Friday, December 2, 2016

Irena's Children: Young Readers Edition; A True Story of Courage - Tilar J. Mazzeo, Mary Cronk Farrell

Title: Irena's Children: Young Readers Edition; A True Story of Courage
Author: Tilar J. Mazzeo, Mary Cronk Farrell
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 242 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Non-Fiction
Started: November 29, 2016
Finished: December 2, 2016

From the inside cover:

This young readers edition of Irena's Children tells the incredible untold story of Irena Sendler, a courageous Polish woman now nicknamed "the female Oskar Schindler" who saved the lives of 2,500 children during one of the worst times in modern history. With guts of steel and unfaltering bravery, Irena smuggled children out of the walled Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. She put them in toolboxes and coffins, snuck them under overcoats at checkpoints, and slipped them through the dank sewers and into secret passages that led to abandoned  buildings, where she convinced her friends and underground resistance network to hide them.

In this heroic tale of survival and resilience in the face of impossible odds, New York Times bestselling author Tilar J. Mazzeo and adapter Mary Cronk Farrell share the true story of this bold and brave woman, overlooked by history, who risked her life to save innocent children from the horrors of the Holocaust.

I was first introduced to Irena Sendler through films and documentaries a few years ago, and now many of my co-workers use her in conjunction with Schindler to teach students about acts of resistance and bravery during the Holocaust.

This is an adaptation of the author's original book intended for a younger audience. I won't necessarily say its middle grade because I think your average ten-year-old would have issues navigating this book (just in terms of the difficulty of the content), but I think a mature twelve or thirteen-year-old or older wouldn't have a problem. The book begins with the occupation of Poland in 1939 and introduces us to Irena, a social worker collaborating with co-workers to forge records allowing for poor Jewish families to qualify for welfare benefits where they otherwise wouldn't. When Germany invades and occupies Poland forces the Jewish population of Warsaw into the ghetto, Irena eventually realizes that the Germans intend to eradicate them and begins to make plans to smuggle children out of the ghetto to safety.

The author really did their research, there's so many details that you don't see in the films included here, including information on Irena from the post-war period. This is a great resource showing exactly the risks she took to do what she did, perfect for teaching solidarity and social justice.

A wonderful text geared for younger readers about a modern day hero that is often overlooked in history.

Thoughts on the cover:
Interesting choice using a drawing for the children's version when the adult version of the same book used a photograph on the cover.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Kingdom of Ash and Briars - Hannah West

Title: Kingdom of Ash and Briars
Author: Hannah West
Publisher: Holiday House, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 355 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: November 23, 2016
Finished: November 28, 2016

From the inside cover:

Bristal, an orphaned kitchen maid, lands in a gritty fairy tale gone wrong when she discovers she is an elicromancer with a knack for shape-shifting. An ancient breed of immortal magic beings, elicromancers have been winnowed down to merely two-now three-after centuries of bloody conflict in the realm. Their gifts are fraught with responsibility, and sixteen-year-old Bristal is torn between two paths. Should she vow to seek the good of this world, to protect and serve mortals? Or should she follow the strength of her power, even if it leads to unknown terrors? Time is running out as an army of dark creatures grows closer and the realm faces a supernatural war. To save the kingdoms, Bristal must find the courage to show her true form.

Building on homages to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen's Emma, and the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, Hannah West makes a spectacular and wholly original debut.

The summary above doesn't do this story justice, save for the final paragraph that praises the book and lists the hints of other stories found within, all of which I wholeheartedly agree with.

Bristal is kidnapped from the manor home where she serves and is brought to the Water in the Forest of the West Fringe, a large body of water with the ability to discern and identify elicromancers, individuals with various magic abilities. When the two existing elicromancers, Brack and Tamarice, rescue her from captors who would use her newly gifted elicrin stone for harm, Bristal sees that she must choose between the morals of her two mentors. Brack believes elicromancers must stand at the sidelines and guide humanity without taking power themselves, while Tamarice believes that helping humans is a waste of their powers and that elicromancers should rise to their former glory. Bristal makes her choice when Tamarice turns to dark elicromancy and curses the newly born princess of Volarre and binds the other nobles in all of Nissera to the princess' fate. Using her unique shape-shifting abilities, Bristal disguises herself as an elderly woman and hides Princess Rosamund in Plum Valley, far from Tamarice and her spies. As the years pass, Bristal uses her powers to help unite the three kingdoms in Nissera that had always been quite combative, all while keeping Rosie (and in turn all Nisseran nobles) alive.

