15 Picture Books on the Contemporary Refugee Experience

I wrote today’s post as an assignment for a course on teaching children’s literature.

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The plight of refugees is one of the most notable crises of this decade. Devastating stories fill the news and reach the ears of children.  The reality of these stories can be difficult for children to comprehend. The people and experiences they see on TV may seem far away and unknowable. They may have misconceptions about a new student in class, who is a refugee. Picture books can help ease the difficult task of explaining the refugee crisis in ways that a child might grasp.

10 of the books on this list were published in the past two years. In 2017, The New York Times and Quill & Quire documented this growth in children’s publishing on the refugee crisis. Authors are “taking on the subject in fiction to humanize and personalize the ongoing conflict for young readers” (Alter) and “try[ing to] come up with answers” to questions that children have about the crisis (Samson). Alan Grantz, author of a middle grade novel titled Refugee, has stated, “I wanted to make individual refugees visible and turn statistics into names and faces that kids could relate to” (as quoted in Alter). Picture books offer a way into a difficult subject, as artists and publishers find engaging and balanced ways to explain the harsh realities” (Samson). The books on this list function primarily as windows  – a way to look into another person’s life.

The concept of children’s literature as windows and mirrors was first introduced by Rudine S. Bishop in 1990. She described described books not only as windows, “offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange” but as mirrors in which “we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience” (as quoted in Harris, 153). Stories about the experience of refugees can play a valuable role in children’s lives either as mirrors or windows. As windows, these books fulfill the goals stated by authors in the previous paragraph – they give children a way to begin to understand what refugees have experienced. As mirrors, these books show children that they are not alone in what they have been through. Children’s literature’s function as a window or mirror must be considered especially when looking at books that deal with real world experiences, such as the refugee crisis.

Our task is to give children some understanding of what is going on around them. It’s our duty. – publisher Margie Wolfe (as quoted in Samson).

The majority of books appear to have not been written  to function as mirrors, due to the nature of their narratives and positioning of the authors. For example, the description of My Name is Not Refugee  invites the reader “to imagine the decisions he or she would make”.  Suzanne Del Rizo, author of My Beautiful Birds, has said she wanted to provide children “a window onto the world” (Samson). One book – does indicate that it was written as a mirror. As its description notes, “Four Feet, Two Sandals was inspired by a refugee girl who asked the authors why there were no books about children like her”. The Color of Home could function well as a mirror or a window, being told from perspective a boy from Somalia starting grade one in America. Stories like Brothers in Hope, which reference atrocities experienced beyond the trauma of being forced from one’s home, should be used with particular care and consideration of the audience.

Canada saw the arrival of more than 40,000 Syrian refugees between November 2015 and February 2017 (Government of Canada).  Children, who now find themselves a part of Canadian communities and the Canadian education system, comprise a significant portion of that number. And that number only represents a portion of Canada’s greater refugee community. Educators can use picture books to help children understand and empathize with people caught up in the refugee crisis, while also showing refugee children that they aren’t alone in their experience and that their stories matter.

How This List is Structured

This list consists of 15 books about the contemporary refugee experience, plus two ‘bonus’ books. For each selection, I’ve included the authors/illustrators, book cover, and book description (covers and descriptions from Goodreads). A picture book bibliography as well as general bibliography follows at the end of the post. I divided the list into three parts:

  1. General experiences – the country of origin for the refugees in these books is not specified.
  2. Country specific – the country of origin for the refugees in these books plays a significant role in the story. I have noted which country each book features.
  3. Non-fiction – these books can be used to help expand on the fictional stories, connecting them to the real world and answering children’s more pragmatic questions.
  4. Bonus – the two books in this section do not explore the experience of refugees, but may be useful in introductory or extension activities.

