“They got only this one egg a year even though the children’s mother tended chickens and ducks that produced seven or eight eggs a day right there in the front courtyard. But the eggs weren’t for the family. They were a small business that Gao Xiuying ran to earn a little bit of extra money.” page 49
A Girl Named Faithful Plum: The True Story of a Dancer from China and How She Achieved Her Dream by Richard Bernstein. Originally Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, New York, 2011. My edition Yearling, Random House Children’s Books, New York, 2012. Middle grade (YA?) nonfiction, 272 pages. Lexile: 1080L . AR Level: 6.6 (worth 11.0 points) .
In 1978, an eleven year old girl traveled from her small town on the northern border of China to the Beijing Dance Academy for their open auditions, along with sixty thousand other applicants. Against all odds, she managed to be one of the twelve girls chosen – but that was just the start of her troubles.
Zhongmei spent years in training, and had a long career, but this story focuses mainly on preparing to audition and her first year at school. About half the book focuses on her journey to even make it to auditions and then her progress through the seven layers of audition. The second half covers her first year at the school, and finally an epilogue tells what happened to her after.
Bernstein employs a number of timeline skips to maintain the pacing, although he’s not always successful. His most frequent device is the letters sent back and forth between Zhongmei and her beloved da-jie Zhongqin. He also occasionally has Zhongmei think back on past events. At some points there are skips forward, when reasonable within the story.
“The ‘ohana felt a deep loyalty to their ahupua’a. It was their ‘aina, their homeland. ‘Ai means ‘to eat.’ ‘Aina, the word for homeland or birthplace, means ‘that which feeds.’ It was the ‘aina that nourished, or fed, the ‘ohana. This made it the responsibility of the ‘ohana to take care of their ‘aina.” page 87
From the Mountains to the Sea: Early Hawaiian Life by Julie Stewart Williams, illustrated by Robin Yoko Racoma. Kamehameha Schools Press, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1997. Middle grade non-fiction, 178 pages. Not leveled. NOTE: I read a physical copy of this book, and this review is based on the print book. However, it is also available as a free ebook, currently at this link: https://ulukau.org/ulukau-books/?a=d&d=EBOOK-ENGLISH.2.1.1&e=——-haw-20–1–txt-txPT———– .
A classic school text on early Hawaii.
I came across this text some time ago through the acquaintance of a friend who was offloading some books before moving back to the islands. My friend generously passed many books that her family had read or weren’t interested in to us. I’m always interested in titles from small presses or exploring cultures I don’t know too much about, so this was fascinating to me even though it was dry at points.
This particular book was also especially interesting because I’ve always heard that there aren’t accessible texts for young readers about indigenous life pre-European contact. This is an area I’ve been actively seeking out books on, so it was rather shocking to find one that was not only published in the 1990s, but is part of a series. Indeed, after exploring the ulukau.org link above, I’ve discovered that several books from Kamehameha Schools Press are available there, and hope to review some others which would be cost-prohibitive to have sent to the Midwest.
Our eleventh board book introduces little ones to famous artwork.
Jacob Lawrence in the City by Susan Goldman Rubin. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA, 2009. Board book, 24 pages. Not leveled.
A board book presenting eleven of famous artist Jacob Lawrence’s paintings for the youngest readers.
It’s fitting that this would be our eleventh board book since it showcases eleven different paintings by Jacob Lawrence. I remember when I started this challenge worrying that it would be difficult to find nonfiction board books that were diverse. Instead I now find that there are plenty (and new ones being published each year), but it sometimes takes a bit more hunting since these are not always part of specifically diverse series (as many of the fictional board books are).
“Each time the doctor asked me to move a part of my body and I could not move it, my terror increased.” page 10
Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret. Albert Whitman & Company, Chicago, IL, 1996. Middle grade nonfiction/memoir, 168 pages + preview. Lexile: 830L . AR Level: 5.2 (worth 4.0 points) . NOTE: This review is of the nonfiction polio narrative, not the fictional Louis Sachar Holes sequel.
Seven months in 12 year old Peg’s life, starting in September 1949 shortly before she became ill, and continuing with her illness and survival for the rest of that school year.
When COVID hit, I went through a phase of reading children’s books about other epidemics. Books for young readers have the happy endings that adult authors rarely do, and there was something comforting about knowing others had survived the spread of contagious diseases.
Everyone in this story is either described or presumed white, but many characters, including the author/narrator, experience physical disability as a from the polio epidemic. I also wanted to write about this book because it was one of the best family read-alouds we did during quarantine, and ought to be better known.
“The women in my family handled most of the practical details of everyday life. Men were skilled at some things, at the same time as being inexplicably incapable of performing other seemingly simple tasks. I grew up believing that men were faulty creatures, a little untrustworthy, childlike, even. They needed a woman around to keep them on the tracks.” page 13
Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote. Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, BC, Canada, originally published 2016, my edition 2019. Adult nonfiction, 244 pages + 12 pages for notes at the end. Not leveled.
Canadian memoir through a collection of essays – about life as a young butch and then a non-binary adult.
This was a gift from a friend who pointed out that I hadn’t reviewed any nonfiction by non-binary authors yet – to which my response was that I hadn’t read any yet. A quick trip to another room and this was pressed into my hands with the instruction that it should be my first, but definitely not only, non-binary nonfiction read.
“Writing a novel is a long process – like a long-distance runner running a marathon, I know I cannot reach the finish line that day. Instead, I have to be patient, trying to complete a shorter stretch of writing – a chapter, for instance.” pages 21 and 22
The Lost Garden by Laurence Yep. My edition Beech Tree Paperback, Harper Collins, New York, 1996 – originally Simon & Schuster, 1991. MG autobiography, 118 pages. Lexile: 1110L . AR Level: 7.1 (worth 7.0 points) .
