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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Book Review: Ghost by Jason Reynolds

"You can't run away from who you are, but what you can do is run toward who you want to be."

I read a lot of middle grade fiction. Not only do I order books for that section of the library but, let's be honest, kids' books are sometimes just more fun to read than adult books. I must confess, though, that I would not normally choose a sports themed book.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds is one of those books that made me glad that I stepped outside of my elves-battling-dragons comfort zone.

Castle Crenshaw started referring to himself as Ghost the night his father went into a drunken rage and chased him and his mother with a gun. Three years after that fateful night Castle walks past the park and sees a group of kids on the track. Curious, he stops to watch because "running ain't nothing I ever had to practice. It's just something I knew how to do." On a whim, Castle decides to prove that Lu, the sprinter to beat, isn't "that fast" by running alongside. Blown away by Castle's natural talent Coach Brody convinces him to run with the Defenders. For the first time in his life Castle is part of a team, but only if he can stay out of trouble. Easier said than done for "the boy with the altercations and the big file. The one who yelled at teachers and punched stupid dudes in the face for talking smack. The one who felt...different. And mad. And sad. The one with all the scream inside."

Ghost is the first book in a four-volume series revolving around, the Defenders, an elite middle school track team. Ninety-nine percent of children's books about sports spotlight boys playing, football, basketball, or baseball. Reynolds went the unexpected route by writing about the less popular sport of track. I also love that the Defenders is a coed team and future books in the series will feature some of the female members of the team as main characters.

So, I have gone on and on about Ghost being a "sports" book but, obviously, it is much more than a book about track. Castle Crenshaw is such an authentic character and you will cry, cheer, and laugh as a he struggles to move beyond the shame of being poor and having a father in jail. Yes, Castle makes some serious mistakes. Like when he steals an expensive pair of track shoes or smacks the school bully with his lunch tray. But you also see the love Castle has for his mother when he sits and watches romance movies with her despite thinking that they are goofy and boring. Or how much Castle longs for his sober father every time he buys a bag of sunflower seeds at the corner store.

There is also a beautiful circularity to Ghost. The story begins with Castle remembering the worst night of his life when: "the shot--loudest sound I ever heard--made my legs move even faster. I don't know if that's possible, but that's definitely what it seemed like." At the conclusion of Ghost, Castle is in the starting blocks at his first track meet, but this time when the gun goes off  he is confident, eager, and proud.

Jason Reynold's writing absolutely shines and this exceptional coming-of-age story is sure to appeal young readers whether they are boy/girl, black/white, rich/poor, etc. Check out the amazing video below in which Jason Reynolds explains what led him to become an author of juvenile and teen fiction.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Comic Book Crossovers

Every year I choose September to do my displays in the library, seeing as its the month of National Comic Book Day. I always am scrambling for themes. But this year the themes did half the work for me. There's been a large influx of comic book-based media in the last few years. By this I'm talking about TV shows and the like; of course there's been the superhero movies, at least one every year for the last couple of decades. But over the last few years, we've seen more shows like Arrow, Flash, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Gotham, Powers, Preacher, Outcast, etc.There has also been a smaller amount of video games based on comics. Obviously there's been the high-contenders like the Batman: Arkham series, but there's also the the classic pulp-detective style Wolf Among Us based on Bill Willingham's Fables series. A great conjoining has been happening, giving us interesting new mediums and perspectives to analyze our favorite characters or backdrops. So for this September, our display has been focusing on cross-platform books, such as most of the bolded above. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Kinder than is Necessary

Since my previous post, B is for Bully, focused on picture books I figured that this week I would highlight several chapter books with a bullying theme. Books have remarkable powers. When we relate to a character or situation in a book we are comforted by the fact that we are not alone. Inversely, books can cultivate empathy when we read about viewpoints and experiences that differ from our own. Whether a child is the bully, the victim, or a bystander each of these books is sure to make them feel something be it indignation, remorse, sorrow, or hope.

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
The Hundred Dresses may have been written in 1944, but this simple story of kindness and compassion continues to resonate with young readers today.  The story revolves around a poor Polish girl, Wanda Petronski, who is teased relentlessly by the other girls at school for her funny sounding last name and for wearing the same faded blue dress everyday.  When Wanda claims to have one hundred beautiful dresses at home the bullying grows steadily worse. 

Eventually it comes to light that Wanda is an incredibly talented young artist whose drawings of one hundred dresses win a competition at school. Wanda's tormentors are filled with remorse, but it comes too late since the interminable abuse has forced the entire Petronski family to leave town.

