Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth

kinda like brothers“I got down the box of oatmeal raisin cookies and took two without asking.  I needed them.”

Jarrett’s mom takes care of foster babies in New York, so Jarrett is used to sharing his home with children he doesn’t know.  It’s not that big of a deal to him, until the day Kevon and Treasure show up at the door.   Treasure’s fine; she’s just a baby.  But Kevon?  He’s TWELVE.  That’s right, a whole year older than Jarrett himself.  It’s not so bad being a temporary big brother to foster babies, but being a temporary little brother is something Jarrett is not at all interested in.  Worse, everyone just assumes that Jarrett and Kevon will be friends with each other!  Jarrett’s not sure at all.  Kevon acts like he’s a good, but Jarrett suspects that he has some secrets he’s been keeping.Jarrett and Kevon navigate an uneasy peace.  After all, they both have bigger concerns than just trying to make friends.  Kevon worries about keeping Treasure safe in the foster system, and Jarrett is worried about trying to get his grades up so he can go on to the sixth grade.

Their daily lives aren’t the only issue. Both boys also face a racist world; when Jarrett sees a worker at the community center being stopped and frisked without cause, he is deeply angry.  A worker in the center explains it this way to Kevon and Jarrett: “I’m going to keep it real with you guys, you black and Latino boys are going to get stopped a lot. And it doesn’t matter what you do, or what you didn’t do. It’s just because of who you are. And in the meantime, I need to teach you what to do when the cops stop you — not if, when.”  In a 2014 interview with NPR, Coe Booth comments on that scene in the book, saying: “I think any parent or anybody who is dealing with young black boys — as is what’s happening at the community center in this book — I think every single community center has had this conversation with their boys. And it’s just so sad that we have to do this, but we do, and I hope that changes. I don’t know if what’s going on in Ferguson will change that, but I do hope it at least continues that conversation, because it’s just exhausting that this is still going on…”  I heartily agree.  I appreciate the nuanced, realistically complex middle school boys dealing with both the difficult situations of middle school and the ugly reality of racism in the world.

This middle-school realistic fiction is a definite winner.  I can’t wait to read more from Coe Booth. Go see her at her website!

If you liked this book, why not try these?

My Cousin’s Keeper by Simon French

Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

Boy21 by Matthew Quick

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

wonder“If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all.  I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and doing that look-away thing.  Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that one one else sees me that way.”

August Pullman has been homeschooled all his life, safe from the stares and questions of others.  See, he was born with a craniofacial anomaly-his face doesn’t look like most other faces.  He and his family are used to it, but most other people aren’t.  Auggie knows they don’t mean to be rude, or hurt his feelings, but it happens anyway.

He’s afraid it might get a lot worse, too:  August Pullman is about to start middle school.  MIDDLE SCHOOL!  It’s notorious for being horrible for even the most normal of kids. Nevertheless, Auggie bravely goes out into the world-and what he finds will surprise him.  The book is told from many different perspectives: Auggie’s, his sister, his friends, even his bully, and it reminds us that there is always more than one side to a story.  This book humanizes everyone, even those who bully.  It’s the most realistic, most compassionate work on the subject that I’ve ever encountered.

Friends, this book will make you cry.  It will make you think about how we relate to others who are different from us (and, after all, isn’t everyone?).  It will fill your heart with joy.  It’s a great one for parents to read with kids-as a read-aloud, it could work for ones as young as fourth grade, all the way up to grown-ups. It’s a sensitive portrayal of differences, bullying, and the underworld of middle school.  Reading this book will make you a better human, I promise.  Read it with someone dear to you, friends.

Happy reading!

If you liked this one, you’ll love Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco, and you’ll definitely need to check out Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going.

The Tequila Worm by Viola Canales

tequilaworm“I wanted to play soccer on those beautiful playing fields. I wanted to get better at kicking with my head so I could go to college. I could get a good job and make enough money to buy a nice house for my parents and Lucy.

But to go and live at a school? Without my family?”

Sofia’s family loves stories: telling and re-telling them, inventing new ones, and sharing old ones.  Stories are what keeps them together, and keeps their Mexican heritage alive.  There are stories of the Easter cascarones, the stories of loved ones for Dia de los Muertos, and stories of quinceanera preparations and festivities.  Sofia knows that part of becoming a grown-up is being able to share these stories with others.  However, her own story is about to change drastically.

