Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

  • Title: Inside Out and Back Again
  • Author: Thanhha Lai
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 2011
  • ISBN: 0061962783
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 272
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; Newbery Honor

Author information: Inside Out and Back Again is Thanhha Lai’s first novel. She does not seem to have a website, but it is possible to find information about her on the HarperCollins website. This includes a short biography, her educational experience, hobbies and interests, and a link to information about her book. The National Book Foundation has an interview with Lai on their website, in which she talks about the power of language in terms of self-expression and her hope that her novel will inspire others who have gone through similar experiences to tell their stories.

Reviews: This book received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. These reviews agree that the format of the novel is innovative and is one of its greatest strengths, and they agree that Lai’s portrayal of Hà is moving and provides an honest depiction of a young Vietnamese immigrant’s experience. Three of these reviews cite the humorous elements of Hà’s voice and how this provides a strong balance to the more serious and darker tones of the novel.

Readers annotation: Growing up in Vietnam during the war may be tough, but Hà thinks that living in Alabama might be worse.

Summary: Hà has spent her entire childhood in Saigon, but as the war increasingly threatens her family’s safety and way of life, her mother decides that they need to escape. Hà’s father, a Navy sailor, has been missing in action for years, but one of his friends tells her family about a ship that will be leaving Saigon and helps them flee Vietnam on it. After a long and uncomfortable voyage, their ship is rescued and Hà’s family decides to move to America. Their sponsor, a Christian Alabama man, lets them live with him and Hà and her brothers start trying to integrate into life in the South. Hà is not used to being “stupid” and not able to keep up in class, and many of the other students tease or threaten her. Hà eventually finds an ally in her neighbor Miss Washington, who tutors her and helps ease her transition into American life, and the novel ends with Hà and her family hopeful about the future and ready to build a new life in America.

Evaluation: The format of this book is the most obvious strength of the novel.  Hà’s story is told as a series of poems that are roughly in chronological order, and these poems are beautiful when taken individually, but they become a tour de force when combined. At first, the format can seem daunting, and the reader may not think that a strong narrative will be able to form with such a limited number of words, but the power of Hà’s voice and story transcend the format of the narrative and create a compelling plot. Hà is a sympathetic and relatable character, and readers will root for her success as well as feel badly for her troubles. The story also addresses themes that any child (or adult) can relate to, such as feeling like an outcast, being bullied, and being nostalgic for the past. Hà is a fully developed character who is portrayed with honesty; she is shown as being strong and smart and hardworking, but also as being conflicted and occasionally cruel and a bully herself. Aside from having a compelling plot and being written as heartbreakingly gorgeous poetry, this novel also provides a much-needed look at an immigrant’s difficulties adapting to life in a America, and does so with a fresh and unforgettable perspective.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This novel is unique both in its subject matter and the format with which it tells Hà’s story. Readers will find themselves lingering over each short poem as well as absorbed in the larger narrative.
  • Popularity: 3/5  Although the poetry format of this novel is highly accessible and arguably easier for reluctant readers than a novel based in prose, some readers may be turned off at the sight of poetry and not want to read it due to its format. Those who do, however, will find Hà to be a compelling and likable character and will relate to her story, no matter what their personal experience with immigration or bullying may be. The novel encourages readers to think about larger themes of kindness, acceptance, and courage and how they may relate to their own lives.
  • Appeal factors: immigrant experience, poetry, strong female protagonist, humor, hopeful ending.

Read-alikes: 

  1. R. J. Palacio’s Wonder could be a good fit for those who liked reading about a child who was outcast from her peers because she was different. Like Hà, August is different, although his difference is not his race, but rather a physical deformity. He’s teased in school and doesn’t fit in, but, as with Hà’s story, this novel ends on a positive and hopeful note.
  2. For readers who want more on the subject of the immigration experience, The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan could be a good fit. Although this book features a Polish girl who immigrates to England rather than a Vietnamese girl who immigrates to America, both protagonists have to struggle with alienation, adjusting to a new life, and absent fathers.

