YA Book treats an Important Subject With Sensitivity

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon and Shuster Children’s Publishing Division, New York, NY, 2012.

“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”

Aristotle Mendoza is fifteen. One steamy hot morning, he wakes up to a song on the radio he hates. “I was bored. I was miserable…The DJ was annoying. He’s yelling: ‘Wake up El Paso. It’s June fifteenth, 1987!’” But Ari doesn’t feel like waking up. It’s not until the DJ plays La Bamba, that he thinks he might be able to cope with this day.

Ari greets his mother in the kitchen and we immediately see the two of them have a warm relationship. Ari and his father – more problematic. Ari’s father fought in Vietnam and the war changed him. “So I was the son of a man who had Vietnam living inside him. Yeah, I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn’t help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.”

One of those tragedies is that he has a brother, eleven years older than he, in prison. His parents don’t talk about him. There are no photos of him in the house. It’s as if his brother doesn’t exist.

On this day, though, Ari’s life will take an unexpected turn when he goes to the local pool. He doesn’t know how to swim, so he sits on the edge of the pool, eventually floating in the shallow end. And then he hears a voice: “I can teach you how to swim.” When it turns out the boy’s name is Dante, “…we both kind of went a little crazy. Laughing…I wondered what it was we were laughing about. Was it just our names?”

These are smart, funny teens who know who their namesakes were. They ride the bus and make up stories about the riders. They argue about comics vs. literature. “I was darker than he was. And I’m not just talking about our skin coloring. He told me I had a tragic vision of life. ‘That’s why you like Spider-Man.’” Dante, on the other hand, likes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Ari reads it and tells Dante he hates it, when in fact, he loves it. Then Ari discovers it’s one of his father’s favorite books. “I wanted to ask him if he’d read it before or after he’d fought in Vietnam. It was no good to ask my father questions. He never answered them.”

And so, Ari, a loner, a kid who doesn’t seem to fit in, has found a friend. He has to admit to himself, “Dante. I really liked him. I really, really liked him.”

This is a novel that begins with two young teens finding each other. It ends with them finding themselves and learning what it means to be true to who you are. And they both, over the next two years, grow up.

This novel, of two boys coming to terms with their sexuality, is beautifully written as can be attested to by the four awards it received: The Michael L. Printz Award, the Stonewall Book Award, the Pura Belpre’ Award and the Lambda Literary Award. If you haven’t already read this one, I encourage you to read it now. You know you have the time.

 

 

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Biography A Welcome Addition to Teach a Difficult Subject

The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls by Janet Halfmann, illustrations by Duane Smith. Lee and Low Books Inc., New York, 2020. (Grades 3-7)

The story of Robert Smalls is most likely not known by many. Born to a house slave in 1839, he would go on to accomplish one of the most daring escapes of the Civil War.

 As a twelve-year-old, Robert was sent away from the plantation in Beaufort, where he was born, to work in Charleston waiting tables. There, he made five dollars a month—money he then had to hand over to Master McKee. But he spent his off time on the docks, watching the boats go in and out. Master McKee soon gave him permission to work at the docks, and, by age fifteen, he was foreman of a crew.

At the young age of 17, he met Hannah Jones, a Charleston hotel maid. They fell in love and received permission to marry. He later made a deal to buy his wife’s and daughter’s freedom for $800, but he didn’t know how he would ever save up that much.

Robert had, however, saved $700 by the time the Civil War broke out. He took a job as deckhand on the Planter, a boat that had hauled cotton but now delivered arms and soldiers for the Confederacy. His knowledge of navigation soon got him promoted to wheelman. In that capacity, he learned the secret steam whistle signals for passing the many Confederate forts. This knowledge would serve him well when he finally decided to escape.

When I first reviewed the picture book, Seven Miles to Freedom the Robert Smalls Story, I was impressed that a biography could be so suspenseful. This new edition, written in chapter book format, keeps to that winning formula, but adds informative sidebars that will stretch the reader’s knowledge and lead to further research. This edition has highlighted vocabulary words, a timeline, a glossary, a bibliography and a list of recommended reading. There is much here to capture the interest of young readers. As I said in my initial review, the story of Robert Smalls and his elaborate plan to gain his freedom is “edge of your seat” thrilling.

