Twelve-year old Lanesha is different from her peers in one major way: she can see ghosts. And several minor ways: she was raised by Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who birthed her, but without the formality of kinship or an official foster care relationship. She loves to learn, tackling difficult math problems and learning new words with glee.
The book covers nine days directly before and during the events of Hurricane Katrina over 14 chapters. Within the chapters the text is further broken into sections, and the sentences tend to be short. Although Parker Rhodes doesn’t shy away from challenging words, they are decipherable with context clues if not defined in the text. These explain why this has a low reading level, but it’s not meant for very young readers. Children closer to Lanesha’s age would be a much better fit, because the novel does include deaths, extreme peril, hunger, destruction, and family rejection.
The story starts slowly, establishing Lanesha’s character, neighborhood, and routine before tearing everything apart. It’s a first person novel, and Lanesha is smart, independent, and loving. She’s in an unofficial kinship situation with Mama Ya-Ya since her mother died in childbirth without revealing her father and her mother’s family refuses to accept or acknowledge her.
“The trick was in knowing how to dispose of people when you were through with them, and Gilly had plenty of practice performing that trick.” page 51
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1978.
Historical fiction, 178 pages.
Lexile: 800L .
AR Level: 4.6 (worth 5.0 points) .
At eleven years old, Gilly Hopkins already has a reputation for being unmanageable and a talent for moving homes. She has no interest in living with the Trotters and is determined to pull out all the stops to get out of this latest home.
I feel so conflicted about this book. On the one hand it seems to play into every old stereotype about foster care. The majority of Gilly’s homes are careless at best. But let’s start with some of the positives first.
Paterson must have had at least some knowledge of foster care, because there are some things she gets right. The difficulty of transitioning from one home to the next, the reluctance to love a new family, the battles over personal care and confusion over standards are all common. The dedication is to an adoptive child, so perhaps she learned about foster care through first-hand experience.
“Leaving Duinsmoore was one of the hardest decisions I had to make. In a matter of months, in the tiniest fraction of my life, Duinsmoore had given me so much.” page 278
The Lost Boy: A Foster Child’s Search for the Love of a Family by Dave Pelzer.
Health Communications, Inc. Deerfield Beach, Florida, 1997.
Memoir, 340 pages.
Lexile: 720L .
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 9.0 points) .
NOTE: Despite the reading level, this is an adult book, not suggested for MG readers.
Peltzer’s first book is all about the inhumane treatment he suffered at the hands of his mother. The second, after a brief recap of the abuse, focuses on his life in the foster care system.
I believe this was the first book that I ever read about foster care. Many years later, I found some of the series in a thrift store and decided to read through it again. After the sensational story of the first book, this one is significantly milder. Peltzer’s mother still has a lot of power over him – mentally, emotionally, and legally. But her physical control of his body is limited and he starts to heal in some ways.
“The story has two objectives: the first is to inform the reader how a loving, caring parent can change to a cold, abusive monster venting frustrations on a helpless child; the second is the eventual survival and triumph of the human spirit over seemingly insurmountable odds.” page 164
A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive by Dave Pelzer.
Health Communications, Inc. Deerfield Beach, Florida, 1993.
Adult memoir, 184 pages.
Lexile: 850L .
AR Level: 5.8 (worth 5.0 points) .
NOTE: Despite the reading level, these are books written for adults, not MG readers.
The early childhood of a severely abused boy.
This is the first, and most well-known, book in an autobiographical trilogy. Dave Pelzer was one of the most severely abused children in California. His father kept his mother from murdering him, but otherwise he was routinely tortured, starved, beaten, and otherwise maltreated.
The entire book should probably not be read by anyone who might find these events triggering. His parents also rely heavily on alcohol and his mother occasionally turns her rage from him to his father or others. It’s interesting that few reviews remark on this being an example of domestic abuse from a woman to a man. Male perpetrators are certainly more common, but it’s important to recognize that women can be abusers as well and to validate and hold a mirror up for male victims of abuse.
While the book is intense, it’s not overly emotional (although it can feel overwrought at times). Pelzer narrates with a steady, precise flow, documenting what it felt like for him to be a child in the total control of a sociopathic parent. I remember crying and crying on my first read through. However, after hearing or reading the stories of other children, this book is not so affecting on the second readthrough.
“Ever since I could remember, Ty’ree had sat with Mama at the table, the dim light from the floor lamp turning them both a soft golden brown. While Mama filled out the money order and figured out how to pay some of the other bills, Ty’ree made grocery lists and school supply lists and added and added the cost of everything.” pages 29 and 30
Miracle’s Boys by Jacqueline Woodson.
My edition Scholastic Read 180, originally published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, New York, 2000.
MG/YA realistic fiction, 133 pages.
Lexile: 660L .
AR Level: 4.3 (worth 3.0 points) .
Ever since Mama died, Lafayette and his brothers have been struggling to come together as a family. Oldest brother Ty’ree had to give up his dream to keep the family together, middle boy Charlie is consumed with guilt that he was away when she died, and Lafayette is engulfed by grief and trauma.
This was a free book choice I made a while ago, knowing nothing about the title (I didn’t even have time to read the blurb) but simply trusting Jacqueline Woodson as a consistently excellent author. She did not disappoint.
Bessie Coleman: Trailblazing Pilot (Rookie Biographies) by Carol Alexander.
Children’s Press, Scholastic, New York, 2016.
Picture book biography/early chapter book, 32 pages.
Lexile: 600L .
AR Level: 3.4 (worth 0.5 points) .
NOTE: Despite the reading level, these are typically used by first and second graders, or read aloud to younger students.
The life of Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American pilot.
Rookie Biographies is a series of books that use photographs and simple text to inform students about the lives of various historical and modern-day figures. This series tends to be perfect for second or third graders to read independently, although I’ve also seen them used with higher or lower elementary school students.