Book talk ideas: The major objection readers may have to picking up this book is also it’s greatest strength: the poetry. In order to dispell the myth that a book written in verse is inaccessible, read one or two of the stronger (spoiler-free) poems as a way to introduce the novel. Then discuss the plot, and how Hà is a girl who has had to leave the life she knew for an entirely different country, one in which she is teased, made to feel stupid, and does not fit in. Highlight the feelings that such a situation would raise, such as loneliness, fear, and nostalgia for an old life. Ask if anybody can relate to those feelings. Possibly end with another poem from the book.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What could the papaya tree represent? Why is Hà so obsessed with this fruit and its tree?
  2. Hà has difficulty adjusting from being a top student to one who struggles in school. How does this adjustment affect her? How would you feel if you were at an academic disadvantage like Hà?
  3. Although never seen in the story, Hà’s father is a presence throughout the narrative. How does Hà’s father influence/haunt each character?

Reason for reading: This book was on quite a few lists of Newbery honors and best books for children lists, and it looked like it could be interesting. I read the synopsis and it sounded unique, and I’ve never read an immigration story about leaving Vietnam during the war. I actually missed the fact that the narrative was a series of poems and I’m glad I did because I may not have checked it out if I knew. I think that may be the toughest part about selling this book to young readers–there is a stigma associated with poetry that makes readers feel like it is less accessible than prose and they may be reluctant to give this title a chance.

Additional relevant information: Inside Out and Back Again is semi-autobiographical and in part based on Lai’s own experiences as an immigrant. Her sponsor also lived in Alabama, and took on Lai’s entire family, ten people in all. It took Lai ten years to learn grammatically correct English.

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The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney

  • Title: The Lion and the Mouse
  • Author: Jerry Pinkney
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2009
  • ISBN: 0316013567
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 40
  • Age Range: 3+
  • Genre: fable
  • Award(s): Caldecott Medal Winner; more here.

Author information: Jerry Pinkney has illustrated over one hundred titles for children, and has won five Coretta Scott King awards, five Caldecott Honors and one Medal, and has been elected into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame. His website has his biography and contact information, lists of all of his works, a list of awards he and his books have won, videos of interviews and speeches he has given, and information about his studio and exhibitions. He also has a section titled “what’s new” in which he discusses recently released titles, recent awards and recognition, and recent activities, such as his recent invitation to participate in an exhibition for the United States Embassy in Congo, Brazzaville.

Reviews: Everyone went crazy for this book. It received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and the Horn Book. Each of these reviews commented on the beauty of Pinkney’s illustrations and how his choice of making this book wordless enhanced the story. SLJ says, “Pinkney’s luminous art, rendered in watercolor and colored pencil, suggests a natural harmony… The ambiguity that results from the lack of words in this version allows for a slower, subtle, and ultimately more satisfying read.”

Readers annotation: Sometimes, a little kindness makes a big difference.

Summary: The book is a visual retelling of the fable about the lion and the mouse. The mouse, trying to escape from an owl, finds himself on the tail of a lion. The lion picks up the mouse, but decides to let her go, and she returns to her family. Later, the lion is caught in a net that has be laid by trappers, and when the mouse sees this she goes to help. She chews through the ropes of the net so that the lion can go free, and they exchange a look of gratitude and understanding before going their separate ways.

Evaluation: The artwork in this book is flawless, and captures the reader’s imagination immediately and thoroughly. Although there are no words in this book, Pinkney does a marvelous job of moving the plot along through his illustrations, and the plot is clear and easy to follow even without the use of words. The moral of the story, about how helping someone is not only the right thing to do but can also come back and help you in the future, comes through clearly as well. The pacing of the book is well done and builds tension, both when the mouse finds herself on the lion’s tail, and when the lion is trapped in the net. The illustrations are lusciously detailed and make the reader want to linger on each page, or begin reading the book again as soom as he finishes it. The use of golds, browns, greens, and other earth tones provides a great sense of setting for the book, and makes the reader feel as though he is on the plains with these animals on a bright and sunny day. Even the endpapers for this book are a delight; the front inside cover portrays a rich landscape full of African animals, and the back inside cover shows the lion reunited with his mate and cubs. This book is a complete delight and one that can and should be read over and over again.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 The artwork is nothing short of magical. Pinkney makes this fable come alive with rich detail and the story is clear even without the use of words.
  • Popularity: 5/5 Even the most picky of children will be mesmerized by the illustrations and eager to know what happens next in the story. The happy ending and positive moral will appeal to readers of all ages, and this book holds up to multiple readings well, as the intricacy of the artwork always leaves something to discover.
  • Appeal factors: anthropomorphic animals, fables, detailed illustration, happy ending.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who enjoyed the detailed and wordless storytelling of this book may also like Journey by Aaron Becker. This book also has intricate illustrations and a whimsical tone and allows readers to imagine the dialogue and narrative themselves.
  2. Jerry Pinkney’s most recent release, The Tortoise and the Hare, is a natural suggestion for readers who love Pinkney’s lush illustrations and his wordless fable retellings (although this title does include a very small number of words, most pages are wordless).

