The Wall by Peter Sis is a sophisticated picture book which represents the story of author Peter Sis life as her grew up in Czechoslovakia during the...moreThe Wall by Peter Sis is a sophisticated picture book which represents the story of author Peter Sis life as her grew up in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. Although this book is categorized as a picture book, it is a blend of picture book and graphic novel. The illustrations are as vivid and telling as the words on the page. Winner of the Caldecott award for illustrations, the reader becomes aware of the absence of color – except for spots of communist red – on most pages, each page reflecting complex images using only shades of grey to create texture, emotion, and detail of an Eastern Bloc country. When images of Western Bloc culture creep onto the pages, they are in vivid color. The Wall also won the Siebert award, an award given for a book which provides information on a subject. This book, while fiction, functions as a type of hybrid fiction/non-fiction with its journal entries which are dispersed throughout the pages which serve as a timeline for events in the author’s life – both personal and historical. The historical aspects are bits of history when Western Bloc influences made their way to Prague, chipping away at the believe systems in place for many of Prague’s youth. Sis was born in 1949 just as Czechoslovakia fell to communist rule. The Wall spans the time of Sis’s life from infant through young adulthood and documents the changes in Czechoslovakia under communist rule, as well as the changes in Peter as he progressed from infanthood through young adult. Born an artist, the pages demonstrate Peter’s constant drawing in a country where restrictions on what an artist can produce were many. “After he drew whatever he wanted to at home, he drew what he was told to at school.” Peter conformed to the ways of his country until he discovered that there were things he wasn’t being told happening in other parts of the world. Peter begins to have dreams of all the “color” which exists outside of Prague – music like Elvis, The Beach Boys, and especially The Beatles! “Slowly he started to question. He painted what he wanted to – in secret.” The Wall continues through the invasion of the Russians in 1969 through 1989 when the wall falls.
So much fiction has strong female characters who do daring or smart things to survive, however, this realistic fiction is so strongly written. The lif...moreSo much fiction has strong female characters who do daring or smart things to survive, however, this realistic fiction is so strongly written. The life of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban was a life I knew was difficult, but I never really understood the degree of risk and danger women lived in every day. I imagine my 10 year old daughter making her way through the streets in disguise in order to provide food and shelter for our family, and I really don't think she could do it. The strength portrayed through Parvana represents a whole society of women who persevere to survive. What a moving statement about the world.
In The Breadwinner, 11-year old Parvana lives with her parents, older sister, younger sister and younger brother in the time of the Taliban. When her father is brought to prison, there is no one left to provide for the family, as women can not go out into the streets unescorted. There is no one to earn money or even to shop for food for the family. The family turns to Parvana to alter her appearance so that she resembles a boy and go out into the Marketplace to find work and buy what the family needs. Parvana needs courage and smarts to undergo this challenge. Her father used to sit on a blanket in the marketplace and read letters for people who could not read or write. Parvana begins her work taking her father’s place on the blanket in the Marketplace. She meets another girl who has taken on the role as Breadwinner for her family, and together they find alternate ways to make money and provide for their family. (less)
Under the Mesquite is an “outstanding original children’s book which portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience” which meets the...moreUnder the Mesquite is an “outstanding original children’s book which portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience” which meets the Belpre Award terms for eligibility. It is also written by a Mexican author who lives in the United States, namely Texas. I felt that from what little I know or have gleamed about Mexican culture, McCall presented an authentic look through the life of her main character, Lupita. The readers follow Lupita through her teen years, and glimpse her families’ customs, faith, and love. Under the Mesquite meets all of the criteria for the Bulpre Award, but is most strongly shown through its interpretation of the theme or concept, development of a plot, and delineation of characters. McCall writes this book in free-verse, which can be off-turning for some readers. However, the writing style provides succinct moments in Lupita’s life, painting