Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 – WWII + Japanese Experiences

Multicultural Children's Book Day 2017Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017! A perfect day to kick of my series of Cybils nominee recommendations that will run for the next few weeks.  The goal of MCCBD is “to not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these books into classrooms and libraries”. Check out the Twitter chat at 9PM EST to discuss with the state of children’s book publishing (and maybe win an excellent MCCBD book bundle!). Use the hashtag #ReadYourWorld.

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Cybils 2016From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the books I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features three books that explore Japanese or Japanese-American experiences of World War II.

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Coveer of Paper Wishes

Ten-year-old Manami did not realize how peaceful her family’s life on Bainbridge Island was until the day it all changed. It’s 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Manami and her family are Japanese American, which means that the government says they must leave their home by the sea and join other Japanese Americans at a prison camp in the desert. Manami is sad to go, but even worse is that they are going to have to give her dog, Yujiin, to a neighbor to take care of. Manami decides to sneak Yujiin under her coat, but she is caught and forced to abandon him. She is devastated but clings to the hope that somehow Yujiin will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again. It isn’t until she finds a way to let go of her guilt that Manami can accept all that has happened to her family.

This is a short tale that would be a good introduction to the interment of Japanese-Americans. I liked the characters, and thought Manami’s withdraw demonstrated how difficult the experience was. A somewhat sad and quiet story, the story of the lost dog provides a way into Manami’s life to which children may relate.

Review @ The Children’s War | Add to  GoodReads

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just herThe Last Cherry Blossom and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

I visited Hiroshima a couple of years ago. Visiting the Peace Memorial Museum was one of the most sobering experiences I’ve had. This book compliments historical artifacts and information by focusing largely on what life was like for a young girl growing up in Japan during WWII. Told in first person, Burkinshaw’s writing is sensitive yet evocative. Burkinshaw’s mother’s experience surviving the Hiroshima bombing loosely inspired the story. Like Paper Lanterns, The Last Cherry Blossom would make an excellent introduction to the atomic bombing of Japan.

Review @ Randomly Reading | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

Click Here to Start by Denis Merkell

Click Here to Start coverTwelve-year-old Ted Gerson has spent most of his summer playing video games. So when his great-uncle dies and bequeaths him the all so-called treasure in his overstuffed junk shop of an apartment, Ted explores it like it’s another level to beat. And to his shock, he finds that eccentric Great-Uncle Ted actually has set the place up like a real-life escape-the-room game! Using his specially honed skills, Ted sets off to win the greatest game he’s ever played, with help from his friends Caleb and Isabel. Together they discover that Uncle Ted’s “treasure” might be exactly that—real gold and jewels found by a Japanese American unit that served in World War II. With each puzzle Ted and his friends solve, they get closer to unravelling the mystery—but someone dangerous is hot on their heels, and he’s not about to let them get away with the fortune.

This story differs from the other two in that the Japanese connection is not the main focus of the story. The main character is a Jewish-Japanese American whose now deceased great-uncle fought in World War II. The story has a lot of fun action-adventure components. It also deals with how second and third generation Americans navigate their cultural identities.

Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Goodreads

Be sure to check out some of the other posts in the Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 link-up.  What other books (picture books, MG, YA, anything) about Japanese experiences in WWII would you recommend?

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Review: Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

Cover of Roses and RotAuthor: Kat Howard
Title: Roses and Rot Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: May 2016
Publisher: Saga Press
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fantasy
Rating: ★★½
GoodReads | IndieBound | Indigo 

Rose and Rot turned out to be very different from what I expected. I had heard some general things about it around the blogosphere prior to its release date, enough to persuade me to put it on hold without investigating further. Key words that came to mind when I thought of this book were “dark, meaning of art, adults with an awful stepmother, grown up, old moody estate building in background”. Plus, the book received kudos from Gaiman (even though I swear I know by now that him and I rarely have the same taste in books). The premise of the book sounded good enough to grab my interest.

Roses and Rot contained a number of differences from the impression I had somehow formed. Though these differences are not necessarily bad, unfortunately they were not too my taste. The primary difference is that this book has a modern setting and an urban feel. Fae form an integral part of the plot. I am not a fan of modern fairies. They usually give me a weird, uncomfortable feeling. I found the concept of tithe and benefits to be convoluted. I felt this way about a number of the plot points (and the dialogue), actually – like they were contrived, i.e. just there to push the story in a certain direction. (But hold on, aren’t all books like that? I suppose the best books make those contrivances feel incidental.) I didn’t feel any suspense with the fairy plot lines (I did wonder what Imogen and Marin’s relationship would be by the end of the book.)

