Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Year Without Mom - Dasha Tolstikova

Title: A Year Without Mom
Author: Dasha Tolstikova
Publisher: Groundwood Books, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 168 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic novel; Realistic Fiction
Started: April 19, 2016
Finished: April 20, 2016

From the back cover:

A Year Without Mom follows twelve-year-old Dasha through a year full of turmoil after her mother leaves for America.

It is the early 1990s in Moscow, and political change is in the air. But Dasha is more worried about her own challenges as she negotiates family, friendships, and school without her mother. Just as she begins to find her own feet, she learns that she is to join her mother in America - a place that seems impossibly far from everything and everyone she loves.

This gorgeous and subtly illustrated graphic novel signals the emergence of Dasha Tolstikova as a major new talent.

I picked this up because I love graphic novel accounts of kids living in other countries, especially during important times in history, so I figured this fit the bill.

Dasha lives in Moscow in the Soviet Union of the 90s with her mother and grandparents, while her father lives in Los Angeles. When her mother is accepted to study at a university in Chicago and leaves for a year, Dasha feels lonely and unsure of how she will cope with everything with her mom gone. She proves herself resilient though, navigating crushes, friends, and school more or less on her own. When her mother comes for a visit, she tells Dasha that she is coming with her to America for the next year before they both return to Russia. Dasha realizes she has grown and changed in the year her mother was gone, and whereas before she would've gone with her mother in a heartbeat, now she is reluctant to leave.

I assumed before picking this up that because the story takes place in Russia around the time communism fell that the political climate would have more of a focus in the story, but aside from some differences in the school system and some vocabulary, I honestly forgot I was reading a story that even took place in Russia. Dasha's struggles are quite universal, and she worries about the same stuff every other twelve year old does, which makes this a good pick for the middle grades to show that we as humans are really more alike than we are different no matter where we live.

Very nice story with universal struggles all kids can relate to, with an interesting art style as well (normally not my cup of tea but I actually liked it).

Thoughts on the cover:
You can get a good feel for the art style here, and the image is strangely representative of the atmosphere of the book (Dasha alone being slightly apprehensive about it all).

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Tragedy Paper - Elizabeth LaBan

Title: The Tragedy Paper
Author: Elizabeth LaBan
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 312 pages
Genre: Young Adult; RealisticFiction
Started: March 27, 2016
Finished: April 4, 2016

From the inside cover:

Time Macbeth is a seventeen-year-old albino and a recent transfer to the prestigious Irving School, where the motto is "Enter here to be and find a friend." Time does not expect to find a friend; all he really wants to do is escape his senior year unnoticed. Despite his efforts to blend into the background, he finds himself falling for the quintessential it-girl Vanessa Sheller, girlfriend of Irving's most popular boy. To Tim's surprise, Vanessa is into him too, but she can kiss her social status good-bye if anyone finds out. Tim and Vanessa begin a clandestine relationship while looming over them is the Tragedy Paper, Irving's version of a senior-year thesis, assigned by the school's least forgiving teacher, Mr.Simon.

Elizabeth LaBan's stunning novel unfolds from two alternating viewpoints: Tim, the love-struck new kid, and Duncan, a current senior who uncovers the truth behind Tim and Vanessa's story and will consequently produce the greatest Tragedy Paper in Irving's history.

Someone recommended this book to me, saying it is somewhat similar to Thirteen Reasons Why, which I loved. Upon reading it, though it does share some very superficial similarities to Thirteen Reasons Why, I enjoy the book moreso for its commentary on tragedy outside of the literary sense.

Duncan is a senior at the Irving School, a private boarding school in New York state. When Duncan arrives on the first day of school to find his room and his treasure, a present the previous year's graduate leaves for the new senior that occupies their dorm room, he is disappointed not only that he has received the worst room on the floor, but also that his "treasure" is a bunch of CD's. Upon closer examination, the CD's are recordings by Tim Macbeth, the room's prior occupant, who was involved in some unfortunate events that occurred last year that the reader isn't completely informed of until the end of the novel. Duncan begins to play them, getting caught up in Tim's story of himself and Vanessa, a classmate that he finds himself falling for.