So many children (and adults too) can relate to Maddie, the narrator of The Hundred Dresses, who knows that taunting Wanda is wrong, but joins in to avoid becoming a target herself. Although Maddie decides that she is "never going to stand by and say nothing again" the fact that her cowardice caused someone so much suffering continues to haunt her: "Nothing would ever seem good to her again, because just when she was about to enjoy something--like going for a hike with Peggy to look for bayberries or sliding down Barley Hill--she'd bump right smack into the thought that she had made Wanda Petronski move away." The message that bullying hurts all of those involved, not just the victim, is profound and timeless.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Rarely does a single book have the nationwide impact that Wonder has since its publication in 2012. Millions of readers, young and old, have been inspired by the heart-wrenching yet triumphant story of Auggie Pullman.

Let me confess that I was incredibly hesitant to read this book. Why? Well, first off I am a huge, huge crier and I knew from the book trailer that Wonder was going to set off my water works.  In addition to weeping uncontrollably, I was worried that I would end up angry and disgusted. I cannot abide cruelty in any form. Seriously, I think that I would be more outraged and upset to hear that my kid was being a bully than if they were actually being bullied. Thirdly, I was concerned that Wonder would be so sappy that it would read more like a Hallmark card than a realistic novel.

So how did I feel after I actually read Wonder. I did cry (a lot) and I definitely wanted to slap a couple of the characters.  As for the book being too sappy, though, I could not have been more wrong. Wonder is so superbly written that you never doubt the authenticity of the plot or the characters. Palacio has different characters (Julian, his sister, his sister's boyfriend, his best friend, etc.) narrate various chapters and each voice comes across as honest and true.

Wonder is a book that should be required reading in every school. There could be no better class motto than, “Kinder than is necessary. Because it's not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed.”

For fans of Wonder, Palacio has now written several short stories that follow the original story and are narrated by various side characters.   Also, there is a movie based on Wonder slated to come out in 2017 starring Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts as Auggie's parents.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen
First off, let me warn you that The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen deals with a school shooting and suicide so even though the cover looks young and cutesy it is definitely for a more mature audience.

Henry Larsen had a perfectly normal life until his older brother, Jesse, ruined everything with the "unspeakable" act. Now Henry and his father have been forced to move across the country to a new city and his mother is in a psychiatric hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. Encouraged by a therapist to keep a journal, Henry writes down all of the thoughts and feelings that he cannot share with his parents or the friends he has made in his new school.

Be prepared to experience shock, despair, and outrage while reading The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen. However, the intensity of the story is deftly tempered by hope, tenderness, and even humor. Trust me when I say that you will be thinking about this book long after you finish reading it

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt

Julian Twerski has been asked by his English teacher to write about the events that earned him a week long suspension. This turns out to be easier said than done as Julian begins to write about everything but the incident in question. Through Julian's journal you learn that he he is not bad or mean. He is just a kid (like so many others) that allows his friends and/or the crowd to dictate his actions even when his conscience tells him not to.  At times humorous and others heartbreaking, Twerp is an incredibly powerful story about gaining the strength, integrity, and maturity to not only learn from your mistakes, but make amends for them.

Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
In my opinion Freak the Mighty is one of the most poignant and heartrending friendship novels written since Of Mice and Men. Max is a giant of a boy with a heart to match that is a little bit slower than most kids his age. Kevin, or Freak, is incredibly smart and was born with Morquio Syndrome, which has stunted his growth and necessitated leg braces and crutches. The unlikely duo form an indelible bond that helps them cope with bullying, kidnapping, abandonment, and even Freak's crushing disease. I already told you that this one was a tear-jerker so be sure to have a box of tissues (or several) handy when you read Freak the Mighty.

Loser by Jerry Spinelli
In Loser Jerry Spinelli tells the story of Donald Zinkoff (or just Zinkoff) from first to sixth grade. Zinkoff may be one of my all time favorite characters from a children's book. Why? Because Zinkoff is awkward, clumsy, and never quite fits in, but he is also caring, generous, funny, and happy to be who he is. Honestly, haven't we all met someone at some point in our lives who is completely oblivious to what other people think and don't we all wish we could be a bit more like that? Zinkoff's classmates may have labeled him a loser, but he is too busy enjoying every moment of his life to care. Loser is a remarkable story about standing out for all of the right reasons. Not because you are popular, athletic, smart, etc. but because you are kind, brave, joyful, and optimistic. We should all strive to a bit more like the Zinkoffs of the world.