Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hold Fast, Blue Balliett

Title:  Hold Fast
Author:  Blue Balliett
Publisher:  Scholastic Press
Year:  2013
Pages:  288
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Mystery
Themes:  Family, Poverty, Homelessness, Reading
Age Range:  4th through 8th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads

Where is Early's father? He's not the kind of father who would disappear. But he's gone . . . and he's left a whole lot of trouble behind.
As danger closes in, Early, her mom, and her brother have to flee their apartment. With nowhere else to go, they are forced to move into a city shelter. Once there, Early starts asking questions and looking for answers. Because her father hasn't disappeared without a trace. There are patterns and rhythms to what's happened, and Early might be the only one who can use them to track him down and make her way out of a very tough place.

Run, do not walk, and get this book!  Balliett's writing is always magical-the way she uses language to create not just evocative settings and believable characters but truly beautiful prose is astonishing.  Both of the novels I've read by her have been such a treasure of beautiful language usage!  And while the language itself is worth reading the book for, the plot is nothing to sneeze at either.  Balliett deals with issues of homelessness and poverty in such a delicate, compassionate way, making very difficult topics accessible to child readers.

Early as narrator is frank and honest, at times wise, other times naive about the way the world works.  The one unshakable fact of her life is her father's love and loyalty.  There is not one minute of his disappearance that she is not sure that he would come home if he were able.  She throws herself into solving the mystery of his kidnapping with a fervor that is only matched by her desire to help her mother survive their present circumstances.  When her family ends up in a homeless shelter, Early's mother has a hard time holding fast to her hope, but Early is there to comfort her and prod her into keeping herself together for the sake of her younger brother Jubie.  Balliett's description of the shelter is honest and forthright, neither exaggerated or minimized.  The people at the shelter do the best they can to provide warmth, food, and help to the many families that come to them, but as the revolving door of characters moving into and out of Early's life at the shelter shows, working with the homeless population in Chicago is a more daunting task than a few hot meals and a bed for the night can accomplish.

While the most compelling parts of the book for me were the ways that the life of the family was affected by homelessness, there is actually a really good mystery in here as well.  The people at the shelter may think that Early's father just took off, as so many men seem to do, but Early knows he would never abandon them, and she is right-there are some nefarious characters that have taken advantage of her father's good nature.  The big reveal is made even more powerful by the knowledge that the terrible situation that Early and her mother and brother found themselves in is almost over.

There are so many things to love about this book.  Balliett uses the poetry of Langston Hughes as a frame for the events in the story, and the family shares a love of words and reading and learning that touched me. Early's parents do all the right things, but still find it so difficult to lift themselves out of poverty.  Balliett's characters put the lie to the assertion that people live in poverty because they lack the ability to plan for the future, or that they don't value education enough, or that they don't work hard enough.  In no fair world should someone as bright and capable as Early's family be denied the same opportunities that those who come from privilege already have.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Peak, Roland Smith

Title:  Peak
Author:  Roland Smith
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Year: 2007
Pages: 246
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Adventure, Family, Mountaineering
Age Range: 5th Grade and Up

Summary: from Goodreads
After fourteen-year-old Peak Marcello is arrested for scaling a New York City skyscraper, he's left with two choices: wither away in Juvenile Detention or go live with his long-lost father, who runs a climbing company in Thailand. But Peak quickly learns that his father's renewed interest in him has strings attached. Big strings. As owner of Peak Expeditions, he wants his son to be the youngest person to reach the Everest summit--and his motives are selfish at best. Even so, for a climbing addict like Peak, tackling Everest is the challenge of a lifetime. But it's also one that could cost him his life.

It's pretty unusual that I would ever label a book as appropriate for grades five and up.  After all, the interests of fifth graders and the interests of high schoolers are not exactly similar.  But as an adult reader I found Peak to be exciting, interesting, and suspenseful, even without making allowances for the fact that it is a children's book.  If you read and enjoyed Jon Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air, then I think that you will enjoy this children's novel, even as an adult reader.  Roland Smith does an excellent job describing the life-threatening conditions and death-defying acts that it takes to climb the highest mountain in the world.

The character of Peak is one that I think a lot of kids would relate to, and not just the boys.  Though this book does seem stereotypically geared more towards boys, and most of the main characters are male, the author makes sure to portray at least one strong female climber.  Peak is dealing with adolescence, changing family circumstances, and the absence of his father by doing the one thing he knows how to do-climb.  Since he lives in New York City, the only thing to climb is skyscrapers.  He leaves his mark on each one, a not-too-subtle nod to the concept that the teenage years are when we start to figure out how we want to leave our mark on the world.  The family dynamic is interesting, but the novel doesn't really feel like it gets started until Peak get on the mountain.  From that point on I could barely put the book down, so drawn in was I by what it takes to climb Everest.  The reader learns about how to acclimate to the altitude, the very real dangers of falling, freezing, or suffocating to death up there where the air is so thin.  There are pretty frank, though not graphic, mention of the bodies that litter the upper slopes of Everest, since helicopters can not fly that high to retrieve those who die in their attempt at the summit.  Not that the family drama diminishes once Peak get to the mountain.  His father, someone who is so well regarded as a climber, is a pretty sucky dad.  When it becomes clear that he is using Peak to make a name for his climbing business, you completely understand Peak's first impulse, which is to refuse to make the climb.  But what mountaineer, when presented with the chance, wouldn't try to make the summit of Everest, and that is eventually what Peak decides.  Ultimately, Peak has to decide whether to try and grab the glory for himself, or help save his friend from the Chinese authorities, who control the north face of Everest.  It is this choice, not the act of climbing in such dangerous conditions, that truly shows how brave Peak is.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead

Title:  When You Reach Me
Author:  Rebecca Stead
Publisher:  Wendy Lamb Books
Year: 2009
Pages:  199
Genre:  Realistic Science Fiction (?)
Themes:  Friendship, Family, Space Travel
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads
By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner.
But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper: 
I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.
The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.

