Friday, October 19, 2018

That's Not What Happened - Kody Keplinger

Title: That's Not What Happened
Author: Kody Keplinger
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: October 17, 2018
Finished: October 19, 2018

From the inside cover:

It's been three years since the Virgil County High School Massacre. Three years since my best friend, Sarah, was killed in a bathroom stall during the mass shooting. Everyone knows Sarah's story - that she died proclaiming her faith.

But it's not true.

I know be cause I was with her when she died. I didn't say anything then, and people got hurt because of it. Now Sarah's parents are publishing a book about her, so this might be my last chance to set the record straight...but I'm not the only survivor with a story to tell about what did - and didn't - happen that day.

Except Sarah's martyrdom is important to a lot of people, people who don't take kindly to what I'm trying to do. And the more I learn, the less certain I am about what's right. I don't know what will be worse: the guilt of staying silent or the consequences of speaking up.

From New York Times bestselling author Kody Keplinger comes an astonishing and thought-provoking exploration of the aftermath of tragedy, the power of narrative, and how we remember what we've lost.

I'm such a sucker for books like these, ones that talk about big issues that we don't often otherwise discuss in a way that invites something beyond the surface examination. School shootings are one of those issues.

Lee is one of six survivors of a mass shooting at her high school three years prior. Among the nine victims was her best friend, Sarah. Everybody believes that before she died, Sarah had a confrontation with the shooter about the cross necklace she was wearing, and is now thought of as a martyr. Lee tells us from the beginning that it isn't true, but she kept silent due to the harassment another survivor, Kellie Gaynor, received when she tried to tell the truth. As Lee is about to graduate, she learns that Sarah's parents have written a book about their daughter's story that is about to be released. Wanting to correct all the misconceptions that have emerged about the survivors as well as the victims, Lee asks the five to write letters telling their own stories about what really happened.

This novel is essentially about who controls the narrative in the aftermath of a tragedy. When people die, especially tragically, there's this aversion to talk about them as real people with flaws. No one likes to speak ill of the dead, after all. Lee is interested in the truth, even if it's not pretty, even if it means shattering the images people cling to in order to help them survive their grief. She doesn't shy away from admitting that even a victim people are mourning would've been classified as a jerk while living. But Lee grapples with her insistence on the truth, wondering who it really serves and if it does more harm than good.

I appreciated how the author made this book diverse in so many ways. Lee is asexual, and it plays a significant role in her character development. She's also the child of a single, teenaged mom who is very matter-of-fact about her deadbeat father and thankful to her mother for the sacrifices she's made. Denny is not only black (one of the only black kids in the school) but also blind. Eden is hispanic and a lesbian. The issue of religion is explored as well, from personal belief and lack of it, compared to organized religion.

I also like how the author included so many references to criticisms that we usually hear about in the aftermath of mass shootings: denying that the event ever occurred, calling the survivors "crisis actors," and pro-gun lobbyists confronting survivors. She was also very realistic about the effects of trauma: characters deal with anger, addiction, guilt, and depression that no one else really understands except for each other.

This is a gripping, engrossing story that is hard to put down. This is something everybody should read, especially considering the frequency of mass shootings in recent years.

Thoughts on the cover:
The pencil, sharpener, and eraser marks reinforce the letter theme from the book; it's simple yet effective.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Fierce Fairytales - Nikita Gill

Title: Fierce Fairytales
Author: Nikita Gill
Publisher: Hachette Books, 2018 (Paperback)
Length: 156 pages
Genre: Adult; Poetry
Started: October 1, 2018
Finished: October 6, 2018

From the inside cover:

Traditional fairytales are rife with cliches and gender stereotypes: beautiful, silent princesses; ugly, jealous, and bitter villainesses; girls who need rescuing; and men who take all the glory.

But in this rousing new prose and poetry collection, Nikita Gill gives Once Upon a Time a much-needed modern makeover. Through her gorgeous reimagining of fairytale classics and spellbinding original tales, she dismantles the old-fashioned tropes that have been ingrained in our minds. In this book, gone are the docile women and male saviours. Instead, lines blur between heroes and villains. You will meet fearless princesses, a new kind of wolf lurking in the concrete jungle, and an independent Gretel who can bring down monsters on her own.

