Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Crossover, Kwame Alexander

Title: The Crossover
Author: Kwame Alexander
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Year: 2014
Pages: 237
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Novel in Verse
Themes: Sports, Family, Growing Up, First Love, Dealing with Loss
Age Range: 3rd-8th Grade

Summary: from Booklist (mostly)
The Bell twins are stars on the basketball court and comrades in life. While there are some differences—Josh shaves his head and Jordan loves his locks—both twins adhere to the Bell basketball rules: In this game of life, your family is the court, and the ball is your heart. With a former professional basketball player dad and an assistant principal mom, there is an intensely strong home front supporting sports and education in equal measures. When life intervenes in the form of a hot new girl, the balance shifts and growing apart proves painful.

When their father dies unexpectedly towards the end of the book, Jordan and Josh are forced to examine their relationship, and realize that while they may have their differences, nothing more important than family.

Novels written in verse are big right now. I have a good friend who thinks that they are the kind of books that teachers like but don't really appeal to students. I suppose, depending on the book, that may be true. Books like Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes may appeal to a more mature reader, and may not have the widespread appeal of a graphic novel like Raina Telgemeier's Smile or genre mash-ups like Big Nate or Captain Underpants. But I think that any reader will enjoy The Crossover. Mature readers will find the format appealing, less able readers will be sucked in by the subject matter, and reluctant readers won't be scared away by the amount of print on a page. Just an importantly, the style and subject matter should appeal to Africa American students, who don't often find their lives and culture represented in children's literature.

The style is not a gimmick. The book reads like a rap song, which in less deft hands could distract from the emotional impact of the story. But this book is full of heart, and it gave me one of my biggest cries of the reading year. Josh and Jordan as character ring entirely true-I have nephews that are just like them in many ways. Their relationship with their father, and ultimately with each other, reveal deeper truths about love and family, and the tumultuous time in life when children start to separate their identity from that of their parents. The books reads very much like a traditional coming of age story, focusing in social relationships and first romances, until tragedy strikes Jordan and Josh's family. Sparking conversation about the themes and structures of this books should be easy, making it perfect for use in guided reading, book clubs, or literature circles. The Crossover definitely deserves the the medals it received as the Newbery and Coretta Scott King Award winner for 2015.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness

Title: The Knife of Never Letting Go
Author: Patrick Ness
Publisher: Walker
Year: 2008
Pages: 479
Genre: Science Fiction
Themes: Adventure, Good vs. Evil
Age Range: 8th through 12th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads

Prentisstown isn't like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else's thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee -- whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not -- stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden -- a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.


This book is the first in a trilogy, and in the interest of full disclosure I will say that once you've read the first one, you are going to need to devour the entire series. It is such an interesting premise-reading about Todd and the men of Prentisstown made me realize just how awful it would be to hear everyone's thoughts, about everything, all the time, without any real ability to control the flow of information. The fact that he stayed sane long enough to run away is sort of amazing. Ness uses this phenomenon, and the gender differences in how it affects men and women on the planet these humans have colonized, as a way to explore some pretty dark ideas about sexism and patriarchy.

The men are definitely the villains in the first book, but as the series progresses it becomes much more sophisticated than that. By the end of the series there's the added perspective of one of the "aliens" (though really, if the humans are the colonizers, aren't they the aliens?), and Ness brings in issues of colonization and oppression of indigenous peoples as well. The story can certainly be read and enjoyed just as an adventure story, one where the forces of good an evil are caught in a life or death struggle for control, but there are deeper connections that can be made. This trilogy would make a good addition to a classroom library at the high school level, or for use in a book club setting. It is engaging enough that even reluctant readers will be drawn in. I am not the kind of person who reads an entire series in order, but this one I did. I couldn't wait to find out what happened to Todd and the people of this strange world.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein

Title: Rose Under Fire
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Year: 2013
Pages: 368
Genre: Historical Fiction
Themes: World War II, the Holocaust, Survival
Age Range: 7th through 10th Grade

Rose Justice is a pilot and poet. She is responsible for flying planes from France to England as part of the British army during World War II. During one of her missions, she is captured by German soldiers and taken to Ravensbruck, the notorious women's concentration camp. While there, she must find a way to survive, relying on the kindness of her fellow prisoners. Can she find the strength to withstand the terrible, terrifying conditions in the camp with her humanity and love of beauty intact?

This book is written at a fairly low reading level for the subject matter, but it is definitely a book that is best used in a setting where the students have some level of maturity, and enough background knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust to give them the ability to understand the underlying themes of the book. That said, I loved this book! There have been many, many books written about the Holocaust, as there should be. It is such a defining period in the 20th century, and only by revisiting it can we hope to prevent it from happening again. Sadly, there have been too many examples of similar atrocities being perpetrated around the world (the Rwandan genocide; the killings in Darfur, Sudan; the Srebrenica massacre, etc...etc...), but Hitler's concentration camps seem to have made a special impression on the minds and souls of much of the world, especially in Europe and the United States. This book stands out for me for two reasons. One, it deals with a female pilot. I suspect that there are many young people who don't realize that women were involved in the war effort in that way, and any time we can lift up the contributions of women I am all for it. Second, it specifically focuses on a women's concentration camp, which is something else that I think if fairly unique in literature for children and youth about the Holocaust.

What Rose and her fellow prisoners endured in Ravensbruck can be hard to read. But it should be. I hope we as a society never get to a place where we can feel comfortable reading about the deprivation, terror, and torture that took place in the camps. But that discomfort can lead to some great discussions with students about the nature of evil, the strength of the human spirit, the meaning of perseverance, and the value of art in human society. I'd recommend this book for use in guided reading, literature circles, or book clubs for middle school or early high-school youth.

Teacher Resources: 
Disney Hyperion Study Guide
Review and Author Interview
Elizabeth Wein's Blog