“Part of the appeal of the Market is its mystery, so there’s no regular schedule, though there are traditional times. The one around Halloween is a spectacle, and there’s always one just before Christmas. But really, it appears when it wants, or when it’s needed. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it really does seem to tbe the best way to explain the randomness.” (51-52)

“Oh, and Gavin says where your charm where people can see it. Especially at the Market,” Marin said, pulling her own hourglass out so it was visible over her shirt.
“Why?”
“It’s like some kind of secret sing. People will ‘treat us well’ because of it, whatever that means.” (97)

The characters often seemed like teenagers. Many times I wanted to roll my eyes at them and say “Aren’t you supposed to be an adult?!” Most of the relationships felt melodramatic to me, especially the relationship between Helena and Janet. I never felt anything sympathy towards Imogen and Marin regarding their mother, who lurks in the background of this story. They often describe how she affected them, but because she’s barely a part of their lives now, I didn’t feel impacted by her awful behaviour. I loved that Ariel was the grounded character in this novel. I would like to read a short story from her perspective.

“When I don’t go to bed at night wondering if the next day is the day she’s going to show up to try to take everything I’ve worked for away from me. That was what she always said: ‘I gave you this, I can take it back.’ And I knew she could.” (204)

My favourite part of this book were the fairy tale excerpts from Imogen’s story. Although I don’t think they were as outstanding comments on Imogen’s talent would lead you to expect, they were much more to my taste. I would love to read more writing from Howard in that genre. Also, bonus points for Narnia reference.

She wasn’t offering Turkish delight from a winter sledge, but I was pretty sure the cookies would still have tasted of betrayal. (86)

The Bottom Line

Roses and Rot sounded like my kind of book, but turned out to be something entirely different. Recommended for fans of urban fairy fantasy, who want to try something a little less urban.

Further Reading

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Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the MoonAuthor: Kelly Barnhill
Title: The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: August 2016
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Length: 388 pages
Genre: Middle grade fantasy
Why I Read: Liked the description
Rating: ★★★★
GoodReads | IndieBound | Indigo | The Book Depository

 

This is going to be one of those ‘reviews’ where I just gush about what I love without much critical thinking. The Girl Who Drank the Moon is my favourite kind of middle grade fantasy. In fact, it’s pretty much my favourite kind of any book. I had an easy time brainstorming why reasons why I liked this book. In no particular order:

  • Adult characters with a young female protagonist
  • Misunderstandings between good people that are reasonably resolved
  • A curmudgeonly yet caring creature who is more significant than he appears (but it doesn’t really matter)
  • A young child fulfilling a ‘destiny’/coming into their own
  • A twist on a dragon!
  • An isolated forest setting
  • An unusual feature of the landscape (volcano)
  • A woman fighting for her child
  • Straightforward but evocative fairy tale prose that feels like it was written just for me

The only truly safe passage across the forest for an ordinary person was the Road, which wa ssituated on a naturally raised seam of rock that had smoothed over time. The Road didn’t alter or shift; it never grumbled. Unfortunately, it was owned and operated by a gang of thugs and bullies from the Protectorates. Xan never took the Road. She couldn’t abide thugs. Or bullies. And anyway, they charged too much. Or they did, last time she checked. It had been years since she had gone near it – many centuries now. She made her own way instead, using a combination of magic and know-how and common sense. (19)

  • Simple yet structured and creative magic system
  • Short interludes of a mother telling bedtime stories
  • A sweet loving old lady (bonus for being a witch)
  • A forgotten/confused past that slowly comes to light
  • Bonus: A lovely cover and a title following the structure of ‘The [Noun] Who [Did Thing]’

Need I say more? By now you can probably tell if this is the sort of book you’ll love or hate. This was one of my favourite reads of the year. It reminded me of some of my childhood favourites (Inkdeath and Into the Land of the Unicorn come immediately to mind).

Some reviews on Goodreads (1 | 2) commented on its suitability as middle grade.  Generally when I review books here I’m doing it for my own personal enjoyment and recommending to people in a similar position as me (i.e. adults not children). Are there some parts of this book that could be consider too ‘grown up’ or ‘boring’ or ‘political for middle schoolers? Perhaps, yet that’s the sort of story I enjoyed as a child and it’s still the sort of story I enjoy now. As I apply to grad school for pursue my dream of becoming a librarian, I wonder if I should shift perspective in my reviews – to reviewing books for their intended audience, rather than for my own personal enjoyment. For now, this blog remains a personal hobby and I think I will keep it that way for a little while longer. But that’s really a topic for another post!

