Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘books for young people

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is an atypical reading experience. Set in Russia in the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the USSR has just ended and Russia is still in its infancy, One-Two takes you into the mind of conjoined twins Faith and Hope. The style is at first disconcerting, being told from an alternating first and second person, but in the end feels like the perfect choice. A psychological drama, the novel reflects on how difficult but also how important it is to remain human.

Faith and Hope do not have an easy life. Their own mother, aghast at the sight of them, signed their death certificate. The twins were handed over to one institute and then another as experimental subjects. When the scientists wearied of the twins, they were transferred to boarding school where they experienced some measure of happiness. The windows had no grids, the air smelled of moss and pine, and the twins felt like normal children for the first time. They even developed friendships. Unfortunately, due to a suicide by one of the boarders, their stay was short-lived. The next stop was an orphanage, where once again the twins were viewed as objects of curiosity and sunk into misery. Their one relief was a library and the news that successful operations were being performed to separate conjoined twins. But again, these comforts were short-lived. One-Two is a hard story at times to read, as there seems be no redemption in sight.

But I want redemption for Faith and Hope, who from start to finish I am rooting for. I like who the twins are. They value friendships from their peers, the knowledge to be found in libraries, and the kindness of strangers. They’re also self-aware and know when they are being cowardly or mean, but also how to be strong in the face of relentless suffering and pain. I empathize with the twins who wish for a different appearance, just as many of us are dissatisfied with our looks. Faith grows up knowing the story of the Ugly Duckling by heart, because she wants to undergo a similar transformation. She treasures artwork of a friend who depicts them as beautiful. Whether accurate or not, I find enlightening the insights into life as a conjoined twin. One teacher tells the class that anyone cheating will be seated at separate desks, and Faith laments how impossible that would be. Then there are the constant questions from bystanders of how the two function day-by-day with bodies that are conjoined. Perhaps the most bittersweet is how the twins at times encourage other and at other times wish desperately to be their own person. Finally, I feel abhorrence at their treatment. When the twins take a bus ride, passengers make comments such as they’ll never get used to them and they’ll one day turn into haggish toads. At the orphanage, when staff see them, the twins are told to cover themselves. And these are among the least cruel reactions.

The style is initially what I least cared for. The first person is used when Faith describes her traumatic childhood, and the second person is used when she talks to her conjoined twin. There are times when I wanted to simply stay inside Faith’s head and times when I wanted to know what her sister thought not what Faith said to or about her. At the same time, the technique serves to increase tension, and thereby creates a frightening foreboding. While narrating her story Faith occasionally presents philosophical truths that seemed too mature for her to know at the age being depicted. At the same time, her emotions swing from optimism to despair, and feel agonizingly real. By the novel’s end, I felt as if the author could not have chosen any other way to tell his story.

One-Two by Igor Eliseev is one of those books that need to be reread due to its complexity. The twins manage to struggle past thoughts of revenge, suicide, and other dark emotions to hold on to the belief that their life has been amazing and full of miracle, and therein they teach us how to be human. Upon the initial reading one will grasp the essentials of the plot and the characters, but an additional reading will be needed to fully comprehend all the truths being imparted.

In honor of Allison’s Book Bag being five years old this year, I’m taking this week to repost my most popular reviews over the past five years. From 2012, there is….

Most fiction I read tends to be about white middle-class experiences. I also most often pick novels which depict my own experiences or are obviously so fantastical that they serve as purely escapist literature. If a book fits neither of these categories, chances are you will find me instead in the nonfiction section. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia is different from my typical read. It is the fictional experience of three sisters during the 1960’s African-American revolution.

In certain ways, One Crazy Summer is about experiences which anyone can have. For example, Delphine and her sister struggle with abandonment issues, because their mom left them years ago to their father’s care. As for our heroine, Delphine, she serves as a protector to her young sisters. Being the oldest naturally led to her also being the most responsible. She knows how to act quiet, say the right words to avoid danger, as well as to stay clean, cook, and shop for household items including groceries. Despite her maturity, she is only eleven. As such, she fears standing up to their mother whom they visit for four weeks. She also at times squabbles with her sisters, punches boys who tease her, and displays attitude towards prejudice shown her due to her sex, age, or color.

In other ways, One Crazy Summer is about one particular time, place, and situation. The time is 1968. The place is Oakland, California. And the situation (according to the book flap) is “one of the most tumultuous years in recent American history”. In the form of story, rather than through newspapers, biographies, or documentaries, One Crazy Summer educates us about the past. We learn about the Black Panther Party. We also learn about some real and fictional arrests, rallies, advertising, and revolution that occurred during the time period of the book. Finally, we learn about how children like Delphine and her sisters (who are eleven and younger) might have viewed, been effected by, or even helped bring about radical change.

