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

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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.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Inside Out

Every new year Mother visits

the I Ching Teller of Fate.

This year he predicts

our lives will twist inside out.

Maybe soldiers will no longer

patrol our neighborhood,

maybe I can jump rope

after dark,

maybe the whistles

that tell Mother

to push us under the bed

will stop screeching…

The war is coming closer to home.

Hà is a ten-year-old who lived in Vietnam with her mother and brothers before the war.  The soldiers took her father, and the bloodshed came closer and closer to their home and they were forced to flee. Saigon has fallen, and Hà and her family escape with thousands of others.  First a dark and smelly boat, then a refugee camp, and finally they have come to settle in Alabama.

Alabama isn’t so easy.  The other children pull her hair, having never seen anyone with such straight dark hair before.  The neighbors don’t want to be friends, either.  Everyone thinks they are too different for the small town.  Hà and her brothers struggle to learn English and fit in.  Their mother says they must not think of anything else, not their father or country or future, until they’ve mastered the language.  She says it’s the only way they will be able to have a happy life in their new home.  Though the adjustment is difficult for them all, they rely on each other, and begin the long process of healing from the wounds of the war.

This double award-winner (Newbery Honor finalist AND the National Book Award recipient) is written in verse, which has the dual benefits of addressing a traumatic subject in a way appropriate for younger audiences, and gives readers a sense of Hà’s struggles to master English.  This is a technique that has been used before in books like this, and works quite well-check out  It seems designed for a classroom read, and could be incorporated into lessons on verse novels, the Vietnam war, or units on cultural sensitivity and bullying.  I love the poem-diary format; it has the advantage of making readers feel like they are super-lightning fast because they can finish this book in a few hours!

This is a haunting introduction to the horrors of war, presented in a manageable format for younger readers-good for the classroom and sure to spark conversations on bullying and diversity.  Perhaps this is not a book that most young people would choose by themselves, for pleasure reading, but it would work well in a school setting.

Happy Reading!

Publisher’s website: http://www.harpercollins.ca/authors/36544/Thanhha_Lai/index.aspx

Lai, Thanhha.  Inside Out and Back Again. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.262 pp.  Ages 10-15.

If you liked this book, try Home of the Braveanother verse novel about refugees in the United States!

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

“‘I guess you’ll never become a samurai now, huh, Manjiro-chan?’

‘Why not?’ Manjiro asked.

‘Even if we should get home, you know very well you can’t be.  You weren’t born into a samurai family.  You were born a fisherman’s son, and you will be a fisherman, and any sons you have, they will also be fishermen.  That is the way it is; that is the way it always has been; that is the way it will always be.'”

Fourteen-year-old Manjiro wants to be a samurai, but in nineteenth-century Japan, there is no changing one’s family job.  Fishing is his destiny, even if he wishes for more.  However, when Manjiro and his fishing mates are stranded on a deserted island, and then picked up by a whaling ship, he finds more adventure than he could have imagined.  There is a great price, though:  even though he will travel the seas and live in America, he will never be able to return home.  The custom in Japan at the time was to remain completely isolated; no foreigners are admitted, and citizens who leave may never come back.  Though Manjiro has ten years of adventures, including panning for gold, learning to make barrels, horse racing with his classmates, and living with his adoptive family,  he simply longs to return to his home and his blood family.  Will he ever find his way home again?

This Newbery Honor book has the distinction of being based on a true story: there was a real Manjiro, who was really picked up by the John Howland, an American whaling ship.  According to Margi Preus, Manjiro was the first know person of Japanese heritage to reach America!  Included in this book are actual sketches of his, and some real words from his diaries.  I enjoyed the factual aspects of the story, especially such an intriguing and unusual one.  Younger readers will appreciate the beautiful black and white illustrations, and the detailed historical notes, glossary, and explanations of the Japanese calender and time systems will please teachers.  This book seems made for the classroom!

Happy Reading!

Preus, Margi. Heart of a Samurai. Amulet Books: New York, 2010. 301 pp. Ages 10-14.

I’m sorry, the author’s website does not seem to be up and running right now! I’ll keep checking and bring you the link when it is.

