Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson. Square Fish, Macmillan, New York, 2018. MG historical fiction, 250 pages. Lexile: 810L . AR Level: 4.9 (worth 5.0 points) .
The life of one preteen girl in Detroit in 1945 – who later become the wife of Malcolm X. Betty wants nothing more than to be loved by her biological mother, but they disagree at every turn. She believes strongly in justice and fair treatment for all, but not everyone will stand with her.
So much is happening in this book yet all balanced very well. Reading the prologue introduces several of the issues that will become themes throughout. When just five pages in, first-person narrator Betty tells us about seeing a lynching as a young girl in Georgia, it is immediately clear that this book will be sensitive but not dishonest.
The fostering/adoption/kinship narratives are also handled well. The prologue briefly covers Betty’s early life. At one year old, she was taken from her teenaged mother by her grandmother, and raised lovingly by her aunt. After her aunt’s sudden death, she moved in with her biological mother and learned that she has three half-sisters and two step-brothers.
Her role ends up being more like a caretaker to the seven other members of her family; she constantly feels unappreciated and faces harsh punishments and constant misunderstandings. Church is a source of hope and light for Betty – her Christian faith and involvement with various activities at Bethel AME specifically are a major part of the book.
…and a (partial) list of his many works by genre and series.
These posts always tend to stem from a review that gets far too long and I just want to talk about something. In this case it’s my experience as a reader, educator, librarian, and finally just a reader again encountering Laurence Yep. In case you are new here (and how did you land on this post first, go read my reviews or booklists first, they’re better), I’ll mention that I do enjoy and often recommend his books, although they have sometimes caused me some hassle.
I have a long, often fraught relationship with the works of Mr. Yep. He has written a lot of books, and is probably best known for either his Golden Mountain historical fiction series or his fantasy novels. He worked with major publishers so his books could be found at the library. The major pre-internet problem we had, though, was that many of his historical fiction works have dragon in the title. And some of his magical books give no indication that they are magical. And he also has historical fantasy. And sometimes the books would randomly get retitled.
“A culture defines its virtues and vices within its folktales.” page 69
The Rainbow People by Laurence Yep, illustrated by David Wiesner. HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1989. (See review.) Short story/folklore collection, 194 pages. Lexile: 680L . AR Level: 4.8 (worth 6.0 points) .
Twenty stories drawn from the most common area of Chinese-American immigration, streamlined and retold for younger audiences.
So I’m pretty sure my copy is a knock-off. The cover is the 1992 version, although on close examination it’s subtly off, but the interior copyright page is taken from one of the early 1989 printings. The margins aren’t set correctly and vary too much, and while harder to quantify, the paper and bindings don’t feel right compared to other books from this time period from this publisher that I’ve handled.
I purchased this book online, ostensibly new. After investigation, I don’t believe that the seller of this was aware then that it might be a printing violating copyright, so I won’t mention them specifically. Normally I would get a copy from the library to check if this version is accurate, but in Covid times, that is easier said than done. Perhaps some kind person who has access to a proper version of this book will comment if my citations are correct. I decided to still write this review because I’ve been wanting to talk about Laurence Yep and this book is particularly interesting.
Turning now to this specific volume, it’s a unique work. While I’ve seen many volumes of, or including, Chinese folklore, this book by Yep is the first I’ve seen that suggests a uniquely Chinese-American variety of tall tales. He points out that since the majority of early Chinese immigrants to America came from a specific province, the stories of that region have greater significance than more general Chinese or Asian proverbs.
“Every day you should fill this glass with milk and put it on the windowsill for them. You mustn’t forget now. The Little People cannot live unless humans do this for them.” page 15
The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Pushkin Children’s Books, London, UK, 2015. Historical fantasy, 188 pages. Not leveled. NOTE: Reviewing the 2015 translation of a 1959 Japanese novel.
Although the little people first came to Japan in the 1890s, this unique story covers the time from 1913 until World War II when they were in the care of the Moriyama family.
I finished my first read-through thinking I must review this, and immediately after wondered how I was possibly going to review it. How does one review a book they personally loved, but know won’t work for everyone?
When reviewing books for this blog, I do my best to consider the book through multiple lenses. I adored this book and sincerely hope more of this Inui’s books are translated. But… I can also see why other people might not adore it.
“The sky’s no limit if you’ve flown / on your own power in countless dreams; / […] / not if you’ve gazed at stars / and known God meant for you to soar.” page 1
You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers Imprint, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016.
Second person historical novel in verse, 80 pages including timeline and notes.
Lexile: 910L .
AR Level: 6.0 (worth 1.0 points) .
NOTE: I would consider this book for about 4th grade through adult reading.
This story told in the second person vividly delineates the journey of a black airman during WWII through sparse poems and black and white images based on historic photographs.
I did not expect to like this book. A novel in verse – already something I feel ambiguous about. Then you add the fact that this is in second person, which I tend to dislike even when it’s done well. Finally, I was under the misapprehension that this was a work of non-fiction about the Tuskegee Airmen.
Yet this book which I should have disliked actually captivated me.
First, let’s discuss the illustrations. There is one illustration on almost every other page. A few are full page, but most are half or less. They interact nicely with the text. Some scratch into the page, and in other cases there’s white text on black background so the words flow into the illustration. At a casual glance some of the illustrations look like photographs.