The chapters alternate viewpoints between Duncan and Tim. The dual narration is well-done, the voices are clearly distinct and I never got them confused. Tim's story was engaging. Even though I never cared much for Vanessa as a character, I read on purely because I wanted to know what happened to Tim. I also love how the author made this novel very much like a modern-day equivalent to a classic tragedy, from the character names from tragic literature (Tim Macbeth, Duncan, Daisy) to the presence of tragic flaws, and the adherence to the proper structure of tragedy. Duncan is afraid his senior year will be tragic like Tim's and Vanessa's, so it is interesting to see the dichotomy between Tim and Vanessa's actions and Duncan and Daisy's.

Now go forth and spread beauty and light by reading this book, especially if you're a literature enthusiast.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the image of Tim (I'm assuming Tim) running in the snow with his back to the reader. The colour scheme of blue, silver, and grey is very aesthetically pleasing as well.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Only Child - Guojing

Title: The Only Child
Author: Guojing
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade Books (Random House), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 112 pages
Genre: Children's Graphic Novel/Picture Book
Started: March 17, 2016
Finished: March 17, 2016

From the inside cover:

A little girl - lost and alone - follows a mysterious stag deep into the woods, and, like Alice down the rabbit hole, she finds herself in a strange and wondrous world.

But home and family are very far away. How will she get back?

In this extraordinary wordless picture book, Guojing brilliantly captures the rich and deeply felt emotional life of a child - filled with loneliness and longing as well as love and joy.

I saw the cover and knew this had to be mine, the cuteness alone made me melt.

The story follows a little girl in China who leaves home to visit her grandmother and ends up lost in the woods. She meets a stag, who takes her to a world in the clouds with baby animals as playmates. The stag eventually locates her family and delivers her back home.

The plot is pretty simple, but this book is incredibly beautiful, partly because there is absolutely no text so everything is conveyed without words, and also because the drawings are shaded rather than coloured. I especially like the fact that the story takes place in the winter, so the snow makes everything especially magical. It makes for a very surreal, charming experience. The author used her experiences growing up under the one-child policy in China in the 80s to inspire this, and as a fellow only child, the loneliness and desire for companions comes across well.

So gorgeous, this is a great addition to anyone's library. This would make a great creative writing prompt to use in the classroom as well. 

Thoughts on the cover:
So beautiful, and the art on the inside is even better.

Monday, March 14, 2016

It's OK to Go Up the Slide - Heather Shumaker

Title: It's OK to Go Up the Slide: Renegade Rules for Raising Confident and Creative Kids
Author: Heather Shumaker
Publisher: Jeremy P. Tarcher (Penguin), 2016 (Paperback) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 363 pages
Genre: Adult; Parenting
Started: March 10, 2016
Finished: March 14, 2016

From the back cover:

With her first book, It's OK Not to Share, Heather Shumaker overturned all the controversial rules of parenting with her "Renegade Rules" for raising competent and compassionate kids. In It's OK to Go Up the Slide, Shumaker takes on new hot-button issues with Renegade Rules such as:

  • Recess is a Right
  • It's OK Not to Kiss Grandma
  • Don't Force Participation
  • Safety Second
  • Ban Homework in Elementary School
Shumaker also offers broader guidance on how parents can control their own fears and move from an overscheduled life to one of more free play. Parenting can too often be reduced to shuttling kids between enrichment classes, but Shumaker challenges parents to reevaluate how they're spending their precious family time. This book helps parents help their kids develop important life skills in an age-appropriate way. Most important, parents must model these skills, whether it's ;imitating technology use, confronting conflict, or coping emotionally with setbacks. Sometimes being a good parent means breaking all the rules. 

I believe this author's books came into my life at just the right time. When I read her first book, It's OK Not to Share, which focuses on toddlers and pre-schoolers, I was a brand new mom with an infant, but had my fair share of experiences with kids as a teacher. Now, reading the follow-up book, which is geared to issues of school-aged children, my daughter is four and in school herself (for non-Canadian readers, in Ontario we begin junior kindergarten at age 4), and my teaching experience has increased. Similar to my thoughts after reading her first book, this new instalment puts forth many parenting ideas, some are revolutionary and some are ones you and other parents might already be using. 