Complete with beautifully hand-drawn illustrations by Gill herself, Fierce Fairytales is an empowering collection of poems and stories for a new generation.

I'm back on a poetry kick, so I'm working through my list of poets and their collections I wanted to tackle after finally reading Rupi Kaur earlier this year.

Nikita Gill caught my attention purely for this collection focusing on fairytale retellings since I'm a sucker for those. If you're expecting some woke, feminist retellings, you'd be spot on. Not that that's a bad thing, it's just that when there's a whole book of poem after poem of the same thing, it does get a little predictable after a while.

Some of my favourites include a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood (which includes the poem excerpt below) that I would actually read to my daughter, a poem about Hercules and toxic masculinity, and a little myth-inspired story about why the leaves change colour.

If you're a fan of Rupi Kaur and other similar poets it's well-worth the read, though the lack of variety with the subject matter may irritate some readers.

Thoughts on the cover:
The blue and silver line drawings really stand out here and look quite appealing.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Forest Queen - Betsy Cornwell

Title: The Forest Queen
Author: Betsy Cornwell
Publisher: Clarion Books, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 296 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fairy Tale
Started: September 17, 2018
Finished: September 21, 2018

From the inside cover:

When sixteen-year-old Silvie's brother, John, becomes sheriff of Woodshire, she feels powerless to stop his abuse of the local commoners. And when John puts to marry her off, Silvie fears she will never see her beloved home again. She runs away to the forest with her dearest friend, a handsome young huntsman named Bird, and soon a girl called Little Jane, a midwife named Mae Tuck, and a host of other villagers join them. Together, they form their own community and fight to right the wrongs perpetrated by the king and his noblemen.

But even Silvie can't imagine the depths of depravity her brother is willing to sink to, until the terrible day she's forced to confront him. Can she overcome the evil in her own family in order to save the people of Woodshire, as well as the new family she's created for herself?

Perfect for fans of fairy tale retellings, this smart, gorgeously written take on the Robin Hood tale goes beyond the original's focus on economic justice to explore love, gender roles, the healing power of nature, and what it means to be a family.

I can honestly say I can't recall ever reading a Robin Hood retelling, let alone one that flips the genders to feature a female protagonist that isn't Maid Marian, so obviously I was curious about this one.

There were many aspects of the story I enjoyed. Silvie's privilege as a noble is called out and made aware to her, and she uses that to make change. Nature plays a prominent role in the novel, and its restorative powers are addressed. Feminine power is a big theme here, as is the role of mothers and nurturing. Toxic family structures (including sexual abuse and rape) and other darker themes are explored, but not in an overtly explicit way.

What I found lacking in the novel was that all of these themes and even character development tended to suffer as a result of the length of the story. The novel felt too short and everything seemed rushed along. I think if there were another hundred pages or so to add depth to some of these things, it would make them even better.

The novel is too short, in my opinion, but its well worth the read nonetheless.

Thoughts on the cover:
I'm not sure why they thought a boot would be the best option for a cover image (the arrow is nice and fits with the story), but oh well.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Not One Damsel in Distress - Jane Yolen

Title: Not One Damsel in Distress: Heroic Girls from World Folklore
Author: Jane Yolen
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 134 pages
Genre: Children's Fairy Tale
Started: August 29, 2018
Finished: September 5, 2018

From the back cover:

This book is for you because it's important to know that anyone can be a hero if they have to be. Even girls. Especially girls. Especially you.

These fifteen folktales have one thing in common: brainy, bold, brave women - and not one damsel in distress! There is Bradamante, the fierce medieval knight; Li Chi, the Chinese girl who slays a dreaded serpent and saves her town; Makhhta, a female warrior who leads her Sioux tribe into battle; and many more women who use their cunning, wisdom, and strength to succeed.

Drawing from diverse cultures around the world, renowned author Jane Yolen celebrates the female heroes of legend and lore in a collection that will empower every reader.

This new edition features two brand-new stories and enhanced illustrations.

