Review: Dragon Cauldron

“As long as I live, I’ll never forget that look on his face. It wasn’t fear; it was the expression of someone who had lost everything – friends, loved ones, the entire world.” page 121

Dragon Cauldron (Dragon Quartet #3) by Laurence Yep.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, originally published 1991, my edition 1994.
MG fantasy, 312 pages.
Lexile: 770L .
AR Level: 5.5 (worth 10.0 points) .
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for previous volumes.

The quest to restore the dragon homeland continues with new enemies and allies. At this stage the cauldron must be mended, and only the Snail Woman and Smith can do so, but reaching them is tricky. The humans at war with the main dragon kingdom make no distinction between Shimmer’s enslaved clan and her wicked uncle’s rule; they just want to kill or imprison all dragons. Meanwhile, the Monkey King’s penchant for boasting, Indigo and Thorn’s competition, Shimmer’s prickly attitude, and Civet’s lust for magic also brew up trouble for our adventurers.

After a strong first volume, and a fine second volume, the story is starting to coalesce in this third volume. The Monkey King is the viewpoint character for this book, and I found the switch a bit abrupt, although it makes sense since the reader needs to know and witness certain things that he sees differently than the rest of the group.

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Review: Spirit Hunters

“Harper didn’t realize she’d walked into the room to take a closer look until she heard the door slam shut behind her. She whirled around, her heart beating loudly in her ears.” page 73

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh.
Harper, HaperCollins, New York, 2017 (my edition 2018).
MG horror, 280 + excerpt.
Lexile: 680L .
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 7.0 points) .

Harper Raine is getting some seriously bad vibes from the creepy old house her family just moved into. She’s already upset about moving from NYC to DC, but now their house gets cold or hot in weird spots, has a haunted reputation, and her little brother is acting seriously weird…

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh.

Much better than The Dragon Egg Princess – some parts still didn’t work for me, but overall I enjoyed this much more.

I’ve written before about how important it is to see realistic microaggressions in children’s literature, and here Oh does that well. A mere 20 pages in, an old white lady does the “no, where are you really from?” routine and brings in some Asian stereotyping too. Her mom intervenes in a politely passive-aggressive way that gets the point across.

An unusual thing Oh does though, is that later a neighborhood kid asks “where are you from?” in an innocent, where’d you move from, way – and Harper still braces herself until the meaning is fully clear. While I don’t love that this happens, I very much appreciated seeing it in a children’s novel. Oh makes it clear how that woman’s racism was not only harmful in their encounter, but also impacts Harper’s self esteem and her future meetings with others.

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Review: Singular Woman

“Ann also had a certain Javanese sense of propriety, which Holloway went so far as to describe as prudery. It surprised him, because most of the Americans he knew were the opposite.” page 210

A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Janny Scott.
Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2011, my edition 2012.
Biography, 386 pages.
Not leveled.

A biography of Barack Obama’s mother.

Barack Obama led a unique and fascinating life long before he ever went into politics. A great deal has been made of his father, including his now famous first book, Dreams from My Father, but much less has been said about his mother, a white woman from Kansas. After Barack’s father returned to Kenya, she married a man named Lolo and moved to Indonesia, where Maya was born. Eventually they split up too, and Barack then lived with his grandparents.

There might be other details depending on which book you’re reading, but little insight into who she was or why she made the choices she did, although those choices were so formative for a man so many have opinions about. Janny Scott was different – she saw Stanley Ann Dunham* from the beginning and wanted to know what her life was like.

The result is this fascinating biography which will probably be little read and even less appreciated. Yet the story of Dunham’s life holds merit alone, even though it probably never would have been written without her famous son’s accomplishments drawing intense public scrutiny to their family. She was surprisingly countercultural yet drew from certain deeply conservative attitudes.

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Review: The Dragon Warrior

“On the morning of the Lunar New Year Day, I didn’t dare mention that I’d helped slay the nian. Ye Ye would be too busy scolding me for sneaking out to congratulate me on slaying a demon. That’s Asian-style tough love for you.” page 26

The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao.
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 344 pages.
Lexile: not yet leveled
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 11.0 points) .

Faryn Liu wants nothing more than to become a warrior in the exclusive Jade Society her family was born into, but the current leader sees her gender and mixed race as fatal flaws. With her grandfather sick, only finding her legendary, long-lost father can get her the entry into demon-fighting she desires. All it would take is a cross-country, multiple-realm trip wielding the legendary Fenghuang and facing dragons, demons, and rogue gods.

This book calls out colorism from the very first page, and that’s incredibly unusual in a middle grade genre novel. Although I wish it wasn’t needed, and agree that it shouldn’t be in every book, I also remember students struggling with this, and wish I’d had this book then to offer. There’s a unique power to being able to see one’s struggles in a fictional hero. She identifies as half-Chinese and half-Other (Egyptian/Greek/Turkish); I have used both the part-white and the non-white biracial tags here because sometimes those groups are classed as white, other times they are not. Faryn herself points out that she is darker skinned than the norm for her Chinese community.

I spent perhaps more time than I should have trying to pin down the exact year this was meant to be set in. It’s frequently mentioned that it’s the Year of the Horse, but that could be 1990, 2002, 2014, or 2026. Since the kids have a handheld video game but none of them have cell phones, I’m going to cut the first and last of those out and say it’s either 2002 with surprisingly good tech, or 2014 and they either can’t afford or have too strict of a family to have cell phones. I’m leaning towards 2014 because in 2002 kids would have been a lot more worried about approaching the District of Columbia with magical flight. However, the scenes of deserted streets also feel strangely familiar post-pandemic!

