“I can still be sorry that you had to experience that. No child or woman should ever be treated like you, Suzie, and your mom were. It helps me understand a little bit why you think you wouldn’t be any good at fancy dancing.” page 9
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Heartdrum, HarperCollins, New York, 2021, my edition 2022. MG short story anthology, 312 pages including back matter. Lexile: not yet leveled AR Level: 5.0 (worth 9.0 points) . NOTE: This review is longer than usual since I discuss each piece and the book as a whole. Also see note on accent marks.
An anthology of pieces centered around one powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Despite having left school library life some time ago, I still get excited to see new collections and anthologies like this one published, because they are such important additions to the classroom. Ancestor Approved manages to take this to the next level by having the stories and poems all connected, despite most being by different authors. If it’s difficult as a reader to wrap your head around the many linkages and connections, just imagine the work Cynthia Leitich Smith did to bring this book together!
There are 18 different pieces by 16 different authors (and Nicole Neidhardt who contributed the excellent cover illustration is also rightfully acknowledged). Most are short stories although the book closes and opens with poems. There’s also considerable supportive matter, including a foreword, glossary broken down by story, notes, acknowledgements, and brief biographies of all contributors. As is my custom for anthologies and collections, I’ll discuss each of the individual pieces briefly before returning to the discussion of the work as a whole.
“Each time the doctor asked me to move a part of my body and I could not move it, my terror increased.” page 10
Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret. Albert Whitman & Company, Chicago, IL, 1996. Middle grade nonfiction/memoir, 168 pages + preview. Lexile: 830L . AR Level: 5.2 (worth 4.0 points) . NOTE: This review is of the nonfiction polio narrative, not the fictional Louis Sachar Holes sequel.
Seven months in 12 year old Peg’s life, starting in September 1949 shortly before she became ill, and continuing with her illness and survival for the rest of that school year.
When COVID hit, I went through a phase of reading children’s books about other epidemics. Books for young readers have the happy endings that adult authors rarely do, and there was something comforting about knowing others had survived the spread of contagious diseases.
Everyone in this story is either described or presumed white, but many characters, including the author/narrator, experience physical disability as a from the polio epidemic. I also wanted to write about this book because it was one of the best family read-alouds we did during quarantine, and ought to be better known.
“I know a life can be destroyed in an instant: a car spins out of control on a busy road, a doctor sits down to break bad news, or a love letter is discovered hidden in a place where its owner thought it would never be found. All these things can shatter a world in just a few moments. But is it possible for the opposite to happen – for a life to be created in a moment instead of destroyed?” page 189
Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body by Martin Pistorius with Megan Lloyd Davies. Nelson Books, Thomas Nelson, HarperCollins Christian, Nashville, Tennessee, 2013. Adult memoir, 276 pages. Lexile: not leveled AR Level: 6.2 (worth 11.0 points) . NOTE: Despite the reading level, definitely an adult book. See content warnings for more information. FURTHER NOTE: Not to be confused with the 2018 MG historical fantasy novel Ghost Boys, also reviewed on this blog.
The story of a boy who, in 1988, slowly succumbed to a mysterious illness that left him paralyzed and unable to function. Except Martin was not totally gone, and slowly returned to full consciousness, aware of his surroundings but unable to control his body at all.
This was a surprising read. The cover says it’s a New York Times bestseller, but I’d never heard of it before a friend handed me the book. The subtitle and blurb probably already clued you in, but since I do review a lot of fantasy, let me be clear that this is an adult work of nonfiction.
Reading a South African story that didn’t discuss any of the unique political or cultural milieu was interesting but also felt weird. Race is rarely mentioned, although sometimes it can be guessed from a name or the description of a person. At the same time, it also makes sense that in this particular circumstance, Pistorius truly didn’t care much about racial tensions or the larger political world!
“I no more wanted Parz’s help than I wanted to be helpless. I didn’t want him – or anyone – to see me as weak.” page 54
Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell. Harper, HarperCollins Children’s Books, New York, 2013. MG fantasy, 328 pages. Lexile: 770L . AR Level: 5.4 (worth 10.0 points) .
