Thursday, February 27, 2014

Flora & Ulysses, Kate DiCamillo

Title:  Flora and Ulysses
Author:  Kate DiCamillo
Publisher:  Candlewick Press
Year:  2013
Pages:  233
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Family, Friendship, Superheroes
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  From Goodreads

Holy unanticipated occurrences! A cynic meets an unlikely superhero in a genre-breaking new novel by master storyteller Kate DiCamillo. It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences. The squirrel never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, but self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, is the just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight, and misspelled poetry—and that Flora will be changed too, as she discovers the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart. 

Kate DiCamillo's work is always filled with a sense of magic.  From Because of Winn Dixie to The Tiger Rising to the Magician's Elephant, DiCamillo uses unusual animals to help her human characters deal with life's problems in charming, unexpected ways.  This particular book takes advantage of the current graphic novel craze to tell a story that is part fantasy novel, and part heartwarming family drama.   Flora & Ulysses is not a graphic novel in the strictest sense of the word, but DiCamillo's prose is broken up by mini-comics that move the story forward in a way that simple text could not.

Flora, the titular character, is a self-described cynic.  It isn't hard to see where this comes from-her mother, and author of romance novels, seems much more interested in her fictional characters than her own daughter, and her father, who she only sees on weekends, is more and more remote emotionally the longer he and Flora's mother are divorced.  Is it any wonder that Flora is obsessed with what to do if the worst happens? To her, the worst already has.  Rounding out the cast of remarkable characters are the neighbor lady and her nephew, who has come to live with her because of his supposed psychosomatic blindness.  But, in true comic book fashion, the true hero of the book is Ulysses, the superhero squirrel.  His heroic antics and his heartfelt, accidental poetry help everyone improve their relationships with each other by showing them that sometimes the impossible is anything but.

I think that this novel could be used to teach narrative structure, since it does have an unusual one, though the plot itself moves forward in the linear fashion of most fiction.  The themes provide plenty of discussion topics, and I could see kids really enjoying Ulysses and his antics, or relating to Flora and her ambivalence towards her parents.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Kimchi and Calamari, by Rose Kent

Title:  Kimchi and Calamari
Author:  Rose Kent
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  2007
Pages:  220
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Adoption, Family, Identity
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads
Kimchi and calamari. It sounds like a quirky food fusion of Korean and Italian cuisine, and it's exactly how Joseph Calderaro feels about himself. Why wouldn't an adopted Korean drummer-comic book junkie feel like a combo platter given: (1) his face in the mirror (2) his proud Italian family.
And now Joseph has to write an essay about his ancestors for social studies. All he knows is that his birth family shipped his diapered butt on a plane to the USA. End of story. But what he writes leads to a catastrophe messier than a table of shattered dishes—and self-discovery that Joseph never could have imagined

I've been considering using this book as a part of a "one school, one book" type project for the school where I work.  I've been looking for books with multicultural characters that have depth and substance.  I am happy to report that this book has both, with some self-deprecating humor thrown in.  Kimchi and Calamari is an entertaining read that also has lots of avenues for discussion, and that highlights issues of identity, both cultural and familial, with grace and charm.

The character of Joseph is a good kid.  He loves his parents, dotes on his little sisters, and tries hard to be a good student.  It is this last thing that gets him in trouble.  When asked to write a paper about his ancestry, which he sadly knows almost nothing about, it never even occurs to him to just not do it, or to explain to his teacher his situation.  Instead, he makes up a fantasy about being the grandson of a famous Korean Olympian, which only makes the situation worse.  His very proud Italian father can't understand why he doesn't write about the family he does know (the Italian one), but Joseph feels like that would be lying, and he clearly isn't comfortable claiming an Italian heritage for himself.  His mother seems to understand a little bit better, but you can tell how ambivalent she is to his desire to learn more about his birth mother.  Add in confusion about girls and the new Korean neighbors who act like he's a "fake" Korean, and poor Joseph finds himself in quite a mess.

