Read On!

Mrs. Farquharson’s musings about books for children and young adults

The UnwantedsQuests

April9

One of my favorite series is The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann. When I first read about the series in my professional journals, it seemed that the reviews contained a bit of hyperbole. The Unwanteds was described as “The Hunger Games meet Harry Potter”. When I began to read the first book, I was hooked. I continue to recommend these books to children in the intermediate grades and middle school.

Lisa McMann challenges her readers with her society of Quill where thirteen-year-olds are sorted into categories. The Wanteds are the elite, and they will go off to the University. The Necessaries will also be saved to work for the good of society. The rest of the thirteen-year-olds will be The Unwanteds, and their fate is to be eliminated. When twin brothers receive different verdicts, Aaron becomes a Wanted and Alex is an Unwanted. Alex and the rest of the Unwanteds face their deaths until they meet Mr. Today and the alternate world of Artimé.

Fast forward through the seven books in the series, and Lisa McMann has written a companion series, The Unwanteds Quests (Aladdin). Once again, identical twins are the protagonists, and the girls are Alex’s younger sisters. Fifer and Thisbe Stowe don’t always control their powerful magical abilities. Alex, now the head mage of Artimé, threatens to punish them for a misdeed. When they learn that the ice-blue dragons have been enslaved, Thisbe and Fifer sneak away with a friend to save the dragons and redeem themselves. Dragon Captives is the first book in The Unwanteds Quests. The next two books are Dragon Bones and recently published Dragon Ghosts.

MACBA

April4

The winner and honor books for the 2019 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award were announced this month. While our readers at DCD didn’t choose the state winner, they voted for three of the books that are the 2019 honor books.

Jennifer Nielsen’s book, A Night Divided, was this year’s winner. Her thank you letter discusses her novel and her inspiration for it.

“The book’s origin came from Ilona, a friend of our family’s. She was born into East Germany and at age five, her family made the decision to escape. Ilona’s parents planned to escape through the countryside. However, they didn’t want to take a five-year-old running through the countryside, so a different plan had to be put in place for Ilona.

Her grandparents in the west would come over by train, and then return by train with Ilona – not on the seat beside them because she had no papers. Instead, Ilona was drugged, put to sleep, and hidden in the baggage car of the train beneath a pile of hay. The knew the car would be searched at the border, and if Ilona even rolled over in her sleep, she would be sent back to East Germany alone and her grandparents would be arrested, or worse.

In the end, all of Ilona’s family successfully escaped, but when I heard her story, I knew I wanted to tell the story of the people of East Germany. It means so much to me that you then read this book, and loved it.”

To read the rest of Nielsen’s acceptance letter go to the MACBA site here.

The honor books are Ghost by Jason Reynolds, A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord, Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, and Framed by James Ponti.

MCBA

February27

This week, we celebrated reading with our annual Massachusetts Children’s Book Award voting party. Prior to choosing their top books, the participating students advocated for their personal preferences. Many of the children commented that they were introduced to new authors and series that have now become favorites.

The winner of the vote is Rain Reign by Ann Martin. Rose is thrilled that her name is a homonym (rows). She names her dog Rain because that also has homonyms (reign and rein). Rose’s autism is evident through the rules that she makes for herself. It is difficult for her father and her teachers to understand her. When Rain disappears in a flood, Rose must break her own rules and overcome her fears to search for him.

There were three books that came in very close in the voting.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds is about a track team from an elite middle school where the main character is not only running on the field but also running from his problems.

Framed by James Ponti is an entertaining mystery about middle schooler who has a knack for solving mysteries, even one that puzzles the FBI at the National Gallery.

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes tells the story of three friends from very different cultures whose families are all affected by the event of 9/11 that happened before Déja, Ben, and Sabeen were born.

Blended

February15

Before she became an author of young adult books, Sharon Draper taught in middle schools and high schools. Her plots and characters demonstrate that she understands and remembers a child’s and young adult’s experiences. Ms. Draper has a talent that takes her readers into her character’s thoughts and experiences.

Sharon Draper’s newest book is Blended (Atheneum), and I highly recommend it for readers in grades 5 and higher. Eleven-year-old Isabella is a gifted pianist who is struggling with her parents’ divorce. She spends one week with her father and the next with her mother. Those weeks could not be any more different. Her father is black and wealthy and calls her Isabella, while her mother is white and struggling financially and calls her Izzy. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers often comment on her unique beauty, but Isabella is questioning which world, if any, represents her true identity.

Her parents are not navigating their shared custody with grace, and Isabella constantly feels pulled between them. Her life is further complicated by her mother and father finding new partners. Isabella escapes into her music and tries to keep everyone happy. When the son of her father’s fiancé drives her to her piano recital, they are pulled over and injured by the police because of racial profiling.

This book is thoughtfully written. Today’s issues of identity and race are presented from a young adult’s experiences.

Don’t just take my word for it. Check out this enthusiastic review by Colby Sharp.

