Category Archives: Review

Auma’s Long Run by Eucabeth A. Odhiambo

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Set in a 1980s Kenyan Luo village during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Auma’s Long Run is a piercingly honest account of the struggles, pain, hardships, deaths, famine, and challenges faced by a determined young girl and her community with grace and fortitude. Debut author Eucabeth A. Odhiambo, who grew up in a Luo village, beautifully brings out the complicated ways thirteen year old Auma, her family, and neighbors cope with the scourge. Lack of resources, traditional practices, personalities, and more make this a riveting and complex read. While this is not a story that wallows in misery — Auma is too determined to ever give up — there are still many loses; in one case after the death of a friend’s parents, lack of food causes her little sister to die of malnutrition. How to get to the clinic to see a doctor, whether to consult with a traditional healer, where to get money for school fees and school uniforms, frightening cure mis-beliefs (one causing a man to threaten Auma sexually), and more swirl around this tale. Auma desperately wants to go to secondary school, to become a doctor, to then learn more about this disease and help find a cure. But her obstacles are daunting. Odhiambo relates Auma’s story in clear and direct prose, as practical and realistic as her protagonist. Her descriptions of Auma’s life are vivid and authentic, her scenes raw and real.  While there is indeed sorrow and sadness, there is also humor and joy. Highly recommend this one.

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Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams

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A few weeks ago I visited New York City’s Whitney Museum and became besotted with a new-to-me artist, James Castle. Obsessed I took the following photos:

Perhaps a week later I saw Betsy Bird’s review of Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams, was gobsmacked that this fictionalized overview of Castle’s life was in the works, and eager to get an advance copy. Now I have and think it completely and utterly superb. It is fiction, the text and the art, carefully and respectfully researched. Some have wondered if the art is all Say’s, but I feel confident it is. He writes about his own research, process, and materials in his author’s note and indicates that his wife made the constructions of dolls and birds. There is a solid bibliography. (For more of Castle’s art, check out online exhibits here, here, and here.)

And it is all quite fabulous — the text (a fictionalized memoir of Castle’s nephew) and the art, the hues and viewpoints very much in the style of Castle’s work.

One of my oldest friends is the curator of the American Folk Art Museum so I’ve long been aware of the work outsider/self-taught artists. In fact, one reason Castle’s work caught my eye at the Whitney (along with several others ) was delight in seeing it in such a museum in the same space of more famous conventional artists. Well-known outsider artists include Henry Darger, James Hampton, Achilles Rizzoli, Simon Rodia (who did the Watts Towers), Bill Traylor, Howard Finster, and Adolf Wölfli.

While I don’t want to make any assumptions about those artists whose lives for one reason or another were outside of the world of art as we usually know it, I can’t help being fascinated by those like Castle who, lacking certain ways of communicating, find others in spectacular ways. What we know of his life — being deaf and never speaking and living on a very isolated farm — makes his work all the more wonderful. Say has absorbed the man’s life and given us a gift to know about him, it, and his art.

Thank you, James Castle and Allen Say, for beautiful, beautiful reveries on the world.

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Jason Reynold’s Patina

A year ago I received a box of ARCs from Simon & Schuster and, poking around, came across Jason Reynolds’ Ghost. While I’d heard a great deal about wunderkind Reynolds and read with respect some of his YA work, that he had a middle grade book coming out was a complete surprise to me. About track — my one competitive sport — no less. And so I jumped right in and fell madly in love with it. (You can read my gushy review here.) And so now here we are a year later with the next in the Track series, featuring team mate Patty aka Patina.

On the very first page of Patina we are brought back to the track meet that ended Ghost, Patty telling us what happened and why. No spoilers from me though! Just moving on as this story is Patty’s not Ghost’s. It is one of legs, strong ones, missing ones, relay race ones, and more. These real and metaphoric legs make their way through the novel, effectively raising and highlighting important themes. They serve beautifully as Patty watches, acts, considers, and grows in her understanding of the world.

Where Ghost was about racing for and against yourself, Patina is about teamwork. There is teamwork practice of all kinds for the track team members who will be running relays in an upcoming meet. As well there is the group assignment at school where Patty is resigned to doing the bulk of the work, as usual, sensing no action on at least two of the group members. There is the teamwork of her family — her little sister, her diabetic and legless mother, and the aunt and uncle the siblings live with. The adults around them are good and caring, supporting the girls in the best ways they can. Reynolds’ scenes are beautifully done full of sensory details. You can just see those family meals, smell the uncle’s nasty truck, hear authentic conversations, and feel Patty’s body as she pushes it as hard as she can in workouts. The relationship between the sisters, Patty and Maddy is especially warm and delightful.

What for me elevates this book and its predecessor to such a high level (goodreads five stars:) is Reynolds’ fabulous writing. He’s got a way with a few sentences that stops me in total admiration, again and again. Say these:

Deep breaths, Patty, my mad slowly mellowing. This temper ain’t a new temper. Breaking invisible teacups. Smashing them everywhere. No this ain’t new. I just be keeping it pushed down, all the way down in my legs.