This book follows a similar format to the previous one: each chapter introduces a concept such as "It's OK to Talk to Strangers" and "Banish Calendars at Circle Time", shows the typical way most parents approach the issue versus the unconventional "Renegade" way, how children interpret the messages given to them when each way is used, and phrases to use and avoid when experiencing these concepts in your everyday life. 

Some of these ideas are ones that you may already be familiar with depending on your circle of friends. The first section on Risk and Independence with notions about letting kids assess risk, be the boss of their bodies, and not touting the typical "stranger danger" speech from the 80s is one that most parents I know tend to adhere to already. Granted, most parents I interact with are fairly well-educated, liberal, and don't helicopter, so these ideas might be a novelty in your area. 

Of particular interest to me as a teacher were the chapters on Children's Rights at School and More Rights at School. The author is pretty spot-on here, and her insights only reinforced that my gut feelings on these topics have been correct for years. For example, Recess Is a Right is a chapter that focuses on the benefits of recess in elementary school and how research shows that scores plummet when schools remove recess. I know there are schools in the US that have removed recess in exchange for more instruction time to prepare for standardized tests, so this just reminded me how privileged my family is to live where recess is protected. Like the author, I don't believe in taking recess away as punishment, kids need their breaks just like adults do, probably even more than we do. It's counterproductive in my experience as a teacher, so I simply don't do it. 

The chapter on banning homework in elementary school is also something we already have semi-adopted here. Nightly homework, particularly for math, is more common in grades 7-8+ (our elementary schools are mostly K-8 where I live and work), but students do receive ample time in class to complete what would normally be assigned as homework otherwise. 

Some of the ideas presented are a bit more uncommon, even in my experience. The section on More Rights at School discusses the ideas of not forcing kids to participate, changing kindergarten expectations, and getting rid of activities at circle time when they aren't developmentally appropriate. The chapter on kindergarten I agree is very relevant (except for the suggestion to delay kindergarten entrance since many families cannot afford that), especially in the US where redshirting is a huge issue in some communities and the programs are very academic. My daughter is lucky to be in a full-day, play-based kindergarten program in an area with a December 31st cut-off date where redshirting is practically nonexistent. Even as one of the youngest in her class, she is thriving, and our experience has been positive, but I agree it isn't like that everywhere. The "don't force kids to participate" and "no calendars at circle time" concepts are ones I agree with, but aren't used by most teachers I know. It made me wonder why circle time always focuses on dates and times that most kids don't developmentally understand (my daughter is only just starting to grasp time as a concept at not quite 4.5), and why we force kids to do the same activities as everyone else (assuming safety doesn't factor in). 

The chapters in the Sorrow, Empathy, and Disaster section are ones I am sure will be of interest, particularly because we don't encounter them frequently. Don't Remove Ogres from Books is an idea I am passionate about as a reader, I don't believe in censoring "bad" things from children's literature, since I would rather have kids learn about heavy issues from books where they can safely process them and ask questions than learn incorrect information from a friend or see triggering images in the media. Deal with News Disasters and Share Unfair History are really important chapters in my opinion, since they deal with bad experiences and uncomfortable parts of our history that kids need to know about, but that we as adults sometimes struggle with how to convey in an age-appropriate way. 

Like the first book, this one is a must-read if you're a parent, teacher, or are otherwise around children often. These methods do work (sometimes with needed tweaking) and they result in happier kids and families. 

Thoughts on the cover:
Keeping the continuity from the first book of a single image against a white cover is simple, yet effective. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Glass Sword - Victoria Aveyard

Title: Glass Sword (2nd in the Red Queen series)
Author: Victoria Aveyard
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 440 page
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Dystopian Fiction
Started: March 1, 2016
Finished: March 9, 2016

From the inside cover:

If there's one thing Mare Barrow knows, it's that she's different. Mare Barrow's blood is red - the colour of common folk - but her Silver ability, the power to control lightening, has turned her into a weapon that the royal court tries to control.

The crown calls her an impossibility, a fake, but as she makes her escape from Maven, the prince - the friend - who betrayed her, Mare uncovers something startling: She is not the only one of her kind.

Pursued by Maven, now a vindictive king, Mare sets out to find ad recruit other Red-and-Silver fighters to join in the struggle against her oppressors.