Book talk ideas: The artwork is the star of the show, so show the cover or one of the illustrations and have potential readers talk about what they notice and what they like. Ask them if any of them know who Aesop was or what a fable is, and then explain that it is a short story, usually with anthropomorphic animals, that has a moral at the end. Tell them that this fable is about a lion who does not eat a little mouse when he has a chance, and then the mouse has the opportunity to pay him back later in the story. Ask them if they’ve ever done something nice for someone and later were repaid in kindness.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why do you think the lion let the mouse go?
  2. The mouse decides to help the lion when he gets caught in a net. Why? Would you have done the same thing?
  3. What is the moral of this story?

Reason for reading: Once I saw the cover of this book, there was no question in my mind that I would read it for this assignment. The cover is hypnotizing–I can stare at it repeatedly without getting bored and continue to find details I missed before. The cover does not even include the title of the book or the author’s name, it is just a gigantic image of the lion’s face and mane. There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe how utterly mesmerizing and luscious I find this cover (and the artwork in between the covers as well) and it’s no wonder that this won the Caldecott medal.

Additional relevant information: On his website, Pinkney addresses the difficulties he had in school due to undiagnosed dyslexia and his struggles because of it as well as his story about how he learned to persevere in spite of it and find different ways to learn and interact. He concludes by letting readers know that they can overcome this obstacle, saying, “For the young person who is struggling in school, never forget there are many different ways to learn.  Be curious.  Do not be afraid to try.  Do not be disappointed when making mistakes.  You will discover your own unique way of understanding the things being taught.  Learn from mistakes.  Everything that happens to you will frame who you are, and who you will become.  Your path to success will follow.”

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

  • Title: Bud, Not Buddy
  • Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Publisher: Delacorte
  • Year Published: 1999
  • ISBN: 0385323069
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 256
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Medal Winner; Coretta Scott King Medal Winner; more here.

Author information: Christopher Paul Curtis has written many books for young readers, including many award winning historical novels focusing on the African American experience in America. His website includes a brief biography, a list of the books he’s written, contact information, a list of news and events (including current projects to turn one of his novels, The Watsons Go to Birmingham into a TV movie as well as The Mighty Miss Malone‘s nomination for an NAACP image award), and a list of resources that includes teacher supplements, book guides, and author interviews. One of the interviews his website links to is one that Curtis gave to the ALA, in which he talks about the importance of the library to him. He says that he visited the Flint, Michigan library a lot when he was growing up, and he believes that libraries are unparalleled when it comes to librarian knowledge of books as well as the resources that libraries have to offer.

Reviews: Bud, Not Buddy received positive reviews from the major publications, including Booklist, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly. All of them highlight the humor and optimism with which Curtis tells Bud’s story, and the adventurous plot that keeps the readers engrossed until the last page. School Library Journal does mention that while Buddy is a fully developed character, some of the others are “exaggerations: the good ones (the librarian and Pullman car porter who help him on his journey and the band members who embrace him) are totally open and supportive, while the villainous foster family finds particularly imaginative ways to torture their charge”, but SLJ says this is an easily forgivable fault due to the charming nature of the book as a whole.

Readers annotation: Bud may be an orphan with no money to his name, but he doesn’t let that stop him on his adventure to find his father.