When Sofia is offered a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school over three hundred miles from her home, she is torn: should she stay at home, with everyone she loves, with everything she is familiar with?  Or should she pack up and move to a school where everyone is wealthier, whiter, and more privileged than she?  School may be difficult, but Sofia’s determined to go away, learn, and then come back and help her family.

Sofia’s sense of humor permeates this sensitive story:  from the play-by-play of eating the tequila worm (to prevent homesickness) to the descriptions of her mother’s endless stream of knitted doorstops and pencil toppers, this book will keep you laughing.  Her humorous stories have a deeper meaning, though: through them, Sofia can feel the love of her family and community.  By sharing them, she takes her place as an almost-grown-up in her family.

This is another Pura Belpré winner, named for the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library! I’m reviewing as many of the Pura winners as I can; I hope you like this one. Would you like to read along with me? Here’s a list of past winners!

Author’s website: http://violacanales.blogspot.com/

Happy Reading!

Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa

cuba15They all looked at me: Mom, perturbed; Abuela, skeptical; Abuelo, curious; and Dad, still upset…Must I invite these people to my party? I thought, trying to hold firm. ‘Being the one turning fifteen and all,’ I said to my audience, ‘I just want to say that I would rather have gone on a trip to Spain.  But I was not given that choice.’

Abuela opened her mouth. ‘However,’ I continued, silencing her, ‘since my dear grandmother has offered to throw me a quince party, I have gratefully accepted the idea.’ If only to find out why, I thought.”

Violeta Paz has just turned fifteen years old, and her Cuban grandmother insists that she must have a quinceañera, a traditional coming-of-age celebration for young women.  The party is supposed to mark her transition into young womanhood, but Violeta just isn’t sure if all the tulle and dancing is for her.  Attendants?  A gigantic, fluffy dress?  Not for Violeta.  Couldn’t she just go to Spain, like her aunt got to do?  Besides, she’s not even all Cuban! Her mom is Polish, and who ever heard of a Polish-Cuban quince?

Violeta reaches a compromise with her family:  she gets to design her own party, within reason. (After all, she is definitely NOT the boss when it comes to money.) There will be tradición, si, but also new elements to her party.  And in the process of learning all about what this rite-of-passage business actually means(thanks to her guidebook: Quinceañera for the Gringo Dummy), Violeta learns  who she really is, and to love and appreciate her heritage.  Sure, her family may be irritating, obnoxious, and her dad’s devotion to his bowling-shoes-and-shorts combo is not the classiest, but they’re just perfect for her.

This book is written in first person, as though we’re listening to Violeta’s thoughts-and you’ll want to do that, because she’s super funny! Readers will enjoy her running commentary, sprinkled with sarcasm and a hefty dose of puns.  High school through her eyes is pretty hilarious, actually.  So, if you’re looking for a humorous, well-written book with awesome bicultural elements, this is a great place to start. Oh, and notice that shiny award on the cover?  It’s a Pura Belpre honor-an award that goes to work celebrating the Latino/a experience.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be featuring lots of Belpre winners, so stay tuned!

Author’s website

Happy Reading!

Want more quince stories, or more books about the Latino/Latina experience?  You might like these:

¡Scandalosa! Evie’s sixteenera might not ever happen, if she can’t keep her grades up.

Estrella’s Quinceañera Estrella’s mom has been waiting to throw her daughter a traditional quince for years now, but mariachi bands and puffy dresses give Estrella hives.

Um…is it too late for me to get my own quince?!  So much fun!

No Castles Here by A.C.E. Bauer

No Castles HereWhat I need, Augie thought, is a fairy godmother. She’d wave her magic wand, and poof, all my problems would disappear.

But nothing seemed to make his tormentors disappear.  Although Augie’s body was healing and his glasses were fixed, Dwaine, Sergio, and FoX Tooth dogged him wherever he went. His only refuge during the day was their classroom.  The class didn’t mess with Mr. Franklin.”

Augie is a scrawny kid from Camden, New Jersey.  He knows what to do: keep quiet, keep out of the way of the thugs and dealers, and try not to draw attention to himself.  It’s not fun, but it’s his life and he’s pretty good at managing.

