Review: Code Talker

“But I had no idea, even in my wildest dreams, that the very language those bilagdanaa teacher tried to erase – the way you wipe words from a blackboard – would one day be needed by important white men.” page 27

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Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac.
Speak, Penguin Group, New York, 2005.
Historical fiction, 231 pages.
Lexile:  910L  .
AR Level:  6.4 (worth 9.0 points)  .

This novel follows fictional narrator Ned Begay through his life, focusing particularly on his experiences as a Navajo code talker.

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The framework of this story is that it is a story that a grandfather is telling to his grandchildren.  This idea is presented in the introduction and mentioned sporadically throughout the novel as well as in the final chapter.  I was a bit iffy about this device, but Bruchac used it beautifully.

Although the majority of this book deals with the fictional narrator’s time as a code talker, he begins the story when he went to boarding school, since learning English and being able to balance his own culture with the white American norms forced upon him have a lot of bearing on who he became and how he was able to navigate both worlds.

While the narrator is fictional, almost everything else is real, in particular the other code talkers mentioned are real historical figures, and all of the battles and troop movements mentioned are as they actually occurred.  This was one of my few quibbles with this book, it did occasionally give a little too much information.  On the other hand, a student particularly interested in WWII would probably soak it up.

If the world of diverse historical fiction is already lacking, the selection is even more meager when searching for diverse historical fiction to appeal to boys.  I know of only two authors consistently writing in this field – Christopher Paul Curtis and Joseph Bruchac (if you know of others, please leave a comment).

Speak is best known for YA fiction, sometimes quite intense reads.  So I was pleasantly surprised that this is a family-friendly read-aloud.  Of course there are moments that the story gets intense and the violence of WWII is represented, so as always, pre-read for younger or more sensitive children.  If you have very young listeners you may want to skip over some of the scenes involving death and injury.  But there was no explicit content and the story could be enjoyed by upper elementary school students up to high school.

There were a handful of areas where Bruchac laid on the facts and figures about WWII too heavily, but overall this was far more engaging than the last book we read by him.  Given the unexpected violence in the last book, this one was much less surprising since it actually took place in a war.  I’m looking forward to reading other historical fiction he’s written.  This book even had a good amount about Ira Hayes, which was great since we’d just learned about him another way.

There are some serious injuries and deaths, as would be expected in a novel about the action in WWII.  Ned also faces frequent bigotry and sometimes outright abuse due to his ethnicity.  While Bruchac definitely includes those moments, he doesn’t focus on the violence.  Only one of the descriptions felt too gruesome for me.  (I’m sure it was accurate, just a little more than I would want to read aloud around the little ones.)

The final section includes several pages on Navajo history, the code talkers in particular, and how Bruchac (who is Abenaki, not Navajo) came to write this book.  I appreciated that he gave thanks to the Navajo elders and code talkers who shared their stories with him but took full responsibility for any errors in the book.

I’m happy to recommend this book and look forward to reading more of Bruchac’s historical fiction.

Review: Tapenum’s Day

“The Wampanoag culture is a living culture. Today there are many Wampanoag people living in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.” p. 37

Tapenum’s Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times by Kate Waters, Photographs by Russ Kendall.
Scholastic, New York, 1996.
Informative fiction, 40 pages.
Lexile:  680L  .
AR Level:  4.6 (worth 0.5 points)  .

The story of a Wampanoag boy in the 1620s.  While others in this series follow an imaginary day in the life of a recorded person, this book aims to show what daily indigenous life was like at the time and place of the Plimoth settlement.

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Tapenum’s Day by Kate Waters, photographed by Russ Kendall.

It was with great relief that I found and read this book.  Diverse books about Thanksgiving are in short supply, and it is one of the holidays always in demand from both families and teachers.

Before reading it, however, I was sorely disappointed in many of the reviews.  Quite a few people made basic errors despite having supposedly read the book.  Some confused the time period, assuming it takes place in the present day.  Others confused the location, assuming that this one story about the Wampanoag people in what is now Massachusetts/Rhode Island represents an entire continent of indigenous peoples.

The errors in reviewing made it very difficult to determine if I should buy this, so to clarify – this is very clearly a book about Wampanoag life in the 1620s.  The one confusion I could see is that a specific date is not given on the title page.  However there are four pages of notes outlining the historical and geographical setting so even a cursory glance should clarify when and where this book is set.