I think that the adoption angle is handled well in this book, and while it ends very satisfactorily, it does not end with a "Hallmark moment" reunion between Joseph and his birth family.  But as Joseph struggles along on his journey of self-discovery, everyone learns a little something about what family actually means.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai

Title:  Inside Out and Back Again
Author:  Thanhha Lai
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Year:  2011
Pages:  272
Genre:  Poetry
Themes:  War, Family, Immigration
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.
But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.
The story of Ha and her family is told through a series of free verse poems.  The story moves from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war, to Guam, to Alabama, where Ha and her family are sponsored by an American man and his reluctant, cold wife.  Lai does a beautiful job evoking what life in Saigon was like right after the Americans left, creating a sense of foreboding an uncertainty that is unsettling.  Things don't really improve when Ha and her family finally board the ship for is overcrowded, with no privacy and very little food.  When they finally reach the safety of the American naval base, their relief is quickly replaced by more uncertainty about their future.  Only families that are sponsored by an American are allowed to relocate in the US, and Ha's family has to wait until someone comes forward.

Ha's family reacts in different ways to their leaving Vietnam.  One brother is angry and hostile towards the move, one is looking forward to going to living in Bruce Lee's homeland.  One takes a very Zen approach, not really appearing to care.  Ha's biggest worry, one shared with her mother, is that their father, who has been missing in action for three years, will never be able to find them if he tries to come home.  But Lai makes it pretty obvious that the family really had no choice-if they wanted to survive, and not just survive but have a chance to thrive, they had to leave Vietnam.

Lai also does not shy away from showing us just how ugly the American attitude was towards Vietnamese refugees was in the weeks and months following America's exit from Southeast Asia.  People in the small town where Ha and her family land were indifferent and best, and downright mean at worst.  Ha's frustration over feeling dumb in American schools is palpable, and for good reason.  Her inability to speak English gets in the way of even the most basic human transactions, and as a result people can take advantage of her and her family.  Luckily one of her brother's speaks English, and the family is able to communicate their basic needs to their sponsor, but that doesn't help Ha make friends, or her mother find work.  Even when people think they are being kind, Ha and her family have such a different perspective on life that they don't always take the gestures in the way people intend.  Fortunately for Ha, their sponsor introduces them to a former teacher who tutors Ha in English, despite the fact that her son was killed in Vietnam.  This book provides a great opportunity to teach poetry as a narrative form, and there are lots of chances for cross-curricular connections in social studies.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Firegirl, by Tony Abbott

Title: Firegirl
Author: Tony Abbott
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Year: 2006
Pages:  147
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Disability, Acceptance, Friendship
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
"...there is..." Mrs. Tracy was saying quietly, "there is something we need to know about Jessica..."
From this moment on, life is never quite the same for Tom and his seventh-grade classmates. They learn that Jessica has been in a fire and was badly burned, and will be attending St. Catherine's while getting medical treatments. Despite her horrifying appearance and the fear she evokes in him and most of the class, Tom slowly develops a tentative friendship with Jessica that changes his life. 

I loved this book!  Recently there has been a spate of novels about kids with disabilities finding varying levels of acceptance-both from themselves and from others.  Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine, The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Drunen...all of these books do an excellent job of bringing attention to the issues that children and youth with disabilities deal with on a daily basis.  Most of those books are for intermediate or middle school readers, and schools in my district have used them as part of a unit on dealing with disabilities and acceptance.  Well, Firegirl can definitely be added to the list of books perfect for teaching these important social justice concepts.  The reading level is lower than any of those other books, making it perfect for use during guided reading or literature circles for your lower readers. The readability may be easier, but the content is just an challenging, and the opportunities for discussion are just as numerous, as any of the other books I mentioned.

