jonas nodded, listening. “That makes sense.”

“The idea was that certain family units could accommodate an additional child.”

Jonas nodded again. “Mine could,” he pointed out. “We have Gabriel this year, and it’s fun, having a third child.”

“The Committee of Elders sought my advice,” The Giver said. “It made sense to them, too, but it was a new idea, and they came to me for wisdom.”

“And you used your memories?”

The Giver said yes. “And the strongest memory that came was hunger. It came from many generations back. Centuries back. The population had gotten so big that hunger was everywhere. Excruciating hunger and starvation. It was followed by warfare.”

Warfare? It was a concept Jonas did not know. But hunger was familiar to him now.

Publisher’s Weekly says, “Lowry is once again in top form—raising many questions while answering few, and unwinding a tale fit for the most adventurous of readers.”

School Library Journal says, “This tightly plotted story and its believable characters will stay with readers for a long time.”

Kirkus Reviews says, “Wrought with admirable skill—the emptiness and menace underlying this Utopia emerge step by inexorable step: a richly provocative novel.”

Horn Book says, “The story is skillfully written; the air of disquiet is delicately insinuated; and the theme of balancing the values of freedom and security is beautifully presented.”

Award: Newbery Medal 1994
This book would be a great one to facilitate discussion on the pros and cons of any society, the definitions of certain terms we take for granted such as freedom or death or illness or aging, and/or a discussion of what happens next—readers could be asked to finish the story using their own imaginations, giving several alternate endings and explaining why they chose what they did.

Review by Joelie Key-Tissot 11/24/06


Kadohata, Cynthia. 2004. Kira-Kira. New York: Antheneum. ISBN 0689856393

Lynn is the big sister of whom we all dream. She is attentive, playful, full of life and as she puts it herself, a “genius.” After all, it was Lynn who taught Katie her first word, kira-kira, which means “glittering, shiny” in Japanese. Katie, who knows she has it good, worships her older sister. When they are both young girls, and their parents’ Oriental Food Store in Iowa goes out of business, they move to Georgia where their uncle has offered to help their parents get a job in a chicken plant. Once there, Katie goes through quite a lot. First of all, her maturing sister, her best friend in the world, seems to want to leave her behind in favor of the older girls. Then, to make things worse, her mother delivers a younger brother. Also, she has to endure hardships such as spending the day locked up in her mother’s car when she is sick and can’t go to school because there is no one at home to take care of her—she nearly wets herself needing to go to the bathroom… Still, the workers inside the plant are not much better off—some of them have to wear absorbent pads because they are only allowed a certain amount of time for bathroom breaks. But the worst thing that could ever happen comes to pass. Lynn the genius, beautiful, perfect sister comes down with lymphoma. The roles reverse and Katie is now the one responsible for taking care of Lynn, which is no easy task. With their parents gone all the time, working hard but not making enough to pay Lynn’s medical bills, Katie has to grow up fast. When Lynn dies, Katie takes over her diary and continues it on in celebration of the glittering light, the kira-kira, big sister who still lives in her heart.

This is an excellent book for both young women and young men. Even though the setting is in a time which is not contemporary to modern teens, the way the book is written makes the characters and events easy to understand. The description of the people with whom Katie and Lynn come in contact are complex and rich with humanity; and the places they go and experiences they have are so accurately told through Katie’s point of view that young people can easily relate to her thoughts and emotions. One very important detail in this book, in my opinion, is the reality of the dichotomy of the flawed hero. To Katie, Lynn is perfect, a role model, but at the same time, once she falls ill, she is weak and becomes dependent on her little sister. This should shatter Katie’s view of her sister—and it does take some of the shine off—but in the end, after Lynn is gone, the big sister is glorified again. Just in a different light. This theme hits very close to the young readers heart—they are at a period in their life where they are searching for whom they are and whom they want to become. They look to others around them—some “perfect”, some perfectly flawed—as a ruler. The language in this work is simple enough for us to believe that the story is being told from the point of view of a young person, but not so condescendingly so as to underestimate they eye of the reader. It is not dumbed down. And what it lacks in maturity of language, it makes up for in content. There are many serious and somber events that take place in this story which bring up situations and emotions with which teen readers are faced daily—even if they are not in the form of a sister dying or having to spend the day in the car.

The following excerpt is representative of the mastery of content, language and raw emotion of this story:

Because of Lynn’s medical bills, soon my parents were getting behind on the mortgage. All they did was work. My mother came home only to sleep, and my father did not come home at all. Auntie or Mrs. Kanagawa stayed with Lynn and Sammy during the day when I was at school. My parents were so exhausted, I wasn’t sure they even realized what arrangements we were making each day. Some days nobody stayed with us.

