Archive | April, 2012

[Z] Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T. R. Simon

30 Apr

Zora and Me was the other book I picked up at my end-of-the-alphabet spree at the library. I had originally planned to do The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder sbecause the author’s name starts with Z, but since I found Zora and Me and had time to read it before I had to write my post, I decided to go with that instead.

The first thing that popped into my head when I saw the name Zora was Zora Neale Hurston, known for writing Their Eyes Were Watching God. But I was confused because I was in the kids section and the name was the title, not the author. My instincts were right, though, because the Zora in this book does refer to Zora Neale Hurston. Bond and Simon write a fictionalized version of Hurston’s life as a fourth grader, and they include many details from her life, while throwing in some mystery and some extra characters–namely, the “Me” in the title, Carrie, and their friend, Teddy.

As a book, it’s a great historical fiction for middle graders. There is a pretty gruesome murder, and it’s billed as a mystery, but I think the book is not so much about solving the mystery as it is about the main characters learning about themselves and the world they live in (the American South in the 1900s). In fact, most of the final resolution of the mystery takes place off-screen by the adults that the girls confide in, and the reader only gets the summary from an older Carrie.

I think it’s very effective, though. It’s appropriate and realistic for the adults to take care of things the way they did, and the tone of the novel is reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which also deals with racism in the South. Both are told in first person from the point of view of an adult who was a child during the major events of the book. Having the adult perspective allows the authors to explain things that a child would otherwise not realize; it would be hard not to have that perspective when dealing with issues like racism.

I wasn’t planning on my last post for A to Z sounding so much like a mini literary analysis, but the book lends itself to discussion, academic or otherwise, and would be a great springboard for discussions with students about race and segregation in the U.S. post-Civil War.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter Z. 

And that’s it for my A to Z posts. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed them! :) Check back next week for a reflections post about the blogging challenge. After that, I am planning on posting at least once a week until next April, so keep an eye out for more reviews!

[Y] YuYu Hakusho by Yoshihiro Togashi

28 Apr

I wasn’t planning on doing any more manga for this challenge, but I’m cheating (again) with Y because I didn’t realize until just now that my original ‘Y’ book actually started with the letter ‘I’ until just now as I was getting ready to write this post… (In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Betty Bao Lord). So instead of scrambling around trying to find and read a book starting with the letter Y in 2-3 days (I’m still writing these in advance) and then write the post, I’m doing a series that haven’t actually read (I’ve only Netflixed the anime), but at least this time the manga and anime are both available in English.

幽☆遊☆白書, a.k.a. YuYu Hakusho, Ghost Files, or Poltergeist Report, is a classic shonen (remember, shonen = boys’) manga that pretty much everyone in Japan has heard of. Most young(ish) professionals read/watched it when they were growing up, and older adults probably remember their kids watching it on TV. I don’t know about the younger kids these days, but I do know that if I go to karaoke with a Japanese person and sing a theme song from this series, they will most likely recognize it.

This series is basically a series of tournaments where the main characters get stronger and stronger until they have to fight guys from another world to even break a sweat. Typical shonen stuff. I love action and tournaments, though, so this was a lot of fun to watch. Definitely a series aimed at young boys, but that doesn’t usually deter me with books or with manga (don’t know what that says about me, though…).

Hiei and Killua

Fanart that's pretty close to how I imagine what Hiei (left) and Killua look like in my head. Click on the image to go to the original site (Japanese).

I was confused for years because one of the main characters from this series, Hiei, was very similar in personality and appearance to a character from another successful series, Hunter x Hunter, named Killua (see image).

There were a lot of other similarities, like the number of main characters and their personalities, and for a long time, I thought that whoever wrote Hunter x Hunter had copied the ideas off of the person who wrote YuYu Hakusho. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that both manga had been written and drawn by the same person…

Togashi-sensei’s other famous series (that I’ve watched), Level E, is a science fiction comedy (aimed at adults, I think) that is completely different from the two battle manga series he is known for but still pretty enjoyable, if a bit strange.

Also for all you shojo (girls’ manga) fans out there, Yoshihiro Togashi is married to the creator of Sailor Moon, Naoko Takeuchi (according to Wiki, where I try to confirm all the information in my head that I’m not sure about before posting it online).

