Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Realistic’ Category

A friend of mine and I like to collect cat books. What follows is a review of three books from her collection and one from mine. Two of the books are about homeless cats, a topic dear to my heart. The other two books are simply fun reads.

Little Bo is the first of quartet about Bonnie Boadicea, a spunky and curious little kitten, and co-written by Julie Andrews and her daughter. Little Bo is the youngest of six kittens born to champion Persian but abandoned ten days before Christmas. The Persian’s owner asks her butler to sell the kittens. When that proves difficult, he decides to throw them in a lake, and the kittens escape before that dastardly deed can be performed. I love the full-page paintings which open each chapter, and the charming spot illustrations of the kittens. Just as much I enjoy the story of sweet Bo, who seems to be the only survivor of her siblings. The structured side of me would have preferred Andrews to jump straight into Bo’s story OR to have followed the adventures of her siblings too. That little nitpicking aside, the story is a throw back to days of children’s literary anthologies. It’s full of strong-will characters, unique settings, and adventure. I’m delighted to know there are four books about Little Bo!

Trapped is the third in a trilogy, all written in 2008, about Pete the Cat. Pete is a highly unusual cat that likes to help his owner Alex solve mysteries. In this volume, Pete helps Alex track down the man responsible for illegal trapping. As in every good crime story, Pete ends up putting his life in danger to find evidence. Pete also likes to help author, Peg Kehret, tell his story. The viewpoint switches between Pete the Cat and his owner Alex. As a fan of Peg Kehret, I have read many of her books. One thing I dislike about her fiction is the villains are always one-dimensional. Case in point, in Trapped, the bad guy not only traps illegally, but he also is slovenly in appearance, drives reckless, and isn’t above threatening violence to animals and people. Sure, these people exist, but sometimes people who hurt animals are nice in every other way. Despite my wishing the Kehret would create more complex villains, I enjoy her main characters and the obvious passion of Kehret for animals. Kehret is a long-time volunteer at The Humane Society and often uses animals in her stories.

Animal rescue is hot right now. Ellen Miles ought to know. She made a name for herself with the Puppy Place and Kitty Corner series. In both series, a family fosters a homeless animal and helps find it a forever home. Along the way, readers learn lots of tips about the behavior of dogs and cats. They also realize the plight of shelter animals and maybe even find themselves wanting to give a home to an animal in need. Domino is a title in the Kitty Corner series. Siblings Michael and Mia would like to have a cat of their own, but for now they foster. And their latest foster is a kitten found on a ski slope. The less than 100-page chapter book switches viewpoints between the siblings and Domino, and makes for light-reading. Although the books are formulaic, they’re also cute and true to a kids’ world, and could turn reluctant readers into avid ones.

The Cat Who Came in off the Roof is by Annie Schmidt. It’s my favorite of the four chapter books, because the main character is a shy reporter. Tibbles is so timid that he spends his time reporting about cats and nature, instead of about people. He’s at risk of losing his job, when he meets a lady who can talk to cats because was once had been one. She tells him all the gossip around town, including some secret news, and he writes it all up for the paper. Suddenly he is a star. And she has a home. Except nothing can ever stay perfect. There is a bad guy, a quirky neighbor, a pregnant cat, and…. Next thing you know Tibbles has not only lost his job but also been evicted. To find out how things are all righted, read The Cat Who Came in off the Roof by Annie Schmidt, who is considered the Queen of Dutch Literature. She’s won several awards, including the Hans Christian Anderson, and is included in the canon of Dutch history taught to all school children.

This review is dedicated to Marlo, who regularly surprises me with packages full of all things cat. There might be a toy, a movie, or a book. If you want to read more about her story, follow this link: Bonded Together by CKD.

Gene Lune Yang, the 2017 National Ambassador for Children’s Literature picked the platform “Reading Without Walls”. As part of it, he challenges readers to:

  1. Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
  2. Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.
  3. Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun.

With these criteria in mind, I’ve started posting roundups once a month on the theme of diversity. This is my third post highlighting picture books about the immigration experience.