I've read many of Jane Yolen's books since my teenage years, including more than a fair share during one year in university when I took a course in fairy tales. I wish I had discovered this book during my teen years (apparently the earliest edition came out at the tail end of my teens), I would've devoured it.

The tales are fairly easy to read and have that lovely quality to them that begs them to be read aloud. The author did a wonderful job in trying to present a diverse offering: there are not only tales from the European/Western tradition, but also China and Japan, Africa, Indonesia, and even Aboriginal America. The illustrations included are offered at about one per tale, and are a nice touch but aren't anything to write home about (except for the cover illustration).

If you have a daughter, granddaughter, niece, etc., this is a must-buy for bedtime reading. This could even be used in schools studying mythology as well to present a more balanced offering of stories since the myths tend to skew overwhelmingly male.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it. The art style and colour palette are visually appealing, the image is dynamic, not to mention the book's diversity is nicely represented even on the cover.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Publisher: Dial Press (Random House), 2008 (Paperback)
Length: 290 pages
Genre: Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: September 7, 2018
Finished: September 9, 2018


January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she's never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written in a book by Charles Lamb.

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters,  Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends - and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society - born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island - boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society's members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Written with warmth and humour as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.

I watched the film version of this on Netflix this summer, so of course I was curious to see exactly how much was similar to the original novel and how much was changed during the switch from novel to film.

First off, I did not know the original book was written solely in letters, I don't think I've read a book in said format since I first read Dracula back in the day. A departure from the usual prose narrative tends to turn me off those books, but the letter format works well here. Juliet's letters begin with writing to Sidney, her friend and publisher, and Sophie, her friend and Sidney's sister. Once Dawsey sends her that fated first letter, Juliet begins to correspond to all the society's members until she travels to the island in the middle of the book. Once on the island, Juliet corresponds still to Sidney and Sophie, but readers also get a glimpse at letters from other characters not interacting with Juliet, like Isola writing to Sidney.

In terms of differences between the film and the novel, there are many, mainly in terms of extra secondary characters and plot points existing in the novel, whereas things have been condensed in the film. The novel is also less focused solely on the love story between Dawsey and Juliet, and more balanced about Juliet's relationships with everyone else.

The novel really is a lovely story for bibliophiles, especially the idea that's hammered into readers several times that the act of reading, which the Guernsey characters did not really engage in to a great degree before, managed to save these characters' sanities during the war and occupation.

This is quite a quick, enjoyable read. If you've seen the film, you should definitely give the novel a try. If you haven't seen the film, but you like historical fiction and literature, then you should still give it a try.

Thoughts on the cover:
Simple, yet very appropriate for the novel's content. You have the title written on a letter complete with stamps and postmarks, with a figure that I'm assuming is Juliet standing pensively at the sea.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Differently Wired - Deborah Reber

Title: Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World
Author: Deborah Reber
Publisher: Workman Publishing, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 278 pages
Genre: Adult; Parenting
Started: August 16, 2018
Finished: August 21, 2018

From the inside cover:

Today millions of kids are stuck in a world that doesn't embrace who they really are. They are the one in five "differently wired" children with ADHD, dyslexia, giftedness, autism, anxiety, or other neurodifferences, and their challenges are many. And for the parents who love them, the challenges are just as numerous, as they struggle to find the right school, the right support, the right path.

Written by Deborah Weber, a bestselling author with a twice-exceptional son, Differently Wired is a revolutionary book - weaving together personal stories and a tool kit of expert advice, it's a how-to, a manifesto, and a reassuring companion for parents who can so often feel that they have no place to turn.

At the heart of Differently Wired are 18 paradigm-shifting ideas - what the author calls "tilts," which include how to accept and lean in to your role as a parent (#2: Get Out of Isolation and Connect). Deal with the challenges of parenting a differently wired child (#5: Parent from a Place of Possibility Instead of Fear). Support yourself (#11: Let Go of Your Impossible Expectations for Who You "Should" Be as a Parent). And seek community (#18: If It Doesn't Exist, Create It).

