Allison's Book Bag

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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?

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 2011, there is….

Somedays I like to plop on a sofa and read formulaic books that are about as memorable as toilet paper and require as much thought as an amusement park. Other days I prefer to stretch out with multifaceted books into which their authors have obviously divulged their souls. While such complex fare requires me to slow down the way one does for a yellow light and to put forth the effort one might for a first date, they also linger with me and ultimately alter my perspective on life. When in the mood for THAT type of book, pick up Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor.

The Logan children (Stacey, Cassie, Christopher John, and Little Man) and T.J. are friends. Yet if one’s main buddy is an individual like T.J., one might think twice about whether to even have friends. T. J. knows all the town gossip and teases the Logan children with his knowledge of it, until they find themselves eager to hear even the most horrific tale. At times, it seems that his only reason for being their friend is that their mother is a teacher and he seeks to pry test answers from them. In contrast, Jeremy risks his family’s wrath to hang out with the Logans. He invites them to visit when family is away. At Christmas, instead of tricking Stacey out of a much-needed new winter coat the way T.J. did, Jeremy gives a hand-made recorder to Stacy. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is about friendship.

Cassie and Lillian Jean have never been friends. They do not walk together, talk with one another, or attend the same school. They probably could have neatly avoided each other except for that dastardly visit to the dinky town of Strawberry. There, Cassie accidentally banged into Lillian Jean, who demanded Cassie to kneel and apologize. Cassie submitted to Lillian Jean under duress of adult pressure, but revenge would be hers in time. In the same way, every morning the Logans had to jump out of the way of a school bus to avoid being run down, but revenge would be theirs in time. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is about bullies.

The Logan children dress up and walk an hour to school by direct order of their parents. They help maintain the family farm by daily doing chores. They even retire to bed when instructed. Despite moments of disobedience, they are respectful and good children. Their parents both work, so that the Logans might keep their home and land. The mother makes rain gear out of calf skins. She also defends her children when they protest against prejudice at school. The father, partly out of fear for their safety, forbids the children to shop at the Wallace store. They are caring parents. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is about family.

By now, it should be clear Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is not your average children’s book. Yet the book is about even more than relationships. It is also about social injustice. Jeremy risks punishment when he walks with the Logans, because his family is white and the Logans are black. Lillian Jean demands Cassie to kneel, because she feels in being white she is superior to Cassie who is black. The land is important to the Logans, because many blacks do not have land and so have to work as sharecroppers to whites. Some of T. J’s. tales involve beatings and burnings of blacks. Ultimately, to be black meant to fear that those tales could become about oneself.

Unlike most books about social injustice, which tend to read like broccoli that has been smothered with peanut butter, characters and settings have not been sacrificed for the sake of the message. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is far more than a tract. Underneath its layers, you will not only find the story of an African-American family in Mississippi during the Great Depression, but also universal values of family, friendship, loyalty, integrity, independence, and choice. As such, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry is an important and unforgettable book.

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

How would you rate this book?

The first thing that I realized about Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool is that it’s not the type of book one should fit into a busy schedule. The second thing that happened is I found myself seeking out reviews of it. What does that say about my opinion of this Newbery winner? The book isn’t an easy read, but it has a select audience.

The first reason that Moon Over Manifest makes for a difficult read is the huge cast of characters. In fact, before you even get to the title page, you’re going to encounter a character list. This alone should serve as warning that this is a different type of book. First, there is Abilene, the heroine whose dad shipped her off to his hometown, because he felt she should grow up in one place. Naturally, then, there’s her dad, Gideon, except we only ever hear of him through Abilene. Next there’s Shady, who is a saloon owner but also does church business. After that, there’s Hattie Mae, who writes newspaper columns, and offers Abilene her first good meal in town. Then there’s Sister Redempta, who teaches school and assigns Abilene to write a personal story, despite it being the last day of school. Next there’s Letty and Ruthanne, who agree to help Abilene with her summer homework. After that is the Rattler, who writes a note warning Abilene to “Leave Well Alone” but whom we never meet. And if that’s not enough characters to overwhelm you, there’s Miss Sadie, who is the town diviner but also a storyteller. Moreover, the list still isn’t done! If that’s not bad enough, you’ll notice most of these characters aren’t twelve-year-olds like Abilene but instead are adults. At times, I felt not only overwhelmed but bored.

