Review: Ninth Ward

“Outside, the neighborhood has been torn apart. Trees, snapped like toothpicks, are lying on the ground.” page 139

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Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2010.
MG speculative fiction, 218 pages.
Lexile:  HL470L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? )
AR Level:  3.3 (worth 4.0 points)  .

Twelve-year old Lanesha is different from her peers in one major way: she can see ghosts.  And several minor ways: she was raised by Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who birthed her, but without the formality of kinship or an official foster care relationship.  She loves to learn, tackling difficult math problems and learning new words with glee.

Ninth Ward cover resized

The book covers nine days directly before and during the events of Hurricane Katrina over 14 chapters.  Within the chapters the text is further broken into sections, and the sentences tend to be short.  Although Parker Rhodes doesn’t shy away from challenging words, they are decipherable with context clues if not defined in the text.  These explain why this has a low reading level, but it’s not meant for very young readers.  Children closer to Lanesha’s age would be a much better fit, because the novel does include deaths, extreme peril, hunger, destruction, and family rejection.

The story starts slowly, establishing Lanesha’s character, neighborhood, and routine before tearing everything apart.  It’s a first person novel, and Lanesha is smart, independent, and loving.  She’s in an unofficial kinship situation with Mama Ya-Ya since her mother died in childbirth without revealing her father and her mother’s family refuses to accept or acknowledge her.

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Review: The Great Gilly Hopkins

“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.

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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.

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Review: Starry River of the Sky

“Just like that, Rendi became the chore boy at the Inn of the Clear Sky. He was not used to doing chores, so when he found a broom in his hand, he had to watch Peiyi to learn how to sweep.” page 20

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2014.
MG fantasy, 289 pages + extras.
Lexile:  810L  .
AR Level:  5.4 (worth 7.0 points) .

Runaway Rendi seems to be the only one who noticed that the moon is missing above the village of Clear Sky!  He’s aching for someone to visit this remote village so he can stow away and leave again, but while he’s stuck here, can he unravel the peculiarities of this very odd village?

Starry River of the Sky cover resized

I was very uncertain about how this read would go (the first book in this series was a 2017 favorite) but Grace Lin has delivered another superb MG fantasy.  One of the fascinating aspects of this series is that so far each book focuses on a different character and has an independent plot, although set in the same world.

The previous book was all about journeys.  Both the exciting physical journey that Min-li went on, and to a lesser degree, the emotional journey that her parents take as they are left at home without her.  In contrast, this book is remarkably stable.  The cast of characters is noticeably smaller (although used to full effect) and the setting limited – most scenes take place in one small town and its bizarre surroundings.

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Review: Un Lun Dun

“A tarpaulin bulged from the bus’s roof like an enormous fungus. It inflated into a huge balloon, tethered by ropes from the upper windows.” page 55

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville.
Del Rey, Random House, Inc., New York, 2007.
MG fantasy, 578 pages.
Not leveled.

Twelve-year-old Zanna and her best friend Deeba find a secret portal that takes them from their hometown of London to mysterious UnLunDun, where the giraffes are carnivorous and Zanna is the Chosen One with a special destiny… right?

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I don’t know why this book doesn’t get mentioned more often.  Perhaps because it is so long for a middle grade read, or because Mieville isn’t known for his children’s literature.  In fact, I suspect many people don’t even realize it’s a children’s book, especially other editions that have a different cover.  The cover needs to be somewhat vague, because this is a book of many twists and turns.

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Graphic Novel Review: Sunny Side Up

“We wrote this book so that young readers who are facing these same problems today don’t feel ashamed like we did. When someone in a family struggles with substance abuse, the whole family struggles.” p. 219

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, coloring by Lark Pien.
Graphix, Scholastic, New York, 2015.
MG historical fiction, 220 pages.
Lexile:  GN490L  .
AR Level:  2.4 (worth 0.5 points)  .

Sunshine Lewin is spending the summer in Florida visiting her grandfather, who lives in a retirement community there.  But that wasn’t the plan for this summer, and there’s something going on that she isn’t talking about.

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This series gotten a lot of buzz, both positive and negative.  The Holm duo are already well-known for their Babymouse series, but this is aimed at a slightly older crowd.  There will be some spoilers for this book discussed in my review, if you want to avoid them please scroll down to the final paragraph for my general opinion.

It’s historical fiction set in 1976, but some parents take issue with the fact that drug addiction and smoking are portrayed.  It’s difficult to tell from online hysteria whether or not a book is actually suitable for a certain age range or group of students, so I decided to see for myself.

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Review: Amal Unbound

“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

Amal Unbound: A Novel by Aisha Saeed.
Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2018.
Realistic fiction, 234 pages.
Lexile:  HL600L  ( What does HL mean in Lexile? )
AR Level:  4.2 (worth 6.0 points)  .

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?

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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.

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Review: Understood Betsy

“He sent his marble straight to the mark, pocketed his opponent’s, and stood up, scowling at the little mothers. ‘I guess if you had to live the way he does you’d be dirty! Half the time he don’t get anything to eat before he comes to school, and if my mother didn’t put up some extra for him in my box he wouldn’t get any lunch either. And then you go and jump on him!’ ” chapter 8

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield, illustrated by Ada C. Williamson.
Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1917 (orig. pub 1916)
Children’s literature, 271 pages.
Lexile:  1000L  .
AR Level:  5.9 (worth 8.0 points)  .
NOTE:  The references above are to the print edition, however I read the free ebook edition available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5347? .

Nine-year-old Elizabeth Ann’s parents died when she was a baby, so she’s lived all her life with her great-aunt Harriet and has been raised by her cousin (whom she calls aunt) Frances.  However, since Harriet’s taken ill, she has to go live with another branch of the family while Frances nurses her mother.

Understood Betsy cover

At my new job I’ve been getting to know some homeschooling parents.  Many are more concerned about other aspects than diversity, but one asked my opinion about a few booklists.  Most of the books I was able to find reviews of on other sites, but a few I wasn’t able to find good critiques of, so I found copies to read them myself.

Friends, it was dismal.

After reading so many books that were at best unconsciously perpetuating stereotypes and untruths, and knowing they’re on modern day reading lists and staunchly defended by certain parents, I was feeling rather depressed about America.  So I decided to try to find some better books.  Most don’t fit on this blog, but since this book deals with kinship fostering/adoption, I’ve chosen to review it.

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