“I do not think these many self-help efforts, as important as they are, can conceivably prevent these outcomes on more than a very limited scale and always in quite special situations, and I even feel a bit bewildered that a point like this needs to be made in the United States in 1995.” page 163
Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol. Perennial, HarperCollins, New York, first published 1995, my edition 2000. Adult non-fiction, 286 pages. Not leveled. NOTE: There are many books with the title Amazing Grace. Also, the initial note explains that there are some differences between editions – I read the paperback version.
A sociological narrative of how drug use and AIDs, among other things, impacted one community.
Kozol attempts to cover many topics within these few hundred pages, touching on racism, classism, AIDs, poverty cycles, medical inequalities, drugs, politics, systemic injustice, religion, childhood, environmental racism, the justice system, hunger, bureaucracy, homelessness, cancer, and other topics. Needless to say, he doesn’t cover all of them fully.
This book and the vast popularity of it on initial publication likely informed many of the more recent, better coverage of these topics, and for that I am grateful. But Kozol meanders through many things without ever making any points, or systematically documenting any particular issue. It’s neither commentary nor journalism, and surely not academia.
“She had mocked the children as batty and delusional. But in the end, they had known what she didn’t – that the line between stories and real life is very thin indeed.” page 72
The School for Good and Evil (#1) by Soman Chainani, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. HarperCollins, New York, 2013. Fantasy novel, 488 pages. Lexile: 830L . AR Level: 5.2 (worth 16.0 points) .
Sophie cannot wait to be stolen from her village and attend the mysterious School of Good and Evil. She’s been doing everything she possibly can to prepare – an intensive beauty regime, rigorous fashion design, and of course good deeds such as befriending the town witch. Agatha has no interest in getting kidnapped, but when her best friend is taken, she just has to intervene. But then Agatha finds herself on the Good side, and Sophie is attending Evil classes…
Not sure how I missed this series for so long. Perhaps since all the main characters are so clearly white, I overlooked that the author is Indian American. But these have been fairly popular.
Chainani’s plotting and characterization, as well as his detailed fairy-tale-based world, truly impressed me. For the last few years, I have been reading a LOT of fantasy novels for young people while working on my first diverse fantasy booklist. Particularly in middle grade fantasy, by now I can often guess what is coming next. This book was gripping because Chainani managed to continually take the plot and characters in new directions while still keeping the developments believable.
“My studies had taught me that there were many ways to create change. Protests and activism were important and meaningful ways of applying social pressure. But I also felt that when we began to fear our ability to bring people to some truth, there was a problem.” page 234
Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America by Zachary R. Wood. Dutton imprint, Penguin Random House, New York, 2018. Adult memoir, 238 pages. Lexile: 1040L . AR Level: not yet leveled.
The story of a young man who moved between abusive and loving but impoverished home life and mostly-white educational institutions that gave him access to another world but rejected or exceptionalized his race.
I picked up this book with only the vaguest idea of who Zachary Wood was, perhaps having read one of his articles but not yet having cemented the name and the ideas together in my mind. After all, in 2020 most of us are focusing on hate speech rather than free speech, when we aren’t simply trying to stay alive.
Honestly, the main reason I grabbed this was because I assumed the subtitle indicated a biracial author. Wood is African American or Black, not biracial – he has spent much of his short life moving between black and white environments though.
“Walter didn’t say anything as I explained the situation, but he had a strange, despairing look on his face.” page 120
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
My edition Spiel & Grau, Random House, New York, 2019; originally published 2014.
Adult nonfiction, 354 pages.
Lexile: 1130L .
AR Level: not leveled
NOTE: The 2019 edition has a movie tie-in cover and extra postscript, otherwise I assume it’s the same as the previous version.
The story of Bryan Stevenson’s work with prisoners condemned to death, in particular the story of Walter McMillian – a man on death row for a murder he could not possibly have committed.