However, it’s changing. One day he stumbles into a bookstore and accidentally (really! It was an accident!) steals a strange, perpetually-changing book of fairy tales.  Then his mom signs him up for a Big Brother-not only is he WAY too old for one, his Big Brother is gay.  Now, he likes Walter and all that, but he’s so afraid of what the bullies at school will do to him if they find out he reads fairy tales and is hanging out with a gay Big Brother.

If that wasn’t bad enough, a storm damages his school and the district makes plans to close it permanently and move all the students to other schools.  Then it would become just one more decrepit, abandoned building out of hundreds in their neighborhood.  But Augie’s tired of it-he doesn’t want to leave school and start over.  The bullies were just starting to leave him alone, and the school choir was sounding great and making everyone feel like a community.   What can be done?  He’s just a kid, but in this thoughtful debut novel, he demonstrates the power of working together.

This is a special book, friends, one with many layers and lots of things to think about after you’ve finished.  Augie’s story is interspersed with fairy tale chapters from the accidentally-stolen book, and many of his life experiences parallel those in the fairy tale.  As he reads, he begins to think about how fair is it really for him to be afraid to be seen with Walter, just because Walter is gay.  Augie feels differently, now-he sees how damaging the prejudices of others can be.  At the same time, he develops his own voice-he’s no longer the scared young man running from bullies.  Instead, Augie pulls together a plan to save his school, speaking up to the school board, and working together with the students who used to bully him.  And Walter?  Well, he likes having Walter around.  You see, things are different now.

Part fairy tale, part school drama, part coming-of-age story, this novel is one of the rare young adult stories to appeal equally to guys and girls.  I love Bauer’s treatment of Walter and his partner, and the natural way Augie’s feelings about it grew and changed.  This is one of the ALA’s Rainbow List books, specially recognized for its excellent treatment of GLBT subject matter.

Happy Reading!

Bauer, A.C.E. No Castles Here. New York: Random House, 2007. 270 pp.  Ages 11 and up.

If you liked this one, you’ll love these:

Boy 21 (one of my favorites!)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Time for Andrew

Hero (this book is seriously double-awesome, so even if it isn’t strictly related to No Castles Here, I still think you’ll love it!)

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

schoolforgoodandevil

“The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before.  Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each.  The ages were just as fickle; one could be sixteen, the other fourteen, or both just turned twelve.  But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear.  One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own.  The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth.  An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.”

Agatha is grim and gray and lives in a graveyard, while Sophie dresses only in pink and spends her days doing Good Works-together, they look the perfect picture of Good vs. Evil.  Thus, it’s no surprise when the pair is kidnapped and sent away to the legendary School for Good and Evil.  There, they will learn the fundamentals of fairy tales and what it takes to be the heroine or the villain in their beloved stories.  The very best students end up as stories, penned by the mysterious Storian, which then are  distributed all over the country.  In Sophie and Agatha’s tale, who will triumph?  Good has won for over two centuries…can Evil ever really win?  Furthermore, can anyone ever be all good or all evil?

All right, I have got to tell it to you straight:  for about half of the time while I was reading, I actively disliked this book.  For the other half of the time, I could see its charm.  This is a creative Harry Potter-esque magical boarding school fantasy, and it’s definitely going to appeal to readers clamoring for more fairy tale magic.  However, I took issue with several things.  First of all, it’s nearly 500 pages, and a bit convoluted-I have to say that several times, I needed to flip back to figure out what was going on.  But that’s all right-a more motivated reader could surely sort through the loose plot elements.

More seriously, I was upset with the book’s underlying theme of Good = Beautiful and Evil = Ugly.  There are repeated comments about obesity and physical deformities that I found both unnecessary and hurtful to readers.  When combined with the heteronormative “All Princesses Need is A Prince” message (during the story, the Good Girls are all waiting for their dream prince to ask them to the ball), I lost patience with the book. Really, this could have been great-there is a lovely twist ending that almost redeems the rest of the story, but it came too little, too late for me.

Happy Reading!

Book website (You can apply to the School for Good and Evil here!)

Chainani, Soman. The School for Good and Evil. Harper: New York, 2013. 488 pp. Ages 11 and up.

If it sounds like something you’d like to read (because there are some awesome parts to it, like the great school descriptions and the interesting fairy tale remixes), I’d recommend it with some other great feminist, body-positive texts, like these:

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Castle Waiting by Linda Medley (a great graphic novel!)