Taken together, it's a lifesaving program to shift our thinking and actions in a way that not only improves the family dynamic, but allows children to fully realize their best selves.

As soon as I saw an ad for this book on Shelf Awareness (which is an awesome newsletter that everyone should read), I knew I had to read this. Not only was I not neurotypical as a child, I'm raising a daughter who is neurodiverse as well. Being differently wired in an age when people expected me to shut up and deal with it, and raising a differently wired child in an age of increasing awareness to conditions like these gives me a rather unique perspective on things. Not only does this author perfectly capture what it's like raising a neurodiverse child, but she also nails the mindset needed not only to survive the unique challenges children like ours pose, but to help our kids thrive.

This book is an awesome choice for all readers regardless of what diagnoses their children do or don't have purely due to the first section: explaining the different kinds of conditions that fall under the umbrella of neurodiversity, like ADHD/ADD, giftedness, learning differences, autism, twice exceptional, anxiety, sensory issues, etc. Despite the fact that 1 in 5 kids are neurodiverse (a number that is spot-on in my experience as a teacher), stigma and misconceptions still run rampant in regards to these labels, which I've experienced first-hand, to the point where I've had to spell out certain things at my own daughter's IEP meetings, and listened in horror as colleagues would spout the same stereotypes about gifted kids in our workroom. For reasons like these, I'm glad the author included this first section.

Later on in the first section, the author goes on to describe several unique challenges families like these experience. It was as if the author had read my mind and written directly from my own parenting experiences: being afraid your child would get kicked out of pre-school, the financial strain of having to pay for your child's assessment out-of-pocket, the anxiety of worrying how badly others are judging you and your child for behaviour they can't always control, lack of choices enjoyed by other families, and the utter isolation you feel. Reading this chapter would be quite eye-opening if I wasn't already living it, so if anyone is faced with a judgemental individual who dismisses your family's experiences, just direct them to chapter three of this book.

The second part of this book is one that isn't quite as relevant for me at this stage in my parenting journey since I already had to come to terms with most of the "tilts" through baptism by fire so to speak, but would be really beneficial for someone just beginning the process with a toddler or pre-school aged child. The "tilts" are 18 ideas to live by for parents raising a differently wired child:

1: Question Everything You Thought You Knew About Parenting
2: Get Out of Isolation and Connect
3: Let Go of What Others Think
4: Stop Fighting Who Your Child Is and Lean In
5: Parent from a Place of Possibility Instead of Fear
6: Let Your Child Be Their Own Time Line
7: Become Fluent in Your Child's Language
8: Create a World Where Your Child Can Be Secure
9: Give (Loud and Unapologetic) Voice to Your Reality
10: Practice Relentless Self-Care
11: Let Go of Your Impossible Expectations For Who You "Should" Be as a Parent
12: Make a Ruckus When You Need To
13: Align with Your Partner
14: Find Your People (and Ditch the Rest)
15: Recognize How Your Energy Affects Your Child
16: Show Up and Live in the Present
17: Help Your Kids Embrace Self-Discovery
18: If It Doesn't Exist, Create It

Most of these are pretty self-explanatory, but the author does delve into details for each one. She does operate from a place of privilege for some of these though, particularly in regards to talking about options for schooling, but at least she recognizes it in her writing. Almost all the anecdotal evidence comes from parents who either homeschool or send their child to a specialized school that supports differently wired students. Not only do many of these schools simply not exist in many areas (I wish they did in mine), not every family can afford private school or give up an income and homeschool their differently wired child.

Some of the tilts I still haven't completely mastered yet are relentless self-care and finding your people. I still have to make an effort to schedule things for myself so I don't explode from the stress, but I'm working on it. In terms of finding our people, my issue is with the "ditching the rest" part, as I find it hard to let go of past friends or family members who don't care enough to be compassionate about our experience.