The second reason that Moon Over Manifest makes for a difficult read is the multiple subplots. Soon after Miss Sadie is introduced, the typeface temporarily changes. No, it’s not a design flaw. The change in font merely signals the start of a second story. This story is about Jinx, whose father set him up him to take the blame for the murder of a man. Actually, there’s yet another font change, because there’s a third story about Ned, who sets off to war because of Jinx but ends up getting killed in battle. Right about now might also be a good time to mention that inserted between the chapters are newspaper columns and advertisements. With all these stories going on, it might come as no surprise that Moon Over Manifest is over 300 pages long. At times, reading Moon Over Manifest felt akin to scaling a mountain of infinite height. It didn’t help either that the plot involving the narrator, Abilene, amounted to little more than a girl listening to tales from her community while waiting for her dad to come back for her.

Because I kept having to put Moon Over Manifest aside to process everything that had happened, I started seeking out reviews. I needed to know what I was missing. After all, the novel had won the Newbery. Also, I had heard Vanderpool speak and found of interest the historical research which she had put into this book. I didn’t want to give up, but I needed reassurances that there was a reason to persevere. Most reviewers who liked Moon Over Manifest seemed to recognize that the first half is slow and a bit of a jumbled mess. However, they also noted that around the midpoint the story picked up pace, and they appreciated the story’s complexity. Now having completed this marathon read, I’d have to agree. About halfway through, when Jinx is helping the townsfolk pull one over on the power mongrels, I found myself enjoying Moon Over Manifest and marveling at how all the events were indeed intertwined. For example, both Jinx and Ned are loved by the townsfolk and change how the community views itself. One of them is related to our spunky heroine, Abilene.

If you can get to the heart of its story, Moon Over Manifest has a lot to offer. I enjoyed the adventures of Jinx, the boy who felt as if he cursed everyone he touched. The adult side of me at least also gained an appreciation for how townsfolk overcame their fears and differences to stand up against corruption. However, Moon Over Manifest is like a stew, which needs time to simmer in your thoughts. Young people who enjoy classics might enjoy plummeting into its depths. Beyond that, Vanderpool will probably find her biggest appeal among mature readers.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

ClareVanderpoolAuthor Clare Vanderpool has a strong sense of place. Specifically, of Kansas, where Vanderpool grew up. To this day, Vanderpool can walk to her parents’ house, her sister’s house, the school she went to and where her kids go now, the pool, the sledding hill, and two bookstores! Not surprisingly, Vanderpool’s debut novel, Moon Over Manifest, which won the Newbery in 2012, is set in Kansas. I’ll review it here tomorrow. Save the date: February 15!

I had the pleasure of hearing Vanderpool speak at the 2012 Plum Creek Literacy Festival. There, Vanderpool shared that she had been raised in a Catholic school and, for an assignment, she once wrote that she wanted to be a nun because “it was fun”. Being good in creative writing assignments, Vanderpool also thought about being a writer. Besides liking to write, she read constantly—in lots of different places such as bathrooms, school, and church. Her family traveled a lot, meaning she’d been to every state by the time she turned twelve.

While Vanderpool does have a college degree in English and Elementary Education, she claims her best education has come from reading, listening to family stories, looking out the car window on road trips, pretending with her brother, and just plain using her imagination. As an adult, Vanderpool also joined writing clubs and organizations, which helped her study the writing craft.