Most of the time Lynn slept, but anytime she was awake, she wanted attention. She wanted a bedpan, or food, or water, or sometimes just a little company. But sometimes she didn’t know what she wanted. In fact, it seemed that at least once a day she didn’t know what she wanted. That was the most exhausting thing. She would want me to read to her and then she wouldn’t like the book and would want me to sing for her. But she wouldn’t like that, either. My teacher had commented on the black circles on my eyes. A couple of mornings I even made myself coffee.

Booklist (Starred Review) says, “The quiet words will speak to readers who have lost someone they love—or fear that they could.”

Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review) says, “Lynn’s ability to teach Katie to appreciate the ‘kira-kira,’ or glittering, in everday life makes this novel shine.”

San Diego Union says, “It’s an unforgettable story, filled with memorable characters who find hope at the end of a very long road.”

Kirkus Reviews says, “ ‘Kira-kira’ is Japanese for glittering, and Kadohata’s Katie sparkles.”

Book Page says, “Kadohata has written a quiet, powerful story that lingers long after the last page is turned.”

Awards: 2005 Newbery Medal

This book would be a great place to start a discussion about how resourceful people can be in times of great need or how it feels to be discriminated against or to be put down for something out of our control (such as race, socioeconomic status or linguistic competence).

Review by Joelie Key-Tissot 11/23/06

Monday, November 06, 2006

Bud, Not Buddy

Curtis, Christopher Paul. 1999. Bud, Not Buddy. New York : Delacorte Press (Random House). ISBN:0385323069.

This is the story about Bud, not Buddy (as the title implies), a 10 year-old orphan boy who after getting shifted from one abusive foster home to another, with all of his prized possessions fitting in one small suitcase, finally runs away for good. While “on the lam,” he joins up with another runaway from the home named “Bugs” and the two of them decide to “ride the rails” together in search of Hooperville so they can get to Chicago where Miss Hill the Librarian has moved after having gotten married. What they end up finding is that Hooverville (with a “v”) is the name of any shanty town where homeless folks who ride the rails get together and camp. There he meets a lot of interesting people including a girl name Deza Malone who just happens to “touch my hand too much” while they’re washing dishes together. He gives her his first real girl kiss and lets her hold his hand. When Bud misses the train, he waves goodbye to Bugs and makes his way alone on foot. While walking down the road at night, he is found by someone he thinks is a vampire but who is really Mr. Lewis, transporting some fresh blood to a hospital. When the conversation turns personal, Bud tells Mr.Lewis who his father is—a bass fiddle player in Grand Rapids named Herman E. Calloway. But Mr. Lewis knows everyone in Grand Rapids … Even Mr. Herman Calloway! Mr. Lewis takes him to meet who Bud has always thought was his father, but it turns out in the end that Herman Calloway is his grandfather. Bud gets to sleep in his own dearly departed mother’s room, along with all of her old belongings. In the end, he must help his grandfather deal with the loss of Bud’s mother, now that he has finally found his home and his family.

The story is set in Michigan during the Great Depression where while it is in the north, racial tensions are still a matter of concern. Both this tension and the hunger that is a result of the economic situation are conveyed through Bud’s first person telling of his story and his interactions with people like a family that pretended he was their son so he could eat at the mission, the people of the Flint Hooverville, Mr. Lewis and even when he meets his grandfather and learns that there must always be one white man in the band as a loophole to racist laws. The characters are vivid and rich with realistic character. Not one person with whom Bud comes into contact is one-dimensional or peripheral. And Bud’s experiences seem to fit within the realm of possibility of the period. Each interaction is important and sticks in the reader’s memory. One particularly good aspect of this book is the language. It is simple yet pregnant with the vernacular of the period, giving the reader a window into the daily life and interactions of the Great Depression while still being filled with emotion:

Everything moved very, very fast when Momma was near, she was like a tornado, never resting, always looking around us, never standing still. The only time stuff didn’t blow around when she was near was when she’d squeeze my arms and tell me things over and over and over and over.

She had four favorite things to tell me, on e of them was about the picture [of her in my suitcase] and another was about my name.

She’d say, “Bud is your name and don’t you ever let anyone call you anything outside of that either.”

She’d tell me, “Especially don’t you ever let anyone call you Buddy, I may have some problems, but being stupid isn’t one of them, I would’ve added that dy onto the end of your name if I intended for it to be there. I knew what I was doing, Buddy is a dog’s name or a name that someone’s going to use on you if they’re being false-friendly. Your name is Bud, period.”