 

Charley Harper

October19

You should always be doing something that satisfies you, what makes you feel good inside. 
― Charley Harper from Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life

Michelle Houts introduces intermediate and middle school readers to Harper in Count the Wings: The Life and Art of Charley Harper (Ohio University Press). The author was given total access to Charley’s childhood photographs, letters, grade cards, art school documents, wedding pictures, awards, and commendations by his son, Brett

Houts narrates the life story of this West Virginia farm boy who never had a formal art class until after high school. When he was young, Charley enjoyed sketching and observing nature. The author learned an anecdote about his schooling:

He was a good student, but he quickly figured out that he could get even better grades in both English and history if he added a few illustrations to his homework papers. Charley liked to tell the story of how he once saved his history grade by drawing all the presidents. (Houts, p.9)

After a short attendance at West Virginia Wesleyan College, Charley took a life-changing risk and moved to enroll in the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Not only did this educational experience open up the world of art to him, but he also met Edith McKee who became his wife. As artists, they challenged and supported each other.

When Charley joined the army during WWII, his commanders recognized his ability to draw. He joined an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon. As a scout, he was responsible for drawing “quick, accurate sketches of the area.” He also drew and painted scenes that depicted the people and areas through which he traveled. When he returned to the U.S., Harper took advantage of the GI Bill, and he enrolled at the Art Students League in New York City. Because of all of these life experiences, Charley had found his style, and he went on to build his outstanding body of work.

When Charley Harper drew a bird, he reduced the bird down into shapes of circles and triangles. His style is now recognized as “minimal realism.” In describing his style, Harper said, “When I look at a wildlife or nature subject, I don’t see the feathers in the wings, I just count the wings. I see exciting shapes, color combinations, patterns, textures, fascinating behavior and endless possibilities for making interesting pictures.”

Michelle Houts biography is a fine companion to some of our art books on this talented artist.

 

 

Victoria Jamieson

May3

Author Victoria Jamieson gained many fans with her graphic novel, Roller Girl (Dial). She garnered many awards, among them a Newbery Honor, for the story of a girl who is trying to navigate friendships while being true to herself. More accolades are coming her way with her newest graphic, All’s Faire in Middle School (Dial) which incorporates the same themes.

Imogene (Impy) is a feisty main character who has been homeschooled by her non-conformist parents. They work at the Florida Renaissance Faire where Impy and her younger brother, Felix help out. Life changes for Impy when she begins middle school with all of the unwritten social rules, the teachers, the “in” crowd, and the bullies. Even figuring out how to dress is problematic because Impy and her family have their own bohemian style.

As other students give her attention for her artistic talent, Impy goes too far by making fun of teachers and a student whom she respects. When her unkind drawings are pasted all over the school, she must face the consequences. Impy learns to become invisible at school as she strives to regain her parents’ trust at home.

She carries her confusion and problems at school to her home and faire life. When Impy is down-hearted and feeling guilty about some of her behaviors, she over-reacts and takes it out on her six-year-old brother. Felix always carries around his stuffed squirrel, and he is heartbroken when he loses it because Impy threw it into the lake.

Each chapter of All’s Faire in Middle School is cleverly introduced by inferences to the medieval tale of Sir George and the Dragon. By comparing one of the beginning chapter introductions to one towards the end, readers can understand the confusion and complexity of growing up.

Squires are not, of course, distracted by fears about popularity or other such poppycock. And so, our heroine puts these petty distractions behind her as she begins training in the Knight’s Code of Honesty, Chivalry, and Bravery…and swordplay. (Chapter Two)

Dearest fellow travelers, it saddens me to say we are nearing the end of our journey together. If thou believest in happily ever afters…you obviously have never attended Middle School, but perhaps our hero will come close enough. (Chapter Thirteen)

All’s Faire in Middle School is popular with readers in grades four, five, and six.

https://youtu.be/ZjxTjBaBK3A

 

 

Mustaches for Maddie

April20

A few months ago, I was sent a novel from Chris Schoebinger at Shadow Mountain Publishing. After I read it, I’ve shared it with some readers who have enjoyed it as much as I did. I now have a waiting list to read it. Mustaches for Maddie (2017) was written by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown. The authors tell the story of their daughter, Maddie, and her struggles with a serious medical condition. (No spoilers here!) Maddie loves mustaches, and she has many different ones that she puts on to brighten up her day or lighten up a situation.

Maddie faces navigating the social mores of sixth grade that so many children of her age encounter. She wants to be friends with Cassie, the social leader in her class, as do so many of the other girls. Cassie bullies the girls, tries to manipulate the boys, and determine who is “in” or out. Maddie feels bad for those who aren’t included, but she isn’t confident enough to challenge Cassie. When she begins to have medical problems, Maddie realizes how important friendships are. No matter how serious a situation, friends will support her and wear mustaches!