If you liked this book, more great historical fiction awaits! Try One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm, or Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

“My sister, Lynn, taught me my first word: kira-kira. I pronounced it ka-a-ahhh, but she knew what I meant. Kira-kira means “glittering” in Japanese.  Lynn told me that when I was a baby, she used to take me onto our empty road at night, where we would lie on our backs and look at the stars while she said over and over, ‘Katie, say ‘kira-kira, kira-kira.‘ I loved that word!”

Katie is convinced that her sister Lynn is both a genius and the kindest girl in the world. Lynn’s world is kira-kira, from her dreams of living by the California sea, to her practice of making both “selfish” and “unselfish” wishes at night. When they move from a small Japanese enclave in the Midwest to racially-homogenous Georgia, Lynn teaches Katie about the reasons why people sometimes stare at them, or make them use different doors or hotel rooms reserved for “Colored Only”.  Rather than disheartening the sisters, racism and hardships only strengthen the bond between them.  However, when Lynn becomes seriously ill, her family is shattered, beyond broken-hearted.  Katie must draw from Lynn’s lessons about hope and hard work in order to help keep her family going.

This book is a Newbery Medal winner for a reason.  I’m starting to notice some important elements that appear in outstanding books.  The big award winners seem to have these in common: 1. They deal with the Big Issues: ethics, death/suffering, human nature, and love-universal human experiences. 2.  The characters are complex, with both flaws and positive traits. Their actions seem to make sense in context; that is, you can understand their motivations. 3. The book has another Special Bit about it-maybe a stunningly creative plot, or perhaps a story told from a character whose voice has not been represented before in the literary world.  Now, that’s just my informal assessment, but it certainly does apply in this case.

Kira-Kira‘s simple language belies its complexity.  The story is one exploring racism, poverty, and serious illness.  Lynn’s sickness, when juxtaposed against the backdrop of her parents’ brutal factory labor and the family’s poverty, could sink the entire book into a tragic mire and we would all cry ourselves sick.  While it is heartbreaking, of course, the story is lightened with humorous stories and Lynn’s gentle optimism; that’s what makes it so special.  It’s no Pollyanna-readers can smell that business a mile away-but it manages to address the horrors of disease at an age-appropriate, un-sugar-coated level.  It is like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: it slaps you in the heart with scary things, and then teaches you how some people have handled it.  It’s part guidebook, part story-and what a lovely story! The sisters give up their weekly candy in order to help secretly save money for a house.  They are sent to school in pin curls, the likes of which no one in Georgia has ever seen.  Lynn is a chess genius, beating her uncle repeatedly in a book-long series of games.  There is chicken-sexing (yes, it’s a real job), unionizing, and rice balls! And for the educators out there, the book includes one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful reader’s guides I’ve come across yet.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://cynthiakadohata.com/

Kadohata, Cynthia. Kira-Kira. Simon and Schuster: New York, 2004.244 pp. Ages 10-14.

If you liked this book because of the experiences of of minority characters in the past, you might like one of my absolute favorite books: In the Year of the Boar and Jackie RobinsonIt was published in 1986, so I know it might be a little dated, but does that matter when it is set in a previous time period, anyway?  Plus, it’s incredible. Also, you should check out Cynthia Kadohata’s other books-I can’t wait to read them! If you are looking for books that deal with serious illness (and journaling-something Lynn loves to do!) , you might try Notes from the Dog by Gary Paulsen.

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

“Rules and Things Number 29: When You Wake Up and Don’t Know for Sure Where You’re At and There’s a Bunch of People Standing Around You, It’s Best to Pretend You’re Still Asleep Until You Can Figure Out What’s Going On and What You Should Do”

Bud (not Buddy, never Buddy) is an orphan, or so he thinks.  His mom died, and she never talked about his dad.  In the middle of the Great Depression, life isn’t easy for anyone, much less for orphans.  When Bud’s prank gets him in trouble at the group home, and he get sent back to the orphanage, he decides it’s best for him to set out on his own.  He tries his hand at train-hopping, eats out of a can in a hobo camp, and is tricked by a mustard sandwich into accepting a car ride that will change his life forever.  See, he’s trying to find the legendary bandleader, H. E. Calloway, the man he believes to be his father, and all he knows is that he has to get to Grand Rapids.  After that, he figures, things will work themselves out.