We Came to America, written by Faith Ringgold, is dedicated to all the children who have come to America. A refrain emphasize that the children were of different colors, races, and religions. The rest of the text tells readers that the children came by boat and by airplane, and were from every country in the world. Once they arrived in America, they brought their own songs, dances, art, stories, and fashion. A final scene depicts a gathering of diverse children paired with the moral: We are ALL Americans, Just the same.” The text is simple, reminding readers that United States has a multifaceted lineage. My favorite part is the illustrations. Places and faiths are never named in the text. Rather, Americans’ global origins are portrayed through the artwork. Each vibrant two-page spread has a vibrant backdrop, providing contrast for the parade of bold patterns and styles of various traditional attire from across the world.

Their Great Gift by John Coy, with photographs by Wing Young Huie, tells the story of immigrants whose courage and sacrifice provided hope in a new land to their children. The immigrants came from far away to land of plenty. Their journey was difficult. And when they arrived, they faced even more hardships. No one understand what it cost them to move to a new country, work long hours, and shift between languages and customs. There was much about this picture book that I liked. The text is easy to read. One line made me think of my step-mom who came from the Philippines. To this day, she sends from her earnings to her siblings and relatives in her home country. The switch in the narrative from talking about the parents to the children is particularly poignant. Now the young ones are in America, all with their own stories. One line made me think of how rich of a heritage I have from my dad. All of us, wherever our roots, would do well to do the best with the lives our parents gave to us. The end pages include “arrival stories” from the author and the photographer, which are just as touching as the book’s narrative.

Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen contains two parallel stories. The first is of a family who decides to move to America. The dad says that life will be better across the ocean. There will be no more burning of houses, killing of family livestock, and taking sons into the army without permission. But to have this better life, the family must give up their home, their names, their language, and everything familiar to them. They must also endure long train rides and filthy packed boats. The second story is of M. Edouard de Laboulaye, who lives in France, and wants to celebrate America’s birthday in a big way. He decides to build a memorial to their independence, a monument that we now know as the Statue of Liberty. The nonfiction text serves as both a lovely account of Yolen’s parents’ immigration experiences and of the origins of Liberty’s journey. I’d recommend it for older readers due to the demanding style. The narrative is presented as stanzas even though it does not read as poetry. In addition, the vocabulary is complex. The end pages provide a little more background to both stories, along with details about Yolen’s research.

Stick up for what you know is right. This land was made for you and me.—Woody Guthrie

This Land is Your Land is a picturesque version of the famous folk song by Woody Guthrie. Although I am Canadian, this song has long been a favorite of mine. It’s also of late become a protest song for those who support immigration, and so seemed appropriate to include in a round-up of books about immigration. The detailed paintings by Kathy Jakobsen burst with color and invite readers on a lively journey across the United States. In several multi-paneled spreads, Guthrie is shown carrying his guitar from landmark to landmark and coast to coast. Some of the spreads are also bordered with geometric corners that contain hand-lettered snippets of Guthrie lyrics and quotes. The end pages contain a tribute by Pete Seeger, who played with Guthrie, and an illustrated biography of Guthrie. The musical score and lyrics to the song are also provided. A real keepsake!

Yang concludes his “Reading Without Walls” challenge by encouraging readers to take a photo of themselves and their books and post to social media. In doing so, he says, readers will inspire others. Will you join me over the next year in reading books that take you outside your comfort zone?

 

Gene Lune Yang, the 2017 National Ambassador for Children’s Literature picked the platform “Reading Without Walls”. As part of it, he challenges readers to:

  1. Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
  2. Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.
  3. Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun.

With these criteria in mind, I’ve started posting roundups once a month on the theme of diversity. This is my second post highlighting picture books about the immigration experience.

In Goldfish and Chrysanthemums by Andrea Cheng, a grandmother receives a letter from her brother back in China. He tells her that their father’s old house being torn down. At the house, there used to be a fish pond surrounded by big colorful flowers. Wanting to make her grandmother happy, Nancy buys two goldfish at a fair, digs a hole in the back yard for a pond, and asked her neighbor for some extra chrysanthemums. Nancy’s gesture not only brings comfort to her grandmother, but also deepens the bond between them. My least favorite part is the illustrations. The faces don’t seem the correct proportion. I also don’t know why the children have American names. My favorite part is the story of family, which shows how small acts of kindness can make a difference. According to publishers, Lee & Low, Cheng often writes about intergenerational relationships, and is based on her own experiences. Cheng was inspired to write Goldfish and Chrysanthemums after hearing her husband’s mother talk about her family’s garden in China. You can find a teaching guide at Lee & Low Books.