Ever and Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

and, an oldie but goodie-Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea

Hold Fast by Blue Balliet

HOLDFAST“What happened at 4:44 on that grim January day was wrong. Wrong was the perfect sound for what the word meant: It was heavy, achingly slow, clearly impossible to erase. Wrong…

Where was Dash?  How could he have vanished into that icy, freezing moment?

No one could add up the facts; they just didn’t fit.”

The Pearl family doesn’t have much but each other and their dreams of a better future. Dash and Summer do their best-Dash works as a page at the downtown library, and Summer makes sure that everyone has enough to eat, and that their tiny apartment is kept clean.  Together, they read stories and dream of having their own house, with flowers out front and curtains in the window.  Dash keeps saying to hold fast to their dreams, that someday things will be better.

But then he disappears, and with him, their hopes.

Summer and Jubie and Early have to move to a shelter, where it is loud and crowded and Jubie gets sick. Early is afraid something terrible has happened-their dad would never leave them like this!  All she has is his notebook of clues-but she’s determined to get to the bottom of things.

Blue Balliet brings us another gem: a riveting mystery, with clues just tricky enough to be engaging, and enough real-life troubles to keep our hearts soft.  You’ll love the Pearl family, and will be moved by their devotion to each other.  You’ll also love the Langston Hughes poetry peppered throughout, and the fantastically interesting and exciting mystery that Dash Pearl has accidentally been tangled in.   Ms. Balliet has the knack for gently raising our awareness of important social issues, like homelessness, while at the same time teaching us about important historical figures (like Vermeer, Frank Lloyd Wright,   and Langston Hughes).  But how, you might ask, how does she do this without boring our pants off?  Friends, I tell you: because she is awesome.  You’ll love it, I promise.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website

Now, if you loved this one, you’ve gotta check out her others:

The Danger Box (this one is the most like Hold Fast)

Chasing Vermeer

The Wright 3

The Calder Game

When You Reach Me (Now, this book isn’t by Blue Balliet, but it feels so similar-I think you’ll really like it!)

theoneandonlyivan“I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.

It’s not as easy as it looks.”

Ivan lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, with his companions: Bob, the mongrel dog who likes to sleep on Ivan’s stomach at night; and Stella, the wise, gentle elephant.  It’s not such a bad life for Ivan; he makes paintings (for sale in the gift shop) and thinks very little about his old home in the jungle.  It’s too sad, you see.  It’s best not to remember.

Until Ruby comes along.

Ruby is still a baby, a tiny elephant taken from her family in the wild. She’s not too sure what’s going on at the mall yet, and she’s missing her family terribly.  Something about having Ruby around wakes Ivan up a little, actually: he starts to feel differently about his home at the Big Top Mall.  Ruby brings big changes to Ivan’s life;  she makes him want to be brave again.  Ruby helps Ivan remember what family is.

I’ll go ahead and say it: sometimes books that win the Big Awards (the Newbery, or the Printz, for example) are more about what we think kids should read than what they will like reading.  They may be undeniably well-written and creative, and about important topics, but…sometimes they’re not so fun.  This book, though,  is one that everyone will want to read.  I hate gorillas.  Seriously.  I’ve had a phobia of them since childhood.  I see all primate species as germy, suspicious, and liable to bring us all plague.  For me to voluntarily pick up a story told by a gorilla is an occurrence similar to a lunar eclipse, actually.  But Ivan had me crying during rush hour on the subway, and falling off curbs trying to read and walk at the same time.

Ivan speaks in short, contemplative sentences.  His observations are both poignant and funny, while his love for Ruby is heartbreaking in its tenderness.  The book is short and uncluttered with excessive detail or exposition; it’s merely Ivan’s observations, and it’s absolutely perfect.  I moved it right away to the All-Time Awesomest List and I hope I’ll be able to share it with others and read it aloud without crying, because it’s that good. It’s made for reading out loud, that’s for sure: children as young as first grade or so can understand the prose, while even adults will be captivated with this redemptive story.  I promise, you’ll love it.  Even if you hate both reading AND gorillas, you’ll love it, and here’s why: Ivan’s more human than even humans are, and this book is short, simple, and so beautiful.  You can’t help but love it.