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Review: Giving Thanks

“To be a human being is an honor, and we offer thanksgiving for all the gifts of life.” page 4

Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message by Chief Jake Swamp, illustrate by Erwin Printup, Jr.
My edition Scholastic, New York, 1997, originally published by Lee and Low, 1995.
Picture book, 24 pages.
Lexile:  AD520L  ( What does AD mean in Lexile? )
AR Level:  3.3 (worth 0.5 points)  .
NOTE: There is another book by the same title but subtitled “The 1621 Harvest Feast.”

A children’s book adaptation of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address by Mohawk Chief Jake Swamp.

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This is one of those books that gives the lie to publishers who say they can’t find qualified Native authors and illustrators.  Already back in 1995, Lee and Low had Cayuga/Tuscarora painter Erwin Printup, who not only has a degree in fine arts, but also provides gorgeous, culturally appropriate illustrations for this title.  In fact, we were so taken with this book that I went searching for other children’s books illustrated by Printup.  But it seems that he was also underemployed, because all I found was a few anthologies he was included in.

While this is a handy alternative for librarians to give parents and teachers who insist on Thanksgiving books, truly this book could be read at any time of year.  As Swamp explains in his can’t-miss author’s note, not only is the Thanksgiving Address read at every gathering of the Six Nations, it’s also taught to children as a morning thank you.

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Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

“Mollie was one of the last people to see Anna before she vanished.” p. 8

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann.
Vintage Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.  Originally published Doubleday, 2016.
Nonfiction, 377 pages including notes and bibliography.
Lexile:  1160L  .
AR Level:  8.8 (worth 14.0 points)  .

Through an unusual turn of events, in the 1920s the Osage people became astonishingly rich.  Unable to stomach an autonomous American Indian tribe, the United States government appointed “guardians” who would watch over their every purchase, and white settlers moved in to the area with ridiculously overpriced goods and services.  And then came the murders.  Many were focused around one family, and the FBI eventually got involved in their case.

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Normally I read books about more Northern tribes because that’s where we live and travel most often, but after passing through Oklahoma, the Osage interested me.  If you are looking for a book about the Osage, this one keeps coming up, so when I saw it at Target I decided to give it a try.

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Review: Queen of Katwe

“Phiona had never read a chess book. Never read a chess magazine. Never used a computer. Yet this girl was already a national champion.” page 132

Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion by Tim Crothers.
Vintage Canada, Penguin Random House, Toronto, Canada, my edition 2016, originally published 2012.
Nonfiction, 232 pages.
Not leveled.

Phiona Mutesi followed her brother to a place where children were learning to play chess.  Initially motivated more by a free daily meal, she soon found she had a gift for chess which might propel her out of the slums of Katwe, Uganda.

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Normally I am very strict about always reading first before seeing any movie based on a book.  In this case both my family and I really wanted to see the film, so I did watched before reading the book.  Sometimes seeing the movie version first can color the interpretation of the book.

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Review: Being Mortal

“Nursing homes have come a long way from the firetrap warehouses of neglect they used to be. But it seems we’ve succumbed to a belief that, once you lose your physical independence, a life of worth and freedom is simply not possible.” p. 75

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande.
Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co, New York, 2014.
Nonfiction, 282 pages.
Not leveled.

Because his parents both immigrated to America from India, Gawande didn’t have much first-hand experience with aging or mortality – the elderly members of his family were a continent away, being cared for by others.  He certainly didn’t learn much about it from his medical school classes.  Then he came face-to-face with the reality of American aging through his grandmother-in-law and patients, and decided to raise some questions about end of life-care and the meaning of life, and death.

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Gawande has an interesting perspective on mortality and his second-generation-immigrant perspective gave him an insight into other methods of dealing with age that helped him turn a critical eye on how we deal with it here in America.  This book reminded me of Another Day in the Death of America in that way – it takes a subject that most Americans wouldn’t even think twice about, and presents it to everyday readers.

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Graphic Novel Review: The Shark King

This slim early-chapter-book graphic novel retelling of a traditional Hawaiian story will appeal to adults as well.

The Shark King by R. Kikuo Johnson.
TOON Books, New York, 2012.
Graphic novel, 40 pages.
Lexile:  GN410L or GN380L ?   ( Also what does GN mean in Lexile? )
AR Level:  1.6 (worth 0.5 points)  .
NOTE: I have some disagreement with these levels, see review for details.

This is the story of Nanaue, from the day his parents met onward.

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Most graphic novels I’ve reviewed here so far fall into the middle school, teen, or adult categories.  While some might be appropriate for younger MG readers, most were not.  This book is aimed at elementary students – although I wouldn’t hesitate to add it to a middle school library or even a high school if high-low books were needed.  The age of the characters is not specified, and while Toon Books specializes in elementary graphic novels, they do also make some for older readers.

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