Several years ago, I read a report from Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative team that was insightful and searing. His personal book, Just Mercy, was already on my wishlist, but I wanted to prioritize reading it. Well, time went by, I even checked it out from the library and read a few chapters but had to return it due to another hold, and I had read so much about Just Mercy that I kept assuming that I’d read the actual book, until the new cover made me pick it up and realize somehow I’d missed it.
That happens in life sometimes, and luckily books are usually still around to find later. This time I purchased the book, and with a weekend mostly free, breathlessly read through the entire book. If I thought EJI report was well done, it was only because I had yet to experience Stevenson’s impressive narrative style.
“Her choice to flee the United States and spare her sons further repercussions, rather than tell her story, left me unsettled. I firmly believed this story needed to be told.” page viii
Us In Progress: Short Stories about Young Latinos by Lulu Delacre.
Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2017.
Realistic fiction, 242 pages.
Lexile: 740L .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 5.0 points) .
A collection of stories about young Latinos from various backgrounds.
This is a unique collection in many ways. One is that the author is also the illustrator. Delacre’s Introduction is an important part of the book as it explains some of the nuances behind the artwork and writing, including the three layers used on each piece.
The life story of noted American folk artist Clementine Hunter, 1886/7-1988.
This book is part of our picture book artist biography series of reviews. Descended from slaves, Clementine Hunter was a folk artist who was a manual laborer on a Louisiana plantation known for attracting writers and artists. From the 1940s when she attracted the attention of patrons at the plantation until the late 1980s, she gained in popularity until she was able, at the end of her life, to live independently from the sale of her artworks.
“I have to suck up as much pride and dignity as I can while it’s there for me.” page 200
Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draper.
Speak, Penguin Group, New York, 2007.
YA historical fiction, 231 pages.
Lexile: 760L .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 9.0 points) .
Sharon Draper detours from her usual realistic fiction for a historical novel set in 1957 during school integration at Little Rock.
The novel opens with a bang as a white man’s vicious dog is turned loose on Sylvia’s 8-year old sister. Several incidents throughout give a realistic portrayal of what it was like to live during that time period. For example, although Sylvia takes great pride in her mother’s sewing ability, it’s also a practical necessity since she explains that at the time only white people were allowed to try on clothes in department stores or return them if they didn’t fit. The nature of historical fiction also makes these glimpses more interesting and memorable to the reader than say, a textbook. I think this book would work well in a high school history course.
“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.
“We three stuck together / like the pages in a brand-new book. / And being normal young children, / we were almost always up to something.” page 10
My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Christine King Farris, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet.
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2003.
Picture book nonfiction, 40 pages.
Lexile: 970L .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 0.5 points) .
Personal remembrances of Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood from his older sister Christine.
I debated a lot before buying this book. Our local libraries didn’t have it and the cover, especially in a small thumbnail version, is just so unattractive. However, I was hoping for something different from the standard stories, which is exactly what this book delivers. Luckily the interior art is excellent!
The book does skew a bit toward older readers with denser text and more difficult words like chifforobe, Cyclorama, Auburn, cruelty, bigotry, nourishing. The main focus here is on MLK’s childhood, specifically on two fronts – both the ways in which he was an ordinary, sometimes mischievous little boy, and the events that shaped his personality.
“His patients believed they were being treated for blood ailments. The tonics the hospital administered, however, were merely sugar water.” p. 124
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
Anchor Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
Adult fiction, 313 pages.
Lexile: 890L .
AR Level: not yet leveled
Cora is a young woman on a Georgia plantation when a new arrival asks her to run away with him. Only one slave has ever successfully escaped the Randall plantation, but Caesar believes that if they run together, they’ll make it to the elusive Underground Railroad.
It took me a good while to get to this one. I’d seen a lot of mixed reviews, and in general I’m not a fan of magical realism (which is what most people were calling this). Finally I saw this at Target and decided to use it as one of my targetpicks selections.
Going into the read with low expectations definitely helped this novel blow me away. It’s a very difficult book to classify. Whitehead uses elements of many different genres, including historical fiction, adventure, science fiction, magical realism, and realistic fiction.