This book does borrow elements from classic tales, but when they're combined it creates a wholly unique tale. Rosie is cursed at birth by Tamarice just like Sleeping Beauty, and Bristal plays fairy godmother to Elinor ala Cinderella so she can meet and marry Prince Charles and unite their two respective kingdoms through marriage. Like in Mulan, Bristal takes on the form of a man so she can join the army with Anthony so she can get to know and influence him (and ultimately falls in love with him). The elicromancers and their magic are similar to other types from other stories we've seen before, but the depth of it makes the similarities merely superficial. Bristal as a character is likeable, she's determined and sticks to her morals, but she's not always confident and questions herself. There really wasn't a character I disliked, they're all nicely developed (even Tamarice) and no one really bugged me, which is rare.

A well-written high fantasy that pulls from classic fairytales, so it feels familiar yet new and engaging at the same time.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the colour scheme, and the image of Bristal where you can't quite see the details of her face is unsettling just enough to make it intriguing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Beast - Brie Spangler

Title: Beast
Author: Brie Spangler
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (Random House), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 328 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 21, 2016
Finished: November 22, 2016

From the inside cover:

Tall, meaty, muscle-bound, and hairier than most throw rugs, Dylan doesn't look like your average fifteen-year-old, so, naturally, high school has not been kind to him. His nickname, Beast, already announces his every step. And to make matters worse, on the day his school bans the two things that that let him hide, his hat and his long hair, Dylan goes up on his roof, only to fall and wake up in the hospital with a broken leg-and a sentence to attend group therapy for self-harmers.

Dylan vows to say nothing and zones out during therapy-until he meets Jamie. She's funny, smart, and so stunning, even his womanizing best friend, JP, would be jealous. She's also the first person to to ever call Dylan out on his superficiality. As Jamie's humanity and humour begin to rub off on Dylan, they become more than just friends. But there is something Dylan doesn't know about Jamie, something she shared with the group the day he was wallowing in self-pity and not listening. Something that shouldn't change a thing. She is who she's always been-an amazing photographer, a true romantic hidden inside a realist, and a devoted friend, who is also transgender. Will Dylan's hang-ups about himself cause him to lose the best girl he's ever known?

As soon as I read the summary for this book I knew I had to read it. It covers the relationship between a cisgender male and a girl who is trans, complete with all the questions such a relationship would raise. Ultimately, it is a sweet story about transgender teen romance, from Dylan's point of view, which makes it unique (I've read accounts from a trans character before, but not from the cisgender character).

Dylan is huge. He's already 6"4 at age fifteen and still growing. When you add that's he's insanely hairy, you can see why he earned the nickname "Beast", and he HATES it. When everyone expects Dylan to be a dumb football player, in reality he's studying for the Rhodes scholarship to go to Oxford to study cancer, what killed his father when Dylan was only three. Dylan survives school by hiding behind his hair and hat, and hanging around his friend JP. When his school bans long hair and hats, he lands in the hospital and is flagged as a self-harmer, which lands him in therapy. He meets Jamie and is awe-struck, but misses a key piece of information about her. As they get to know each other and Dylan and Jamie fall equally head over heels for the other, Jamie's trans identity is brought up and Dylan completely freezes, questioning whether this makes him gay or any of the other myriad of thoughts that would go through a teenage boy's head. Dylan even asks his dead father for a sign that he's making the right choice, until he realizes that he simply loves a girl named Jamie.

There's a lot of dimension to this book, at one end it's sweet and loving with Dylan and Jamie accepting each other fully, and on the other hand you've got kids bullying both of them when word gets out at Dylan's school that Jamie was born a boy. There's also a portion of the novel where Dylan is acting like a typical teenage boy and you want to smack him for being such an idiot, but he's a lovable idiot, so I forgave him. Jamie's not completely innocent either, the author really managed to make both protagonists very three-dimensional and flawed while still making readers root for them, except for JP though, he was just an ass. Dylan's narration is hilarious at times, it's very witty and cleverly written. The story is also equal parts realistic and positive: it's not a doom and gloom story, but it accepts Jamie's reality while still making her positive about her life.