“Moody never thought much about money, because he had never needed to. Lights went on when he flipped switches; water came out when he turned the tap.” p. 13
Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel by Celeste Ng.
Penguin, Penguin Random House, my edition 2019 (originally published in 2017).
Fiction, 338 pages plus Reader’s Guide.
Lexile: 1000L .
AR Level: 6.8 (worth 18.0 points) .
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not posting it on Fiction Friday.
A tense novel about the unexpected connections between two families, which change all of their lives.
Well. Sometimes I hesitate to review a book because it feels like everything there is to be said about that work is already out there. While I don’t mind reviewing popular works, especially if my opinion differs vastly from the usual, sometimes it simply doesn’t seem like there is much for me to add to the discourse. That is the case with this novel, which seems to have been generally well-reviewed, and which I generally agree with other reviews I’d seen prior to reading the book. Continue reading “Review: Little Fires Everywhere”
“Suddenly he heard a sound like pebbles being shaken in a hollow gourd. His heart leaped into his throat as he threw himself to one side to keep from stepping on the huge rattlesnake that was coiled in the middle of the trail.” page 78
Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac.
Puffin, Penguin Group, New York, 1996.
MG historical fiction, 154 pages.
Lexile: 950L .
AR Level: 5.5 (worth 5.0 points) .
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not reviewing it on Fiction Friday.
Follow twins Ohkwa’ri and his sister Otsi:stia as they navigate peers who are trying to break the peace treaty, coming of age, and a sacred game of lacrosse.
It’s worth noting that this is NOT an #ownvoices book. Bruchac is Abenaki, a neighboring group to the twins – but the main characters are all Mohawk, members of the Iroquois League of Peace. This book was originally included in a 2006 recommendation list on AICL, but I noticed that as of this writing, Bruchac was conspicuously absent from the August 2020 list of historical fiction recommendations on AICL. This makes sense given that AICL has recently had several neutral or negative reviews of his work, especially when working outside of his own nation. However, given the glowing reviews some of his books have previously gotten, it’s hard to know if he’s still a generally suggested author or not. Continue reading “Review: Children of the Longhouse”
“When Steve grasped the painting, it tingled against his fingertips. He felt as if he had rubbed his shoes fast over a carpet.” p. 19
The Magic Paintbrush by Laurence Yep, illustrated by Suling Wang.
HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 2000.
Historical fantasy, 90 pages.
Lexile: 530L .
AR Level: 3.8 (worth 2.0 points) .
Eight-year-old Steve’s parents and all of his belongings are gone after a tragic fire, and now he shares a single room in Chinatown with his grandfather and Uncle Fong (no relation but a childhood friend of Grandfather’s). They are so poor that after his paintbrush split in art class, he’s afraid to go home and tell his Grandfather, knowing that a new one is not possible.
For a book with magic in the title, this book takes a while to get to the fantasy part. The first chapters are all about establishing the setting – early 1960s San Francisco – and characters. The tale of a magic paintbrush given to a poor boy who uses it to spread happiness is a Chinese story that has been retold many times, mostly in picture books. Yep has a unique historical Chinese-American spin to his version though.
Some thoughts on a slightly controversial children’s book.
Giving Thanks: The 1621 Harvest Feast by Kate Waters, photographs by Russ Kendall, in cooperation with the Plimoth Plantation.
Scholastic, New York, 2001.
Picture book, 40 pages.
Lexile: 620L .
AR Level: 3.9 (worth 0.5) .
NOTE: There is another book by the same title but subtitled “A Native American Good Morning Message.”
A 1621 harvest feast as seen through the eyes of two boys, reenacted at Plimoth Plantation.
I feel it’s important to note that this book is on the former Oyate’s List of Thanksgiving Books to Avoid. That’s part of why I checked it out from the library instead of buying. However, I couldn’t find any in-depth reviews, so I decided to look through it myself to see how suitable, if at all, this would be for teaching about the holiday.
Because this is one of the Oyate Books to Avoid, the format of this review will look rather different than most. I decided to use the 11 Myths about Thanksgiving template to consider this book. My overall thoughts will follow. Continue reading “Review: Giving Thanks 1621”
“It felt like the world was spinning and I was hanging on, hoping I wouldn’t get thrown off and fall into darkness.” page 155
Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith.
Clarion books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2015.
MG historical fantasy/horror, 214 pages.
Lexile: 600L .
AR Level: 4.2 (worth 6.0 points) .
In small-town 1930s Alabama, Hoodoo Hatcher is an unmagical twelve year old born into a folk magic family. It’s embarrassing enough to not be able to do a simple spell when your name is Hoodoo, but it could be downright dangerous when the Stranger comes to town looking for a boy with that name.
Hoodoo is an incredibly unique book. Which makes it memorable and interesting, but also a bit challenging to discuss. How do you classify it? Hoodoo is decidedly set in the past, and some elements are very evocative of the time and place. But it’s also definitely a magical book. The magical elements are not simply magical realism – spells have effects (although not flashy ones) and the existence and efficacy of hoodoo are generally accepted in the town.
There are many creepy aspects. Astral projection occurs a few times, and messages and items are sent from beyond the grave. Lives are in danger, people are possessed, cemeteries are dug up. I find it challenging to classify MG horror since it’s so much less scary, but my sense is that this would mainly fall into horror, with aspects of historical and fantastical fiction that make it a good entry point for readers of those genres.