Summary: Bud’s mother died when he was six years old, and since that time he’s spent his life in orphanages and in and out of various foster homes. He’s sent to live with the Amos family and does not even last one night before he’s beaten up and thrown into a shed to sleep, so he decides to run away. Initially he decides to hop on a train going west with a friend, but he misses the train. He then decides to walk to a nearby town where the man he is convinced is his father lives. He believes this man is his father because of some flyers his mother had with his face on them, which he keeps with all of his treasured possessions in his suitcase. During his walk, an older man sees him and gives him a ride and shows him kindness, and then he meets the man he believes is his father and his bandmates. His “dad” is rough and suspicious, but his bandmates take a liking to Bud and let him stay. Eventually, it is revealed that Bud is actually the man’s grandson, and his mother was his beloved daughter who ran away. This discovery cements for Bud that this is the place he belongs.

Evaluation: Bud’s voice is extraordinary. His observations about the world around him feel authentic and reflect what a ten year old boy who is alone in the world might be thinking, complete with endearing naivety. For example, when Bud tries to walk from Flint to find his father, the reader is filled with anxiety when Lefty tries to explain why it isn’t safe for a young black boy to be out in that particular town at night, but Bud clearly does not understand the danger he is in and is instead concerned that Lefty may be a vampire out to suck his blood. These observations simultaneously amuse the reader and break her heart. Bud is a fully developed character who the reader sympathizes with and whose concerns and hopes transcend the time period the book is set in and resonate with young readers today. The characters that Bud meets on his journey, while they may not shine as brightly as Bud himself, are entertaining and good foils for Bud’s antics and adventures. The plot is well-paced and keeps the readers invested in the outcome of Bud’s journey, and the backdrop of the Great Depression adds texture and historical depth to Bud’s story. Although this book does address the issue of race and racism, that is not the primary message or theme of the book; rather, this book examines the life and dreams of a young orphaned boy and his determination to find a place in the world where he belongs. The book mentions the Pullman porters and their poor treatment and difficulty unionizing as well as the danger of being black and in the wrong town after dark, but these ideas play in the background rather than at the forefront, which contrasts sharply with other books of this genre that make race the defining purpose of the novel. Children of all races and ages will find much to love in this charming book, and the happy ending is sure to warm even the toughest reader’s heart.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 This may be the best historical novel of this time period for a young age group. It brilliantly uses the historical context to provide details and conflict for the story, but this detail does not overwhelm or bog down the narrative. Bud’s voice is authentic and unique and will appeal to a variety of readers.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Some readers may not want to check out this book because it seems, upon first glance, to be “historical”, which young readers often conflate with “boring”. If a reader does give this book a chance, he will not be disappointed. Bud’s humor will keep the reader laughing and his positive attitude, intelligence, and bravery will give the reader much to identify with.
  • Appeal factors: African-American protagonist, historical setting, funny narrator, happy ending.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who enjoyed learning about the impact of the Great Depression might enjoy Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. Esperanza is a Mexican girl whose family moves to California during the Depression, and like Bud, she has to adjust to difficult circumstances and injustice and use her intelligence and courage to make a better life for herself.
  2. Crow by Barbara Wright may be a good fit for readers who enjoyed reading about a young African American boy’s experience in historical America. This book is set in 1898 and follows Moses, a young black boy who struggles with quintessential childhood issues, such as growing apart from his best friend, as well as those unique to his time period, like dealing with racism in an era when older generations still remember being slaves.

Book talk ideas: The most endearing thing about this book is Bud’s voice, so let that do the talking. Explain that Bud is an orphan during the Great Depression and that he is on a quest to find his father and make a better life for himself. Say that he has a list of rules that he lives by, and list some of Bud’s rules. Ask the potential readers if they think these are good rules, and what rules they would add if they were making this list. Talk about how Bud deals with many difficult and scary situations, such as getting attacked by a swarm of hornets, having to sleep outside under a tree, and trying to jump on a moving train. 

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Although race isn’t at the forefront of this novel, name some instances in which the narrative reveals how people of different races are treated. What does this suggest about race and racism during the Depression?
  2. What do you think about all of Bud’s rules? Which one is your favorite? Which ones don’t you agree with?
  3. Did you like the ending? Why or why not? Pretend you had to write an epilogue to the book–what would happen to Bud and the other characters?