In Nadia’s Hands, a Pakistani-American girl is offered the opportunity to be a flower girl at her aunt’s wedding. Her cousins caution her. There are many things to remember at a wedding: One needs to sprinkle flower petals down both sides of the aisle; One should avoid eating too much of the wedding food or otherwise one might get sick; One might get stage fright and not move. Nadia’s aunt reassures her that she’ll be a very good flower girl, and so Nadia feels relieved. Except then she finds out that another aunt would visit before the wedding to decorate Nadia’s hands with mehndi or paste that when it dries turns the hands orange or dark red. Nadia doesn’t want to go to school like that, and so her worries return. The rest of the story is the wedding ceremony and how Nadia came to terms with her fears. Nadia’s Hands is a sweet story about learning to take pride in one’s unique culture. A front page provides a glossary and a back page includes a thank you two Pakistan individuals for their help in the creation of the book. Karen English, the author of Nadia’s Hands, is a former school teacher and a Coretta Scott King Award-winner. Check out an interview with her at The Brown Bookshelf.

In My Name is Bilal, two Muslim siblings start a new school. At their former home in Chicago, there had been lots of Muslims kids. Here, there seemed like there were none. Two boys tease Ayesha, pulling at her headscarf. Her brother tries to distance himself from his heritage, and in class he shortens his name from Bilal to Bill. A Muslim teacher offers a book to Bilal that is about the first person to give the Muslim call to prayer during the time of Prophet Mohammed. Through this book, Bilal discovers that others before him have needed to stand up for his faith. The next day he has that opportunity. Other surprises lie ahead too. This is my least favorite in this round-up due to its overt message, drab illustrations, and text level. The Lexile rating is 570 or about grade four, but this is a picture book, and most fourth-graders are reading chapter books. In addition, I was surprised that Bilah dressed in American attire, while his sister wore Muslim attire. Otherwise the book brought back memories for me of being inspired as a child by stories of Christian heroes and heroines. The author, Asma Mobin-Uddin, was born and raised in the United States but her family is from Pakistan. According to her website, she initially decided to write about the Muslim-American experience because she had difficulty finding books on the topic to read to her children.

Seeing themselves reflected in these books, immigrant children feel affirmed, and their classmates glimpse different backgrounds and experiences—perhaps recognizing some of their own stories in the universals of family, traditions, journeys, and the quest for a better life.—Anne Sibley, Note from an Author

In I’m New Here, the stories of three children from other countries struggle to adjust to their new school in the United States. The children are from Somalia, Guatemala, and Korea. They struggle with speaking, reading, and writing in English. The words of their new language sound strange and look like scribbles and scratches. They also struggle with making friends. The people and places around them used to be familiar; now they can’t find their place. The rest of the story tells how the three children came to call America home. My favorite part is the bright illustrations. Although my preference would have been to focus on one main character and to use less poetic language, I’m New Here is a favorite among teachers. It’s considered a touching story about the assimilation of three immigrant students in a supportive school community. Author Anne Sibley O’Brien is American, but grew up in South Korea, and so is familiar with the experience of being a foreigner. She’s one of the founders of I’m Your Neighbor, an organization that promotes children’s literature featuring “new arrival” cultures. You can find a “I’m New Here” Welcoming Kit at I’m Your Neighbor Books.

In My Name is Yoon, a Korean girl starts school for the first time in America. To prepare Yoon, her father teaches her how to write her name in English. But Yoon prefers how her name is written in Korean. Her name looks happy in Korean. The letters seem to dance. She doesn’t want to learn the new way. She wants to go back to Korea. Each day at school, Yoon learns a new word in English at school. And each new day, Yoon writes this new word for her name instead of Yoon. Of the five books I’ve reviewed here, My Name is Yoon is my favorite. It tells how a young girl finds her place in a new country in her own time and on her own terms. I laughed and smile … but also understood Yoon’s sadness and frustration, which eventually turns into joy and acceptance. The author, Helen Recorvits, grew up in America. Her grandparents were immigrants from Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine.

Yang concludes his “Reading Without Walls” challenge by encouraging readers to take a photo of themselves and their books and post to social media. In doing so, he says, readers will inspire others. Will you join me over the next year in reading books that take you outside your comfort zone?

The 2017 National Ambassador for Children’s Literature is Gene Lune Yang. A requirement for each ambassador is to have a platform, and Yang’s is “Reading Without Walls”. Yang challenges readers to:

  1. Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
  2. Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.
  3. Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun.