I’d say, “OK, Momma.”

And she’d say, every single time, “And do you know what a bud is?”

I always answered, “Yes, Momma,” but it was like she didn’t hear me, she’d tell me anyway.

“A bud is a flower-to-be. A flower-in-waiting. Waiting for just the right warmth and care to open up. It’s a little fist of love waiting to unfold and be seen by the world. And that’s you.”

I’d say, “Yes Momma.”

I know she didn’t mean anything by naming me after a flower, but it’s sure not something I tell anybody about. says, “Christopher Paul Curtis, author of The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, once again exhibits his skill for capturing the language and feel of an era and creates an authentic, touching, often hilarious voice in little Bud.”
Publisher’s Weekly says, “While the harshness of Bud's circumstances are authentically depicted, Curtis imbues them with an aura of hope, and he makes readers laugh even when he sets up the most daunting scenarios.”
School Library Journal says, “The lively humor contrasts with the grim details of the Depression-era setting and the particular difficulties faced by African Americans at that time… Curtis has given a fresh, new look to a traditional orphan-finds-a-home story that would be a crackerjack read-aloud.”

Winner 2000 - ALA Coretta Scott King Award
Winner 2000 - ALA Notable Children's Books
Winner 1999 - School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
Winner 2000 - IRA Children's Book Award for Older Readers
Winner 2000 - ALA Best Books for Young Adults
Winner 2000 - ALA Coretta Scott King Award
Winner - ALA Best Books for Young Adults
Winner 1999 - Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year

This book would be great for discussions of race, music, the effect of the economy on relationships, teenage pregnancy and many other topics. It would be interesting to see with what themes from this book modern children might relate.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 11/06/06

The Midwife's Apprentice

Cushman, Karen. 1995. The Midwife’s Apprentice. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0395692296.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is the grim but exciting tale of Brat, renamed Beetle (for Dung Beetle because of the dung heap where Jane the Midwife found her), and finally called Alyce. At the beginning of the story, she is hungry and homeless and taunted by mean little boys. She begs Jane to let her work for some food in which case she becomes the midwife’s apprentice. Though she is glad to have employ and a bite to eat, Jane the Midwife is not pleasantest of company. As long as Beetle is compliant and servile, the relationship is fine. But the minute Jane suspects Beetle might want to learn the secrets of midwifery, the midwife becomes physically and verbally abusive—being the only midwife in the village and a monopoly on her trade, she doesn’t want Beetle to be any competition. By a mistaken identity at the fair, Beetle becomes Alyce with a face that “could belong to someone who can read. And has curls. And could have a lover before nightfall.” She realizes that she is more than a mere dung beetle. After helping the town bully deliver a laboring cow’s twin calves, she becomes increasingly curious about the midwife’s trade and pretends to be ignorant while secretly observing, studying the midwife’s treatments. The villagers begin to notice her skill and offering small payments in exchange for her knowledge. She even delivers the bailiff’s wife’s baby all on her own when Jane leaves it to die so she can deliver the Lady’s baby for a higher price. But after a failed delivery, Alyce left the village. She went to an inn and took on a job as a help maid in an inn. During her employ, she began to watch one of the residents, a man named Magister Reese, and through her observations learned to read and write. When she overhears Jane, who has come to the inn in search of her apprentice, telling Magister Reese that Alyce’s only failure was in giving up, Alyce decides to return to the village. There she is reunited with the young orphan boy, who thinks of her as a sister and works with him for a time before going back to the inn. A traveler and his wife happen upon the inn. While the wife wails in labor, Alyce watches on, petrified with fear and failure. When finally she steps up and delivers the baby, she realizes that she wants to go back to the midwife. Even when the midwife pretended not to have her, Alyce refused to give up and told the midwife that she would not go away.

The Midwife’s Apprentice is truly an astounding work of genius. While the story is a grim one throughout, it seems to realistically illustrate the position and situation of an orphan girl in the Middle Ages. Walking through her daily life of hunger and abuse, we get to interact with different people of her village. Then, in her successes, we have the opportunity to learn the details of one of the most important—though mistrusted—trades in history. Midwives had the dichotomous position of being revered and feared, a necessary evil and one of the only occupations for a single woman (or orphaned girl). Full of excitement, rich description, realistic (though rough) dialogue and interaction, this book is a wonderful window into a distant historical period.

The following passage is a good example of how the language, setting, characterization, style and plot all work together to illustrate the daily life of the period without being obvious:

“I am nothing,” she whispered to herself. “I have nothing, I can do nothing and learn nothing. I belong no place. I am too stupid to be a midwife’s apprentice and too tired to wander again. I should just lie here in the rain until I die.” And she fell again into a dreamless sleep.