The Bottom Line:

The Girl Who Drank the Moon is a beautifully written tale, with elements that add up to make it my favourite kind of fantasy story. I hope you will enjoy the adventures of Luna, Xan, Antain and the others as much as I did.

Further Reading:

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Family Reads: Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

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 Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan’s Save Me a Seat

Ash (my sister) and I had originally chosen The Queen of Blood for this month’s Family Reads. She tried reading it for a few weeks and couldn’t get into it. I suggested she choose a book from my Cybils reading stack instead. She chose Save Me a Seat because it sounded cute.

Joe and Ravi might be from very different places, but they’re both stuck in the same place: SCHOOL.

Joe’s lived in the same town all his life, and was doing just fine until his best friends moved away and left him on his own.

Ravi’s family just moved to America from India, and he’s finding it pretty hard to figure out where he fits in.

Joe and Ravi don’t think they have anything in common — but soon enough they have a common enemy (the biggest bully in their class) and a common mission: to take control of their lives over the course of a single crazy week.

Our Discussion

The authors write in first person, alternating chapters between Ravi and Joe. We have both had bad experiences with co-authored novels, but Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan have struck the right balance in Save Me a Seat. A reader might assume that Weeks wrote Joe’s chapters and Varadarajan wrote Ravi’s chapters. Though each boy has their own voice, the writing styles don’t differ hugely between them. The chapters flow nicely from one to the next. We both prefer this type of co-authoring (where you can’t especially tell who wrote what, and the style remains consistent throughout the book).

We both appreciated how realistic the story seemed. According to the author bios in the book, Weeks  was “born and raised in the United States […] and teaches in [an] MFA program in NYC”, while Varadarajan was “born and raised in India […] and now teaches second grade in Princeton, New Jersey.” Does that qualify this book as an own voices narrative? Ash and I think that it is at least safe to guess that the authors’ own experiences have informed their writing. Ash especially pointed out the frustration Ravi experiences when people cannot correctly pronounce his first name (rah-VEE, not RAH-vee), let alone his last name (Suryanarayanan). One might imagine Gita Varadarajan has encountered similar experiences.

Accents

I asked Ash if she ‘heard’ Ravi’s voice in an Indian accent. She said that she didn’t; that she never hears characters unique voices – it’s always just that ‘voice in her head’. I asked her that question because, although it’s usually the same for me (no differentiation in character voices), I actually did hear Ravi’s voice with an Indian accent. I wondered if this was because I’d  been tutoring an Indian student for about 10 hours a week and I was more ‘in tune’ to the accent. His voice was very clear in my head when I started reading. Some features of Ravi’s language that I noticed were the use of continuous tense (ex. “am playing”, “will be going”) and a slightly more formal vocabulary. After awhile, though, I stopped hearing his accent and he settled into my generic middle grade voice.

I note this observation because one of Ravi’s challenges throughout the book is that (apparently) nobody can understand his accent. When I finished the story, however, I started to think that was an assumption made by his teachers and friends. They weren’t really listening to him; they just assumed they couldn’t understand what he was saying because he had an accent.

Storyline

Joe and Ravi do not really interact throughout the story. This surprised me, as I imagined the book follow a structure of them directly arguing and fighting in the first part, then begrudgingly teaming up to take down the bully in the second half. Ash expected Joe and Ravi would defeat the bully in a stereotypical or negative way (ex. he would turn out to be a misunderstood new friend or they would bully him back). We liked how the alternating perspectives revealed how Joe and Ravi misunderstood each other (and other characters), and how they learnt about the problems with making assumptions. Overall, we enjoyed the plot of the novel, and we were happy with the conclusion.

Reading and Recommending Middle Grade

Ash doesn’t usually read middle grade. At the start of our discussion, she asked if she is judging the book for herself, or for other people (children or adults) who might read it. I explained that I generally evaluate a book for how it satisfied my taste, while making some general comments about aspects that other readers may or may not enjoy. At the end of our discussion I returned to this point, asking Ash if she thought this would be a good read for the intended audience (children 8 to 12 years old). She said, “A lot of the things I said I like will apply, I think, to kids as well and other adults. Especially in our current culture where there is a lot of immigration and many ESL learners in classrooms. The story is cute and interesting, not cliched.