The book is told from the point of view of Tom, a seventh grade student at a prestigious private school in New Haven, Connecticut.  When Jessica joins their class, the other students are not sure what to make of her.  If you've ever seen a burn victim, then you have some idea of what Jessica's appearance was.  Abbott describes it in pretty vivid detail, but not gratuitously.  Tom, an inherently kind boy, feel very uncomfortable with his classmates reactions to her, and to their speculation about how she got the burns that scarred her so horribly.  He finds himself torn between doing the right thing and preserving his friendship with his best friend, who takes what seemed to me to be an irrational dislike to Jessica.   Abbott does an excellent job of showing Tom's inner turmoil, and even when he chooses compassion over peer acceptance, the book never falls into the trite, Hallmark moment sentimentality that mars so many TV movie attempts at showing these same kinds of stories.  Jessica is also a pretty realistic, complicated character.  She is not always likeable, she does not always make good choices, she is obviously scarred emotionally and not just physically by what happened to her.  The temptation with these kinds of characters is to make them saccharine, to reduce their very real struggles with tropes about inner strength and heroism, when in reality the road to recovery is long, painful, and full of dark moments.  Abbott avoids that-you feel compassion and sympathy for characters, but never pity or sappiness.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliet

Title:  Chasing Vermeer
Author:  Blue Balliet
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year: 2004
Pages:  254
Genre:  Realistic Fiction/Magical Realism
Themes:  Fitting In, Coincidences, Art, Friendship
Age Range:  3rd-6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Balliett's book follows young Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay as they piece together separate, seemingly disconnected events to locate The Lady Writing, a Vermeer painting that gets stolen en route to Chicago's Art Institute. Going on the theory that there are no coincidences, the two wonder about the link between their teacher's statements, Petra's dreams, a book Petra finds in the library, and other clues that set the reader guessing as to their significance as well. But after they learn of the culprit's aim to correct untruths about Vermeer's life and art -- which spurs them into full-throttle detective work -- the pieces all come together in a brilliant ending sure to make readers cheer, "Ah ha!"

If you are a fan of The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, but are looking to use more recent books in your classroom, then Chasing Vermeer should be right up your alley.  This mystery for the elementary school set is full of intriguing coincidences, art history, and enough clues to make teaching inferring a pleasure rather than a chore.

The main characters, Petra and Calder, are both oddballs in their 6th grade class.  They go to the University of Chicago Lab School, a place where teachers are encouraged to "teach outside the box", and their teacher, Mrs. Hussey, certainly takes that philosophy to heart.  Rather than use a prescribed curriculum, Mrs. Hussey allows the interests of the children and the questions they have about the world to drive her instruction.  As a teacher, tht sounds like heaven, especially in these days of test, assess, and test again!  This type of learning really appeals to Petra and Calder, and definitely prepares them for the mysterious circumstances in which they find themselves.

One of the delights of this book for me, other than really smart characters and an emphasis on art, which I love, is the setting.  The book takes place in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, an area of the city I know really well.  It is where the University of Chicago is, and as such is an interesting blend of diverse people from all over the world-students, professors, and local Chicagoans alike.  One of the most important places in the story is Powell's Books, which is one of my very faorite bookstores in the world!  There are many references made to locales around 57th Street, including parks and restaurants that I could instantly picture when they were mentioned in the story.  Of course, if you aren't a Chicago native, you can still appreciate the way Balliet describes the beautiful buildings on the U of C campus, and can probably feel the raw cold of late fall/early winter in Chicago. 

Aside from the mystery of the missing painting, which ends up having a fairly mundane explanation, there is an element of magical realism in the story.  There are just too many coincidences for them to actually be coincidences, but what (supernatural?) power may be at work behind the scenes is a mystery.   In addition, both Petra and Calder have what can only be described as visions-Petra in dreams (both waking and sleeping), and Calder in the random (or is it?) appearance of certain number patterns and shapes.  There's lots of fodder for discussion here, and the opportunity to make a curricular connection with art by studying the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, a real Dutch artist from the 17th century.