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Review: Rainbow People

“A culture defines its virtues and vices within its folktales.” page 69

The Rainbow People by Laurence Yep, illustrated by David Wiesner.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1989. (See review.)
Short story/folklore collection, 194 pages.
Lexile: 680L .
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 6.0 points) .

Twenty stories drawn from the most common area of Chinese-American immigration, streamlined and retold for younger audiences.

So I’m pretty sure my copy is a knock-off. The cover is the 1992 version, although on close examination it’s subtly off, but the interior copyright page is taken from one of the early 1989 printings. The margins aren’t set correctly and vary too much, and while harder to quantify, the paper and bindings don’t feel right compared to other books from this time period from this publisher that I’ve handled.

I purchased this book online, ostensibly new. After investigation, I don’t believe that the seller of this was aware then that it might be a printing violating copyright, so I won’t mention them specifically. Normally I would get a copy from the library to check if this version is accurate, but in Covid times, that is easier said than done. Perhaps some kind person who has access to a proper version of this book will comment if my citations are correct. I decided to still write this review because I’ve been wanting to talk about Laurence Yep and this book is particularly interesting.

Turning now to this specific volume, it’s a unique work. While I’ve seen many volumes of, or including, Chinese folklore, this book by Yep is the first I’ve seen that suggests a uniquely Chinese-American variety of tall tales. He points out that since the majority of early Chinese immigrants to America came from a specific province, the stories of that region have greater significance than more general Chinese or Asian proverbs.

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Review: Gift of Our Wounds

“Better to be brought up on charges for excessive force – or worse- than give someone the benefit of the doubt and be carried out in a coffin. I began waking up in the middle of the night, second-guessing everything I did on the job.” page 125

The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate by Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka with Robin Gaby Fisher.
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2018.
Adult nonfiction, 222 pages.
Not leveled.
NOTE: This book, and therefore the discussion of it in this review, contain numerous triggers. Please be aware and skip this review if needed.
2nd NOTE: Also this review is longer than usual because my own mental and emotional health made it difficult to edit.

The story of a former white supremacist whose words inspired the Sikh temple shooter and a man whose father was murdered in that shooting spree.

The Gift of Our Wounds by Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka.

The book begins with acknowledgements and a prologue, followed by a chapter detailing the co-authors’ first meeting. The second chapter onward follow a more linear progression, starting with their childhoods, their high school and early adult life. At one point these two men lived only a short drive from each other, yet it took national headline level violence for their lives to converge.

Michaelis is very clear that his life was not especially full of hardships, that he was a normal, if somewhat wild, suburban boy. The stories about his recruitment to white supremacy through the punk rock scene (after an unfortunate incident turning him off of his earlier love of breakdancing) are almost as upsetting as his descriptions of acts of violence.

Then he attends a white supremacy “leadership camp” and is literally indoctrinated into the beliefs and recruitment system. He sees himself as doing good in the world even when literally beating someone. It’s stomach turning – this is not a book that can be read during lunch breaks or before bed.

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Board Book Review: Happy!

Our 21st board book delights parents and toddlers alike.

Happy by Pharrell Williams.
Putnam, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015.
Board book, 30 pages.
Lexile:  AD410L  ( What does AD mean in Lexile? )
AR Level:  1.7 (worth 0.5 points)  .

A board book (also available in picture book format) based on the popular song.

Happy cover resized
Happy by Pharrell Williams.

I just love song picture books and board books because they have so many applications.  Toddlers can look at the pictures.  Older children can read the words independently.  And everybody in between can sing the song!  These are nice for allowing children to read at a bit higher level than they are ready for, because they can use prior knowledge of the song lyrics to decode the words.  They can also be helpful for engaging reluctant readers who love music.

However, this type of book is challenging to do well.  Luckily, Williams and his team have done a great job converting this song to board book format.  Now, I will say that if you’ve never heard the song, this book might not make so much sense to you – the lyrics don’t exactly coalesce into a story.  But take a minute and go listen to the song, I’ll wait!

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Review: Sarai & the Meaning of Awesome

“… but our whole family lives in New Jersey now. So we are really, truly Americans – North, South, and Central!” page 7

Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown, illustrated by Christine Almeda.
Scholastic, New York, 2018.
Realistic fiction, 108 pages.
Lexile: 690L  .
AR Level:  3.8 (worth 1.0 points)  .
NOTE: This is the first book in the Sarai series.

Sarai Gonzalez is awesome.  She can do anything she sets her mind to, right?  But when her grandparents are about to lose their home, can she solve that problem?

Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome cover resized
Sarai and the Meaning of Awesome by Sarai Gonzalez and Monica Brown, illustrated by Christine Almeda.

I absolutely adored this book and am looking forward to reading more in the series.  Sarai is like a modern-day, Latina Pollyanna without the syrupy sweetness.  She radiates positivity and a can-do attitude, but also makes mistakes and sometimes meets problems she can’t solve (yet).

A large part of my love for this book was due to the incredibly appealing artwork, which brings me to the biggest problem, which is that the artist is not appropriately credited.  Christine Almeda’s name appears only on the back cover and copyright page, and that in small print.  Since this is a book with two co-authors (teen Sarai on whose real life the series is based and experienced author Monica Brown), it would be easy for young readers to mistake the cover credits for author and illustrator.

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