This illuminated novel in verse tells a story of internal displacement for middle grade readers.
The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane Evans.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2014.
Middle grade novel in verse, 331 pages including extras but not excerpts.
Lexile: HL620L (What does HL mean in Lexile?)
AR Level: 4.2 (worth 3.0 points) .
Amira is a young village girl who dreams of going to school and learning to read the Koran. But her mother desires a more traditional life for her. Then the Janjaweed attack, and it seems like all dreams, and words, are gone forever. Can a gift restore hope?
This one was a bit of a gamble. I have yet to dislike a book by any of the Pinkneys – individually and collectively they are so talented that the name alone can sell me on a book. Plus I have loved Shane Evans’ work, and the kids find his illustrations appealing too.
But. This is a novel in verse. I wasn’t actually aware that it was illuminated until after purchasing, and Shane Evans’s illustrations did take the edge off. But as I’ve said before, novels in verse rarely work for me. I love poetry and novels, but feel that the combination usually loses something. For this reason, I don’t often seek those books out unless they come highly recommended or with an author/illustrator team I can’t ignore.
“Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger. // I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other.” page 118
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Ellen Forney.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2007, my edition 2009.
YA realistic fiction, 230 pages not including extras.
Winner of many awards including a National Book Award.
Lexile: 600L .
AR Level: 4.0 (worth 6.0 points) .
NOTE: Due to content, this is not generally recommended for middle school students.
Junior is a Spokane Indian with a life from a Greek tragedy – medical woes, funerals, poverty, and picked on, he still tries to find the humor in life and look for the hope in his future in this semi-autobiographical novel.
Despite all the accolades, and my recent positive experiences of Alexie’s work, I did not expect to love this book the way I did. Alexie seems mostly known for his literary fiction. Diary is a YA book still interesting to the general adult fiction reader. Unlike The Sun is Also a Star, which I might recommend to certain adults, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian is a teen coming-of-age story that I would recommend to almost any adult reader. Arnold Spirit, Junior, is a Spokane Indian with hydrocephalus, a stutter, and a few other challenges, like dire poverty and 30-year-old textbooks.
Despite a life where the cards seem stacked against him, Junior perseveres, chasing his hope through tragic deaths and ridiculous logistics (how do you get to school 22 miles away when you’re incredibly poor and there’s no bus? Answer: sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you walk.)
“When I first got my library card and wrote Blackbird Farm on the form, she didn’t know I was Dad’s daughter or Jim Brown’s grandniece, and she asked me how long my family was working there. I think she still feels bad about that.” page 76
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Katie Kath.
Borzoi, Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, New York, 2015.
Speculative/realistic fiction epistolary novel, 216 pages.
AR Level: 5.2 (worth 5.0 points)
Sophie Brown’s family has moved from LA to Gravenstein, California. They’ve traded their apartment for a house and farm filled with all the many things her great-uncle Jim had saved. A farm doesn’t feel right without any animals, but they’ll have to be cheap because money is tight since Dad lost his job and they started relying on Mom’s income as a freelance writer. Then a chicken turns up… a very special chicken.
Amazon kept recommending this book to me since I started buying diverse books. Nothing in the description suggests a PoC is in this book and in the tiny cover preview, Sophie didn’t look dark-skinned. Eventually I ordered a copy – but mistakenly got a hardcover instead of the paperback. Once it arrived I was glad for the mistake, because as soon as he saw this book, our reluctant reader started insisting that I read it to him that night. I don’t turn down his book requests, and they are loving it so far.
This book was a wonderful surprise. The format is unusual (just like those chickens). There also is a paranormal/science fiction aspect that would be a major spoiler to discuss.
“If I had to choose, I have no idea who I would pick between a biological brother I didn’t know and Felix, who I loved so much.” p. 171
Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah.
UK: The Chicken House. US reprint: Scholastic, New York, 2015.
Middle grade realistic fiction, illuminated book, 282 pages (including extras).
AR Level: 4.8 (worth 7.0 points)
Dara Palmer’s life is sooo dramatic. She was clearly born to be a star, you can tell by how much TV she watches! It’s life or death that she gets the part of Maria in her school’s production of The Sound of Music, so when she doesn’t, some family members feel that it’s her dark skin keeping her from a part in the musical, not her overacting.
This was entirely an impulse buy. When I opened the book and discovered that it was illuminated (text is complemented/completed by pictures drawn around the margins and in the white space of the book), I was surprised. Another surprise followed as I found out the book was set in Great Britain. This edition is slightly Americanized (5th grade instead of 6th year), but the characters are still very British.
Dara Palmer is a pretty unlikeable character. She literally states this at the end of the first chapter:
“This all happened a while ago now. Let me just say, I was a different person back then. I don’t know if you’re going to like the old me much when you hear what I was like, but I’ve changed. Stuff happened along the way – all kinds of stuff, actually. Nuns and noodles were just the beginning.” ~page 2
Dara is self-absorbed, overly dramatic, and yet somehow magnetic. She comes off as very unsympathetic, until we get to know her a little more. If it wasn’t for the caveat in the first chapter, I might not have made it past the second. And that would have been a shame.