General Experiences

Playing War by Kathy Beckwith

One hot summer day Luke and his friends decide to play their favorite game of war, using sticks for guns and pine cones for bombs and grenades. Sameer, who hasn’t lived in their neighborhood for very long, hesitates to join in. When he tells Luke and Jen and Jeff and Danny that he has been in a real war, they don’t believe him. “No way! You haven’t told us anything about that! A real war? Did they let kids be soldiers? Did you have an M-16?” Then, as Sameer explains what happened to his family, the other children start to see their game in a new light. While Playing War is a book about understanding what war can be like for families, and that it’s not a game, it’s also a sensitive story about the power of friendship and how children can learn from one another.

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The Journey by Francesca Sanna

The Journey cover artWith haunting echoes of the current refugee crisis this beautifully illustrated book explores the unimaginable decisions made as a family leave their home and everything they know to escape the turmoil and tragedy brought by war. This book will stay with you long after the last page is turned. From the author: The Journey is actually a story about many journeys […] I knew I wanted to create a book about these true stories. Almost every day on the news we hear the terms “migrants” and “refugees” but we rarely ever speak to or hear the personal journeys that they have had to take. This book is a collage of all those personal stories and the incredible strength of the people within them.
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Out by Angela May George and Owan Swan

Out cover artI’m called an asylum seeker; but that’s not my name … A little girl flees her homeland, making a long and treacherous boat journey with her mother to seek asylum in Australia. Starting a new life is challenging, but they work hard to create a new home. Told from the little girl’s point of view, the story is both heartbreaking and triumphant, allowing timely and sensitive discussion of what drives people to become refugees and the challenges they face.

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My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milner

My Name is Not Refugee coverA young boy discusses the journey he is about to make with his mother. They will leave their town, she explains, and it will be sad but also a little bit exciting. They will have to say goodbye to friends and loved ones, and that will be difficult. They will have to walk and walk and walk, and although they will see many new and interesting things, it will be difficult at times too. A powerful and moving exploration that draws the young reader into each stage of the journey, inviting the chance to imagine the decisions he or she would make.
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A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis and Jo Weaver

In a small boat spinning out on the sea sits a group of refugees, fleeing their war-stricken homes. They have nothing – except their memories, their stories, and their music. An unforgettable tale of displacement, hope, and the search for freedom.
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Teacup by Rebecca Young and Matt Ottley

A boy must leave his home and find another. He brings with him a teacup full of earth from the place where he grew up, and sets off to sea. Some days, the journey is peaceful, and the skies are cloudless and bright. Some days, storms threaten to overturn his boat. And some days, the smallest amount of hope grows into something glorious. At last, the boy finds land, but it doesn’t feel complete . . . until another traveler joins him, bearing the seed to build a new home. Add to Goodreads button

Country Specific

 

Joseph’s Big Ride by Terry Farish and Ken Daley (Sudan)

A refugee boy’s determination to ride a bicycle leads to an unexpected friendship. Joseph wants only one thing: to ride a bike. In the refugee camp where he lives, Joseph helps one of the older boys fix his bike, but he’s too small to ride it. Joseph and his mother travel to America, where everything is strange and new. One day, he spots a red bike that seems just right for him! It belongs to a girl with a whoosh of curly hair. When Whoosh crashes her bike, Joseph offers to fix it. His big chance has finally come, except that Joseph doesn’t know how to ride! He crashes a few times, picks himself up, and tries again, until suddenly, with a shout of triumph, he’s riding the bike. Inspired by the author’s interviews with refugee children from Sudan, this gentle story evokes the experience of a new immigrant. Vibrantly colorful paintings bring a warm and humorous portrait of friendship and diversity to life.
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Brothers in Hope by Mary Williams and R. George Christie (Sudan)

A young boy unites with thousands of other orphaned boys to walk to safety in a refugee camp in another country, after war destroys their villages in southern Sudan. Based on true events.
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Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams, Khadra Mohammed, and Doug Chayka (Afghanistan and Pakistan)