With these criteria in mind, I’ve decided to post roundups once a month on the theme of diversity. I’m starting with picture books about the immigration experience.

In The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, a grandfather invites his granddaughter to pick an item from his library for him and he’ll tell its story. She picks a matchbox diary. The rest of Fleischman’s picture book reveals the assorted items inside the matchbook diary and their significance. For example, an olive pit reminds the grandfather of Italy, where life was hard, and he’d suck on an olive pit to help with his hunger. The photo is of his father, who like many Italians moved to America to earn money to send back to their poverty-stricken families back home. A hairpin served as a reminder of the dreams his family had. They believed America had streets of gold, and that the mother would soon wear big hats like the other wealthy women. My least favorite part of The Matchbox Diary is the style. I often couldn’t tell who the speaker was. In addition, in writing the story as a dialogue exchange, Fleischman sometimes left out transitions that would have made the context clear. My favorite part of The Matchbox Diary are the detailed illustrations. The watercolor paintings look like old photographs. You can read more about the inspiration behind The Matchbox Diary here.

When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest tells of Jessie and her grandmother, who live in a poor unnamed village in Eastern Europe. One day the rabbi, who teaches the community’s young people to read, shares the news that his brother has died and left him a ticket to America. The rabbi doesn’t feel that he can leave his people, and so he gives the ticket to Jessie. He tells her she can live with the rabbi’s brother’s widow in New York. On the ship that takes Jessie to America, immigrants swapped stories of their dreams of America, with its streets of gold and land of plenty. Upon arriving in America, Jessie discovered that instead there were too many people and too much traffic. But she also learned to read, made a living sewing beautiful garments, and found a beau. When Jessie Came Across the Sea is a sweet story about love and bravery, both it and The Matchbox Diary lack the nuances more often found in books written by those with personal immigrant experience. Similar to The Matchbox Diary, my favorite part of When Jessie Came Across the Sea are the panoramic watercolor paintings.

The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.–Grandfather’s Journey

In Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say, the narrator described the conflict one feels by being from two countries. The story started out being about his grandfather, who left his home in Japan to see the world. He explored North America by train, riverboat, and foot. Deserts amazed him, and endless farm fields reminded him of the ocean he had crossed. Factories and skyscrapers bewildered and excited him. He marveled at mountains and rivers. For a long time, the grandfather longed to see new places, but then eventually he wished to see his homeland again. He settled back in Japan with his wife and they had a daughter. She gave birth to a son, the narrator of the story. The grandfather always told him tales of California, and one day the narrator visited California for himself. Grandfather’s Journey is a poignant story with lavish illustrations. I related to the grandfather’s sense of adventure, and to the narrator’s longing for his two homes.

Hannah is My Name by Belle Yang is about a Chinese family who emigrate to the United States and try to assimilate while waiting for the arrival of their green cards. The family wants to become Americans more than anything in the world. Why? Because in America one is free. Yet becoming American isn’t easy if one is born elsewhere. The first thing they needed to do was find an economical place to live. The next thing they needed to do was file papers and hope that the government accepted their applications. Without those papers, the family can’t work. But without work, they can’t pay bills. Naturally then, the parents get jobs. While they live in fear of capture, Hannah learns English in school. My own immigration experience as a Canadian was much easier, and sometimes I even forget that I too was a foreigner. Yet I faced enough hurdles with paperwork, and anxiety over whether my visa would get renewed, that I can sympathize with the struggles of the family.

Yang concludes his “Reading Without Walls” challenge by encouraging readers to take a photo of themselves and their books and post to social media. In doing so, he says, readers will inspire others. Will you join me over the next year in reading books that take you outside your comfort zone?

 

Miriam Franklin is the author of Extraordinary, a novel about friendship. Besides reading children’s literature and writing, she loves to teach. Franklin currently teaches language art classes to students in home schools, in public schools, and community groups. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two daughters, and two cats. To find out more, check out my interview. 🙂

Here’s one important lesson I’ve learned: If you quit when you feel discouraged, you’ll never find out what you could have done if you’d stuck with it instead. Or, even better: The ONLY way to fail is to quit!

ALLISON: Do you view the jar as half empty or half full? Why or why not?

MIRIAM: When I’m writing, I try to create main characters who view the jar as half full. I think it’s important for readers to see characters who overcome difficult challenges or learn to accept changes in their life with a hopeful and positive attitude.  I hope this shows readers that while dealing with unexpected changes isn’t easy, it can make you a stronger person in the end.