This is a must-read, not just for the subject matter, but Dylan as a character is equally intriguing.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple yet effective, I like the blue and gold colour scheme.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Shadow Bright and Burning - Jessica Cluess

Title: A Shadow Bright and Burning (Kingdom on Fire Book One)
Author: Jessica Cluess
Publisher: Random House, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 404 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: November 16 2016
Finished: November 18, 2016

From the inside cover:

Henrietta can burst into flames.

Forced to reveal her power to save a friend, she's shocked when instead of being executed, she's named the first female sorcerer in hundreds of years and invited to train as one of Her Majesty's royal sorcerers.

Thrust into the glamour of Victorian London, Henrietta is declared the prophesied one, the girl who will defeat the Ancients, bloodthirsty demons terrorizing humanity. She also meets her fellow sorcerers, handsome young men eager to test her power and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her.

But Henrietta is not the chosen one.

As she plays a dangerous game of deception, she discovers that the sorcerers have their own secrets to protect. With battle looming how much will she risk to save the city-and the one she loves?

Exhilarating and gripping, Jessica Cluess' spellbinding first book in the Kingdom on Fire series introduces a powerful, unforgettable heroine and a world filled with magic, romance, and betrayal.

I have a confession to make: I'm not a massive Harry Potter fan. I enjoy the books, movies and such (I'm going to see Fantastic Beasts this weekend and devoured Cursed Child over the summer), but I'm not a diehard fan like some people I know. I think part of this reason is because Harry is a boy and while I was growing up when the books were just becoming popular, I wanted nothing more than books with female protagonists that I could really identify with (they were in severe short supply at the time). The reason I'm even on this seemingly unrelated tangent is that I think I finally found "my" version of Harry Potter with this book, not to say that the books are in any way identical (they aren't), but that this is a fantasy book about a strong, intelligent girl with magical powers who discovers her origins and tries to figure out how she fits into this new world she's thrust into.

Henrietta lives in a world resembling Victorian England, where the emergence of nightmarish demons (Ancients) terrorizing the country was the work of a Pandora's box type of story surrounding a magician and a witch. As a result, magicians are viewed with suspicion as charlatans and witches are killed outright (stupid Victorian sexism). So Henrietta grows up in a charity school after her parents die, and she has this ability to set herself on fire, which she must keep secret if she wants to live. When her friend Rook is under attack by an Ancient's familiars, she is forced to reveal her power in the presence of a sorcerer to save him. She is identified as the chosen one from the prophecy, the first female sorcerer in centuries and is brought to a shielded area in London to train with other young sorcerers to fight to save England from the Ancients. Except she soon learns that she isn't, and must determine how to survive where she meets adversity everywhere.

Henrietta is feisty, intelligent, and doesn't hesitate to speak her mind, so of course I liked her. Rook doesn't really get a lot of development other than the fact that he loves Nettie, so hopefully he gets some more spotlight in subsequent books. Agrippa is lovely and conflicted, so I quite liked him, as with Blackwood and Magnus. The Victorian setting fits quite well with the world building, which is astoundingly detailed and immense. I have to give the author credit also for creating the Ancients, which are actually horrifying and creepy when described, I like being spooked while reading my stories. I also like how magic in this world has various levels and categories and wasn't just one-dimensional.

Even though this book appears to use all the typical cliched ideas you find in fantasy books, the author turns the "chosen one" narrative on its head and the result is an engrossing, imaginative book that is gripping and fascinating. I'll definitely be impatiently awaiting the subsequent books.

Thoughts on the cover:
Stunning. I love the burning rose (makes sense when you read to the end), and the colour scheme is so beautiful.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Other Boy - M.G. Hennessey

Title: The Other Boy
Author: M.G. Hennessey
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 234 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: November 15, 2016
Finished: November 15, 2016

From the inside cover:

Twelve-year-old Shane Woods is just a regular boy. He loves pitching for his baseball team, working on his graphic novel, and hanging out with his best friend, Josh. But Shane is keeping something private, something that might make a difference to his teammates, to Josh, and to his new crush, Madeline. And when a classmate threatens to reveal his secret, Shane's whole world comes crashing down. It will take a lot of courage for Shane to ignore the ridicule and hates and show the world that's he's still the same boy he was before. But in the end, those who stand beside him may surprise everyone, including Shane.