When relief workers bring used clothing to the refugee camp, everyone scrambles to grab whatever they can. Ten-year-old Lina is thrilled when she finds a sandal that fits her foot perfectly, until she sees that another girl has the matching shoe. But soon Lina and Feroza meet and decide that it is better to share the sandals than for each to wear only one. As the girls go about their routines washing clothes in the river, waiting in long lines for water, and watching for their names to appear on the list to go to America the sandals remind them that friendship is what is most important. Four Feet, Two Sandals was inspired by a refugee girl who asked the authors why there were no books about children like her. With warm colors and sensitive brush strokes, this book portrays the strength, courage, and hope of refugees around the world, whose daily existence is marked by uncertainty and fear.
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The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman and Karin Littlewood (Somalia)

This remarkably moving picture book follows first-grader Hassan through his first few days at school. Hassan has only recently arrived in the United States after he and his family were forced to flee Somalia, and he deeply misses the colorful landscape of his former home in Africa. But with the help of his parents, an understanding teacher, and a school art project, Hassan finds that by painting a picture of his old home and sharing his story, his homesickness and the trauma of leaving a war-torn country are lessened. And he finds that there are many things to like about his new home in America. The colorful, impressionistic illustrations are a perfect complement to the wonderful text by Mary Hoffman, author of the highly acclaimed Amazing Grace. Together art and text make this poignant story accessible and affecting for a young audience.
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My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo (Syria)

Behind Sami, the Syrian skyline is full of smoke. The boy follows his family and all his neighbours in a long line, as they trudge through the sands and hills to escape the bombs that have destroyed their homes. But all Sami can think of is his pet pigeons–will they escape too? When they reach a refugee camp and are safe at last, everyone settles into the tent city. But though the children start to play and go to school again, Sami can’t join in. When he is given paper and paint, all he can do is smear his painting with black. He can’t forget his birds and what his family has left behind. One day a canary, a dove, and a rose finch fly into the camp. They flutter around Sami and settle on his outstretched arms. For Sami it is one step in a long healing process at last. A gentle yet moving story of refugees of the Syrian civil war, My Beautiful Birds illuminates the ongoing crisis as it affects its children. It shows the reality of the refugee camps, where people attempt to pick up their lives and carry on. And it reveals the hope of generations of people as they struggle to redefine home. 
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Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs and Nizar Ali Badr (Syria)

This unique picture book was inspired by the stone artwork of Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr, discovered by chance by Canadian children’s writer Margriet Ruurs. The author was immediately impressed by the strong narrative quality of Mr. Badr’s work, and, using many of Mr. Badr’s already-created pieces, she set out to create a story about the Syrian refugee crisis. Stepping Stones tells the story of Rama and her family, who are forced to flee their once-peaceful village to escape the ravages of the civil war raging ever closer to their home. With only what they can carry on their backs, Rama and her mother, father, grandfather and brother, Sami, set out to walk to freedom in Europe. Nizar Ali Badr’s stunning stone images illustrate the story.
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Lost and Found Cat by Doug Kuntz, Amy Shrodes, and Sue Cornelison (Iraq)

The true story about one cat’s journey to be reunited with his war-torn family has been seen by millions of people and is now a heartwarming picture book. When an Iraqi family is forced to flee their home, they can’t bear to leave their beloved cat, Kunkush, behind. So they carry him with them from Iraq to Greece, keeping their secret passenger hidden away. But during the crowded boat crossing to Greece, his carrier breaks and the frightened cat runs from the chaos. In one moment, he is gone. After an unsuccessful search, his family has to continue their journey, leaving brokenhearted. A few days later, aid workers in Greece find the lost cat. Knowing how much his family has sacrificed already, they are desperate to reunite them with the cat they love so much. A worldwide community comes together to spread the word on the Internet and in the news media, and after several months the impossible happens—Kunkush’s family is found, and they finally get their happy ending in their new home. This remarkable true story is told by the real people involved, with the full cooperation of Kunkush’s family.
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Non-fiction