Final Thoughts

We liked a few other components of this book. Non-English words are not italicized. “Ravi’s Glossary” (ex. tennikoit, Ovaltine) and “Joe’s Glossary” (ex. index card, tofu) can be found in the back. There are also two recipes – one for the cookies Ravi brings his teacher and one for apple crisp. Finally, Ash pointed out that the title (Save Me a Seat) can refer to the story’s conclusion, creating a full circle from the cover to the last page.

Save Me a Seat impressed us both with its storyline and well-written characters. Have you read Save Me a Seat or any similar middle grade books? What do you think about co-authored books? 
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Review: The Witches of New York by Ami McKay

Cover of The Witches of New YorkAuthor: Ami McKay
Title: The Witches of New York
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley (hardcover since purchased)
Published: 25 October 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Length: 504 pages
Genre: Magical realism/historical fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, cover caught my eye
Rating: ★★★★½
GoodReads | Indigo | The Book Depository

 

Is there a better feeling than when you accurately judge a book by its cover? I requested The Witches of New York on NetGalley solely because of the cover.  I have since purchased a copy. This is one of those editions that reminds me how beautiful books can be. If the image above intrigues you, then you probably don’t need to read the rest of my review – go grab a copy now and enjoy. Ami McKay has penned an excellent tale about three witches living in 1880 New York City. I am already crossing my fingers for a follow-up tale. Here are six reasons why this book is one of my favourites of 2016.

6 Reasons Why You Should Read The Witches of New York

  1. The witches, of course (Eleanor St. Clair, Adelaide Thom, and Beatrice Dunn) – I loved the characterization of these three ladies. They each felt deeply real to me, with their flaws and mannerisms and talents. I felt as though they were real people the author might have known. I rarely connect so well with one character, let alone three. I also appreciated how, despite their differences and disagreements, they always cared for each. It would be easy to reduce them to stereotypes in an attempt to briefly describe them, but Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice are much more than that. (Plus, they all have charming names.)
  2. Feminine magic – I have recently discovered that I enjoy stories of feminine magic, where women have their own special power and work fight the patriarchy. That is not a sentence I would have written even just two years ago. I am a novice feminist when it comes to literature (see note after the list for more about feminism in this tale). But I do know that I loved the magic in this book. McKay differentiates the witch’s talents. Their magic felt real to me; I believe in it while reading the story (and I think that ties in to my point above about the realness of the characters).
  3. Historical context – McKay strikes the perfect blend of historical fiction and magical realism for me in this tale. The Witches of New York sits neatly in history, as McKay incorporates things such as the installation of Cleopatra’s Needle, the Victorian interest in spiritualism and science, and of course women’s rights. The witch’s magic fit snugly in the setting McKay crafts.
  4. Supporting characters –  I haven’t mentioned Dr. Brody, who wants to work with Beatrice to test her abilities and who may have a crush on Adelaide and who is an actually lovely man. The Reverend functioned well as the villain of the tale. (I get squirmy and angry when I think about the twisted logic people like him use to justify their actions.) He may be a one-dimensional character, but this isn’t his story. He symbolizes what’s working against women in society.  There are additional characters who we occasionally read passages about. I like stories like this where threads about seemingly unconnected people come crashing together.
  5. Additional texts  – Included throughout the book are bits of news, snippets of spells, excerpts from writings about witches, and other ephemera. These are nicely integrated into the text (both the physical book and the narrative) and give the story a little more flavour.
  6. Hints of more to come?? – While the story works fine as a stand alone, there were a few things not entirely explained that I would love to read more about. Not to worry, the plot is largely tied up in this volume, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel! Adelaide features as her younger self Moth in McKay’s The Virgin Cure, so there’s always that to check out in the mean time.

I haven’t really discussed the feminist aspects of this story. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about how this book can be considered feminist literature until I attended an ‘Evening With’ event with Ami McKay. The area was packed with women. The discussion focused on the persecution of female witches by a patriarchal society,  and how relevant this book is today (especially in context of the US election, which happened two days before the event). I appreciated the discussion as it expanded my understanding of the story. I want to learn more about the role of witches and their treatment throughout history. Can you recommend any great books (fiction or non-fiction) about historical witches?

The Bottom Line:

Ami McKay is spot on when she describes her book as “historical fiction with a twist—part Victorian fairy tale, part penny dreadful, part feminist manifesto”. Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice make The Witches of New York a 2016 must read.

Further Reading:

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