But the next morning her young body, now used to a roof and warm food on cold mornings, pricked and pained her until she awoke. It was still raining and she was still a homeless failure. She stood up, picked some of the leaves from her hair, wiped her drippy nose on her sleeve, and looked around.

She knew where she was. Behind her were the village, Emma, the midwife, and failure—she could not go back there. She could not stay here in the rain waiting to die, for she was too cold and hungry and uncomfortable and alive. So she went on ahead. The cat stalked behind, stomach empty and feet wet, but unwilling to let Alyce go on without him.

School Library Journal says, “With simplicity, wit, and humor, Cushman presents another tale of medieval England… Earthy humor, the foibles of humans both high and low, and a fascinating mix of superstition and genuinely helpful herbal remedies attached to childbirth make this a truly delightful introduction to a world seldom seen in children’s literature.” says, “Karen Cushman likes to write with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, and her feisty female characters firmly planted in history… Disappointingly, Cushman does not offer any hardships or internal wrestling to warrant Alyce’s final epiphanies, and one of the book’s climactic insights is when Alyce discovers that lo and behold she is actually pretty! Still, Cushman redeems her writing, as always, with historical accuracy, saucy dialogue, fast-paced action and plucky, original characters that older readers will eagerly devour.”

Publisher’s Weekly says, “Cushman has an almost unrivaled ability to build atmosphere, and her evocation of a medieval village, if not scholarly in its authenticity, is supremely colorful and pungent.”

Booklist says, “Cushman writes with a sharp simplicity and a pulsing beat… Kids will like this short, fast-paced narrative about a hero who discovers that she’s not ugly or stupid or alone.”

Newberry Award winner 1996

This book would be a great segue into discussions of what it meant—and means—to be female. A group of young girls could find common themes between what was and now remains. It could also be a good introduction into a discussion of the evolution of folk medicine. Another interesting idea would be to compare/contrast this book with Avi’s “Crispin: The Cross of Lead” because both characters begin the story with no formal name, they both learn a trade and both end in self discover, still the characters are taught in two different ways by people who may arguably be very much alike.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 11/05/06.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Avi. 2002. Crispin: The Cross of Lead. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 0786808284.

Crispin is the story of a young teen-aged boy in Medieval Great Britain called Asta’s son—in the absence of a formal name—who, when his mother dies, becomes a fugitive pursued by John Aycliffe, the manor’s steward who has falsely accused Asta’s son of breaking into the manor and stealing money. He is declared a “Wolf’s Head,” which means that he is seen as subhuman and subject to death by the hand of any who find him. The village priest tells him a secret: his name is Crispin. He also tells him that Crispin’s mother had her own secrets and that Crispin should return the following night to learn the truth of his past, but before he can return, he is caught in a trap and barely escapes with his life. He travels far from his village under the protection of night with nothing to eat. The only thing that brings him any solace is a leaden cross that belonged to his mother and was in her hands when she died. He becomes indentured to a traveling, ex-monk turned juggling performer nicknamed Bear who teaches him to play a pipe, to take care of himself and to value his own thoughts. The pair travel together, performing their way across the land, headed for Great Wexly where the priest had told Crispin his destiny would be realized. In the end, Crispin is surprised to learn that he’s not so much an orphan as he thought!

This is an amazing book. The language is subtle. It reveals the time and mood of the period in which the story is set, but while it is sophisticated, it is not overly so to the point of becoming cumbersome or intimidating. The dialogue is rich and believable and used skillfully to propel the story forward and to reveal speech patterns of the period without becoming overly deliberate (my favorite parts are when Bear curses and uses phrases like “by the Devil’s own spit” and “God’s holy wounds” and “Merciful Heaven”).

The following passage is a good example of how the language, setting, characterization, style and plot all work together to illustrate the daily life of the period without being obvious:

No one ever accused John Aycliffe of any kindness. In the absence of Lord Furnival he was in charge of the manor, the laws, and the peasants. To be caught in some small transgression—missing a day of work, speaking harshly of his rule, failing to attend mass—brought an unforgiving penalty. It could be a whipping, a clipping of an ear, imprisonment, or a cut-off hand. For poaching a stag, John the ale-maker’s son was put to death on the commons gallows. As judge, jury, and willing executioner, Aycliffe had but to give the word, and the offender’s life was forfeit. We all lived in fear of him.

