Friday, August 19, 2016

Henrietta Hornbuckle's Circus of Life

Title: Henrietta Hornbuckle's Circus of Life
Author: Michael de Guzman
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Year: 2011
Pages: 160
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Family, Change, Overcoming Loss, Coming of Age
Age Range: 3rd-5th Grade

Henrietta and her parents are clowns in a travelling clown circus. Henrietta thinks her life is perfect. Instead of going to school, she gets her education from the other clown in her troop. And instead of soccer practice or swim lessons, she gets to perform every night with her beloved father in their two person act. Henrietta wants nothing more than to spend the rest of her life with the circus, but changes are coming. Attendance at their shows is getting smaller, and some of the clowns are leaving to find real jobs in the real world. Then, tragedy strikes. Her father is killed by a hit and run driver. How will she and her mother survive the loss of her father, and will Henrietta be able to survive the loss of her beloved circus life?

Poor clowns! They get a lot of bad press these days. Seems like every time you turn around there is another creepy clown photo or tv show or movie. You don't see too many people wanting to be clowns in the 21st century. But Henrietta and her travelling clown troop brought back those old feelings of wanting to run away with the circus-live in a tent, travel the world, make friends with the acrobats and lion tamers. The troop that Henrietta and her family belong to is one big, happy family, and you can completely understand why Henrietta wants to spend the rest of her life surrounded by the people she loves best.

The story is a simple one, but full of heart. You feel Henrietta's joy at working with her father, her deep fear of losing the circus, her distrust of her aunt (her mother's sister, who was not well pleased when Henrietta's mother ran away with her father), and her deep sorrow at the loss of her father. The first person perspective allows the reader to get immersed in Henrietta's inner life. The unique setting should engage elementary age readers, and there is enough emotional depth that you could have some decent discussions with students. It would make a decent addition to a classroom library, and could be used for novel study as well, depending on the themes being studied.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

I'll Give You the Sun, Jandy Nelson

Title: I'll Give You the Sun
Author: Jandy Nelson
Publisher: Dial Books
Year: 2014
Pages: 371
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: LGBTQ+, First Love, Art, Sibling Rivalry
Age Range: 8th Grade and Up


Jude and Noah are twins. They have always been close, like two sides of the same coin. Noah is shy and isolated, spending all of his time drawing and dreaming of life as an artist. Jude, the outgoing daredevil, is equally protective of and a little frustrated by her gentle brother. Part of this story is told from the 13 year old Noah's perspective, the other part from the 16 year old Jude's. By the time Jude is telling her part of the story, the twins' family has been torn apart, and Noah and Jude are both struggling to survive some both the death of their mother, and personal tragedies that neither will share, driving them farther and farther apart. Can they ever find a way to bring their stories back together?


In preparation for my new job as a high school literacy coach, I have been spending a lot of time reading YA literature this summer. I have read some fabulous books, and some not so fabulous-everything from gritty realistic fiction about growing up black in America to fantasy novels dripping with magic and folklore. But I think I'll Give You the Sun takes the prize for best-written, most creative YA novel I've read in 2016.

Both Noah and Jude are fully drawn, fully realized characters, with rich inner lives that are the driving force behind the action of the story. My heart ached for both of them at different points in the narrative. They were both dealing with circumstances that were not of their making, though often their own choices contributed to the drama they were wrestling with. Noah's feelings for the boy next door were achingly tender and raw. Jude's desire to break away from her parents and blaze her own path are so familiar. Both of them find themselves in vulnerable situations, and while Noah loses his art in the process, Jude finds hers. There is a strange push-and-pull between them, with one gaining strength while the others weakens. It is beautiful and heartbreaking and I could not stop reading.

Art and artists are central to this story. It ends up exploring the very nature of art. What is it for? Is it worth making? What happens when you lose it? What are you willing to give up to make it? I realize that art classes don't generally do novel studies, but I couldn't help but think that high school art students, ones who are really serious about their art, would find a lot to relate to in this book.

There are some adult themes here that would be lost on less mature readers. Sexual assault, extramarital affairs, and parental death are all major plotlines. But they are handled with skill by an author who is not looking to sensationalize, but to create a world for her characters that the reader can empathize with. I think this book is an excellent addition to any high school library or literature class.

Teacher Resources:

Jandy Nelson's Website
Penguin Discussion Guide
The Nudge Discussion Questions
Lit Lovers Reading Guide