When You Reach Me is a hard book to describe.  It's genre defying, since for most of the book you think it is a realistic fiction story, only to discover that in Miranda's world, time travel is a thing.  I enjoyed the book, but it is written in such a way that you feel a bit unsettled while you are reading it.  Of course, this tone is entirely appropriate for the major plot point, which is these scary notes that Miranda keeps finding.   But that sense of menace is so tightly wrapped up with the day-to-day issues that Miranda is dealing with that it gives even her most benign interactions with people a weight that might not be there otherwise.  After all, who knows which "friend" it is whose life needs to be saved?

Aside from the mystery of the notes, this is mostly a story about friendships.  Miranda and her best friend are drifting apart, and Miranda attributes it to her witnessing Sal getting punched on the way home from school.  She tries to give him some space, but as usually happens in books and movies, if she had just talked to him she would have figured out a lot sooner that all was not as it appeared.  Her new friendships bring her her first girl friend, and her first crush.  Miranda tries to negotiate the choppy waters of pre-adolescence with as much grace as she can muster, but how can she concentrate on her friends when this threat is hanging over their heads?

Understanding this book is a lot easier if you have read A Wrinkle in Time, the classic children's science fiction novel by Madeleine L'Engel.  It is Miranda's favorite book, and she references it in an off-hand way that would make it hard for someone who hasn't read it to fully appreciate the parallels be tween this story and that one.  And the book reads sort of brainy...I don't know a better way to describe it, but it feels cerebral.  Not in an offputting, impersonal way, but the bits about time travel definitely stretch a person's thinking.  Overall I think this is a solid choice for a classroom library, and I could see it used in guided reading with the right group of kids, maybe as a companion to A Wrinkle in Time.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Imani All Mine, by Connie Rose Porter

Title:  Imani All Mine
Author: Connie Rose Porter
Publisher:  Mariner Books
Year:  2000
Pages:  224
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Teenage Pregnancy, Perseverance, Overcoming Obstacles, Overcoming Loss
Age Range:  9th Grade and Up

Summary: from Goodreads
Imani All Mine tells the story of Tasha, a fourteen-year-old unwed mother of a baby girl. In her ghettoized world where poverty, racism, and danger are daily struggles, Tasha uses her savvy and humor to uncover the good hidden around her. The name she gives her daughter, Imani, is a sign of her determination and fundamental trust despite the odds against her: Imani means faith. Surrounding Tasha and Imani is a cast of memorable characters: Peanut, the boy Tasha likes, Eboni, her best friend, Miss Odetta, the neighborhood gossip, and Tasha's mother, Earlene, who's dating a new boyfriend.

Earlier today I was in a discussion with a friend about whether certain books with more mature themes should be present in the middle school library in her children's school district.  My feeling is that mature, sophisticated readers should not be kept away from  hard stories or controversial topics if they have demonstrated the ability to think critically about what they read, and that instead those types of books should be used as discussion pieces between children and parents.

During the discussion, it was not lost on me that the discussion we were having really only pertained to those children who have not been subjected to real-life violence, poverty, neglect, or sexual activity in their every day lives.  It is privilege in its various forms that put my friend and I in the position to have a conversation about whether tweens should be exposed to sex or violence in media-for too many of our children and youth the cultural context of their lives brings them into contact with these topics whether they are ready for them or not.  Imani All Mine is a good example of the type of story that I mean.

Porter's main character and narrator, Tasha, is at once naive and more experienced in the world than we'd want any fourteen year old to be.  She and her mother live in poverty, trying to make ends meet with a combination of government assistance and part time work.  Tasha's baby, Imani, is the result of a rape she experienced outside of a roller rink at the age of 13.  Her mother, a hard woman with little patience for raising her daughter, assumes that she got herself in trouble as a result of promiscuity, and basically leaves Tasha with only the most basic support in raising the resulting child.  Luckily, Tasha goes to a school that has both parenting classes and a daycare, and she tries her best to be a good mother to Imani.  But despite her hopes and good intentions, tragedy strikes, and Imani is killed by a stray bullet in a drive by shooting. Sinking ever deeper into grief, Tasha turns for comfort to her boyfriend, and soon finds herself pregnant again.

The subject matter is handled gently, if not delicately, and there is no sense of sensationalism in this story. Nor is it a morality tale, where the reader is invited to revile Tasha and her choices.  But nothing can make this story anything but what it is-a tragic, heartbreaking story of not one, but two childhoods lost.  I think that for some young girls, this story mirror the kinds of things they see their friends, sisters, cousins, and neighbors going through.  Should we deny them the opportunity to read about the issues they deal with because others perceive it to be too mature for their young age?  Seems like that old cliche about closing the barn door after the horse gets out works here.  That said, I think that ninth grade seems like the youngest I would recommend read this book, and then with adults to discuss it with.