I highly, highly recommend this book and eagerly await the next in the series.

 

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In the Classroom: Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write

Some may have read or heard this story before, but for those who haven’t here it is again. It is what made me passionate that no young writer I taught ever had the same experience.

So my story. I loved writing as a child — until something happened. This was my high school A.P. English teacher telling my parents I shouldn’t take a role in the school play (my passion at the time) so I could “work on my writing.” He never told me what was the matter, never met with me to show me what I needed to do, and I never asked (as I was shy and he was a strong personality we admired very much). So I messed around and messed around with my school essays, clueless as to what was wrong. My mother remembered me up late at night and feeling so sorry she couldn’t help. I went to college worried and this impact my writing to the point where I was sent to a tutorial for help. I figured out that my problem lay in revision so handed in first drafts full of typos (this was the day of the typewriter) as they were still better than if I tried to revise them. The professor overseeing the tutorial told me it was all in my head and there was nothing she could do. So what I did was avoid all English classes for my undergraduate and graduate studies. (And, boy, did I yearn to attend them. Some sounded right up my alley, but I wasn’t going to risk it. Instead I read voraciously on my own — classics, everything.)

In the early 1980s I became deeply involved with the burgeoning personal computer movement in schools, finally matriculating as one of the first classes for a program in computers and education at Teachers College Columbia University. I was surprised to find out that I was good at programming — doing it and teaching it (having been a miserable math student). And then, as one of my final courses, I took Lucy Calkins’ summer institute in writing. It was the second one and it was a revelation for me in many ways. The idea of the workshop — of a process — has informed my work as a teacher ever since.

A few years later I broke through my own writing phobia by writing an essay that got me a competitive fellowship to study children’s literature at Princeton. At the same time I was becoming more and more active online in children’s literature and educational communities. All of this made me finally believe I could write. And I did — books for teachers, articles, blog posts, etc. And a book for children that was lauded for its writing. I’m currently working on a new project and was elated when recently the editor I’m working with celebrated my ability to write fiction.

All of this informs my beliefs when it comes to teaching writing to 4th graders. These include:

  • Creating situations where students feel invested in their writing
  • That they have audiences
  • That they find joy in the work
  • That they understand that there are many different ways and reasons to write — some being completely private, some to figure out a problem, and more.

Of late my impression is that writing instruction in schools is highly driven by testing, common core curriculum, packaged programs, and consultants. Often these are highly scripted and allow little opportunity for children to write for themselves. As I work in a private school, I have far more freedom than many of my public school colleagues, but this overall approach affects us too as it is now presented in language arts communities and organizations as best practices.

What has struck me is that the focus in now on kids learning structures, on expository writing above all, and no consideration of audience or, worse, joy. And so I was eager to read Ralph Fletcher’s Writing Joy: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing. It happens Ralph was my writing instructor when I took the TC institute those many years ago and we have run into each other over the years. (His wife, it happens, was my instructor then too.)

Ralph is blunt about the reduction of joy in today’s writing programs. In the book he does a clear presentation of the history, of the current situation, and then makes some very smart suggestions. That is, find places for kids to write for fun, in ways that they truly care about, that aren’t graded, that can be full of spelling errors, etc He suggests “Greenbelt Writing” a sliver of a place in children’s daily school lives where they can play textually, away from the regular writing curriculum. This would be on the side, a sort of recess time (as I understand it), an enjoyable and relaxing place with the goal of kids having fun writing, of finding joy in it.

Last year I started a weekly BoB session to replace reading logs (see this post for details). The kids love, love, love this. They read, they update their BoBs (Book of Books), and chat with me. Sometimes we talk as a group about what we are reading. Mostly it is a quiet and serene time. (I bought a bunch of soft lights that we put on their desks so we can avoid the bright overhead.)

Reading Ralph’s book made me decide I want to do something similar with writing. It will be tricky taking over another period for it, but I’m determined to do so. I’d love a cool acronym for it that goes well with BoB. Any thoughts? I see it as a greenbelt time where kids will write whatever they want, to share or not.

This isn’t a regular review, but a personal response to Ralph’s book. It is a short book, to the point, clear, and may be uncomfortable for some, but also it is kind and offers some fabulous suggestions I hope others consider. As I already wrote, I sure am.

Thanks, Ralph, for writing what really really needs to be said today.

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Shannon Hale’s Real Friends

Shannon Hale’s Real Friends was a Reading Without Walls challenge for me. That is, as a child and still today, I’m not much of a group person, most likely related to my introversion. From childhood on I can recall being part of groups of people I liked, but they almost always wanted to spend way more time together than I did. Shyness is probably also a factor as we moved a lot and so I was never in a school more than three years. This made me happy to find just a single friend. Now Shannon wanted this too, but in her case the single good friend always seems to be tied to bigger group politics which was not my experience. So I wasn’t gravitating to read this one, but did because this is so much the reality of many children and especially my students.