a word picture for the reader using vivid imagery and language to create the scene. The writing is peppered with Spanish terms which are appropriately placed for understanding. A Spanish term glossary is provided at the end of the book which provides a complete picture for the reader. The plot is clearly represented in this book. Under the Mesquite is the story of a young girl, Lupita, as she moves from childhood to adulthood, taking on the challenges which develop when her mother becomes sick with cancer. Lupita is the oldest of 8 children and has a very close bond with her mother. She is an excellent student with the “gift of words”, which she uses in poetry and in stage performances. Lupita dreams of being the first in her family to go to college. When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, Lupita assumes the responsibility of the family while her father tends to her mother. This is a difficult task for Lupita and she battles with her own desire to still be a child while knowing she is at the age of womanhood in her family. The expectations which are put on Lupita are stressful, but she finds strength through her writing and her love for her mother. Lupita has to make decisions about the future she dreamed of having and what impact her decisions will have on her family. Under the Mesquite is a coming of age novel with strong themes of family, strength, and responsibility. As one of the criteria for the Belpre Award, these themes are made very clear by the writing. Again, the free-verse style of this book provides focused attention to each moment which addresses one of these themes. The strong familial relationships are represented between Lupita’s family in Texas and the grandparents, aunts, and cousins in Mexico through visits home, through the description of Lupita’s adult role in the family once she is a senorita at age 15, and through pictures of Lupita as a young child helping to take care of her siblings. Lupita’s strength is shown when she takes care of her siblings while her father goes to the hospital, when she is shunned by her friends for speaking “white”, and when she makes her decision to go to college and leave her family behind. Throughout the book, McCall draws the reader back to the responsibility Lupita, as the oldest child, has to her family, a responsibility which drives Lupita’s decisions, heartache, stress, and sadness. McCall develops a strong lead character in Lupita to whom all girls will be able to relate. Aside from this obviously strong character, the mother is presented with such wonderful characteristics of strength, love, wisdom, and faith, and is an example to Lupita throughout the book. At no point is Lupita trying to move away from a disappointment in her mother, rather, she strives to do all that her mother was able to do and envies the way her mother remained calm and peaceful all the time. Lupita struggles to take care of her 7 siblings, and marvels at her mother’s abilities to do the same. I will be recommending Under the Mesquite to my students and definitely would want this on the shelves of my library. This book provides a level of cultural authenticity which provides insight into the Mexican culture which can be a starting point for further knowledge. The character’s traits of strength and responsibility cross cultural lines and speak to all readers. This is the first book by McCall for young adults, but I will keep my eyes open for future titles she writes. (less)
The 2003 Newbery Honor Book, Pictures of Hollis Woods, is a story about a 12 year old girl who is in desperate search for a place to call home - for a...moreThe 2003 Newbery Honor Book, Pictures of Hollis Woods, is a story about a 12 year old girl who is in desperate search for a place to call home - for a family. Hollis Woods was abandoned as a child and spent the rest of her life in the foster care system. Hollis moved from family to family, never staying at one spot for too long. The families found Hollis difficult, moody, troublesome, and in the end Hollis always ran away from the family. Hollis is placed with Josie, an older woman who is a retired art teacher, which works out perfectly for Hollis, as she is a very gifted artist herself. After a brief adjustment period, Hollis begins to feel that she loves Josie and would like to stay with her. However, Josie forgets things sometimes and needs to depend on Hollis for daily activities. Hollis knows that Josie needs constant care and that if the social worker finds out about Josie’s needs, Hollis will be removed from the home. Throughout the book we are invited into Hollis’ pictures of a mother, father, brother and daughter. The reader learns about the relationship Hollis had with this family, about her stay with them, and about the tragedy which caused her to run away. In the end, Hollis does what she needs to do to preserve the family she has with Josie in the summer home of the family she dearly misses. The format of Pictures of Hollis Woods takes a little getting used to, as it is almost as if it is two stories being told as one. The first story is a literal