Moon Over Manifest took Vanderpool six years to write. She believes five ingredients helped with the writing of it:

  • Memory: Moon Over Manifest is rooted in geography and a hodgepodge of memories
  • Research: Vanderpool gravitates towards historical novels and enjoys research as a hobby.
  • Inspiration: The book Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey is a true story of a man who visited libraries to see old maps and would then use a razor to cut them out. In the book is a quote from Moby Dick, which inspired Vanderpool to think about what are true places. She realized her home state is for her. From there grew idea of having a character explore what is a true place.
  • Luck: In her mom’s closet, Vanderpool found photos which served as models for some of her characters.
  • Imagination: To Vanderpool, this is the most important ingredient. It’s what drives the process or serves as the chicken broth to the stew.

Vanderpool is also a wife and mother. She likes to go to the pool with her family, invite a neighbor over for tea, open their house up to neighbor kids, and go out for dinner with her husband. She has a good life!

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson starts out with Jess Aarons practicing for school recess races, but ends up being mostly about friendship. Everything else is gravy. And, to throw in another food metaphor, like a hearty stew there is a whole lot of everything else. Katherine Paterson has included most everything I’d expect to find in a book for young people.

There are friends. Winning that first race after the start of school is the biggest thing Jess thinks about; not the new neighbors at the Perkins place. Even when one of those neighbors turns out to be his age, he remains uninterested. After all, the neighbor is a girl. Leslie also unfortunately isn’t the right size for his younger sister May Belle. Moreover, she turns out to be a competitor. She joins the recess races, something that the boys dislike but don’t know how to stop. For a while, Jess even outright avoids Leslie because, thanks to her, one of the few highlights of school is no longer any fun. Then one day he sees Leslie being teased, his protective instinct kicks in, and his entire world changes. At this point in the book, the story becomes about their friendship.

There are bullies. Gary Fulcher doesn’t show any respect for other people’s property. In his free time at school, Jess likes to grab notebook paper and draw. Gary makes it his business to try to see these sketches, the way certain boys in my sixth-grade class made it their mission to steal notes from their peers. Notice I pluralized bully. Gary is an ant compared to Janice Avery and her two friends. In typical bully fashion, they make little kids give them their food. They also snatch hopscotch rocks, run through jump ropes, and laugh when kids screamed. While no one ever stole my food in elementary school, I did avoid walking home alone in fifth grade for fear of being beaten up. It doesn’t take too many experiences to learn that there are bullies in the world. Unlike Jess, I never tried standing up to mine until I had become an adult.

There are sisters. By having four, Jess has too many of them. The older two remain cliché teenagers for whom whining, shopping, dating, and bossing their younger siblings are the norm. The younger May Belle and Joyce Ann, however, inspire some of the sweeter moments in Bridge to Terabithia. On the very first morning that we meet Jess, May Bell wakes up and asks him: “Where are you going?” In response, Jess “patted her hair and yanked a twisted sheet up to her small chin.” One might wonder why Paterson bestows Jess with four sisters, when the heart of the book is his friendship with Leslie. Part of the beautiful complexity of Bridge to Terabithia is its multiple layers, including the relationship between Jess and May Bell, which eventually helps Jess nudge May Bell towards a friendship with her younger sister.

There are also parents, teachers, animals, holidays, imaginary worlds, and even a discussion of faith. Those were all an important part of my world too; like Jess, I had a crush on a teacher, made up stories with my friends, and wondered about God. Every character, detail, and incident in Bridge to Terabithia is so true to life, many readers will identify.

Have I given any too much of the plot? No, for there is the still the question of how Jess stands up to the bullies. You might wonder too about whether he ever does anything about his crush on his teacher. Then there is that pretend world that Leslie and Jess create, after which the book is named. Most important, there is how their friendship unfolds. I have deliberately left out those details, for you should encounter them for yourself by reading Bridge to Terabithia. If you haven’t read the Paterson’s book yet, there is so much to discover and love. If you have, then you know it is like looking back through a treasured vacation album.

In slightly over one hundred pages, Katherine Paterson has created a patchwork quilt wherein each square reveals a little more about family, school, friends, religion, and all those important areas of life. We might sometimes experience them differently than Jess, but they were part of our childhood and have become part of our adulthood. Bridge to Terabithia has everything that I might expect to find in a book for young people, but it also has everything that adults can relate to. It’s the perfect book.

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

How would you rate this book?

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