This edition elaborates on the type of ships that existed in Robert’s time, how they were designed and what type of cargo they carried. These details are sure to intrigue young people who have an interest in ships. Details on the slave ships of the time are included. What life was like for slaves, whether they be field hands or “house slaves” and the cruelty behind slave auctions is also new information.

Sidebars on the history of slavery, causes of the Civil War and an explanation of  how the Mason-Dixon line was drawn are clear and concise. Teachers looking for a biography that will interest their students and also be a door to further research, this story of a little known African American hero is the perfect choice. With a skilled teacher’s guidance, this extra information will enhance student’s understanding of an important chapter of American history.

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When You Are Brave Helps Kids Through Hard Times

When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller, Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. Little Brown & Company, New York and Boston, 2019.

“Some days, when everything around you seems scary…you have to be brave.” When You are Brave is the story of a young girl who is moving to a different house in a different city. The illustrations, beautifully rendered by Wheeler, clearly depict the angst the child is feeling as she leaves her home. She sits in the back seat of her car, clutching a blanket and a stuffed toy. The text, however, never mentions moving or anything to do with it. The words do not specify what the girl is actually doing—only what she is feeling. And that is what is so wonderful about this book. A child can look at the pictures and figure out the girl’s story. That same child, when the text is read, can put their own scary feelings into the story—whatever they are afraid of.  The writer aptly points out that, “…some days are full of things you’d rather not do…At times like these, the world can seem…Too big. Too loud. Too hard. Too much.” Most of us have felt like this on a bad day when one more thing is asked of us which we’re sure we can’t handle. The text goes on to encourage the reader to find their courage—which is illustrated as a shiny light coming from the little girl’s heart. The child is encouraged to picture their courage in their mind and imagine it becoming bigger. The tiny light from the girl’s heart turns into beautiful wings and eventually spreads out into the world. “The next time life seems scary or you start something new, you can remember when you were brave.” Because we’ve all been brave at some time.

Miller, the author of Sophie’s Squash and many more, has created an important book that has the ability to help children through difficult times. With its encouraging message to remember when they were brave, they will know they can be brave again. A great choice for kids facing something new and scary.

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In All the Walls of Belfast two teens struggle with the past in order to change their futures.

All the Walls of Belfast by Sarah J. Carlson. Turner Publishing Co. Nashville, TN, 2018.

This young adult novel begins with seventeen-year-old Fiona on her way to Ireland to meet her father. Her mother fled Ireland for America when Fiona was two, and Fiona spent her childhood believing her father wanted nothing to do with her. Her mother only recently admitted that Fiona’s father has been wanting to be a part of Fiona’s life ever since. A million questions are going through Fiona’s mind,  as her plane begins its descent. She’s beginning to think her best friend, Nevaeh, was right: “…this was totally insane. And I hadn’t even told her the whole surprise-Dad-was-in-the Irish Republican Army thing.” Needless to say, this is a lot to digest for a seventeen-year-old. She’s miffed at her mother, that she kept her away from her father all these years, but she’s both eager and hesitant to meet him. Her mother has assured her that her father “…was not one of the real bad guys…it wasn’t like he’d killed anyone.”

Meanwhile, Danny, an Irish Protestant teen, is on his way to an interview that he hopes will take him out of the “sectarian rubbish,” as his teacher describes Danny’s life. Danny wants to join the British army as a nurse. His mother died in one of the bombings, but she left behind a note to him in his baby book: “…I dream that you’ll save lives instead of take them. Make the world a better place. Mummy loves you.” His father, though, hates the British government because they negotiate and make deals with the IRA. No son of his will be in the British army. Danny’s father drinks, abuses Danny and cherishes the July 12th parades that celebrate “his culture.” These parades sometimes wind their way through Catholic neighborhoods, causing tension, if not outright violence.

All the Walls of Belfast is a well written, poignant look at modern day Ireland long after the “Troubles” have passed. The undercurrent of tension between the Catholics and Protestants, however, still affects real people’s lives: in this story, the lives of two teenagers who just want to live in peace. How these two teens face their pre-conceived biases and learn to forgive is at the heart of this excellent young adult novel.

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“A Green Place To Be” is Perfect Non-fiction To Ignite Young Reader’s Curiosity

A Green Place To Be, The Creation of Central Park by Ashley Benham Yazdani. Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA, 2016, 2019.