The story of famous children’s author Laurence Yep’s life from his early years to the start of his writing career, although focusing mostly on his coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s.
The slim paperback fooled me into thinking that this would be a book for elementary students, but the content is more appropriate for tweens and young teens. Yep doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, such as his own family’s brushes with poverty, a customer whose husband brutally attacked her, Mark Twain’s suicidal thoughts, the topless dancers at a club in the neighborhood, and pulse-pounding confrontations when the burglar alarm goes off.
He tells even difficult and painful tales in a straightforward way, and frequently pauses to explain details that might not be known or understood by younger readers. This reminded me strongly of Roald Dahl’s Boy – a tale of a fairly ordinary life told with vivid details that render it fascinating. Aspects such as what it was like to have severe asthma attacks before common home treatments may shock young readers.
There are so many tidbits here about how he was inspired or helped with various novels by different relatives or events. I’m planning a systematic rereading of his entire Golden Mountain Chronicles series, many of which I’ve read but not in order – after which I might need to reread this book!
“Our leader had taken advantage of our trust and loyalty to manipulate the whole country. This is the most frightening lesson of the Cultural Revolution: Without a sound legal system, a small group or even a single person can take control of an entire country. This is as true now as it was then.” page 266
Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji Li Jiang. Scholastic, New York, originally published 1997, my edition 1999. MG nonfiction, 284 pages. Lexile: 780L . AR Level: 5.0 (worth 8.0 points) .
A girl becoming a young adult during the Cultural Revolution adores Mao but is troubled by the practical realities of the drastic changes, especially when they start to impact her own family. She has to decide how to navigate high-stakes and nuanced situations – and ultimately whether her loyalty lies with the Communist Party or with her own family.
I was excited to pick this back up – much like The Arrow Over the Door, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, or many of Laurence Yep’s earlier works, I haven’t read through it in at least a decade. With some others, I misremembered major elements, so for this one I tried to recall what had stuck with me for over a decade.
It’s about one preteen/teen girl’s life in China between 1966 and 1968 as major changes occur to her family and community. But I must admit the most memorable aspect was the cover with her disembodied head over the flag, so encountering a used copy with that same 1990s cover was nostalgic. Newer versions have a cover more likely to be picked up by modern students.
“It is easy to understand the child’s bafflement. One has only to listen to an animated conversation in an unfamiliar language – our own language is built of discrete blocks, everyone else’s of quicksilver. It seems as hard to grab a word out of a foreign tongue as to clutch a fistful of water from a pond.” page 87
Genie: A Scientific Tragedy by Russ Rymer. HarperPerennial, HarperCollins, New York, originally published 1993, my edition 1994. Adult nonfiction, 222 pages. Not leveled.
The story of a girl used for scientific research, the scientists who worked with her, and the way their interactions changed many lives.
The story behind this is so poignant that I couldn’t help wishing again and again that it had been a bit better told. Indeed, if the blurb had not interested me so highly, I would not have persevered beyond the frankly boring first chapter. This was a frequent theme as Rymer often went into digressions which, even when intended to illuminate some aspect of the story, were often poorly timed.
And yet… the story here truly is compelling in every sense.
“Genie” as the name chosen to be used in the scientific research on her, had a truly unique and horrifying childhood. Kept entirely in one room and mostly forced into one or two positions by restraints, she spent more than a decade strapped to a potty seat, eating only liquid or mushed food, and only able to move her fingers and toes. Her blind mother finally escaped from her abusive father with her in tow and entirely accidentally ended up in social services by accident instead.
“Every time school closed for the vacation, I had to find my way home. That was one of the hardest things: the village might be 5 miles away, or it might be 50.” page 51
Facing the Lion: Growing Up Maasai on the African Savanna by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton, with Herman Viola.
National Geographic, Washington, D.C., 2003.
MG autobiography, 128 pages.
Lexile: 720L .
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 4.0 points) .
A unique story of a nomadic Maasai boy in Kenya who went to school and eventually came to America.
This is one of those books (of which, thankfully, I keep finding more and more) that I cannot recommend highly enough. There are few books in English that tell about African life in an unbiased and non-colonial manner. When you add to that a middle grade, non-fiction book about nomadic peoples? I cannot think of any other. Lekuton has lived that rare combination of an extraordinary life and a perfectly ordinary one. Luckily for us, he’s also decided to put it into an autobiography for middle grade readers.
“The holes in his mind were obvious enough. He was still working well below grade level. He would probably never read a book for pleasure.” page 211
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, orig. pub. 2006, my edition 2009. Adult nonfiction, 340 pages. Lexile: 980L . AR Level: 7.2 (worth 19.0 points) .
The story of how the blind side revolutionized football, and a personal story giving one example of the new kind of recruit who is most highly sought after these days in American football.
Before getting into the review, I’ll tell you that I’ve read some of Michael Lewis’ other books – a relative is a fan. This one deals with race and adoption, which is part of why I’ve chosen to review it here. I was given a free copy of this book and decided to read it in part because of the sport enthusiasts I know who enjoyed it, but I myself am not much of a sports fan, which surely colors my opinion.
I think the major problem I had with this book was that Lewis starts out from a white perspective, and really never leaves that viewpoint, even when he’s purportedly trying to get into the minds of his POC characters. The point where this was startlingly clear to me was the first paragraph of Chapter Three, where Big Tony is dramatically driving the boys out of poverty.
Lewis states “Memphis could make you wonder why anyone ever bothered to create laws segregating the races. More than a million people making many millions of individual choices generated an outcome not so different from a law forbidding black people and white people from mingling.” (page 45). The ignorance is startling – clearly Lewis has never heard of redlining and didn’t bother to do even basic research on Black history before writing a book where race has a major influence!