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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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.

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 Higher Power of Lucky

“It was getting harder and harder to stay couraged.”

“That dog would never have to do a searching and fearless moral inventory of herself.”

“…she made the thought go into a place inside that wasn’t her brain, so she wouldn’t have to think about it.”

So, let’s talk Newbery Medals. One is awarded each year to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature.  It’s the epitome of praise for a children’s book.  I wanted to start out the blog discussing awards and reading award-winning books because, well, it’s a good place to start.  Each award and the books collected under it has its own character, and are often linked by certain similarities, perhaps in topic of the emotions the evoke in a reader.  I feel like the Newbery books often have a gritty feel, and leave the reader melancholic and introspective.  To me, they seem like the junior versions of the Nobel Prize books.  They’re not always fun to read, but they are undeniably moving.  Past winners of the Newbery and Newbery honor are Gail Carson Levine for Ella Enchanted and Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice (which won the prize) Catherine, Called Birdy (which won the honorable mention).  Another Newbery honor book is Janet Taylor Lisle, for Afternoon of the Elves, a book that both repelled and fascinated me as a child. In the next few weeks, I’ll try and review some of my favorite Newbery books.

Anyway, I started with The Higher Power of Lucky, a book set in the desert town of Hard Pan, population 43.  Lucky is a young girl who wants to grow up and be a scientist. Her dog is named the HMS Beagle, after Darwin’s ship, though, as Lucky notes, is “neither a ship nor a beagle”.  She spends her time catching insects for her future scientific needs, eavesdropping on the Twelve-Step meetings held at the local museum, and playing with Lincoln, a boy her age who is an avid knot-tier.  Oh, and missing her dead mother and worrying constantly about her Guardian Bridgitte returning to France and sending to her to an orphanage.  After discovering, and misunderstanding, several important papers in Bridgitte’s suitcase, she decides she will run away before Bridgitte can leave her.  After waiting for three pivotal signs, she hits the road.

The nice part about children’s literature is that there aren’t a lot of terrible endings.  Don’t worry, this one doesn’t have a slap-you-in-the-face plot twist or anything to dishearten you.  It works out all right in the end.

The gems in this story come straight from Lucky’s mouth and her unique observations about the world.  The book is full of her musing about “meanness glands” and “knot-tying brain secretions” and her thoughts on Brigitte’s use of parsley.  The book is gentle, which is refreshing, considering the subject is an orphan growing up in astonishing poverty in the desert.  Lucky is like a combination between Kate in Trenton Lee Stewart’s  The Mysterious Benedict Society and Ramona from Beverly Cleary’s series.  She’s charming, plucky, and very easy to relate to, a character that will stick with you long after the book is over.

Patron, Susan.  The Higher Power of Lucky. Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books, 2006. Hardcover, 144 pages

ISBN-10: 1416901949