Through succinct description, Avi gives us a view of what life might have been like in fiefdom. But since it is done through a first hand account—keeping the narrator’s voice and vocabulary “true” to the period—it is not obviously (and preachily) “historical.” The reader gets to learn how things must have been in Great Britain in the Middle Ages, but through the eyes of a fictional character about whom they care and want to see succeed. Whereas non-fiction history books might make mention of some of the same events that happen in this book, they could never come close to engaging the young reader by making him or her relate to Crispin’s plight. The themes of misunderstood “wayward” youth being put upon, living through a period of abuse and in the end triumphing over evil are ones which transcend periods. Children and adolescents can relate to these same themes—because though times change, so much stays the same.

School Library Journal says, “The accent, pacing, and inflection of this skilled narrator make it possible for listeners to enter fully into the struggles of life in the 14th century England from the perspective of a wide cast of characters.” says, “Providing plenty of period detail (appropriately gratuitous for the age group) and plenty of chase-scene suspense, Avi tells a good story, develops a couple of fairly compelling characters, and even manages to teach a little history lesson. (Fortunately, kids won’t realize that they’re learning about England’s peasant revolt of 1381 until it’s far too late.”

Publisher’s Weekly says, “Avi’s plot is engineered for maximum thrills, with twists, turns treachery aplenty, but it’s the compellingly drawn relationship between Crispin and Bear that provides the heart of this story. A page turner to delight Avi’s fans…”

Book Report says, “…superb combination of mystery, historical fiction, and a coming-of-age tale… Breathlessly paced, beautifully written and filled with details of life in the Middle Ages, this compelling novel is one of Avi’s finest.”

Newberry Award winner 2003
New York Times Best-seller

Avi is such a great book that I’ve suggested it to my teen book club. While it is great for a history lesson, it is also a good book for a discussion of politics and world governments. A sequel was published in September of 2006!

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 11/01/06.

Monday, October 23, 2006


Simon, Seymour. 2005. Guts: Our Digestive System. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 0060546514.

Who’d have thought that facts could be so fun, interesting and, well, GROSS? Guts: Our Digestive System is a journey through the human body. There’s no particular order, but some of the parts highlighted are the teeth (“the hardest parts of your body”), the stomach (“shaped like the letter J”) and the liver (“the body’s chemical factory”). The book ends with a wrap up of how we are what we eat. “That doesn’t mean that, if you eat a carrot, you will have a carrot growing out of your ear... Truly you are made of the fruits and vegetables, cereals and breads, dairy products, meat and fish that are digested in their journey through your gut.”

This book is loaded with facts and obscure vocabulary (such as chyme, peristalsis and pyloric sphincter), BUT the scary, strange words are surrounded by clear explanations in simple, accessible language—with words like “truckload,” “slimy,” and “soupy,” along with verbs like “squirts,” and “bolts.” Also, even though Simon is presenting facts, he uses words like “seems,” “a lot” and “about” when describing and uses anecdotal examples like, “A tube called the esophagus leads down from the back of your throat to your stomach. The top of the esophagus also opens up into your nose. But you certainly don’t want food to go up your nose” or “When you swallow your food, it doesn’t just fall down into your stomach. In fact, you can eat standing on your head (don’t try it though; you might choke) and still get food to your stomach.” The illustrations are either close-up color microscopic photos, x-rays or computer-generated images—all presenting a unique perspective of the inside of our bodies…A side we thankfully never get to see.

School Library Journal says, “The material is detailed, with terminology that may be difficult for children with no background, but not sophisticated enough to need a medical degree for interpretation. Students will find the book fascinating as well as a bit gross. Writers of health-related reports, as well as casual browsers, will surely put this title to use.”

Booklist says, “In his signature style, accessible without being cute or condescending, he describes the complex facts and processes of the physiology, from the time food enters the mouth until all the various organs transform it into energy, nutrients, and waste. Some of the text is quite dense, but the clearly labeled, full-page color photos show the anatomy close-up, from an X-ray of the colon and a photo of a dissected pancreas to a microscopic view of what heartburn looks like in the stomach. Simon also includes a page about a healthy diet. The facts of how the body works are astonishing. Readers older than the target audience may want to look at this, too.”

Kirkus Reviews "… the author has perfected the art of boiling down the complexities of science into a simple, declarative sequence … "

Guts would obviously facilitate a lively discussion in a classroom of any aged student. Because the book touches on the importance of a healthy diet, further discussion and in-class research could be done to explain how different foods affect our bodies. Also, it could lead to discussions of how much of a mystery our bodies are. Children could draw pictures of what they imagine other hidden internal bodies parts must look like.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/22/06.

Good Queen Bess

Stanley, Diane & Peter Vennema. 1990. Good Queen Bess: The Story of Elizabeth I of England. New York: Four Winds. ISBN 0688179614.