interpretation of a sketch book filled with pictures which Hollis Woods has drawn with colored pencils. These pictures reflect Hollis’ dream of having a family to call her own, as well as what a family looks like to Hollis. Throughout the pictures, we flashback to learn about the Regan family Hollis left behind: her mother Izzy, father “old man”, and her mischievous but perfect brother, Steven. Hollis had become an integral part of the Regan family and they loved her as much as she loved them. The Regans were about to adopt Hollis when she decided to leave following an accident for which she felt responsible. Hollis preserves her memories of the Regan family through her sketches, which reflect emotion, heart, and particulars of the time she was with them. Giff superbly demonstrates the emotions Hollis feels throughout her pictures, and readers will understand Hollis’ fears, regrets, and desires for a family. The reader is given each of these pictures, one at a time, coupled with the chapters of the book which tell the second story. The second story is the story of Hollis and her time with Josie, how she came to be with her, their brief time together, and the bond which they developed. Hollis feels as though the placement with Josie is a “last ditch effort” for the social worker, and a final chance for her to make a family. The “tough” Hollis, who is shown to other characters in the book, is shown in a different light with Josie. Hollis is gentle, caring, and responsible for Josie when needed and, rather than being shown as a runaway who is difficult to manage, we learn that this is exactly what Hollis has been looking for. As the two stories of this book twine together, the reader roots for Hollis to finally get what she has always wanted, to get a reality which reflects the pictures in her sketchbook. The reader sees a child who is not jaded by the foster care system, but holds on to hope that what she seeks is out there, and she will find it. This book won the Newbery Honor Award in 2003 and it fulfills the criteria which mark it as a “distinguished contribution to American literature”. This book is definitely a book for children, especially those in grades 4-7. The author, Giff, clearly addresses the focus of children through her theme, plot, and character development, as well as the style of the writing. Hollis Woods is a strong, creative girl who follows her dreams despite her circumstances. Giff creates a main character who uses defense mechanisms to protect herself from being hurt or disappointed. Hollis is shown to be difficult, tough, and one who speaks with a sharp tongue, but then, the reader sees into Hollis’ head and hears her fears, desires, and wants, and the reader sees Hollis’ pictures to round out the complexity of this character. Hollis Woods is a character who the reader cheers for, and who we want to see placed in a loving home and with the family she has always longed for. The theme of Hollis Woods is family, forgiveness and belonging, themes to which every child can relate. Although Hollis is a foster child, she is not depicted as pathetic or worthless, rather being a foster child is what give Hollis her attitude, drive, and desires. Hollis longs for the one thing that readers may take for granted. I especially like that the family Hollis longs for – the Regans – are not a “perfect” family. Hollis remembers times when “old man” and Steven argue and disagree, times when Steven disobeys what his parents tell him to do, and times when Steven and “old man” seem to not like each other at all. At the time, Hollis believes these to be her fault, because she has been brought into the family dynamic. In time, however, Hollis learns that this is a family. Hollis looks back to her sketches of the perfect family – her dream – and sees a scowl on Stevens face, or a smile on “old man’s” face, just as she had drawn them. I think this provides an excellent example for children to see families are perfect – warts and all. Hollis also receives a huge lesson in forgiveness, both of herself and by the Regan family. Again, I think forgiveness is a hard lesson for children, but Giff demonstrates is beautifully in Hollis Woods. The setting of Hollis Woods is not so vital to the story, except for the location of the remote Regan summer home where Hollis takes Josie to escape the social worker. This home needed to be remote and woodsy, as well as the site of the accident which caused Hollis to leave the Regan’s before. Hollis needs to come full circle with the events in order to forgive herself and find her happy ending. Giff beautifully places Hollis back where she had the both feelings of belonging to a family and of great despair as she caused an accident that hurt that family. By returning to that place with Josie, Hollis has to face what happened, what she needs to do next with Josie, and open her heart to forgiveness. I didn’t read the Newbery winning title for 2003, Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi, but Hollis Woods was the first runner up, and I think it was an excellent book. I think that children will enjoy reading this fast paced, moving story. It is reminiscent of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, Newbery Honor winner in 1979 – another great story about finding love and family. Patricia Reilly Giff has written a story which takes the reader along for an emotional ride with fear, anger, belonging, family, suspense, and love. The characters are strong and relatable, but real and without any elements of fantasy. An excellent read! (less)