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter Y. 

[X] Xanth series by Piers Anthony

27 Apr

The first and only thing I could think of for the letter X was the Xanth series by Piers Anthony. I don’t know if I would consider them YA, but I think I read them in late elementary school because I found the books at the junior high where I had Chinese school on Saturdays. They were probably a little mature for me, but I enjoyed the humor and the fantasy elements. There was also an older girl at church who collected the series, so she let me borrow a bunch of the books in the series after she found out that I liked them.

Considering how much I read them at the time, it’s kind of sad that I can barely remember anything about them. Looking at my bookshelf, I actually own quite a few of his books, but I couldn’t remember which ones were part of the Xanth series and which ones were part of a different series. I remember now that I liked the puzzles in the Adept series, so I bought books from that series, but I didn’t realize that I only bought the second half (I think). I did manage to find an X book under “Anthony, Piers” on my shelf, though–Xone of Contention, which is part of the Xanth series.

Even with the help of Wikipedia, I couldn’t remember much about the book or the series, so that’s all for this very short post… Only two more to go!

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter X. 

[W] The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

26 Apr

This is another Newbery winner, and one of my favorite books of all time. Most of the kids I recommend this book to love it, and I’ve had a few call it one of their favorite books. I even had one girl tell me that she was mad at me for making her stop reading at such a crucial moment in the story (they were reading a few chapters a week).

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin is a mystery that has lots of surprising revelations, and I love how all the pieces fit together in the end. I also liked how Raskin gave us a glimpse of what happened to all the characters after the main story ends (kind of like the oft-maligned ending to the Harry Potter series, which I didn’t dislike as much as some readers, I think). I enjoy reading about my favorite characters even after they move on with their lives, which is even better if it includes a new story about them (both Tamora Pierce and Patricia C. Wrede do this wonderfully).

This book will leave readers guessing until the end, and they will probably want to re-read the book from the beginning immediately after finishing it the first time to see how the clues all lead to the answer. I’ve read it many, many times (although I’ve lost my beloved copy in the garage somewhere and have had to borrow it from the library recently to teach it), and I’ve taught it twice now with great results. The kids have fun keeping track of the clues as they find them and trying to figure out pieces of the puzzle themselves (I make them put them up on the classroom walls), but I don’t think I’ve had anyone who was able to predict the ending yet.

There is a fairly large case, but the main character is probably Turtle, a 13-year-old girl, since all the other characters are four to forty plus years older. The book is actually pretty diverse, with an African American female judge and a Chinese family as part of the sixteen heirs who take part in the Westing game. While the depiction of them is a little stereotypical, the son of the Chinese family is not the typical “smart Asian,” which was refreshing. I didn’t find anything particularly offensive about them, and the fact that they were even there was nice. I think I was more focused on Turtle, who made me want to be a lawyer when I grew up (until I realized I would have to go to law school for that…).

I would recommend this book for boys and girls, around fourth grade and up. Even if they don’t generally like mysteries, they will probably like this one. And I have a bonus recommendation for any adults out there who loved the game or the movie “Clue” and haven’t read this book–you should definitely read it! ;)

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter W. 

[V] The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg

25 Apr

This is my second book on this blog by E. L. Konigsburg, and the second Newbery Medal winner I’m reviewing by her. (Here’s the link for my review of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.)

This was the only book I could think of for the letter V, although when I went to the library to check it out, I also found The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket. But I had been wanting to read this book since teaching Mixed-Up Files to my fourth graders and learning about the double Newbery that Konigsburg earned with this book.

I loved how she interweaved all the stories together into a larger story without making it feel disconnected. All the stories, and all the lives they touched, feel like they were connected even before the story she set out to tell begins.

The story is about four bright and mature sixth graders who are the underdogs at the Academic Bowl (like Academic Decathlon, but for middle school). But their experiences (and the way they reflect on their experiences) make them wise beyond their years. They are called The Souls, which I thought was a little cheesy, and maybe the only wrong note in this whole book, but I thought of them as The Old Souls. They were able to find an acceptance of themselves that helped give them self-confidence and the ability to rise above typical sixth grade drama, like bullying and playing tricks on the teacher.