Where Will I Live? by Rosemary McCarney

Where Will I Live cover

Where do you go if your home is no longer safe? Every child needs a home. They need somewhere safe where they can be happy, eat their meals with their family, play with their toys, and go to sleep at night feeling unafraid. But many children all over the world have had to leave their homes because they are no longer safe. Because of war and conflict, they and their families have become refugees. For them life is hard and full of questions. In spite of everything, they find time to laugh, play, and make friends. And most importantly, they have hope that somewhere, someone will welcome them to a new home. Written by Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Where Will I Live? will help children whose lives are not directly affected by this crisis think about the importance of home, and what life is like for a child refugee who does not have a permanent, safe home to shelter them and their family. The beautiful photographs in this book were taken by the UNHCR—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—and include images of children on the move and in refugee camps in countries such as Lebanon, Rwanda, Iraq, Niger, Hungary, Jordan, South Sudan, and Greece.Add to Goodreads button

Refugees and Migrants by Ceri Roberts and Hanane Kai

This non-fiction series takes a timely look at today’s biggest issues and sensitively explains the crises that dominate the news in an appropriate way for young children. Each book uses relatable comparisons, carefully researched text, and striking illustrations to help kids understand the many difficulties that children just like them face in the world today. Refugees and Migrants discusses the questions “What does it mean to be a refugee—or a migrant? Why would people leave their homes?” It answers kids’ questions, offers reassurance, and empowers them with ways they can help those affected. Where issues are not appropriate to describe in words, award-winning illustrator Hanane Kai uses a deft hand to create powerful illustrations that help children visualize the people impacted by poverty, hunger, war, racism, and more. All of the images are sensitively rendered and perfectly suited for younger children. Add to Goodreads button

Bonus

Children Just Like Me: A New Celebration of Children Around the World by DK

Children Just Like Me coverA favorite in classrooms, libraries, and homes, Children Just Like Me is a comprehensive view of international cultures, exploring diverse backgrounds from Argentina to New Zealand to China to Israel. Children will learn about their peers around the world through engaging photographs and understandable text laid out in DK’s distinctive style. Highlighting over 30 countries, Children Just Like Me profiles over 40 children and their daily lives. From rural farms to busy cities to riverboats, this celebration of children around the world shows the many ways children are different and the many ways they are the same, no matter where they live.
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The Arrival by Shaun Tan

The Arrival cover

In a heartbreaking parting, a man gives his wife and daughter a last kiss and boards a steamship to cross the ocean. He’s embarking on the most painful yet important journey of his life- he’s leaving home to build a better future for his family. Shaun Tan evokes universal aspects of an immigrant’s experience through a singular work of the imagination. He does so using brilliantly clear and mesmerizing images. Because the main character can’t communicate in words, the book forgoes them too. But while the reader experiences the main character’s isolation, he also shares his ultimate joy.
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Picture Books Bibliography

  • Beckwith, Kathy. Playing War. Illustrated by Lea Lyon. Tilbury Publishers House, 2005.
  • del Rizzo, Suzanne. My Beautiful Birds. Pajama Press, 2017.
  • DK. Children Just Like Me: A New Celebration of Children Around the World. DK Children, 2006.
  • Farish, Terry. Joseph’s Big Ride. Illustrated by Ken Daley. Annnick Press, 2017.
  • George, Angela May. Out. Illustrated by Owen Shan. Scholastic Australia, 2016.
  • Hoffman, Mary. The Color of Home. Illustrated by Karin Littlewood. Dial, 2002.
  • Kuntz, Doug and Shrodes, Amy. Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey. Illustrated by Sue Cornelison. Crown Books for Young Readers, 2016.
  • Lewis, Gill. A Story Like the Wind. Illustrated by Jo Weaver. Oxford Children’s Books, 2017.
  • McCarney, Rosemary. Where Will I Live? Second Story Press, 2017.
  • Milner, Kate. My Name is Not Refugee. The Bucket List, 2017.
  • Roberts, Ceri. Refugees and Migrants. Illustrated by Hanane Kai. Wayland, 2016.
  • Ruurs, Magriet. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey. Illustrated by Nizar Badr. Orca Book Publishers, 2016.
  • Saan, Francesca. The Journey. Flying Eye Books, 2016.
  • Tan, Shaun. The Arrival. Lothian Books, 2007.
  • Williams, Karen Lynn and Mohammed, Kadra. Four Feet, Two Sandals. Illustrated by Doug Chayka.  Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2007.
  • Williams, Mary. Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Illustrated by R. George Christie. Lee & Low Books, 2013.
  • Young, Rebecca. Teacup. Illustrated by Matt Ottley. Scholastic Press, 2015.