A princess’ work is never done, even if said princess is visibly disabled, especially if said princess is the only heir to valuable property. When Tilda’s cousin steals her lands, she sees it as the perfect excuse for freedom and adventures. She’ll be free of all her onerous duties, and her people will be free of her and won’t have to whisper horrid comments behind her back. But even as she learns about dragons, the wild hunt, and other magics, she also learns a lot about herself and what she truly wants.
Tilda is a princess (and as a sole heir, will inherit despite her gender and disability) but she secretly dreams of living in a monastery. This is partly because she doesn’t know the realities of that life, thus can idealize it, but it’s also because of the realistically awful yet appropriate for the time period way she’s treated.
“Writing a novel is a long process – like a long-distance runner running a marathon, I know I cannot reach the finish line that day. Instead, I have to be patient, trying to complete a shorter stretch of writing – a chapter, for instance.” pages 21 and 22
The Lost Garden by Laurence Yep. My edition Beech Tree Paperback, Harper Collins, New York, 1996 – originally Simon & Schuster, 1991. MG autobiography, 118 pages. Lexile: 1110L . AR Level: 7.1 (worth 7.0 points) .
The story of famous children’s author Laurence Yep’s life from his early years to the start of his writing career, although focusing mostly on his coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s.
The slim paperback fooled me into thinking that this would be a book for elementary students, but the content is more appropriate for tweens and young teens. Yep doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, such as his own family’s brushes with poverty, a customer whose husband brutally attacked her, Mark Twain’s suicidal thoughts, the topless dancers at a club in the neighborhood, and pulse-pounding confrontations when the burglar alarm goes off.
He tells even difficult and painful tales in a straightforward way, and frequently pauses to explain details that might not be known or understood by younger readers. This reminded me strongly of Roald Dahl’s Boy – a tale of a fairly ordinary life told with vivid details that render it fascinating. Aspects such as what it was like to have severe asthma attacks before common home treatments may shock young readers.
There are so many tidbits here about how he was inspired or helped with various novels by different relatives or events. I’m planning a systematic rereading of his entire Golden Mountain Chronicles series, many of which I’ve read but not in order – after which I might need to reread this book!
“It is easy to understand the child’s bafflement. One has only to listen to an animated conversation in an unfamiliar language – our own language is built of discrete blocks, everyone else’s of quicksilver. It seems as hard to grab a word out of a foreign tongue as to clutch a fistful of water from a pond.” page 87
Genie: A Scientific Tragedy by Russ Rymer. HarperPerennial, HarperCollins, New York, originally published 1993, my edition 1994. Adult nonfiction, 222 pages. Not leveled.
The story of a girl used for scientific research, the scientists who worked with her, and the way their interactions changed many lives.
The story behind this is so poignant that I couldn’t help wishing again and again that it had been a bit better told. Indeed, if the blurb had not interested me so highly, I would not have persevered beyond the frankly boring first chapter. This was a frequent theme as Rymer often went into digressions which, even when intended to illuminate some aspect of the story, were often poorly timed.
And yet… the story here truly is compelling in every sense.
“Genie” as the name chosen to be used in the scientific research on her, had a truly unique and horrifying childhood. Kept entirely in one room and mostly forced into one or two positions by restraints, she spent more than a decade strapped to a potty seat, eating only liquid or mushed food, and only able to move her fingers and toes. Her blind mother finally escaped from her abusive father with her in tow and entirely accidentally ended up in social services by accident instead.
“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get – and never would get.” page 29
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon & Schuster BFYR, New York, 2014 (originally published 2012). YA novel, 360 pages. Lexile: HL380L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? ) AR Level: 2.9 (worth 8.0 points) . NOTE: This book is intended for mature teens despite the reading level.
Two loner Mexican-American boys meet at the local swimming pool and strike up a friendship in the late 1980s. Dante is secure, if not always happy, in who he is, and has many talents while Aristole (or Ari) is struggling with the secrets and silence in his family – including those around his brother in prison and those he’s keeping himself. This novel takes place over two years.
I’ve owned this book for at least five years now. It came highly recommended and has won many awards. The majority of reviews rave about it, yet I DNF’d it over and over. Finally read it all the way through… and still didn’t love it. So the poor thing went on my shelf of books that have been read but will be reread, reviewed, and generally dealt with later. Well “later” in this case is 2022, since clearing off that shelf is one of my main goals for the year.