This book still has a couple jokes that will go over the heads of the intended readers like Mixed-Up Files, but I think she made the vocabulary a little easier this time around by explaining most of the more difficult words she uses in context.

There’s a great line on the second page:

To her four sixth graders puberty was something they could spell and define but had yet to experience.

Which is basically the tone of the book (though not the subject matter). It talks about everything so matter-of-factly, but it doesn’t lose a sense of warmth.

The book does contain some pre-adolescent themes that parents and teachers may want to watch out for with younger (less mature) readers, but this is a great book for bright and precocious readers of any age.

I’ll leave you with a funny conversation on diversity that comes up after the first vignette:

“In the interest of diversity,” she said, “I chose a brunette, a redhead, a blond, and a kid with hair as black as print on paper.”

Dr. Rohmer was not amused. He gave Mrs. Olinski a capsule lecture on what multiculturalism really means.

“Oh,” she said, “then we’re still safe, Dr. Rohmer. You can tell the taxpayers that the Epiphany Middle School team has one Jew, one half-Jew, a WASP, and an Indian.”

The teacher is told off again for calling the Indian boy an Indian by Dr. Rohmer, who informs her that they are called Native Americans now, not realizing that the boy is an actual Indian whose parents are from India. I love the tongue-in-cheek answers Mrs. Olinski gives Dr. Rohmer, who had just been to diversity training (but ended up being an example of why diversity training doesn’t work).

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter V. 

[U] Unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech

24 Apr

I had never browsed through a books section on a quest to find books that started with certain letters before, and it was certainly an interesting experience. However, I was dissatisfied with the backup books I had in mind for some of the last letters of the alphabet, so one sunny Saturday afternoon, I spent half an hour going through the middle grade and YA section looking for books that started with U, V, and Z. I actually had a book in mind for V already, but I had never read it, so I needed to borrow it anyway (although I had an idea of what to write if I didn’t have time to borrow or read the book).

I found two books for the letter U, Ugly by Donna Jo Napoli, and Unfinished Angel by Sharon Creech. I almost wrote about Ugly because I loved reading about the ugly duckling’s journey through Australia meeting and learning about lots of interesting animals–including humans–and about himself. But in the end, the charming angel with the Italian-ish accent won my heart with this line near the beginning of the book:

An angel does not need a bed, but sometimes I think the bed needs an angel.

And also because of the mention of “those marshmallow candies that look like animals” reminded me of Easter. lol…

(So it has only a little to do with the fact that I already mentioned Spinners, another of Donna Jo Napoli’s books, in my post for the letter B before I went on this strange hunt for books by letter.)

The book takes place in a Switzerland filled with Italians with smatterings of other peoples, and the angel learns English from them somehow. It’s a strange mix of squashed together words and made up words, with wonderfully delicious onomatopoeia like flishing and flooshing.

I am always wary of giving my students books written outside of a typical narrative style like Unfinished Angel is. At the same time, I want to expose them to different ways of storytelling and stretch their imaginations. Besides, it’s just a nice story with a hopeful ending. It also teaches about kids and poverty and family in a very real and sensitive way (this is where the hope comes in, too).

The non-traditional narrative may be hard for younger readers to fully comprehend, but I have seen reviews compare it to a child learning how to talk, so they may understand it better than we adults. It would be great read aloud (in an Italian-ish accent, if you dare!) to middle graders.

I know I knew who Sharon Chreech was growing up , but I guess the only thing she really had out when I was in elementary school that I’d heard of was her Newbery Award-winning book, Walk Two Moons. I don’t really remember what that was about anymore, but I remember my sister loved Bloomability when she was little. I’ve been having fun discovering her books as an adult, and read Granny Torelli Makes Soup and The Castle Corona last year, and now Unfinished Angel. All were quick reads that told very real stories in different but refreshing ways.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter U. 


[T] Tiger by Jeff Stone

23 Apr

Tiger by Jeff Stone is the first book in the Five Ancestors series about five young warrior monks whose temple, the only home and family they have ever known, is destroyed. They are the only survivors, starting them on a quest to learn about their pasts and save their country.