In one touching and cute chapter, Dephine presents her case to her mother for buying a television. While we wait for a verdict, Delpine recalls how the sisters like to count all the shows with black characters, how many lines they were given, and even the number of commercials with black actors. In another heavier and more disturbing chapter, we are introduced to the first member of the Black Panthers. The police surprised the Black Panthers who fled inside a house for shelter. Little Bobby surrendered by taking off all his clothes except underwear to show he didn’t have a gun. The police still shot and killed him. The news made Delphine angry but also afraid to protest. She now faces a choice about whether to retreat to the safety of her mother’s home or to participate in a rally which holds potential for real danger.

The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, CA a...

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As I noted earlier, this book is about experiences many of us share. On the lighter side, most of us have taken airplane trips, been teased about some cherished possession, stuck up for our siblings or friends, and felt attracted to the opposite sex. In one particularly fun chapter, the sisters travel by themselves on a bus to San Francisco. They see hippies, visit Chinatown, explore Fisherman’s Wharf, and marvel at the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet this book is also about situations that not everyone experiences. Consider that twice during their trip, white people attempt to take pictures of the sisters as if they were zoo exhibits and not human beings. One Crazy Summer has strong characters, attitude and humor, which all help create an enjoyable read. It also however reveals tough truths about racism, which make it an important read.

In a recent trip to my library, I not only picked up lists of classics and genre books, but also books set in other places and about other cultures or dealing with tough topics and life changes.  Hopefully, my reading experiences will continue to diversify over the upcoming months. For, after all, books should take us beyond our own experiences too.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

At age forty-something, I don’t always see myself as someone who is continuing to change. That seems like a description more often used of young people. Through four years of writing posts, however, my focus and intended audience for this blog have evolved.

This blog started as simply an expression of my love of books. Now it’s become a forum through which I can also express my passion for special needs, diversity, and animal rescue. Although my attempts to post reviews here my students never took root, I haven’t stopped seeking out ways to help my students become lifetime readers. For that reason, I often review books for and/or about struggling readers. Since starting my blog, I’ve joined our district’s local multicultural committee, whereby I seek selections from less-often represented countries to review. I’ve also begun regularly reading books about our furry friends, posting reviews both here and in our local dog club newsletter. Members of our club have even started making suggestions for what I might next read!

The original but short-lived intended audience for my blog were my students. Now my audience has broadened to include those whom I network with through memes, authors whom I stay in contact with after interviews, and…. really anyone who appreciates books for young people. My favorite memes are the weekend ones: Saturday Snapshot and Six-Word Saturday. I also enjoy adding my input to Current Reads and Wishlist Reads. Some authors have become my Facebook friends. Just as many tend to remember me when a new book of theirs comes out. As for the last audience, according to various news reports there are quite a few people out there just like me. In other words, those who are older in their body but youthful in heart. 🙂

Something else has changed too about my blog. Within my first year, authors expressed appreciation to me for creating teasers for when I featured their books. I myself enjoyed the opportunity to discover some of their biographical info. While I still research and report on the background of almost every author I profile, I’ve also started to mix up features. When a topic of a featured book inspires me, I write a personal piece about it. At other times, I whip up a supplementary educational article to provide readers with extra facts. Of course, supplements take time, which is why I also continue to play with the schedule for my posts.

As my own writing continues to develop, I’m sure my blog will stretch in other ways too. Already I have a round-up planned for July of realistic middle-school fiction, as part of research for my novel. It’ll be interesting to see what the future will hold. Please continue to join me in making this an online community of readers. 🙂

Happy Third Anniversary!

You should start a blog of children’s book reviews. You’re always reading children’s books anyway. You might as well review them.

Inspired by those words spoken by my husband, this introverted resource teacher and aspiring novelist launched a blog. Allison’s Book Bag started with an average of ten hits per day and about three hundred hits per month. From there, it climbed to an average of fifty hits per day and about fifteen hundred hits per month. This past fall, it fell just short of two thousand hits.

My blog also started with the modest goal of reviewing books recommended by my students. About eight months in, I interviewed my first author, loved the contact, and began more serious promotion of authors. From there, I worked on increasing connections with authors and publishers. I continue to receive many complimentary emails.

By my second year, I was also sometimes having to dedicate entire months to requests which I had accepted. Not wanting to lose sight of my original goal of reviewing books for fun, I tried to find balance by squeezing in Quick Takes and setting aside time for Round-Ups. Midway through my second year my husband pointed out that, despite my steady growth in hits, I was receiving minimal comments. This led to my participation in Memes.

So what’s next for Allison’s Book Bag?