M.G. Hennessey's timely story beautifully captures Shane's journey toward acceptance and empathy and speaks to all those who have struggled to remain true to themselves.

Thankfully there are more diverse children's and young adult books coming out in recent years, and I'm really thankful for this particular book after reading it, especially considering that aimed at middle grade readers.

Shane is in the sixth grade and is your average twelve-year-old boy. But there's one thing about Shane that isn't like all the other boys, Shane is transgender and was born biologically female. Shane's parents are divorced and he and his mom moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles a few years ago, at which point Shane transitioned and went on hormone blockers to delay female puberty. Shane faces a few key issues in this book: he has a strained relationship with his father, who isn't as accepting of his identity as his mother; he wants to begin taking testosterone so he can actually start looking like the boy he is, and a classmate discovers Shane's secret and reveals it to everyone at school.

I really liked the way Shane was presented in the book, you can tell the author did her homework and made sure to treat Shane and the issues he and his family face with the utmost respect. Shane's mother, Rebecca, is amazing and supportive, which is probably the reason why Shane is able to rise to the challenges that he faces. Most of the relationships Shane has are realistic in my opinion, except the portrayals might be a little too optimistic compared to those someone might face in a  rural/conservative area, and this is my only issue with the book, which is minor. Panels from Shane's graphic novel are illustrated as end pieces to some chapters, which is a really lovely addition to the book. The author also includes websites and phone numbers for trans support groups, which I always like to see for books like these.

This is one of the first middle grade books with a main character who is trans (that I know of) that I've encountered, and it is wonderfully written and a sensitive portrayal of a transgender boy's experience. This is a book that should be in every classroom.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple but effective.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Female of the Species - Mindy McGinnis

Title: The Female of the Species
Author: Mindy McGinnis
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins), 2016 (Hardcover)
Length: 341 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: November 9, 2016
Finished: November 14, 2016

From the inside cover:

Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn't feel bad about it. When her older sister, Anna, was murdered three years ago and he killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best. The language of violence.

While her crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can't be trusted among other people, even in her small hometown. She relegates herself to the shadows, a girl who goes unseen in plain sight, unremarkable in the high school hallways.

But Jack Fisher sees her. He's the guy all other guys want to be: the star athlete gunning for valedictorian with the prom queen on his arm. Guilt over the role he played the night Anna's body was discovered hasn't let him forget Alex, and now her green eyes amend a constellation of freckles have his attention. He doesn't want to only see Alex Craft; he wants to know her.

So does Peekay, the preacher's kid, a girl whose identity is entangled with her dad's job, though that does not stop her from knowing the taste of beer or missing the touch of her ex-boyfriend. When Peekay and Alex start working together at the animal shelter, a friendship forms and Alex's protective nature extends to more than just the dogs and cats they care for.

Circumstances bring Alex, Jack, and Peekay together as their senior year unfolds. While partying one night, Alex's darker side breaks out, setting the teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever. Edgar Award-winning author Mindy McGinnis artfully crafts three alternating perspectives into a dark and riveting exploration of what it means to be the female of the species.

This book is positively brutal, harsh, and traumatizing...and I'm so glad it exists. It stands as an unapologetic examination of sexual assault and rape culture in general, delving deep into what insidious little jokes and "locker room talk" can turn into.

Alex Craft is in her senior year of high school in a small town. When she was a freshman, her older sister Anna was raped and murdered, and the killer walked on a technicality. So Alex took matters into her own hands and got away with her own crime. Years later, she lives on the outskirts of her peers to keep them safe from herself, until Peekay (from PK aka preacher's kid) sees beyond Alex's standoffish behaviour and sees a girl she'd like to know. Jack, the popular boy whose image of Alex from the night her sister's body was found haunts him, yearns to be closer to her. When both Peekay and Jack slowly become accepted by Alex into her limited circle, they believe they have an idea of who Alex is. One might when Peekay is nearly raped at a party and Alex intervenes in a horrific way, they realize that Alex is so much more than what they assumed, and wonder how to proceed with what they now know.