But Mare finds herself on a deadly path, at risk of becoming exactly the kind of monster she is trying to defeat.

Will she shatter under the weight of of the lives that are the cost of rebellion? Or have treachery and betrayal hardened her forever?

The electrifying next instalment in the Red Queen series escalates the struggle between the growing rebel army and the blood-segregated world they've always known - and pits Mare against the darkness that has grown in her soul.

I read Red Queen last year and quite enjoyed it, so I was eager to pick up the new instalment and dive back into the story. Glass Sword was okay, but unfortunately the first half of the book suffered from what I call bridge-book issues (where a second book just doesn't cut it like a first or final book), and it didn't really get exciting until past the halfway mark.

The book details Mare's involvement with the Scarlet Guard and their journey to locate the Reds with Silver abilities (newbloods) that Julian outlined in his list that he gave her. The constant traveling and trying and failing to secure the newbloods just felt like overkill, and Mare being a tad overdramatic about her suffering sucked any enjoyment out of it, I wanted to slap her upside the head for a majority of the the time. Things did pick up eventually, and my favourite character did make a repeat appearance. The ending is amazing and unexpected, but it felt like slogging through a whole lot of book just for a small redeeming section.

Bridge-book alert, I enjoyed Red Queen but this didn't quite cut it for me. Granted, I will probably pick up the next instalment to see what transpires from the ending here.

Thoughts on the cover:
These covers are incredibly pretty, and I like the continuity for the whole series of books and side stories.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Anna and the Swallow Man - Gavriel Savit

Title: Anna and the Swallow Man
Author: Gavriel Savit
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 230 pages
Genre: Young Adult/Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: February 19, 2016
Finished: February 26, 2016

From the inside cover:

Krakow, 1939. A million marching soldiers and a thousand barking dogs. This is no place to grow up. Anna Lania is just seven years old when the Germans take her father, a linguistics professor, during their purge of intellectuals in Poland. She's alone.

And then Anna meets the Swallow Man. He is a mystery, strange and tall, a skilled deceiver with more than a little magic up his sleeve. And when the soldiers in the streets look at him, they see what he wants them to see.

The Swallow Man is not Anna's father - she knows that very well - but she also knows that, like her father, he's in danger of being taken, and like her father, he has a gift for languages: Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish, even Bird. When he summons a bright, beautiful swallow down to his hand to stop her from crying, Anna is entranced. She follows him into the wilderness.

Over the course of their travels together, Anna and the Swallow Man will dodge bombs, tame soldiers, and even, despite their better judgement, make a friend. But in a world gone mad, everything can prove dangerous. Even the Swallow Man.

Destined to become a classic, Gavriel Savit's stunning debut. reveals life's hardest lessons while celebrating its miraculous possibilities.

Wow. I'm truly at a loss for words in regards to this book. When I read the summary before the release date in January I knew I had to get my hands on this book. Let's just say the hype is very well deserved and I'm simply enchanted.

Anna lives in Poland in 1939 with her father, who is a linguistics professor at the university. By the time she is seven years old at the start of the book, she is proficient in several languages thanks to his upbringing. When her father is summoned to work one day and leaves her with a friend, neither of them consider that this would be the last time they would see each other. When the friend abandons Anna to her own devices, she soon meets the Swallow Man, a mysterious stranger who is a master of survival and deception, and like Anna's father, speaks multiple languages. Anna instinctively trusts him and decides to go with him:

"There was no question that the tall stranger was not a reassuring presence. There was a menace to him, a quiet intensity that that was in no way akin to the sot of quality that people cultivate in order to attract the affections of children. All the same, though, there was something in him - perhaps the part that had spoken so easily to the swallow - that fascinated her. He was strange, to be sure, this man, but his was a pungent, familiar sort of strangeness. Perhaps Anna and her father had not had a language of their own - or perhaps their language had been every language. Anna felt irresistibly that in this tall stranger she had found another of their rare tribe - a man of many tongues." (21-22)

And with that, Anna follows the Swallow Man out of Krakow and into the Polish countryside. They travel constantly over the course of several years, managing to avoid detection. The Swallow Man is at the same time someone to be feared and admired: he does not mince words with Anna over the dire circumstances they've found themselves in, but perhaps due to paternal instinct he makes things almost like a game for her, telling her they are travelling to find a rare bird, and comparing German and Russian soldiers to wolves and bears they must avoid in order to survive.

