“The girl stretched her arm, her large belly getting in the way. From the girl’s young age, Malala guessed it was her first child and she hadn’t been married long.” page 3
She Dared: Malala Yousafzai by Jenni L. Walsh. Scholastic, New York, 2019. Elementary/MG biography, 120 pages. Lexile: not leveled AR Level: 5.0 (worth 2.0 points) .
A highly problematic youth biography of Malala Yousafzai.
It’s rare that by the third chapter of a children’s book I’m continuing to read only for due diligence. I tend to avoid or delay negative reviews – it’s more fun to write about wonderful books, or try to analyze the ones I feel lukewarm about. Since leaving daily school librarianship in a slight (and given the pandemic, well-timed) rerouting of my career, I haven’t followed Scholastic as closely. It’s no longer part of my professional duties to coordinate book fairs and Scholastic purchases, and in my personal and blog life, I prefer to focus more on smaller publishers and lesser known authors. One of my kids still orders from them though, which is how this book ended up in our house.
A quick glance at the series and it’s obvious that this was an attempt by Scholastic to capitalize on the success of female biography series such as Rebel Girls. Even the name here is a rip off of the She Persisted books. But being derivative isn’t always bad in children’s literature – while these books are less fun for adults to read, simplified plots and repetitive sentences can also help early readers in some circumstances.
What bothered me most about this book is that it was very clearly written for white readers (although it doesn’t state that openly) and panders heavily. If you read Malala’s own books, her perspective involves criticism of her culture – but from a place of deep love, respect, and understanding. For her as a cultural insider to denounce the Taliban and some aspects of traditional life, involves very different nuance than what Walsh uses here.
A plethora of problematic details ultimately ruin this widely hyped pro-dyslexic novel. See review for quotations.
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
Puffin, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015.
MG realistic fiction, 276 pages + sketchbook of impossible things and excerpt.
Lexile: 550L .
AR Level: 3.7 (worth 7.0 points) .
NOTE: This review is a lot longer than my usual. If you’d just like a general opinion, scroll down to the final paragraphs.
Ally’s been to half a dozen different schools. With a military dad and working mom, it’s easy to hide things from teachers, like not being able to read. If trouble arises, she just goes with the laughs and builds on her trouble-making reputation. But the new teacher is bringing light to her gifts and might illuminate her struggles also, if she lets him.
I wanted to love this book. It’s been on my wishlist for ages and I hoped this would be a good book to share with the kids. Instead, I feel ambivalent. None of the individual issues alone were major enough to ruin it; some parts I liked, but many aspects were problematic.
“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.
“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.
“All the Women in My Family Sing is a tribute to the many voices of women in a chorus of cultural refrains. Each essay is a personal story about the victories and challenges women face every day as innovators, artists, CEOs, teachers and adventurers. All of the essays reveal how glorious it is to live authentically in our identities.”
p. ix-x, Foreword by Deborah Santana
All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World – Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom, edited by Deborah Santana.
Nothing But The Truth, San Francisco, CA, 2018.
Adult anthology, 365 pages.
NOTES: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Because this book contains 69 pieces, I decided to review it in three parts.
The essays and poems in AtWiMFS are roughly grouped into 8 categories, each containing between 7 and 10 pieces. Most are quite short, but I do like to comment briefly on each one, so I’ve decided to break this up so it’s not excessively long.
“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.
“This is what I now remember most about my last afternoon at school – the smell of the dusty chalkboard, the sound of the students lingering outside the door, and, mostly, how easily I took my ordinary life for granted.” page 4
Twelve year old Pakistani Amal dreams of being a teacher someday. When family circumstances force her, the oldest daughter, to stay home for a while, she is disappointed but finds a way to go on learning. But when an incident at the market leads to indentured servitude, are her dreams lost forever?
As soon as I saw the ARC review over at Huntress of Diverse Books, I knew I’d be buying this book. The gorgeous cover was a lure, of course, but also I was extremely curious how Saeed managed to write a book about indentured servitude appropriate for middle-grade readers.
“She resented the fact that her veil, which to her was a symbol of her sacred relationship to God, had now become an instrument of power, turning the women who wore them into political signs and symbols.” page 103
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi.
Random House, New York, my edition 2004, originally published 2003.
Adult memoir, 358 pages including reading group guide.
Lexile: not yet leveled
AR Level: 8.4 (worth 25.0 points) .
NOTE: Despite the reading level, this is an adult book not recommended for children.
As the title states, a memoir of the author’s career in Tehran told through the lens of various literature she read and taught.
“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
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.
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.
“Even here things are pretty divided. Except that the breakdown is different. The aunties hang out with the aunties and the uncles hand out with the uncles.” page 53
Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap, illustrated by Mari Araki.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2011.
Illuminated realistic fiction, 247 pages.
Lexile: not leveled
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 3.0 points) .
NOTE: This is a YA book, not intended for younger children.
Tina Malhotra is the youngest in a family of five and a sophomore at the mostly white Yarborough Academy. She’s taking an Honors English elective course in existential philosophy, and has taken on an assignment to write letters to Jean-Paul Satre about the process of discovering who she is and who she is becoming.
The format of this book was different to any I’ve read before. I hesitate to call it a graphic novel (although the dust jacket does so) because large portions of the story were carried through text only. Neither was it an illuminated work because whole pages at a time would be done in a comic style relying on both text and illustrations.