ALLISON: Both of your novels are set in middle school. How does middle school differ from when you attended? How is the same?

MIRIAM: My elementary school was from kindergarten up to sixth grade, and junior high was seventh through ninth, so I was the oldest in sixth grade instead of the youngest. In junior high, when the bell rang the halls filled with seventh through ninth graders which was intimidating for a tiny twelve-year-old, especially when kids were retained more back then and it wasn’t uncommon to see a big sixteen-year-old in ninth grade!

One thing the same is that at this age, kids care a lot about what everyone else thinks. Your social status is determined by who you sit with at lunch, so the same problem about how you choose your friends and how you accept others still exists.

ALLISON: Your main character, Pansy, wants to become extraordinary. What were some of your goals in middle school? What were some of your failures?

MIRIAM: I’d had the same group of friends since kindergarten, and we moved from New Jersey to North Carolina in middle school, same as Sunny, the character in CALL ME SUNFLOWER. I spent most of junior high trying to find a place I fit in. It seemed like all of the kids at my junior high knew each other from elementary and as an introvert who’d always taken friends for granted, it wasn’t easy.

I didn’t worry too much about grades, but I should have since daydreaming during math class brought a D in algebra that I managed to hide from my parents. Each subject was written on a separate slip of paper and I just didn’t show them the last quarter grade! (Haha, I don’t think they ever found out about it, either)

I was determined to find something I was passionate about, but I discovered there weren’t many offerings for beginning dancers or gymnasts at age 12. Finally I enrolled in ice skating classes at the end of eighth grade after spending 6 weeks with a broken ankle…and not only did I find something I wanted to do every day, I found my first real friends since I’d moved to NC, and I found a place I fit in.

ALLISON: You and your husband once ran a toy and gift store with her husband. What were the highs and lows of that experience?

MIRIAM: The best part was getting to go to the Toy Fair in New York where we spent a couple of days looking at the latest toys and gadgets. It was so much fun poring through catalogs and choosing things that we thought would make our store unique. We rented an old house and my mom painted murals on the walls. It was like a dream come true watching the place come together and filling it with hand-picked toys and gifts. The low point is when we realized we couldn’t make a living from our small shop that most people didn’t know about and after a year, Creative Earth Toys and Gifts had to close its doors.

ALLISON: You have two cats. Do you think you’ll ever write a book about pets? Why or why not?

MIRIAM: CALL ME SUNFLOWER actually features Stellaluna, my black cat! There’s another cat in the story as well, a stray Sunny adopts when she moves in with her grandmother. I’ve also included dogs in another book I’m working on. I’m a big animal-lover so I’m guessing they will find their way into my stories!

ALLISON: Pansy’s best friend gets sick and becomes disabled. Is her story drawn on experience? Tell us about your inspiration.

MIRIAM: My niece, Anna, was actually the inspiration behind EXTRAORDINARY. She suffered a brain injury similar to the character in the book, although she was only around two when it happened.

ALLISON: Extraordinary is your seventh or eighth book, but your first published. What happened to those other books? How did you persevere?

MIRIAM: Some of those books were early attempts that were part of learning and improving my writing craft. Others I’ve continued to rewrite over the years and one of them turned into CALL ME SUNFLOWER, which will be published in May. While I received many rejections over the years, I’ve also received encouragement and I could tell my writing was improving so I kept at it even though at times it was rough! I knew I had stories I needed to tell so I tried to focus more on the joy of writing and less on the publishing process.

ALLISON: You home school language arts to students. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

MIRIAM: Read, read, read! The best writers are also avid readers, and they pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work in a story. What makes you keep reading? What makes you connect to the main character and care about what happens to him/her? Keep a journal about books you read, making note of strengths and weaknesses. My oldest daughter started doing this in middle school, and she has an overstuffed notebook she calls the “All-Book Binder” where she rates her favorite books/series. (HARRY POTTER has remained number one!)

Also, write, write, write! Expressing your personal thoughts through a journal or diary is one place to start, and a way to discover your own unique writer’s voice. You can keep a notebook that you carry with you so you can jot down story ideas, characters, and settings when they pop in your head. Pay attention to people around you, the way they talk and their mannerisms. Take note of interesting expressions when you hear them, and collect newspaper articles as well that might inspire you to write a story.


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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee

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