Good Queen Bess also known as Elizabeth I of England might be considered one of the world’s first feminists. Her stubborn determination, shrewd diplomacy, tolerance of difference and religious freedom and her sincere love for her people made her loved by not only her subjects but also her enemies. As the daughter of the infamous Henry VIII, she used both her “feminine wiles,” her keen intellect and a cunning cleverness to get what she wanted by playing all parties against one another. Her reign is considered one of such peace and prosperity that it is called the “Elizabethan Age.” She makes easy spoils of her rivals Mary, Queen of Scots and King Philip II of Spain and his ill-fated armada.

While every page is “true,” not one of them is boring. Whereas most history books might present the facts about Queen Elizabeth I of England, Good Queen Bess gives the dirt. Doing so turns historical figures into real life people—from whom it is easier to glean life lessons and examples. The story is breathtakingly exciting, complete with romance, warfare, art and triumph and this is echoed in the colorful, bright, true-to-period illustrations. Each page is dominated by the illustrations, limiting the actual text into short, digestible passages in a language that is interesting, factual and yet accessible to children of all ages.

School Library Journal says, “Although the format suggests a picture-book audience, this biography needs to be introduced to older readers who have the background to appreciate and understand this woman who dominated and named an age… The text is clearly written, explaining the main events and key decisions of Elizabeth's life and reign.”

Notable Book in the Field of Social Studies
ALA Notable Book
Booklist Editor’s Choice
American Bestseller Pick of the Lists
Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book
IRA Teacher’s Choice

Good Queen Bess would be a great introduction into the feminism. Children could discuss the roles that women and men have played in history—Elizabeth I was a fierce fighter, driven stateswoman and fair ruler, all while possessing all the characteristics deemed “feminine” for her time. This is a wonderful book for young girls or teens. It could also facilitate discussions on the role religion plays in government.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/22/06.

Through My Eyes

Bridges, Ruby. 1999. Through My Eyes. New York: Scholastic Press. ISBN 0590189239.

Through My Eyes is the first-hand account of Ruby Bridges who, as a six-year-old girl was the first African-American to go to a public elementary school. Her tale takes place in New Orleans in the fall of 1960 when schools were mandated to integrate. As she arrived at her new school, escorted by U.S. marshals, she thought that the school was a mystical, important place: “It must be college, I thought to myself.” But she was also greeted by violently angry crowds of protestors—which only made her more confused. “I thought maybe it was Mardi Gras…” Ruby’s teacher, Ms. Henry, was a young white woman from Boston, who did her best to enforce the integration despite the fact that the school’s attendance slowly whittled down to only three children and then finally, Ruby alone. In the end, the white families became braver and the children slowly began coming back to school. Ms. Henry moved away over the summer after that first year because she was pregnant and her husband wanted to raise their child in Boston, but Ms. Henry never forgot little Ruby and forever kept a picture of her in her bureau. They were reunited in 1995.

The truths in this “true” book are very basic to humanity: justice, love, devotion, perseverance and ultimately, survival and success. The story itself is captivating and engaging but this is even further propelled along by its simplicity of language, short digestible sections and honest candor. While several biographies have been written about Ruby, there is just no substitution for the “horses mouth.” No one knows this more than a child. Rather than read this account in a history book, Ruby’s own words make all the difference. The photographs, though in black and white, are large, clear and present the truth without being scary (even the images of protestors). Also, captions line the bottoms of most pages with quotes from Ms. Henry herself as well as other prominent figures. says, “A personal, deeply moving historical documentary about a staggeringly courageous little girl at the center of events that already seem unbelievable..”

Publisher’s Weekly says “Bridges's words, recalling a child's innocence and trust, are more vivid than even the best of the photos. Like poetry or prayer, they melt the heart.”

Library Journal says, "The narrative draws a distinct contrast between the innocence of this six-year-old child who thought that "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate" was a jump-rope chant and the jeers of the angry crowd outside her school carrying a black doll in a coffin. A powerful personal narrative that every collection will want to own."

Parent's Choice says, "Powerful and powerfully moving."

Through My Eyes would be a wonderful book to use to explore topics such as racism in schools, the effect of fear, endurance and survival. It could also facilitate programs where children could be invited to recount their own personal experiences with these topics (and other difficult subjects). Perhaps they’ll think, “If little Ruby could do it (and dear Ms. Henry) then so can I.”