That is, I’ve been a classroom teacher for decades and have observed and helped kids navigate friendships throughout that time. Sometimes it is one person snubbing another, sometimes it a group thing (with the popping up of clubs always a sign that someone is probably being excluded), sometimes it is sweet and lovely, and sometimes it is mean and vile and intractable. And so while I didn’t read Real Friends for nostalgic or personal reasons, I did read it because it was so real and raw in terms of many children’s reality.

Shannon’s description of the ups and downs of friendship and, especially, the complicated dynamics of groups and popularity are vividly and honestly done. For kids for whom this resonates this book will be a life-saver, something that will speak to them, that they will see themselves in. Or perhaps they are yearning to be part of a group — this may help them understand it isn’t necessarily nirvana. I appreciated that Shannon isn’t represented as perfect when part of a group by any means  — she doesn’t do the usual forgiving of one culprit, she doesn’t significantly help another bullied child (authentically being too self-absorbed in her own woes to do more than recognize her and talk to her when they are thrown together). Kudos to Shannon for being so authentic and real and honest. As an adult, I found the family dynamics most potent, especially her relationship with her big sister. Shannon doesn’t hold back and, boy, is some of it rough. Fortunately, there seems to be the start of a better understanding at the end and more in the afterward that is reassuring for any who worried about Wendy.

A piercingly honest view into the complicated social life of one young girl that is certain to resonate for all who have observed, participated, or otherwise experienced the difficult dynamics of school friendships.

 

 

 

 

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Indie Press Spotlight #2

Ossiri and the Bala Mengro from Child’s Play Books is a delightful yarn of the Travelers (as Romani are called in the UK). Penned by Romani Richard O’Neill and Katharine Quarmby with charming illustrations by Hannah Tolson this is both an entertaining tale and a book that gives a good sense of the Traveler life.

In A Horse Named Steve from Kids Can Press, Kelly Collier takes on confidence, bravado, hubris, and what it means or not to be exceptional in a wry way, both in her text and in her illustrations. Steve certainly thinks he is more than exceptional– whether young readers agree would make a great conversation. When I’m back in school next fall I definitely plan on giving this one a try.

Eric Veillé’s My Pictures After the Storm from Gecko Press has the physicality of a board book, but the content will entertain children far beyond the toddler stage. On one side are the “before” images and on the other the “after” ones. Starting with a storm we go on to every thing from lunch to a cannonball. Wacky and nutty in the very best way.

From Phaidon‘s First Concepts with Fine Artists comes Birds & Other Animals with Pablo Picasso. Each page of this board book features a simple, but perfect drawing of an animal by Picasso along with minimal text such as “Wasps like to fly, but grasshoppers prefer to hop!” that I believe is also Picasso’s, but am not sure. There’s a page at the end explaining who the artist was and a final spread with the sketchbook pages from which these animals came.

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Indie Press Spotlight #1

Recently I wrote a post celebrating independent publishers, something I’d long wanted to do. Now I want to take the next step — start a regular feature highlighting books from these publishers. So today is post #1.

John Cage, a remarkable avant-garde composer (perhaps best known for the work 4’33” which is performed as total silence), collaborated with textile artist Lois Long in the 1980s to create Mud Book: How to Make Pies and Cakes. Happily for us Princeton Architectural Press has brought back this delightful and charming little book. (It will be out this coming Tuesday.) As they describe it, this delightful object is: “Part artist’s book, part cookbook, and part children’s book, Mud Book is a spirited, if not satirical, take on almost every child’s first attempt at cooking and making. Through the humble mud pie add dirt and water!”  It is adorable and perfect for little ones who want to explore the world of making food (real or play).

A goat on the roof a New York city apartment building? That is indeed the case in Anne Fleming’s The Goat from Groundwood Press. The lives of a diverse group of apartment dwellers become entwined in this short, but rich story. Using a third person omniscient narration, Fleming moves readers from one character to the next — goat included. It may sound fantastical, but is done so convincingly that I’m ready to go look and see if there is a goat on my building’s roof!

I have Debbie Reese to thank for drawing my attention to David A. Robertson and Julie Flett’s When We Were Alone published by Portage and Main Press. Done simply, but with devastating clearness this is the story of a woman telling her granddaughter of her time in one of the boarding schools to which Canadian First Nation children were taken. She tells of the brutal methods used to strip them of their own cultures and how they managed to quietly, but firmly resist this. The lovely illustrations further the powerful emotional clout of this important book.

This last book is a bit of a tease as it won’t be available to October, but I wanted to put it on your radar nonetheless. It is Rosalie K. Fry’s Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry,  a reissue coming from the New York Review Children’s Collection. It is the spare and lovely story of Fiona McConville, a feisty ten-year-old who is sent to live with her Scottish grandparents on a wild and remote coastal area. The natural world, folklore, and family all come together in this gentle yet wondrous story that was the inspiration for the 1994 movie The Secret of Roan Inish (which I’m thrilled to see is available to stream as it is a wonderful family movie).

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