So I had to reread it with an eye for why possibly this wasn’t the book for me, even if it was so clearly beloved by many other readers. Perhaps then a review could be useful even for those who adored this story. As there is already so much written about this novel elsewhere, I’m going to break from my usual formats somewhat and focus mainly on how this particular novel very much didn’t work for me – as perhaps that might help some people decide if it might be a good fit for them or not.
“Worst of all were the thoughts. It was as if those thousands of fear-filled books all flew off the shelves of her mind and opened at once, as if every single word was being screamed at her, flung at her, piercing and deadly.” page 175
Quintessence by Jess Redman. Square Fish, Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan, New York, originally published 2020, my edition 2021. MG fantasy, 362 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 720L . AR Level: 5.1 (worth 10.0 points) .
Alma Lucas was devastated when her family left their hometown of Old Haven for Four Points. Never hugely popular, she had been content with knowing kids at school, spending time with her family, and exploring the natural world around – but with her older brother away at college, her parents busy keeping their new law firm afloat, and a new town she can’t find her bearings in, Alma is wrapped up in anxiety and having frequent panic attacks. Then the mysterious Shopkeeper gives her a quintescope and tells her to save the Starling.
This is on the longer end for MG, although fantasy does tend to run long, but the space is generally well used to unspool the various mysteries and slowly coax Alma into confiding in others and accepting help for her situation.
The kids get into a significant amount of trouble, mostly revolving around sneaking out late at night to ramble around town on star-related activities. It probably bears mentioning to urban or suburban kids that roaming the streets after dark has a different level of risk for them. Four Points, however, is the sort of sleepy town where traffic doesn’t happen in the middle of the night, and the town is small enough to be entirely traversed by kids on their bikes.
While I like to see Deaf characters in books, a few points in this book – especially the use of SimCom – felt awkward and forced.
Where do all my conversational essays come from? Reviews that have gotten far too long, of course. Yesterday my review of a novel called Cattywampus went up (or should have, I’m writing this well before posting).
Overall I enjoyed the novel (see the review for more details) but the ASL aspect sometimes felt off in ways that were hard to describe. Talking about it took up way too much of the review, so here’s a separate post for those who wish to delve deeper into this aspect of the book. First I wish to give a major disclaimer that I personally am not Deaf nor Appalachian so it is very possible that I’ve gotten some aspects of this wrong. I do have deaf, Deaf, and hard of hearing friends and family, and am familiar with, although not fluent in, American Sign Language.
If you are yourself or know of reviewers who discuss this topic from either of those standpoints, or from the intersex view which I don’t get into here but discuss in the main review (as it is a more major part of the novel) please share those reviews! Since Disability in Kidlit is now ended, I have been hoping for Sharon Pajka to review this book on her blog, but haven’t seen a post about it yet.
“Grace just looked at me and asked what I was waiting for. She says it doesn’t matter how old you are, or what you’ve learned – being a Black geek is about who you are, and what you’re interested in. Nobody gets to decide that but you.” page 75
Sauerkraut by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Paul Davey. Knopf, Penguin Random House, New York, 2019. MG fantasy, 280 pages. Lexile: 750L . AR Level: 4.8 (worth 7.0 points) .
A biracial Black/German-American boy clearing his uncle’s basement finds a sauerkraut urn haunted by his great-great-grandmother, who insists he help her make pickled ethnic food to enter into the county fair. HD has to balance his own summer plans and responsibilities with his new ghostly relative’s goals.
Reading this after the Unusual Chickens series might be unfair. We eagerly anticipate the next installment in that favorite series. Sauerkraut is a separate story with familiar modus operandi – biracial MC (white German-American and African American) lives in a mostly white, semi-rural area and has unusual hobbies (caring for goats, making things) runs into some strange magic (ancestor haunting the sauerkraut pot).
HD is established in his community, has a strong connection to both sides of his heritage (identifies more as Black), already has a best friend, and isn’t on a farm despite the goat subplot. And he’s a nerd who loves the library and comics and is very familiar with supernatural fiction, so after the original scare he copes with magic more easily.