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 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.
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.
“Just like that, Rendi became the chore boy at the Inn of the Clear Sky. He was not used to doing chores, so when he found a broom in his hand, he had to watch Peiyi to learn how to sweep.” page 20
Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2014.
MG fantasy, 289 pages + extras.
Lexile: 810L .
AR Level: 5.4 (worth 7.0 points) .
Runaway Rendi seems to be the only one who noticed that the moon is missing above the village of Clear Sky! He’s aching for someone to visit this remote village so he can stow away and leave again, but while he’s stuck here, can he unravel the peculiarities of this very odd village?
I was very uncertain about how this read would go (the first book in this series was a 2017 favorite) but Grace Lin has delivered another superb MG fantasy. One of the fascinating aspects of this series is that so far each book focuses on a different character and has an independent plot, although set in the same world.
The previous book was all about journeys. Both the exciting physical journey that Min-li went on, and to a lesser degree, the emotional journey that her parents take as they are left at home without her. In contrast, this book is remarkably stable. The cast of characters is noticeably smaller (although used to full effect) and the setting limited – most scenes take place in one small town and its bizarre surroundings.
“A tarpaulin bulged from the bus’s roof like an enormous fungus. It inflated into a huge balloon, tethered by ropes from the upper windows.” page 55
Un Lun Dun by China Mieville.
Del Rey, Random House, Inc., New York, 2007.
MG fantasy, 578 pages.
Twelve-year-old Zanna and her best friend Deeba find a secret portal that takes them from their hometown of London to mysterious UnLunDun, where the giraffes are carnivorous and Zanna is the Chosen One with a special destiny… right?
I don’t know why this book doesn’t get mentioned more often. Perhaps because it is so long for a middle grade read, or because Mieville isn’t known for his children’s literature. In fact, I suspect many people don’t even realize it’s a children’s book, especially other editions that have a different cover. The cover needs to be somewhat vague, because this is a book of many twists and turns.
“Dream big, little one. There’s so much you can do. Just look at all the leaders who came before you.” pages 1 and 2
Dream Big, Little One by Vashti Harrison.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2018.
Board book nonfiction, 26 pages.
A board book adaptation of Harrison’s popular book Little Leaders.
We already have more board books than one family really needs. But after spending so long hunting for great diverse board books, I still get excited about new releases, especially one like this that has excellent role models for our daughters.
“Kids may need years of consistent, loving care before they begin to trust, and they may resist trusting even in the face of much love and care from new parents.” page 107
Forever Mom: What to Expect When You’re Adopting by Mary Ostyn.
Nelson Books, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee, 2014.
Nonfiction, 241 pages.
Mary Ostyn shares her experiences as a mother of ten, six adopted, children.
I’m always interested in reading books about adoption and foster care. Initially when I got this, I thought it would have more about fostering or domestic adoption. While Ostyn did go through the initial process of domestic adoption, in the end all of their six adopted children were foreign adoptions.
This is part memoir and part advice book. Ostyn writes from a Christian background so there are scripture quotations and references to Jesus and prayer. I didn’t realize before reading this book that like many international adoptive parents, she feels particularly called by Jesus to adopt the children who ended up in her home.