Additional Bibliography

Is this a subject you’ve had to explore in the classroom? Have you read any of these books? Can you recommend other children’s books about the contemporary refugee experience?
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January 2018 Month in Review

January Month In Review

The first month of 2018 is behind us! I did a lot of excellent reading in January, thanks in part to having to read the Cybils middle grade speculative fiction shortlist 😛 I returned to university on January 3 after a couple of fun filled weeks back at home with my family for the holidays. Now that I’m back in the thick of it re: readings and assignments, I’ll be cutting back my posting schedule for the next two months. My reading likely won’t take a hit, though, as I’m taking a course on children’s literature and a course on young adult literature (finally, back in my academic happy space, lol).

Books Finished

  1. Our Appointment with Life: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone by Thích Nhất Hạnh
  2. The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
  3. Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson
  4. Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire
  5. Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood
  6. Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh
  7. A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander
  8. The Last One by Alexandra Oliva
  9. Feed by MT Anderson
  10. A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
  11. Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Colthurst

Books Reviewed

Features

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Upcoming in February

Cover of Why Indigenous LIteratures Matter Annihilation film poster

  • 14 Feb. – Cybils 2017 winners announced!
  • 23 Feb. – Release date of Annihilationa film based on the first book in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. My sister and I discussed the book for our first Family Reads together, and we’re looking forward to discussing the adaptation.
  • 28 Feb.– Publication of Why Indigenous Literatures Matter by Daniel Heath Justice

What books, or bookish events, are you looking forward to this month?

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Talkin’ Bout Tolkien: The Influence of War + Exeter College

Cover of Tolkien at Exeter College

War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien by Janet Brennan Croft

Having participated in the First World War, and having seen two of his sons serve in the Second, Tolkien was concerned with many of the same themes that interested other writers in the post-war period. The rhythm of war flows through his writings, but his own interpretation of the themes, symbols, and motifs of war, however, were influenced by his religious views and his interest in fantasy, which add another layer of meaning and a sense of timelessness to his writing. Croft explores the different aspect of Tolkien’s relationship with war both in his life and in his work from the early “Book of Lost Tales” to his last story “Smith of Wootten Major,” and concentrating on his greatest and most well-known works “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” This timely addition to the critical literature on Tolkien sheds new light on the author’s life and works.