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/21/06

Monday, October 09, 2006

Stop Pretending

Sones, Sonya. 1999. Stop Pretending: What happened when my big sister went crazy. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN: 0613349792

Stop Pretending, a novel in verse form, is the story of a girl’s mental illness through the eyes of her sister, Cookie. Inspired by the author’s own experiences, it is a journey through confusion, fear, guilt, anger, paranoia and ultimately, healing told in a striking collection of narrative snapshots. In the end, with the help of her family, her boyfriend and pages of reflection, Cookie learns to deal with her sister’s illness and is finally confident that it is not her fault.

While the story is full of depth and truth, the language is accessible enough to captivate a young adult audience. The narrative verse form lends itself to digestible bites of emotionally charged confessions. Though a poem here and there has a somewhat regular rhyme scheme, the rest are mostly free verse. No matter, it is rhythm and sound that accentuates the emotion of each poem. For example, in my favorite passage, Midnight Swing, each stanza is five lines and each line is six syllables long—the rhythm of which seems to mimic the swinging motion the poem recounts:

Midnight Swing
When I can’t fall asleep
I sneak out to the yard
and climb onto the swing
that’s attached to a branch
of the sweet scented pine.

As I glide through the night
and I hang my head back
I see stars and a moon
that’s following me
through the evergreen trees.

And I fly on my swing
through the midnight ice cold
as the swirling white clouds
of my own frozen breath
brush my tingling cheeks.

And my nightgown wafts up
and my hair billows out
as I float through the air
and there’s only the sound
of the dark whooshing past.

And my thoughts drift to you
on a day long ago
when my legs were too short
so you helped me climb up
and you taught me to pump.

School Library Journal says, “the simply crafted by deeply felt poems reflect her thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams during that troubling time.”

Kirkus Reviews—“To a budding genre that includes Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust (1997) and Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade (1993), this book is a welcome addition.” says “Blank verse is perfect for a story with such heightened emotion, and is a format that has been used with great success… teen readers may even be so inspired as to try their own hand at this challenging but satisfying form.”

Stop Pretending can be used as a call to action for both teens (and their friends and family) who relate to Cookie’s situation as well as those who feel more like Sister. This book could be used to open up discussions about the fears and pain surrounding mental illness, from both the inside and the outside. According to the end note, that was the author’s intention.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/08/06

Thursday, October 05, 2006

July Is a Mad Mosquito

Lewis, J. Patrick (illus. by Melanie W. Hall). 1994. July Is a Mad Mosquito. New York: Atheneum. ISBN: 0689318138

July Is a Mad Mosquito is a poetic tribute to the twelve months of the year, describing each one’s attributes with regards to weather, flora, fauna and ambiance. It spans January’s “paradise” of “snowshoe rabbits…polar bears and timber wolves,” tumbles over the “chickadees” and “crocuses” of March, skips through the “crab apple blossoms” and “clover” of May, blares with the “Color Guard” of July and waves goodbye to the “geese V-turn in the blue goose sky” of October to end the year with “two carolers on the green, who just became a trio with my snowman in between” of December. Each poem is accompanied by an illustrated rendition of the elements of the text.

With its steady rhythm and its simple vocabulary, this poetry book’s lack of complication is ideal for poetry newcomers. Though somewhat stereotypical, each poem alludes to the nostalgic traditions of the American seasons. However, it is only one perspective of these seasons. For instance, very few Texans have seen “A country dressed in winter white” very often in their native state. Also, the references to “traditions” such as Christmas (“And people kiss by mistletoe…So hurry, reindeer, please”) might make some children feel excluded (namely, the Jewish). Still, the title poem is infectious and light. One can almost hear the parade gearing up:

One for the kid with the corn-dog stick
Two for his Sno-Kone sister
Three for the girl in the Dunking Booth
You tried to sink but missed her

Four for the Labrador licking the pool
Five for the mad mosquitoes
Six hurrays for the Dreamsicle days
Seven for the bee torpedoes

Eight for ka-bang! and ka-boom-boom-boom!
Nine for the fireflies dancing
Ten for the Fourth of July parade
And the Color Guard advancing

Red-hot summer days are here!
And white-hot firework nights!
Turn up the heat
And the marching beat
But don’t turn out the lights!

The illustrations do a marvelous job of echoing the mood of each month. January is white but the blues grays and hints of pink add the illusion of a low sun and sleepy sky, while the bright yellows, oranges, greens and reds of the summer months seem to wake the reader up, only to let the somber purples and browns of fall bring us back to the blues of winter. There is an animal or insect in all but three of the illustrations, letting us see how the natural world around us reacts to the seasons.

School Library Journal says, “An enjoyable volume that should enliven and enhance most poetry collections.”

Publishers Weekly calls it, “a pleasant, though not particularly innovative, look at the calendar.”