“Central Park in Manhattan is green and growing and full of life. It’s a vibrant jewel at the heart of New York City, but it wasn’t always this way…”

So begins Ashley Benham Yazdani’s captivating picture book about the transformation of what was once swampland into what is now Central Park. The illustrations, done in pencil and watercolor, add to the fun of discovering each step along the way in the park’s evolution.

New York City was growing fast, “…but the people needed a green place to be. In 1858 in the city, only a few people had this luxury. If a park wasn’t made quickly, there might not be enough open space left for one.” Enter Calvert Vaux, an architect, who convinced city leaders to hold a design contest. Calvert intended to win the contest himself.

Calvert asked Frederick Law Olmstead, the man who had been appointed superintendent of the park, to help him come up with a design. A double page spread shows how the two men made a ten-foot-long drawing of their design. They even showed where rocks and plants should be and asked people who visited them to add grass. While the two men almost missed the deadline for the contest entry, they ultimately won the contest.

Another double-page spread shows the explosion of gun powder used to break up the boulders that riddled the area. One page is taken up with only three words: “Boom Bang Blam.” The background illustration is white clouds of smoke depicting the rocky explosion. These clever sorts of illustrations are sure to capture the eye and imagination of the young reader.

Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead went on to create many more parks all over America. The last few pages of the book have short biographies of the two men, a bibliography and fun suggestions of things to hunt for in the drawings—including a pair of ghostly sisters who supposedly continue to haunt the park today!

It’s encouraging to see so many wonderful non-fiction picture books being published. A Green Place To Be , like Out of School and Into Nature (reviewed here in April) tells the story of people who, long ago, had a vision and pursued those dreams. Historical non-fiction when done well, like both of these books, can excite children’s curiosity and lead them to pursue areas of research they may not have otherwise considered.

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“Out of School” a Perfect Non-Fiction Read for Earth Day

Out of School and Into Nature, the Anna Comstock Story by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Jessica Lanan. Sleeping Bear Press Ann Arbor Michigan, 2017.

“From the time she was no higher than a daisy, Anna was wild about nature.” Out of School and Into Nature is a delightful picture book that tells the story of Anna Comstock, a woman ahead of her time. Anna is depicted as a little girl who loved the outdoors and was curious about nature: “She loved to hold it close in her fingers, she wanted to feel it squish between her toes, which is why she ran barefoot all summer…” She would sit for long periods of time, just watching nature. Her mother must have been an exceptional woman as well, as she gave Anna the freedom to learn and explore on her own; to ask questions and to try to find the answers.

 Anna pursued science during a time when women simply didn’t do that. Instead of getting married after high school, like most girls, she went on to college to study plants and insects. Anna started drawing the plants and bugs she learned about. Her sketches were so realistic, that her art professor used her drawings during his lectures. In time, farmers studied her sketches to help identify insects that were destroying their crops. Later, Anna used wood blocks to make impressive prints of her creations.

Anna was responsible for introducing nature classes in New York schools. She encouraged teachers to take their lessons outside. At first, this suggestion was met with skepticism. “People thought she was crazy. Didn’t she know school rules? Students learn inside. Students play outside.” Many schools today have incorporated outdoor education into their curriculum.

In 1911, Anna Comstock published a book on nature called the Handbook of Nature Study. At over 900 pages, it contained lessons on a variety of topics. Her book has been translated into eight languages and reprinted frequently.

Teachers who are looking for an engaging biography for younger children will find this book is the perfect choice. It is also an excellent addition to a classroom’s STEAM (A stands for Art) resource shelf. Out of School and Into Nature can easily be used in literacy, science and art lessons.  Kids who are interested in bugs will delight in the illustrations, but the message—that Anna pursued her dream of being a scientist against the social mores of the time—is an important one. Anna was a gifted artist and a dedicated scientist as well.  

Every April, Northland College in Ashland Wisconsin chooses books in several categories for their Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award (SONWA). Out of School and Into Nature was last year’s choice in the children’s literature category. I have found their award winners to be exceptional children’s literature. This year’s winners have just been announced.   To see the winners, honorable mentions and a complete list of past awards, click on this link: https://www.northland.edu/sustain/soei/sonwa/