  • What Croft does well in this book is place  Tolkien’s writing in a grander historical context in which it’s not often considered. He was an author writing primarily in the time following the terrible experience of WWI. Croft juxtaposes other critical writing on war writers and explores how Tolkien was similar or dissimilar, drawing primarily from Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Croft draws reasoned connections between Tolkien’s war experiences and personal faith, and what he wrote in his fiction, without making allegorical claims.
  • One key theme which Croft is explores is the concept of courage without hope. This is not a book just about the physicality of war – grander philosophical concepts are explored throughout.
  • Not only does she explore the overall influence of war on Tolkien’s writing, she also explores concrete manifestations of ideas of war when discussing, for example, the leadership style of key characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In describing Bilbo’s actions after freeing the dwarves from the Mirkwood spiders, she writes, “This episode is the closest Bilbo gets to military leadership, and he shows a fine command of strategy in rallying and deploying his followers and drawing the spiders off with a series of feigned attacks” (82).
  • The titles of the six chapters that comprise the book offer a clear representation of the different approaches to the influence of war that Croft explores:
    1. “The Great War and Tolkien’s Memory”
    2. “World War I Themes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
    3. “World War II: ‘The Young Perish and the Old Linger, Withering'”
    4. “Military Leaders and Leadership”
    5. “Training, Tactics, Strategy, and Battlefield Communication’
    6. “Philosophy, Pathology and Conclusions”.
  • I recommend this book to readers curious about the influence of war in Tolkien’s work, an influence that should not be casually overlooked or dismissed.

Perhaps one reason Tolkien is so frequently voted “Author of the Century” is because he took what was a pivotal event in world history and transformed it into a comprehensible myth to help us understand how our world has changed and learn how we can still live in it with courage (32).

Tolkien at Exeter College by John Garth

Tolkien at Exeter College is the definitive account of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life as an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford, from peacetime into war. It is also the tale of how he first created his mythological world of Middle-earth in 1914–15. Rich with archive material, it includes more than 40 images, including previously unseen original sketches by and photographs of Tolkien. The 64-page booklet complements and adds significantly to the account in Tolkien and the Great War.

  • I don’t have much to add to the summary above. I can say that it’s quite accurate! I recommend it for readers whose appetite for biographical information about Tolkien’s early years cannot be satisfied.
  • I particularly enjoyed the anecdotes about the shenanigans Tolkien got up to as a undergrad. In one, Tolkien recounts how he and a friend ‘captured’ a bus and drove it around town, filling it up with other students. (Apparently this story is documented in Carpenter’s Biography, but I did not remember it. Placing details like this one within the grander context of Tolkien’s undergraduate years gives them room to be noticed). In some ways, Tolkien’s undergraduate experience is vastly different from anything I experienced (I marvel at his involvement in literary clubs), and yet in other ways, not so much…
  • Garth writes, “Already revealing a fluent grasp of vivid detail, an ability to crank up dramatic tension, and an interest in the clash of order and chaos, Tolkien’s mini-epic is his earliest known prose narrative” (27).  To which mini-epic is Garth referring? Tolkien’s report of an university club meeting. A sample: “When Mr. Trevor Oliphant arose with the white face of bitter determination and demanded that the House go back to Private Business for the discussion of the shelved constitutional question, all bounds, all order, and all else was forgotten; and in one long riot of raucous hubbub; of hoarse cries, brandished bottles, flying match-stands, gowns wildly flourished, cups smashed, and lights extinguished, the House declared its determination to have its will and override the constitution” (27).
  • The book contains a variety of images, including sketches by and photos of Tolkien, some of which have not been published before. The booklet is worth it for the images alone, but I also recommend it for the in-depth and illuminating look at Tolkien’s undergraduate years. If nothing else, you might have some fun comparing your own university experience to Tolkien’s…
  • You can purchase this booklet directly from the Garth’s website (approx. $15 including shipping).

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Family Reads: The Last One by Alexandra Oliva

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Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Alexandra Oliva’s The Last One

Jenna with The Last OneAsh with The Last One

We had both independently seen it at Chapters and found the mash up of a reality TV survival show with an actual dystopia happening beyond the show intriguing.

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She wanted an adventure. She never imagined it would go this far.

It begins with a reality TV show. Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to face challenges that will test the limits of their endurance. While they are out there, something terrible happens—but how widespread is the destruction, and has it occurred naturally or is it human-made? Cut off from society, the contestants know nothing of it. When one of them—a young woman the show’s producers call Zoo—stumbles across the devastation, she can imagine only that it is part of the game.