The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood is a beautifully told story of a young girl who wants a new red coat for Christmas. Virginia lives...moreThe Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood is a beautifully told story of a young girl who wants a new red coat for Christmas. Virginia lives on the Sioux Reservation in South Dakota with her family. Her father is an Episcopal priest on the reservation. Every year boxes of donated clothing are sent to the reservation for the families and children there. Because Virginia's father is the priest, his children are taught to let all others go first before them. This particular year, Virginia needs a new winter coat and her younger brother wants some cowboy boots. When the boxes of donated clothing come, Virginia spots the perfect coat which is edged in fur. Virginia is forced to sit by and watch as a snotty girl from school, who is not her friend, selects the fur coat. Virginia is left to take a plain, unattractive coat which is leftover. Later, when the fur coat is found to be unsuitable to the harsh winter weather in South Dakota, Virginia has to give up her plain coat, as well. On Christmas Eve, two special boxes are brought out which were sent especially for the priest's children. When Virginia and her brother open the boxes they find a beautiful red coat for Virginia, and a pair of cowboy boots for her brother. What a wonderful Christmas!
This is a beautifully illustrated picture book which is an easy, straight forward read. The author provides the reader a strong picture of the importance of family and duty. (less)
I chose Coolies written by Yin and illustrated by Chris Soentpiet. This title was published by Philomel Books in 2001. Coolies is the story of two bro...moreI chose Coolies written by Yin and illustrated by Chris Soentpiet. This title was published by Philomel Books in 2001. Coolies is the story of two brothers who leave China in the mid-1800s to find work in America. The work they are to do is as laborers, working for the Central Pacific Railroad Company to build railroad tracks heading East to connect with the tracks which were being built heading West. The two brothers were very young, but their family was poor and needed the money they would earn from working. The Chinese crew worked very long days, were ridiculed by the bosses, and were underpaid for their work. The brothers stayed strong in both extreme heat and cold conditions. This story represents an authentic look at what Chinese immigrants endured when they came to America as laborers.
On the first pages of the book, a grandmother and grandson are taking part in a traditional meal when the grandson asks "why are we bowing to a bowl of oranges?" Grandmother responds that this is the way they show respect and honor their ancestors. She then goes on to tell the story of the two brothers. The contrast in the clothing of the modern day grandmother and grandson to the brothers in 1850s China was the first thing I noticed. Yin does an excellent job representing to distinct time differences by the objects and clothing in the pictures. The parallel of the honor and respect which the grandmother speaks of is demonstrated in the two brothers who are leaving their home to provide for their family. All the while they are in America, Shek, the older brother, reminds Little Wong that they are working for their family. I think that honor is a strong cultural aspect of this book.
The Chinese workers all had long braids which they wore down their backs and wore pajama-like clothing. They were all depicted as being smaller than the other workers, and thin. For these reasons the workers were given the name "coolies", meaning lowly workers. However, it was uplifting to read about the speed of the work they did, and how dedicated they were to the work. I think these sections of the book represent a strength in Chinese people which may be overlooked.
A section of the book which would allow for great discussion is the exclusion of the Chinese workers at the celebration when the two railroad tracks met each other in Utah. Here, discrimination is blatant, and the pride the Chinese continue to hold is powerful.
I would recommend this book for about 3rd grade and up. Although the writing is simple enough for younger students to understand, the impact of the story would be missed on younger students. Older students could definitely use this book for discussions on immigrants, discrimination, or Chinese culture. I think that the themes are present in the book, but are better if supported by discussion and exploration through other similarly themed books and research. (less)