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

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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?

Amal Unbound resized

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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Review: Code Talker

“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.

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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.

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Review: The Toymaker’s Apprentice

“Just then, the massive pendulum he’d seen in the outer caverns swung into the chamber, lifting Stefan’s hair in its wake. In the light of the Cogworks, it shone like a slice of the sun.” p. 122

The Toymaker’s Apprentice by Sherri L. Smith.
Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
MG fantasy, 392 pages.
Lexile:  710L  .
AR Level:  5.2 (worth 14.0 points)  .

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By the second reading, I’d worked out how to describe this book when recommending it.  It’s a bit like a cross between Hugo and Redwall, without really being like either at all.  While this is technically a retelling of the story of the Nutcracker, I believe it could stand alone even if a reader had no previous knowledge of the stories and ballet it’s based on.

Sherri L. Smith is one of those rare authors who seems to write many genres well.  You might recall my review of her historical fiction Flygirl, and the dystopian Orleans is one of my favorite books (though I’m still struggling to review it).  She’s also written several contemporary novels that I haven’t gotten to yet, and this piece is a middle grade fantasy retelling.

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Graphic Novel Review: Suee and the Shadow

A deliciously creepy, magical MG tale set in South Korea.

Suee and the Shadow by Ginger Ly, illustrated by Molly Park.
Amulet Books, Abrams, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy/horror graphic novel, 236 pages.
Lexile:  GN270L ( What does GN mean in Lexile? )
AR Level:  2.7 (worth 2.0 points)  .
NOTE: Although this has a low reading level, it’s recommended for middle grades.

Twelve-year-old Suee is a new student at boring Outskirts Elementary, and she’s determined to get through her last bit of elementary school with no complications.  That means no friends, no sharing information with the counselor, and no getting involved in anything weird.  Too bad a voice is calling to her from the exhibit room and her shadow is alive.

Suee and the Shadow

This book caught my eye even though it wasn’t time for a new Target pick (well I was looking for Aru Shah and it was sold out, which is great news).  Suee struck me as an unusual name, so I picked up the book and found out it’s by a South Korean author-illustrator team, and set there as well.  I suspect this will do well with fans of The Jumblies, because it has the same creepy-magical vibe.

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Review: The Red Pencil

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?

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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.

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Review: A Special Fate

“There is a bit of Japanese folklore that made Chiune’s parents think that perhaps their son might be special.” page 1

A Special Fate: Chiune Sugihara: Hero of the Holocaust by Alison Leslie Gold.
Polaris, Scholastic, New York, 2000.
Nonfiction, 176 pages.
Lexile:  980L  .
AR Level: not leveled

The story of one Japanese diplomat who followed his conscience to issue life-saving passports to Jews during World War II, against the orders of his superiors.

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A Special Fate: Chiune Sugihara: Hero of the Holocaust by Alison Leslie Gold.

Sugihara was such an interesting figure.  Many of his choices, starting with the one that caused him to eventually become a diplomat, were quite unusual for Japanese society.  His early experiences defying his father look, in retrospect, like preparation for his major act of defiance in issuing the passports.

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