This book has been on my to-read list since a classmate gave a book talk on it last year, and I’m so pleased to finally have read it.  It’s hilarious! You wouldn’t think that the plight of an orphan runaway during the Great Depression would allow for much levity, but Bud’s constant inner narrative is insightful and droll.  My favorite was his long list of  “Rules and Things”, which are all quite true, and you’ll be happy to read things that you’ve thought, but never been brave enough to say.  Honestly, in setting and resolution, it reminded me of Wonderstruck, which was a really pleasant surprise for me; it would be nice to read these two books right after one another.

This book is written for upper elementary and middle schoolers; it is a quick, funny read with substance.  I enjoyed it a lot!  I think it would be a great read-aloud classroom book: interesting to both male and female students, and set in a historical time period that would be fun to study.

Happy Reading!

Website: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/christopherpaulcurtis

Curtis, Christopher Paul. Bud, Not Buddy. Random House: New York, 1999. 243 pp.

If you like this, please, please try Wonderstruck!

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

“When the day came, Eduardo received the newborn into his hands as though it were his own child.  His eyes blurred as he laid it in a crib and reached for the needle that would blunt its intelligence.

‘Don’t fix that one,’ said Lisa, hastily catching his arm. ‘It’s a Matteo Alacran.  They’re always left intact.'”

Matteo is a clone, formed from human DNA and raised in the womb of a cow.  Unlike other clones, though, his intelligence is not surgically limited: for a clone, he’s very fortunate, enjoying all the privileges of a real human, such as an education.  This is because he’s the special clone of El Patron, the ancient lord of the country Opium.  Opium lies between the United States and the former country of Mexico: a vast tract of poppies, eejits (computer-chipped slaves who work the fields), a set of terrifying bodyguards, and the powerful family of El Patron.

Clones, as Matteo slowly learns, are considered sub-human, monstrous, and only good for one thing: growing transplantable organs.  As El Patron’s body ages and begins to deteriorate, Matteo’s organs will be harvested, and given to El Patron.  This process has been repeated many times in the past, allowing El Patron to reach the age of 148.  If Matt wants to live past his preteen years, he’s got to escape.  Furthermore, if there is any hope for justice for the thousand of enslaved eejit workers, who are all captured illegal immigrants, Matt must face the sinister system that brought him into existence.

This near-future science fiction deals with issues of illegal immigration, drug empires, cloning, and what constitutes being a human.  The action builds steadily, and spans various settings and many years, but never feels drawn-out or stretched.  Nancy Farmer is also a genius at creating seemingly-impossible-to-escape situations, and then magically unraveling them with a plausible, but unexpected solution.  Especially appealing for me is Matt’s gradual realization of the implications of being a clone: readers watch him develop a full consciousness of his identity throughout the book.  This is great writing, friends!

I should mention that Farmer has already written two other Newbery Honor books, and they are also incredible.  When I was ten, my best friend handed me her copy of The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, also written by Farmer.  It’s one of those books I remember with startling clarity, because it shocked my childish brain, which until that point was only accustomed to the Bobbsey Twins  and The Baby-sitters Club series, or perhaps the occasional abridged classic.  (Does anyone remember the illustrated and abridged Hound of the Baskervilles?)  Anyway, that was an amazing book, and this one is too!  It won the National Book Award, the Newbery Honor, and the Printz Honor, and it is an ALA Best Book, too!  The front cover sparkles with all the medals, and the text inside will blow your mind.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.nancyfarmerwebsite.com

Farmer, Nancy. The House of the Scorpion. New York: Simon Pulse, 2002.  380 pp.  Ages 11 and up.

 

 

 

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

“You aren’t allowed out of the graveyard…because it’s only in the graveyard that we can keep you safe.  This is where you live and this is where those who love you can be found.  Outside would not be safe for you.  Not yet.”