Even though Jeff Stone is not Chinese, he has a respect for the Chinese culture that comes through in these novels.  He uses both Mandarin and Cantonese words throughout the books, including in the names of the characters, who are all named after animals that reflect their personalities.  I don’t speak Cantonese, but by the time the words are romanized, they tend to come out similar to Mandarin, and it was fun trying to figure out what all the words meant (and brush up on my knowledge of Chinese animal names!).

This is a dark, suspenseful action-packed series that will leave you wanting to read the next book as soon as possible, so I would recommend getting your hands on a complete set before reading Tiger. Fortunately, I was able to get the first six ebooks all at once, and I borrowed the seventh and last book from my library way before I finished the sixth, so I was able to read straight through them.

If you can’t tell by the description above, this book is great for boys, and fast-paced enough for reluctant readers. I recommended it to my fifth graders last year, but I don’t think anyone ended up reading it. :( I’ll have to try harder to promote it this summer. Girls are usually more willing to read about boy main characters, and I think those who enjoy action or adventure stories will also like this series. There are also a few strong female characters in the series, so girls should have no problem relating.  With all that action, it does get a little gory though, so be prepared for some blood.

Here’s Random House’s website for the series, complete with Flash trailer and cheesy music.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter T. 

[S] The Strictest School in the World by Howard Whitehouse

21 Apr

I randomly picked up the first book, The Strictest School in the World, at the library because the subtitle looked interesting:

Being the Tale of a Clever Girl, a Rubber Boy and a Collection of Flying Machines, Mostly Broken (The Mad Misadventures of Emmaline and Rubberbones)

I liked the part about the clever girl because I always enjoy reading about clever girls (having aspired to be one in the past, I now just find them amusing). Most of my favorite books involve clever girls, and my favorite novel that I wrote for Nanowrimo stars a clever girl.

Emmaline’s dream is to build flying machines, and Rubberbones, a boy who can’t get hurt, is destined to help her fly them. However, her mother (in India with her father, a British colonial officer) wants her to become a lady, so she sends Emmaline off to a boarding school for girls that is known as the strictest school in the world. The rest of the Mad Misadventures series follows their adventures and misadventures with a cast of wacky and colorful characters, most of whom you would not want in your living room, even if they do mean well.

It had been a while since I read about England and its surroundings, and I have to say I enjoyed reading about the horrible boarding school and the cool Aunt Lucy (widowed, round in shape, fierce with an umbrella, enjoys cooking with slugs) who encourages her niece in her endeavors. I also loved Lal Singh, Aunt Lucy’s mysterious Indian butler, who seemed to have been a solider in a past life. He always seemed to appear in the right place at the right time, and his Indian curry sounded delicious, especially compared to Aunt Lucy’s slug cakes.

The headmistress of St. Grimelda’s School for Young Ladies reminded me of Miss Trunchbull (from Matilda, by Road Dahl), and disgusted me almost as much. The villain of the second book was also gross, as the faceless fiend really had no face. In comparison, the Collector (of mad scientists) in the third book was not nearly as intimidating or fleshed out as a character, as he sent his underlings to do most of his dirty work and just sat in his lair for pretty much the whole book.

The books all start off a little slow, but once the action starts, it continues until the very last page, with only a few breathers in the end. Every time one problem is resolved, another seems to take its place. The climax generally takes place very near the end of the book, and what comes after that is is rush of resolving loose ends that left me wanting more. Which was why I read the next book. And the book after that.

It is very effective, making me want to read more even after there were no more pages. However, at times, I got tired of the American mad scientist Professor Bellbuckle blowing something up–again–and Princess Purnah (the rightful heir to the throne of a small, very violent, country) messing up yet another plan with her random outbursts and thirst for blood and sweets. It’s loads of fun, but can get a little tiring if you read it all at once.

Overall, it’s a fun mad-cap adventure that never quite seems to stop, whether you want it to or not. I think kids of all ages would love their adventures, but for American kids unaccustomed to the speech and vocabulary of Britain, it may be a little difficult to understand. The more they are exposed to it, though, the easier it will be for them to absorb, so this may be a good place for them to start, as long as they are willing to skim over the parts they don’t understand (which is a good tip for any child reading anything that contains content that is above their level).