Kirkus Reviews—“Though he offers few epiphanies, Lewis’s descriptions are vivid, his images are fresh and appealing, and he makes deft use of a variety of rhyme schemes and verse forms...”

Booklist says “each poem celebrates one month of the year, generally with verse reflecting nature from a child’s point of view… Appearing with the poems on double-page spreads are Hall’s lively illustrations, fanciful scenes in popsicle-bright pastels and muted blues and browns. No fireworks here, but a few sparklers, enough to justify purchase for large poetry collections.”

This short collection could be used to afford discussion on how seasons recall certain memories, colors, and iconic symbols and how those might be different depending on ones own culture. Children could be asked to write their own poems about their favorite month and accompany it with an illustration.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/05/06

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Monday's Troll

Prelutsky, Jack (illus. by Peter Sís). 1996. Monday’s Troll. New York: Greenwillow Books. ISBN: 0688096441

Monday’s Troll is an anthology of poetry about the individual plights of trolls, witches, wizards, knights, ogres, a few other fairytale creatures and even the Earth herself. Its title comes from one of the poems about seven trolls, each of them having their own unpleasant characteristics from Monday’s troll being “mean and rotten” to Sunday’s troll being “crabby, cross, and full of sour applesauce.” There’s a wizard who’s in a “pickle” because he has made himself disappear, a lonely old witch celebrating her birthday and a yeti who has a particular craving for dinosaurs because he “adores the crunch.”

The poetry in this book is, in a word, amazing. Its stories are captivating while its infectious rhythm and consistent rhyme is easy to read. Still, this book isn’t just child’s play. Though the content is simple, the vocabulary is challenging and unique—the language expertly crafted to educate as well as entertain. Though each of the poems are funny in its own somewhat grim, satirical way, my favorite is the following:

Five Giants
At our planet’s icy summit
Looms the Giant of the North,
Ancient glaciers tear asunder
When he stirs and blunders forth.
His incalculable equal
Is the Giant of the East,
Whose least consequential footfall
Chills the boldest savage beast.

Neither holds the least advantage
On the Giant of the South,
Who can house a pride of lions
In the cavern of his mouth.
All are matched in size and power
By the Giant of the West,
Who regards with condescension
The most lofty eagle’s nest.

But the being deep in slumber
At the world’s volcanic core,
Could between one thumb and finger
Crush and pulverize the four.
Every titan on the surface
Fears the Sleeper in the Flame,
They are doomed if she awakens,
So they dare not say her name.

This poem, at a child’s first glance, is about giants fighting over regions of the world, but to an adult, it could be interpreted as the political struggle on the surface as taking the main stage while there is a physical doom bubbling from underneath. The reference to the West being the biggest giant of them all “who regards with condescension, the most lofty eagle’s nest” could be an allusion to the United States—who, no matter how powerful or “lofty” he gets, will still be powerless in the face of the wrath of Mother Nature. We can start and fight wars and declare ourselves the greatest, but we’re still second fiddle (if that) to the powerful forces of nature. It is ageless poetry such as this piece that will engrave Prelutsky’s name into the hearts of all readers—child or adult.

What the illustrations lack in vivid color they make up for in detail. Though essentially nonsensical due to the fantastical nature of the characters, Sís’s lines—both straight and contoured—create an illusion of otherworldness while affording a suspension of disbelief, making us want to step into the page. Border art frames each illustrations with character and symbol. The illusion is further enhanced by a strange “folding” effect—the pages seem worn as one might find in an ancient codex because the illustrations themselves have been deliberately folded and tattered.

School Library Journal says, “this 17-poem collection overflows with energy, tongue-in-cheek wit, rich vocabulary, and rollicking rhyme and meter… Read the selections aloud to make this gruesome, ghastly group come alive.”

Publishers Weekly calls it, “a smorgasbord of verbal and visual delights…With his practiced pen, Prelutsky goes right for the funny bone, and his nimble rhymes shine...”

Horn Book hails it as “another treat for Prelutsky fans.”

The New York Times Book Review—“The inspired pair has scored again.”

ALA Booklist says Monday’s Troll “makes the make-believe seem almost real.”

This book could be used in a discussion of poetry itself—the rhythm, the rhyme schemes, etc. But it could also be used for its vocabulary. Words like “prestidigitation,” “wretched,” “witlessly,” “noxious,” etc. are all good triggers for colorful conversations about words. Also, the collection is full of alliteration such as “preposterous pickle” and “bluster and boast” leading to a discussion on the effect of sound and repetition.

Reviewed by Joelie Key-Tissot 10/04/06