In the dark of night, a man named Jack waits in the shadows and efficiently kills an entire family–all but the toddler, who had crept out of his crib during the night.  The man desperately needs to kill the toddler; his fate rests on the death of the boy.  However, the little one wanders away into the night, and into a nearby graveyard.  When the spirits of his parents cry out to the ghosts of the cemetery and beg for them to protect him, they accept.  Thus, Nobody Owens becomes a ward of the graveyard.

He’s raised by ghosts and learns their ways, including feats like Dreamwalking and Fading.  They bring him books and food from the outside world, and warn him (just like normal parents) not to talk to people he doesn’t know.  See, the man who killed his family is still alive and hunting for him.  He’s only safe within the confines of the graveyard.

The story proceeds in episodes; each one can stand alone as a great short story, but they can also be woven together into a captivating narrative.  While reading it, I kept thinking that the tone of the book reminded me a little of Eva Ibbotson, with a playful eye towards subjects like witchcraft, and a little like Audrey Niffenegger, with her stories about crumbly, mossy graveyards.  It’s a really distinct voice; a little dry humor mixed with some elements of the underworld.  Love it, love it! I can’t wait to share this book.

I learned that Gaiman was inspired by his own son, as he pedaled his tricycle around the cemetery.  He said he started writing chapter four, and that the rest of the story took almost a decade to be born.  I really think born is the right word here, too, because while you’re reading, you are coming across all of these sort of unrelated-seeming tales, and then they all wind together into this perfect ending.  When you get to the ending, you see how everything was leading perfectly to the conclusion, and it seems so holistic and perfectly formed.

Oh, and pictures! Did I mention the illustrations?  The book is interspersed with the black and white illustrations of Dave McKean.  It’s a touch that reminds me of the Harry Potter books, a nice surprise waiting for you between the pages.  Everything combines into something really special, which is why it’s not surprising that this book won the super trio of a Newbery and Carnegie medal, plus a Hugo award.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:  http://neilgaiman.com/

Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.  307 pp. Grades 6-9.

I mentioned them in the post, but if you like this book (and you’re a fan of books for middle schoolers), try any of Eva Ibbotson’s stories, such as Which Witch or Island of the Aunts.  They’re fun, have an irreverent and light tone to them that’s similar to this one.  For adults, try Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. I read that book before I started blogging, but it’s a ghost story about twin girls in a haunted flat in London.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

“With the chant, Jonas knew, the community was accepting him and his new role, giving him life, the way they had given it to the newchild Caleb.  His heart swelled with gratitude and pride. But at the same time he was filled with fear.  He did not know what his selection meant. He did not know what he was to become.”

Here’s a definite blast from the past for me: this was the first book I ever read for a book club, back when I was thirteen.  I know it’s old, but if there was a canon for young adult literature, this book would definitely be included.

I like to think of it as 1984, the young adult version.  Jonas lives in a utopia; there is no crime, disease, fear, or sadness.  However, this means there are also no choices.  After all, if there were choices, someone might make the wrong choice!  When the children in the community turn twelve, they are chosen for their future professions.  A panel of community leaders decide what job the children are suited for, and they begin training.

When Jonas turns twelve, he is assigned a very special and rare position of Giver.  The Give has a very important task: he must hold all the memories of the community.  Jonas begins a painful training, where he must receive all the collective memories of the old Giver.  He learns, through the memories, about war, suffering, grief, but also birthday parties, love, and Christmas celebrations.  Along the way, he learns the dark truth, and soon is forced to choose between duty and freedom.

The language in the book is simple, and the plot is straightforward, but don’t let that make you think this is a light book.  I like that the text and ideas are so accessible, but that it has very clear literary elements that lend themselves naturally to discussion and exploration.  This is a great book for teaching how to analyze a text.  The ending is certainly open to debate, and that vagueness is something that younger readers may never have encountered before.  It’s a good book to start out a literature exploration with.  If you haven’t read any Lois Lowry books (a superstar of YA Lit), this is the one to begin with!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.loislowry.com/

Lowry, Lois.  The Giver. Random House: New York, 1993. 179 pp. Ages 11 and up. ISBN: 978-0440237686.

If you liked this book, Lois Lowry has written two companion books to go along with it.  Check out Messenger and Gathering Blue.