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

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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.

Although the majority of this book deals with the fictional narrator’s time as a code talker, he begins the story when he went to boarding school, since learning English and being able to balance his own culture with the white American norms forced upon him have a lot of bearing on who he became and how he was able to navigate both worlds.

While the narrator is fictional, almost everything else is real, in particular the other code talkers mentioned are real historical figures, and all of the battles and troop movements mentioned are as they actually occurred.  This was one of my few quibbles with this book, it did occasionally give a little too much information.  On the other hand, a student particularly interested in WWII would probably soak it up.

If the world of diverse historical fiction is already lacking, the selection is even more meager when searching for diverse historical fiction to appeal to boys.  I know of only two authors consistently writing in this field – Christopher Paul Curtis and Joseph Bruchac (if you know of others, please leave a comment).

Speak is best known for YA fiction, sometimes quite intense reads.  So I was pleasantly surprised that this is a family-friendly read-aloud.  Of course there are moments that the story gets intense and the violence of WWII is represented, so as always, pre-read for younger or more sensitive children.  If you have very young listeners you may want to skip over some of the scenes involving death and injury.  But there was no explicit content and the story could be enjoyed by upper elementary school students up to high school.

There were a handful of areas where Bruchac laid on the facts and figures about WWII too heavily, but overall this was far more engaging than the last book we read by him.  Given the unexpected violence in the last book, this one was much less surprising since it actually took place in a war.  I’m looking forward to reading other historical fiction he’s written.  This book even had a good amount about Ira Hayes, which was great since we’d just learned about him another way.

There are some serious injuries and deaths, as would be expected in a novel about the action in WWII.  Ned also faces frequent bigotry and sometimes outright abuse due to his ethnicity.  While Bruchac definitely includes those moments, he doesn’t focus on the violence.  Only one of the descriptions felt too gruesome for me.  (I’m sure it was accurate, just a little more than I would want to read aloud around the little ones.)

The final section includes several pages on Navajo history, the code talkers in particular, and how Bruchac (who is Abenaki, not Navajo) came to write this book.  I appreciated that he gave thanks to the Navajo elders and code talkers who shared their stories with him but took full responsibility for any errors in the book.

I’m happy to recommend this book and look forward to reading more of Bruchac’s historical fiction.

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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Review: Queen of Katwe

“Phiona had never read a chess book. Never read a chess magazine. Never used a computer. Yet this girl was already a national champion.” page 132

Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion by Tim Crothers.
Vintage Canada, Penguin Random House, Toronto, Canada, my edition 2016, originally published 2012.
Nonfiction, 232 pages.
Not leveled.

Phiona Mutesi followed her brother to a place where children were learning to play chess.  Initially motivated more by a free daily meal, she soon found she had a gift for chess which might propel her out of the slums of Katwe, Uganda.

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Normally I am very strict about always reading first before seeing any movie based on a book.  In this case both my family and I really wanted to see the film, so I did watched before reading the book.  Sometimes seeing the movie version first can color the interpretation of the book.

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Graphic Novel? Review: Tina’s Mouth

“Even here things are pretty divided. Except that the breakdown is different. The aunties hang out with the aunties and the uncles hand out with the uncles.” page 53

Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap, illustrated by Mari Araki.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2011.
Illuminated realistic fiction, 247 pages.
Lexile:  not leveled
AR Level:  4.7 (worth 3.0 points)  .
NOTE: This is a YA book, not intended for younger children.

Tina Malhotra is the youngest in a family of five and a sophomore at the mostly white Yarborough Academy.  She’s taking an Honors English elective course in existential philosophy, and has taken on an assignment to write letters to Jean-Paul Satre about the process of discovering who she is and who she is becoming.

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Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap, illustrated by Mari Araki.

The format of this book was different to any I’ve read before.  I hesitate to call it a graphic novel (although the dust jacket does so) because large portions of the story were carried through text only.  Neither was it an illuminated work because whole pages at a time would be done in a comic style relying on both text and illustrations.

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Review: First in the Family 2

“You definitely feel conflicted when you stand out in a group, and you’re
going through different experiences. You feel a little bit discouraged. But
if you already stand out, you might as well shine. ” Maly, p. 74

First in the Family: Advice about College from First-Generation Students – Your College Years by Kathleen Cushman.
Next Generation Press, Providence, Rhode Island, 2006.
Available online at http://www.firstinthefamily.org/pdfs/First%20in%20Family_manuscript.pdf
Accessed in February and March of 2018.
Nonfiction, 124 pages (68 PDF pages).
NOTE: Sequel to First in the Family – Your High School Years, which I reviewed back in January.

This book gives encouragement and advice to students who may be the first in their families to attend college.  It includes many personal stories and quotations from students who have similar journeys.

First in the Family 2

This short book is aimed at encouraging teens from minority groups (or who are economically disadvantaged) to persevere in college.  When no family members or friends have attended college, students can find themselves at yet another disadvantage as they have no guide to help them navigate college classes or culture.  This book is here to help, with stories and tips from real students who have made it through part or all of college although they were the first in their families.

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Review: The Poet X

“He is an award-winning bound book, / where I am loose and blank pages. / And since he came first, it’s his fault. / And I’m sticking to that.” p. 99

The Poet X: A Novel by Elizabeth Acevedo.
HarperTeen, HarperCollins, New York, 2018.
Novel in verse, 378 pages.
Lexile:  HL800L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? )
AR Level: not yet leveled

Dominican-American teen Xiomara Batisa is one half of a pair of miraculous twins – their birth to older parents caused her philandering father to change his ways and reaffirmed their mother’s devotion to her Catholic faith.  Her genius brother Xavier skipped a grade and is living up to their miracle status, while she defends his comic book collection and feels inadequate.

The Poet X by Acevedo

Target seems to be shelving more and more diverse novels that I’m interested in reading.  There’s been some buzz about this one, but I didn’t know many details.  I think because of the title, I assumed it had to do with Malcolm X and just wasn’t interested.  But that’s not what this book is about at all.  This book is about poetry and love and family and the power of being who you really are.

But let me back up a bit.  There is a love story in this, but don’t get turned off by the heavy romance early on, because this is not a love story.  Rather, this is about Xiomara’s sophomore year of high school, and how she learned to be more confident in herself, and how her family relationships completely changed.

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Review: Secret Keeper

“Asha paused to flick the sweat from the crook of her elbow. Suddenly she caught sight of a face staring at her through the coconut leaves.” p. 31

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins.
Delacorte Press, Random House Children’s Books, New York, 2009.
Historical fiction, 225 pages.
Lexile:  800L  .
AR Level:  5.3 (worth 7.0)  .

Asha’s father has gone to America to look for a new job, leaving his family in the care of his older brother’s family.  Already saddened by the move from Delhi to Calcutta, Asha, her beautiful older sister Reet, and their mother wait and try to fend off marriage proposals, rebukes from the other women, and a life of servitude and confinement.

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Asha’s mother suffers from depression and fits that her daughters describe as visits from the Jailer, when her face and mind go blank.  She attempts methods of coping such as knitting or cooking, but as their life circumstances deteriorate, she’s unable to function, leaving Asha in charge of their physical safety and everyday needs.

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