Oh, and bonus fun fact: Katherine Applegate is also the author of the Animorphs series.  Remember? The series about alien slugs crawling into people’s brains and giving them the power to transform into amazing animals! So she’s clearly multi-talented!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website

Applegate, Katherine.  The One and Only Ivan. HarperCollins: New York, 2012. 305 pp.

If you liked this book, I think you’ll like these, too:

The Magician’s Elephant

Wonder

 The Tale of Despereaux

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me“M,

This is hard.  Harder than I expected, even with your help.  But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well.  I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.

I ask two favors.

First, you must write me a letter.

Second, please remember to mention the location of your house key.

The trip is a difficult one.  I will not be myself when I reach you.”

Miranda isn’t supposed to tell anyone about the mysterious notes.  She’s not sure who she would tell, anyway: her mom would freak out, and her best friend Sal is avoiding her ever  since he got punched on the way home from school.   Miranda keeps quiet, and the notes keep coming.  Each is filled with details no one should know, and the message is clear:  she’s the only one who can prevent a tragedy, and she’s got to move quickly.

The list of awards this book has gotten literally fills the inside cover, including the Newbery Medal, and for good reason! This smart book is a perfect combination of realistic characters, a just-creepy-enough mystery with a great setting, and  accessible science fiction (which I can’t explain to you, because it will ruin the mystery). I really loved the setting: late-70s New York.  The period-specific details were just enough to make it feel interesting and different, but not overly nostalgic.  Finally, Miranda’s first-person-narrative voice draws readers in, making them feel like a close friend of hers, and a partner in the mystery-solving.  It was also quite refreshing to explore Rebecca Stead’s portrayals  nontraditional families, and the treatment of race and class issues in the text.  All in all, a great book for sharing. I’d like to read it with some middle schoolers and see who can figure out the letter-sender first.  Happy Reading!

Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me.  Yearling: New York, 197 pp.  Ages 10-14.

If you liked this book, I think you’ll love Blue Balliet’s stories, especially her Chasing Vermeer series and The Danger Box.  If you liked the mystery element and stories about families, you will definitely love Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck.   Finally, see what the fuss is all about: check out Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  You’ll get why Miranda loves it so much!

Best Bits:  letters that keep you guessing + science fiction that isn’t confusing + being a mystery that is not full of vampires, blood, or magic, because let’s face it, that gets old sometimes.

Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson


Photographs locomotion

There’s two of me and Lili.

We were little them, dressed up at Easter time

Big smiles-me with two front teeth missing

and my head shaved Easter clean.

Here’s Mama and Daddy dancing,

Mama’s blurry foot lifted up in the air.

Look how she’s laughing.

When I look at the picture I can hear it.

Here’s the four of us

Everybody smiling at the camera but

me. I’m looking away from it

frowning

Like I see something coming

that ain’t good.”

Lonnie’s parents died when he was seven, and now he and his sister live in different foster homes. He gets to see his sister, though, and his foster mom turns out to be a really nice lady, even if he was afraid of her at first.  Still, he longs for his life back before the fire that killed his mom and dad.  However, he’s learning a new way to cope.  Now Lonnie is eleven, and he’s learning about poetry in school.  His teacher says it helps people sort out their feelings.  He writes so many poems, the good kind of poems-those natural, thoughtful poems that feel like breathing-that it fills up a book.  Lonnie’s story.  You’ll love it even if you don’t love poetry, I promise.

Teachers will love the book’s natural fit for teaching forms of the poem: students will be introduced to the sonnet, haiku, and free verse as Lonnie learns them.  Students will love the book because it is a concise 100 pages, and of verse, at that: it’s an easy triumph for young readers who are exhausted by marathon reads. I love it because the poems are just right: accessible, full of concentrated emotion, and well-written.  I also love it because of Lonnie’s capacity for rejoicing in a world that hurt him badly.  If you’ve got a bit of time, I invite you to see what the world of an eleven-year-old poet in foster care looks like.

Happy reading!

Author’s website

Woodson, Jacqueline. Locomotion. New York: Speak, 2003. 100 pp. Ages 11-14.

If you liked this book, you’re in luck! There’s another, called Peace, Locomotion, and it looks great.  Actually, here is Jacqueline Woodson’s whole long list of books, just in case you’d like to see what other things she’s been up to.  If you are really into the poetry novels, try Make Lemonade.  I just reviewed the second one in the trilogy!