There is a little real history, mixed with real and fictional characters from a number of famous and not so famous books, including Queen Victoria, Sherlock Holmes, Sigmund Freud, and Nikola Tesla. The same goes for the map of the world Whitehouse created, which includes both real and made-up places. Kids may have a hard time telling fact from fiction (which is the point), but it would be a great place to start or end interdisciplinary work on the Victorian era.

Contains mild violence, kidnapping, guns, knives, pterodactyls, and a scary headmistress. Includes dialect that may be hard to understand for lower level readers, especially in places that are not England.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter S.*

*Note: I actually wrote this review almost immediately after reading the book last year and was saving it for this blog, so please excuse the length…

[R] Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything by Lenore Look

20 Apr

I think this is the second book in the series, but my library didn’t have the first book, so I read this one instead, just to get a feel for it. I don’t read many early chapter books, but I had read Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things, also by Lenore Look, and I wanted to read the girl version.

I love these books because they have Chinese main characters, with pictures, so it’s even more apparent. I’m Taiwanese, but as books go, this is close enough. This book is great because it has Ruby with a cousin from China who doesn’t really speak English.

I was just talking to my cousin about a similar incident the other day. She was telling me about her experience at school when she first moved to America from Taiwan and how the teachers at her junior high (she was in 7th grade) had a Japanese girl “translate” for her (this was about 30 years ago, when there was less sensitivity to these issues…).

Her brother was at the same elementary school as one of our other cousins who was a couple years younger, and all the teachers got the American-born cousin to translate for the one that just moved from Taiwan. The only problem was that the American-born one couldn’t speak Mandarin, and his Taiwanese was limited to the phrase “chicken poop.”* So his “translating” consisted of repeating everything the teacher said in English slower and more loudly.

My cousin and I were almost literally ROTL while talking about this, but that was the reality at the time, even in such a diverse place as Los Angeles. It was slightly better while I was growing up, but not so much better that I don’t jump at the chance to read these new books with Asian main characters that have popped up in the last ten years or so whenever I see them.

In the book, Ruby’s cousin is deaf, which adds another dimension to the communication mishaps that can occur. The book is funny and genuine, with adorable illustrations that will draw even the most reluctant readers in. Best for early elementary (Ruby is in second grade in the first book), girls will the Ruby Lu series, and there is an Alvin Ho series for boys that is equally funny and engaging. Of course, eager readers may devour both series, but it looks like there will be plenty of new titles to come.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter R. 

*This is probably not entirely true, but there is an often-told story in our family of how he went to Taiwan and all he could say was “chicken poop.” He will never live it down, no matter how many iPhone apps he designs at Apple.

[Q] The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whelan Turner

19 Apr

I can’t believe I didn’t discover Megan Whelan Turner until last year! I mean, she was even in Disney Adventure! And I had a subscription to that for years, although I was already in high school by the time her story came out in it and had stopped subscribing.

The Queen of Attolia is the second book in her The Queen’s Thief series (which, according to Wiki, is a fan-coined name). I try to introduce the first book of a series as much as possible, but I’m making an exception since I need a book for “Q” (I suppose I could have used the name of the series like I did for The Immortals Quartet by Tamora Pierce, but I’m trying to keep it to book titles as much as possible this month). I loved this series so much that I bought all four books after reading the ebooks from the library.

The world Turner writes has elements of Greek myths, but it is really about political maneuverings with a little intervention by the gods. It does remind me a bit of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, which have some of the same feel to them. Turner and Pierce both do a great job with characterization, and Gen reminds me of George Cooper from the Tortall books. The politics is as engaging as Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, and there’s a bit of Percy Jackson thrown in with the mythologies. And there are more unexpected twists than any of those series, I think. (Just writing this makes me want to go back and re-read them!)

Some profanity in The Queen of Attolia makes me not want to use it with my fifth graders, who can still be somewhat immature when it comes to things like that. I would definitely use the first book, The Thief, though. It’s a great book, written in first person, even though the rest of the series is written in third person. It has the added bonus of being a Newberry Honor book in 1997, which is always nice to tell the parents.

This series has strong male and female characters with enough action for the boys and a little romance for the girls. Great for fans of any of the series I mentioned above, although the series does get a little darker after the first book.

This post is my Blogging from A to Z entry for the letter Q.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 76 other followers