The novel alternates perspectives from Alex, Peekay, and Jack; and I have to give the author credit because giving three unique and distinctive viewpoints and voices isn't easy, especially when that includes a voice of the opposite gender. Jack's voice is authentic and very different from the girls', Peekay is your average teenage girl but with enough of a spin so that she's not boring to read, and Alex....Alex is just astounding in terms of what's inside her head....just trust me on this one.

I love the author's examination of rape culture; women reading this will stop dead in their tracks after reading certain lines and think, "holy crap, this is spot on," while men will hopefully gain some insight into their male privilege in this area. That being said, the book is quite graphic and violent, both in terms of the language used and that actual events that take place during the course of the book (so trigger warnings abound here, people). Granted, you can't sugarcoat rape culture, it's dirty and horrible by it's very nature. But even saying that, this is definitely for older readers (probably 16+), this isn't something I'd be recommending for an immature/innocent thirteen or fourteen year old kid.

I'm slightly conflicted about how the book ends, on one hand I think it's a bit of a cop-out, but on the other hand I think there really wasn't any other way for it to end, so I'm still undecided on how I feel about the ending.

I truly think this is something all our teenagers need to read, both boys and girls alike. This will be one of those groundbreaking "issue" books that will stay with us for years.

Thoughts on the cover:
Quite clever in my opinion. I like how Alex is listed on the front under "Woman" and Branley is listed one the back cover under "Girl", this will make total sense after reading the book.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell

Title: Outliers
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2008 (Hardcover)
Length: 296 pages
Genre: Adult; Nonfiction
Started: November 7, 2016
Finished: November 8, 2016

From the inside cover:

Why do some people succeed far more than others?

There is a story that is usually told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition. In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell argues that the true story of success is very different, and that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them-at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birthdate. The story of success is more complex-and a lot more interesting-than it initially appears.

Outliers explains what he Beatles and Bill Gates have in common, he extraordinary success of Asians at math, the hidden advantages of star athletes, why all top New York lawyers have the same resume, and the reason you've never heard of the world's smartest man-all in terms of generation, family, culture, and class. It matters what year you were born if you want to be a Silicon Valley billionaire, Gladwell argues, and it matters where you were born if you want to be a successful pilot. The lives of outliers-those people whose achievements fall outside normal experience-follow a peculiar an unexpected logic, and in making that logic plain Gladwell presents a fascinating and provocative blueprint for making the most of human potential.

This book is touted so often in education, it's been on my to-read list for a while now. After reading it, I can see why it's talked about so often, but that there's really only one chapter that can be applied to the education field.

Though numerous examples, the author makes his claim that success isn't just about ambition and intelligence, that it has more to do with opportunities, which are more likely to be given to people who were lucky enough in certain circumstances. For example, Bill Gates was born in the mid 50s (meaning he was the right age in the 70s when the computer industry took off), and was also lucky enough to be born into a wealthier family that sent him to a school that could afford a computer in the late 60s that he was able to use to practice coding on. Without those, it could be argued that he wouldn't have been as successful as he is today. Same with the top hockey players, most of which have birthdays in the first few months of the calendar year versus the end. Because those with earlier birthdays tend to be bigger and stronger than those with later birthdays, they are the ones picked for the more intensive teams, benefitting from the extra practice and end up being more successful and go pro more often than their younger counterparts.

The education chapter wasn't anything ground-breaking for anyone who actually works in education, but I'm sure would be eye-opening for those that are not. He argues that a longer school year in a culture with an emphasis on hard work, diligence, and persistence ("grit" as we call it in our professional development talks), makes for students more likely to be accepted into better schools, making them more likely to be given opportunities that lead to success later in life. That children from lower income families tend to lose a large chunk of their learning over the long summer break, which cumulates over time, contributing to the achievement gap that we as educators so often try to fix to no avail.

In a way, this book is fascinating in that it destroys the common belief that success is entirely in a person's control, that all you need is a bootstraps mentality and if you don't succeed, then you just aren't working hard enough. It offers another story: that culture, class, and circumstance matters; and that if all people were awarded similar opportunities regardless of said factors, that we would have more successful people across all areas.

A thought-provoking read that is well-known for a reason, I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple yet effective.