The writing in this book is superb. The author writes not only with intelligence, but with a sense of whimsy and magical realism. Every word is carefully crafted and chosen for its impact on the reader, take these two sections:

" 'A river goes along wherever the riverbank does. It never has to ask which way, but only flows along...What I mean, then, is I'll be the riverbank and you be the river. In all things. Can you promise me that?...And someday...when you are much, much older, you must ask me what erosion is.' " (43)

"There seemed to be no words worthy of speech, there and then, in any of the myriad languages between Anna and the Swallow Man. A word is a tiny moment of time devoted to the conjuring aloud of some small corner of what is - 'apple,' say, or 'running'; even 'fully' or 'mystery.' But there was no significance to anything that was, in that moment, only what was not." (175)

The characters themselves are well-crafted. Anna is a child throughout the book, and we're never made to forget it despite her being intelligent and precocious. The Swallow Man is perhaps one of the most fascinating characters I've ever seen. He is both frightening and reassuring, we constantly question his motivation, but like Anna, we know he is good, his goodness just doesn't manifest in ways we expect.

The war of course is a back-drop to the novel. Since the characters purposefully travel around the battles and pop into settled areas rarely, it's a subtle element that proverbially smacks us in the face now and then, like when Anna and the Swallow Man come across a mass grave for example.

The little details and hints, and the ending, still have me puzzling over the book even after finishing it. I can't muse too much here for fear of spoilers, but needless to say I need to find other people who have read this so I can have a book-nerd conversation with them about it.

You need to read this book. The writing is outstanding, the story is simple yet complex, and the characters are enthralling. This is a story you won't soon forget.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple yet very fitting.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Passenger - Alexandra Bracken

Title: Passenger
Author: Alexandra Bracken
Publisher: Hyperion, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 486 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Started: February 12, 2016
Finished: February 24, 2016

From the inside cover:

passage, n.
i. A brief section of music composed of a series of notes and flourishes.
ii. A journey by water; a voyage.
iii. The transition from one place to another, across space and time.

In one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles but years from home. And she's inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she's never heard of. Until now.

Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods - a powerful family in the colonies - and the servitude he's known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can't escape and the family that won't let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, Nicholas' passenger, can find. In order to protect her, he must ensure she brings it back to them - whether she wants to or not.

Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods' grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are playing, treacherous forces threaten to separate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home...forever.

I've read a few things from this author, from her debut book, Brightly Woven, which I loved to pieces, to her more recent series, The Darkest Minds, which was good but didn't endear me to it like her debut did. Passenger took a little while to get going, but when it did it blew me away.

Passenger's world building takes a while to develop, mostly because Etta is kept in the dark by her mother and so readers discover things at the same incredibly agonizing pace that Etta does. I had to push myself through the first 70 pages or so until things really picked up, and from then on the novel moves along at a quick pace and doesn't stop.

The characters are quite refreshing. Etta (Henrietta) is a violinist and Nicholas is a mariner, so I appreciated the music and sailing references the author worked into the book. Etta's feisty and independent, which compared to the times she travels to, it makes her stand out. Nicholas is a character I really appreciated: a biracial young man from the 18th century who works at sea to escape not only the racial tensions of his time, but also the Ironwoods who have controlled him in the past. I actually enjoyed Nicholas more than Etta; its rare that I enjoy the male protagonist more than the female, but Nicholas was just too appealing not to love (especially his 18th century chivalry). The romance between Nicholas and Etta was well done: the attraction was instant but the love developed gradually, both very respectful of each other while still maintaining their own sense of self, plus they are a biracial couple, something we sadly don't see very often in modern YA literature.

Passenger is the first book in a series (not sure how many as of yet), so don't get turned off by the cliffhanger ending because there is at least one more book coming. I'll definitely be picking up the next installment because Passenger's world has me hooked.

Excellent premise and world building with admirable characters, though it does start off slow.

Thoughts on the cover:
Beautiful. I love the ship in a bottle idea, except the ship is reflected on the bottom (Nicholas' world) with modern day New York most visible at the top (Etta's world). The colour scheme is appealing overall as well.