If you're already a seasoned parent of a differently wired child, you'll love the shared experiences to be found in this book. If you're a parent just starting on this challenging journey (or perhaps a concerned friend/family member/teacher), you'll definitely want to pick this up.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the red and white colour scheme, and the image of the kid going off the path to make a snow angel is an apt metaphor for a neurodiverse kid.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Only Child - Rhiannon Navin

Title: Only Child
Author: Rhiannon Navin
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018 (Hardcover)
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: August 8, 2018
Finished: August 8, 2018

From the inside cover:

Sometimes the littlest bodies hold the biggest hearts, and the quietest voices speak the loudest.

Squeezed into a coat closet with his classmates and teacher, first-grader Zach Taylor can hear gunshots ringing through the halls of his school. They've practiced lockdown drills before - it was fun and exciting then. But this time it's not a drill. A gunman has entered the school, and in a matter of minutes he will take nineteen lives and irrevocably change the fabric of this close-knit community.

While Zach's mother pursues a quest for justice against the shooter's parents, holding them responsible for their son's actions, Zach retreats into the healing world of books and art. Armed with his new insights, and the optimism and stubbornness only a child could have, Zach becomes determined to help the adults in his life rediscover the universal truths of love and compassion they need to pull them through their darkest hour.

Only Child introduces readers to not one but two remarkable new voices: that of Zach Taylor, the precocious gentle narrator, and that of author Rhiannon Navin, who breathes life into him with the compassion, honesty, and humour of a natural storyteller. Dazzling and tenderhearted, Only Child teaches us all to "see through the noise of our adult lives, back to the undeniable truth of childhood - kindness begets kindness" (Bryan Reardon, author of Finding Jake).

As both a teacher and a mom (especially one who was a teenager during Columbine), school shootings are a paralyzing thing to read about. As a mom, I think immediately of my own six-year-old and the instinct to keep her safe (I cried when she first started lockdown drill practices in her school), and as a teacher the sickening thought that if my own class were ever involved in one, that I would most likely be killed trying to protect them.

Only Child is the story of six-year-old Zach, who survives a school shooting that claims the life of his older brother, Andy. Zach's story opens with him already in the closet as the shooting begins. The author grabs your interest right away with achingly real descriptions of what a class of six-year-olds and their teacher would be doing and feeling once they start to realize the "pops" they're hearing are actually gunshots. The teacher swears in her frustration trying to unlock her phone to call 911, kids are puking from fright and being confined in a closed space, Zach hones in on the smells and the sounds (which will later be PTSD triggers for him) because he literally can't do anything else. The chaos of the aftermath was wonderfully done too: the blood-stained clothes, the confusion, kids trying to wait for their parents and parents trying to figure out where their children was so hard to read, but I have to give the author credit for a realistic portrayal.

The author not only handles the event of the shooting with realism, but also what happens after the families return home. I actually liked how the author addresses through Zach the idea that sometimes we have conflicting thoughts about people who die: Andy had ODD and was a challenging child who was a jerk to his little brother most of the time, and Zach calls out his parents when they gloss over that at the funeral and at the interviews that follow. The loss of a child is something that very few marriages manage to survive, so the aspect of the parents' relationship is depicted as well.

I fell in love with Zach as a narrator, he's not only lovable but realistic as well, reading his thoughts sounded like my six-year-old daughter talking. There is only one thing I take issue with regarding the author's portrayal of Zach: there is no way a six-year-old is mature enough to do some of the things Zach is depicted doing. Zach obtains all his information about the shooting through the news reports on TV and the iPad afterwards, requiring an impressive amount of reading. Now, this is plausible for some strong readers at six, my own kid surprises me at the complexity of words she can actually read on her own still months away from turning seven. But the author goes out of her way to mention that Zach isn't a particularly strong reader like Andy, who was tested as gifted and read the Harry Potter series at Zach's age. Zach also uses art and colour to illustrate his feelings, pairing up colours to match the mood he's in, completely on his own. That kind of concept would be difficult for some kids to understand, and for a six-year-old boy to just decide to do that completely on their own is something I have trouble believing.

This is the emotional equivalent of getting hit by a train...times ten. Beware, you will ugly cry and need a box of tissues, but it's so worth it.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's very plain, but the seemingly random colours do tie into Zach's use of colour to describe his feelings: green for anger (like the Hulk), yellow for happy, grey for sadness, red for embarrassed.