Mustaches for Maddie is a charming novel that entertains readers as it challenges them to be aware of their actions. Maddie faces serious medical challenges with bravery and humor. The authors’ daughter, the “real” Maddie, wrote a poignant letter that is included at the end of the book. I picture her wearing a mustache as she wrote it. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

I try really hard to be friends with everyone. We don’t always realize what trial other people are going through. Sometimes it takes courage to be kind to some people. But we need to always stick up for what’s right. You can do it. Anytime, anywhere, you can have compassion. Everybody needs a friend and that friend can be you So show them that you truly care.

Be kind. Smile more. Laugh more. Dream more.

 

Massachusetts Children’s Book Award 2018

April13

The winner and honor books for the 2018 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award were announced this month. Our readers at DCD chose the same book as the state winner, and they also voted for two of the state honor books.

This year’s most highly rated book is The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial). The setting is Great Britain during WWII. The protagonist is Ava, a young girl who was born with a club foot. Her mother shows Ava no affection. Ava envies her brother who is able to run free and escape the loveless home. When children are being evacuated from London and welcomed into homes in the safer countryside, she sneaks off to join her brother whom her mother put on the transport. When the siblings are sheltered by a recluse who is forced to house them, Ava finally experiences something that she always longed for, kindness. Yet, she does not know how to accept it. The fourth, fifth, and sixth graders who read this novel all enjoyed this book. They have now moved on to the sequel, The War I Finally Won which was recently published.

The two honor books that DCD’s readers chose are Space Case by Stuart Gibbs (Simon & Schuster) and Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (Nancy Paulsen Books). There were a number of quality selections that were nominated for the award this year. Our readers were introduced to some authors and genres that were new to them. We look forward to Salem State University’s publication of the list of nominees for 2019. Those will be announced soon.

 

Massachusetts Book Award Selections

September22

Be loving enough
to absorb evil
and understanding enough
to turn an enemy into a friend. –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When books are selected for the Massachusetts Children’s Book Award Program, the selection committee carefully considers genre, the quality of the writing, and the inclusion of a variety of cultural groups. As I look at the list every year and introduce them to children, I discuss each book’s uniqueness. I also point out similarities in style or theme. Two of this year’s nominated books are written in verse, but that isn’t the important similarity. The protagonists in the books must learn to navigate in a society that often discriminates against them. They work to turn prejudice into acceptance.

Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton (Penguin) is a novel written in first person. The narrator, a young girl, has moved with her family to Vermont. Her heritage is half-black and half-Japanese, and in 1969, Vermont was mostly white. Mimi Yoshiko Oliver finds out that to answer her classmates’ and adults’ questions about “what she is”, she needs to figure out “who she is”. Mimi defies stereotypes, and she also wants to be an astronaut, an opportunity that wasn’t open to women at that time.

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Penguin) is also written in first person, and it is an autobiography. This book has already received numerous awards, among them was a commendation as a Newbery Honor Book. Woodson writes about living in South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. Her family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she experienced racial and religious discrimination. For me, one of her most poignant selections is “because we’re witnesses”.

because we’re witnesses

No Halloween.
No Christmas.
No birthday.
Even when
other kids laugh as we leave the classroom
just as the birthday cupcakes arrive
we pretend we do not see the chocolate frosting,
pretend we do not want
to press our fingertips against
each colorful sprinkle and lift them,
one by sweet one
to our mouths.

No voting.
No fighting.
No cursing.
No wars.

We will never go to war.

We will never taste the sweetness of a classroom
birthday cupcake
We will never taste the bitterness of a battle.

Massachusetts Children’s Book Award

September15

Once again, we will be promoting the nominees for the Massachusetts Children’s Book Awards (MCBA) during the 2017-2018 school year at DCD. Even though I’ve written about this program before, I would like to explain it to parents who have never had a fourth, fifth, or sixth grader who is participating. This voluntary reading incentive program has become a popular event for many students. Started by Dr. Helen Constant in 1975, it is administered through Salem State University. Twenty-five books are nominated for the award, and our voting for the DCD favorites will take place in late winter.

There are many obvious benefits to reading along with us for the next few months. Students are often introduced to authors who are unknown to them before this, and they return looking for other books by them. Some of the authors, like Liesel Shurtliff and Tom Angleberger, are already favorites of many intermediate readers. An important benefit that may not be obvious is that our readers become critics. They learn how to evaluate literature through plot, characters, and interest, and they have fun doing so. Throughout the next few months, I’ll highlight some of the nominated titles. Links to the reading lists and our required journal pages can be found on our DCD Library page. From time to time, I’ll be reviewing some of the titles under consideration for the award. So…let me write about one today.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2015) falls into the genre of realistic fiction. Readers can easily relate to the contemporary characters. Ally struggles in school, and her older brother is sorry that he can’t help her because academics aren’t his strength either. She doesn’t want to bother her mother because her father is on active duty overseas, and her mother has enough worries. A new teacher understands that Ally isn’t really a troublemaker, but she is a creative girl who learns differently. My favorite quote in the book is, “Everybody is genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

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