  • I have already implemented a review rotation schedule. This allows me to accept the best requests for reviews, but also to review classics, popular books among my students, international books, and even bestsellers.
  • Just as importantly, I hope to continue with my participation in Memes, something which has left me with less energy for reviews but has also proved more enjoyable than I expected. It’s been fun getting to know other bloggers and to write about more than just the strengths and weaknesses of my latest read.
  • Inspired by my recent reads of picture books, however, I do plan to make one change. Instead of posting Quick Takes on Mondays, I intend to review picture books and maybe other short stuff like collections of poems or essays.

To celebrate my blog’s anniversary, I’m dedicating this month to reviews of four editions (2008-2011) of The Best Teen Writing by The Alliance of Young Artists and Writers. As normal about this time of year, I’ll also cut back on my posts during the months of June and July. Expect to see only my Memes and a weekly review. This will allow me to focus on summer courses and of course vacation time.

Thanks to everyone who reads my posts. Also I greatly appreciate all the kind words from fellow Meme participants during my time of grief (job loss, miscarriage, death of pet) this spring. I love this online community of readers!

Beverly Cleary knows kids and humor. For my next tribute to anti-heroes in juvenile fiction, I’m turning to two of her characters. The most famous of them, Ramona, first made her grand entrance in Beezus and Ramona. Subsequently, Cleary has written seven standalone chapter books about the irrepressible Ramona. Perhaps less well-known, Otis first created mischief in Ellen Tibbits, but received the spotlight in Otis Spofford.

When Ramona the Pest first starts, Ramona is anxious to attend kindergarten. Ramona is so excited that she is proving a pest to everyone. She is singing and dancing to her older sister’s great annoyance. She’s also pushing her mother to hurry, hurry, hurry! Many of Ramona’s actions are understandable—when one knows her reasons behind them. For example, when her older sister and Mary Jane ask if they can walk Ramona to school, Ramona refuses because she knows full well they’ll talk in a baby voice to her. And when everyone in her class takes a nap, Ramona lays down too but then starts to snore. No, she doesn’t desire attention and laughs. Instead, Ramona wants to show her teacher how well she can sleep. She even has a reasonable explanation for all the black lines scribbled over her drawing of a house. You see, the house is on house. Ramona just seems like a misunderstood child.

But is she? Ramona also chases a boy around the playground. When Ramona is told to sit on the bench because of her misbehavior, she actually tells the teacher: “No.” Her reason? She wants to play Gray Duck. Ramona later pulls on a girl’s curls—even after being ordered to stop. When told she won’t be able to return to school if she can’t behave, Ramona thinks about those boing curls and becomes a kindergarten dropout. Ramona definitely has issues with rules! Yet the reason I like Ramona is because she is her own person. She stands up to boys who call her “Kindergarten baby!” When learning to print letters, in what is my favorite episode of the book, Ramona decorates the first letter of her last name with cat ears and a tail. As for her defiance of the rules, in reality, Ramona was being honest to herself and her teacher. She knew that pulling Susan’s curls was a huge temptation for her. And she admitted it. Because these are books by Beverly Cleary, Ramona eventually figures out a way to handle herself in school. Yet she also remains uniquely Ramona.

OtisSpotford“One of these days you’re going to go too far!” Everyone cautions Otis Spofford about his misbehavior, but Otis is one of those boys who likes to make people laugh, doesn’t like to take orders, enjoys stirring up excitement, and even finds it funny to make others mad. As for punishments, they’re worth it if he had fun. More than Ramona, Otis is a bad kid.

One day in dance class while preparing for a school performance, Otis finds himself bored and starts to complain. His teacher listens to him and offers him the part of a bull in a bullfight scene that will take place in the middle of the dance. If you think this satisfied Otis, think again. In barely any time, he’s bored again and so now is poking the bullfighter with his fake horns. The day of the performance, he even steals the show from everyone by acting like a silly bull. Granted, none of these antics seriously hurt anyone, but then there’s the day he threw spit balls in class. In what is my favorite episode in the book, Otis keeps spitting wads of paper at ones, despite the welt marks they create, until class ends. After all, what’s the worst his teacher can do to him? Otis isn’t afraid of his mom or the principal and so that means his teacher has to act far more resourceful is she is to stop him. Sadly, even when Otis learns his lesson about spit balls, he still doesn’t change his daily behavior.

Why then do I like Otis? Because of the reason that Otis creates mischief. He’s not an evil kid; just a bored one. Then there’s the fact he likes to do well at school, panics when trapped in a closet, and shows a love of animals. Otis has a likeable side. Last, there’s the final chapter. In it, the tables are turned on Otis. For once, the tricks are being played on him. And let me tell you, he doesn’t like it! Ultimately though, he takes it all in good fun.

Although Cleary wrote both of these books over fifty years ago, Ramona and Otis feel as real as if she’d written the books today. If you grew up reading Beverly Cleary, discover her again. If you didn’t, it’s time you did.

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Allison’s Book Bag will no longer be updated. Thank you for eight years!

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