Alone and disoriented, Zoo is heavy with doubt regarding the life—and husband—she left behind, but she refuses to quit. Staggering countless miles across unfamiliar territory, Zoo must summon all her survival skills—and learn new ones as she goes.

But as her emotional and physical reserves dwindle, she grasps that the real world might have been altered in terrifying ways—and her ability to parse the charade will be either her triumph or her undoing.

Our Discussion

You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve already read the book (spoilers ahead).

Ash gave this book ★★, while I gave it ★★½. Ash says it wasn’t quite a 2.5 or a 3 but it’s silly to say 2.75 (She says she would borrow it from the library, though.) I don’t think it’s worth recommending, though it wasn’t painful to read.

We felt The Last One fell short of the promise of an intriguing story. Our main criticism is that the before (TV show) and the after (Zoo on her own) felt too disjointed. The reality TV narrative didn’t do much to inform Zoo’s actions on her own, aside to create a context in which it might be believable that Zoo doesn’t know there’s be an apocalyptic disease breakout. We would have liked to see more blurring between the TV show’s ‘reality’ and actual reality.  Time wise, the reader doesn’t see a lot of the TV show story line – it takes place over one week and includes only one dramatic incident (the show is apparently meant to be different from your average Survivor, as Reddit commentary in the book informs us – there are supposedly going to be some dark, twisted scenarios for the contestants to encounter). It was so obvious for the reader which of the two narratives were which; maybe if the TV part had gone on longer the line between the two would have been more blurred, making it more interesting for the reader. The TV show didn’t get to its intense, controversial part until far into the book and then it was just one incident, which admittedly was pretty fascinating, but we would have liked to have that scene near the beginning and then more of the characters getting twisted up by the show’s scenarios, because then when she finds the blue house, you would more easily believe that it was part of the show. Admittedly, this would significantly change the story…but we think it would change it into one that we’d be more interested in, haha.

One question I had was, would this story have been more interesting if the reader didn’t know the dystopic premise before hand? Ash pointed out that would make Zoo much more of an unreliable narrator, because (in the book) eventually the reader realizes how much she had actually been in denial and wasn’t just oblivious. Zoo would be better informed than the reader, if they didn’t know about the disease going into the book. I thought it was a bit boring that we (the readers) knew what was going on and she kept trying to play the game, even though it was obviously not the game for so long.  Ash is undecided about whether that would have been more interesting. I admit unreliable narrators stress me out, but Zoo wasn’t lying about anything, she just wasn’t accepting the  context.

Another aspect that fell short for us was the characters. Zoo was alright, but we would have liked more about her relationship with her husband. We felt there were some echos of Annihilation, where the main character the biologist has a notable relationship with her husband, but there was very little about Zoo’s husband. The focus was more on Zoo’s fears of having children (which did make for some interesting dream commentary) and less about her relationship with her husband. There are tiny hints that she might have had  sparks with Tracker but they were only together for a week.

The other characters on the TV show, who we actually read more about, weren’t interesting or memorable. They felt  very archetypal, even when the descriptions of their actions tried to go beyond the TV show’s stereotyping.  The Exorcist, for example, was mostly just a basic asshat.

The pacing also wasn’t what we expected. Ash found the story felt slow due to Zoo’s inner monologues and some parts that felt irrelevant being described in too much detail (for example, she mentioned one part where Zoo was trying to decide whether to eat something). We also talked about the ending being pretty blah and predictable. Ash would have preferred an abrupt, unresolved conclusion in this case. I didn’t care anything about her relationship with her husband so the conclusion wasn’t interesting to me. So they’re both alive – I don’t really care.

 Final Thoughts

While we both thought The Last One had a promising premise, too many factors were lacking to make it a great read for us. Does The Last One‘s story line appeal to you? What do you think of the portrayal of reality TV in a novel?

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Middle Grade Castle Fantasies: Wednesday in the Tower + The Castle Behind Thorns

Here are two books I would have loved as a kid. They would have been an appreciated change from the unicorn fantasy books I devoured.

Wednesdays in the Tower (Castle Glower #2) by Jessica Day George

Wednesdays in the Tower coverStrange things are afoot in Castle Glower: new rooms, corridors, and even stables keep arriving, even when they aren’t needed. Celie’s brother Bran, the new Royal Wizard, has his hands full cataloguing an entire storeroom full of exotic and highly dangerous weapons, while Celie has her hands full . . . raising the creature that hatches from a giant egg she finds! Will they be able to find out what’s making the Castle behave this way in time?

  • A fun follow up to the first volume, which I had read exactly two years prior (a good series for Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon!).
  • I loved the inclusion of a magical creature. I haven’t read about many traditional fantasy creatures in middle grade, apart from dragons.
  • Unlike the first book, the plot cracks open at the end, leaving plenty of room for further story growth in the next volume. I like seeing Celie’s universe expand. I get the impression that this wasn’t a planned series, but perhaps came about due to the success of the first book. This second book introduces questions about the castle’s origins and the lands beyond what Celie knows.
  • The Bottom Line: A must read for fans of the first book, Tuesdays at the Castle

The Castle Behind the Thorns by Merrie Haskell

When Sand wakes up alone in a long-abandoned castle, he has no idea how he got there. The stories all said the place was ruined by an earthquake, and Sand did not expect to find everything inside torn in half or slashed to bits. Nothing lives here and nothing grows, except the vicious, thorny bramble that prevents Sand from leaving. Why wasn’t this in the stories?

To survive, Sand does what he knows best—he fires up the castle’s forge to mend what he needs. But the things he fixes work somehow better than they ought to. Is there magic in the mending? Or have the saints who once guarded this place returned?

When Sand finds the castle’s lost heir, Perrotte, they begin to untwine the dark secrets that caused the destruction. Putting together the pieces—of stone and iron, and of a broken life—is harder than Sand ever imagined, but it’s the only way to regain their freedom.

  • The Castle Behind the Thorns has a unique premise in that it features only two characters for most of the story. A slow beginning for the first 50 pages, as it’s just Sand trapped by himself in the castle, but I liked reading about how he explored his new situation.
  • I could have done without hints of romance *insert eye roll here*. I read MG so I don’t have to deal with that sort of thing. (My complaint is disproportionate to what’s actually shown in the story…it is really just a small thing).
  • This is only the second book by Haskell that I’ve read, so maybe I would have expected this, but I didn’t realize that the story would be set in our world. There are French words and names, and references to Paris. There’s a lot of stuff that I called ‘the practicalities of history’ – stuff like Latin, crucifixes, chapels, features of a castle, etc. At times, it felt a bit technical, with all the historical details and realistic considerations, but I would have loved that as a kid – grounding fantasy in my world.

    Sand threw open the man-size night portal to find himself in a dark tunnel pierced by arrow slits and larger openings that he’d heard called “murder holes.” In theory, if an enemy entered the castle, he could be trapped between the inner and outer gates and simply killed by raining death down through these openings. Sand shivered, thinking how glad he was to be alone in the castle – alone, he knew for sure that he couldn’t be trapped in this tunnel.  He reached the outer gate and opened its night portal – and stopped. The portcullis was down, but he could raise a portcullis. What he could not raise was the nasty snarl of thorns beyond the portcullis gate. (13)

  • I found the idea of magic routed in faith and saints rather than purely magic for its own sake a new idea that I hadn’t encountered in MG fantasy.
  • In addition to the world building, I also really liked Sand. He seems to be a genuinely good kid, willing to keep his promise even though it isn’t what he wants. I like stories that cross generations, so I enjoyed watching the backstory of Sand’s father unfold.
  • The Bottom Line: A middle grade fantasy with some of the usual trappings, but with a plot that shakes things up.

Have you enjoyed any books, middle grade or not, featuring a castle? 

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