Reason for reading: This is another title that was recommended to me by a library co-worker and fellow MLIS student. She said that the book has a horrible cover but is actually wonderful, and that every time she recommends it to a kid they enjoy it. I had seen this book on a few lists of Newbery winners worth checking out, but the title and cover made the book seem boring, so I ignored it. After reading it, I looked online and saw that the paperback cover is significantly better, so hopefully more kids are drawn to read it now.

Additional relevant information: Christopher Paul Curtis released The Mighty Miss Malone in 2013. This book follows the life of Deza Malone, a girl that Bud met in a Hooverville in Flint.

Walter Dean Myers wrote an article in the New York Times about the lack of representation of people of color in children’s literature. It came out around the same time as I finished reading this novel, and I think the book and the article complement each other well, and that Curtis is an author who stands out for creating strong black protagonists and is one that librarians should recommend often and wholeheartedly.

Marshmallow by Clare Turlay Newberry

  • Title: Marshmallow
  • Author: Clare Turlay Newberry
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 1942
  • ISBN: 0060724862
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 32
  • Age Range: 4-8
  • Genre: fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book

Author information: Clare Turlay Newberry (1903-1970) wrote and illustrated several books, including four Caldecott honor books, for children during her lifetime. The HarperCollins website has a short biography of Newberry on its website. It mentions that most of Newberry’s subjects were taken from real life. In regards to Marshmallow, Newberry was quoted as saying, “”Every word of Marshmallow is true, even to the drawing of them wrapped in each other’s arms. I know people find this hard to believe, but the bunny was so little and was so convinced that Oliver was his mother, what could Oliver do but be his mother the best way he could?”

Reviews: Because of the age of this picture book, it was difficult to find contemporary reviews. Kirkus reviewed the book in 1942, but their review was only three sentences long, with the first two being a summary of the plot. Kirkus did call the artwork “enchanting”, but did not go into detail about the book otherwise. Goodreads has rated this book four stars out of five, based on 312 user votes. Many reviews of the book on Goodreads mention that this book was a childhood favorite and has stood the test of time.

Readers annotation: Oliver the cat likes being the only pet in the house, until his owner brings home Marshmallow the baby rabbit. Can Marshmallow win Oliver’s heart?

Summary: Oliver is a bachelor cat that has never spent time with other animals before, so when his owner, Miss Tilly, brings home a baby rabbit, Oliver doesn’t know what to do. At first he is scared and avoids Marshmallow, the bunny, who is very lonely and misses his mother. After a while, Oliver becomes more bold and acts as though he might pounce on Marshmallow, which leads Miss Tilly to lock them in separate rooms when she is out running errands. One of these times, Oliver manages to open the door to Marshmallow and Marshmallow gives him a kiss. This sparks a happy relationship between the two animals that involves cuddling, frolicking, and a lot of bathtimes. In the end, both Oliver and Marshmallow are happy that Miss Tilly brought Marshmallow home.

Evaluation: The narrative of this book is heartwarming and authentic, and feels like something that could happen in real life (and, indeed, Newberry took this subject from her own life). Newberry portrays the feelings of both animals in a way that makes the reader sympathize with them and makes them happy when they finally become friends. The softness of the charcoal drawings match the tone of the book and makes the reader feel as though they could reach into the book and feel the fur of these soft creatures. Because these drawings are minimal, in black and white, and somewhat smaller than the illustrations seen in modern picture books, younger readers may get antsy with little visual stimulation to carry them through the text heavy pages, but the story itself is so tender and charming that readers will be mesmerized.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 The artwork perfectly matches the pacing and tone of the story and the feel-good ending is hard to beat. The interactions between Oliver and Marshmallow are humorous while remaining tender, and readers will be enthralled by the story up until the final page. 
  • Popularity: 4/5 The smaller pictures may not appeal to readers who prefer bright colors and larger visual stimulation with their stories, but most readers will find much to love in this book. Oliver and Marshmallow are both endearing characters with their own voices and fears, and the conclusion will warm any reader’s heart. 
  • Appeal factors: rabbits, cats, charcoal illustrations, black and white illustrations.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who are looking for another classic picture book featuring adorable animals should read Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for DucklingsBoth books have stood the test of time and appeal to modern audiences due to their adorable portrayal of their animal protagonists as well as their classically drawn illustrations.
  2. Smudge by Clare Turlay Newberry is a great recommendation for readers who loved Newberry’s charcoal drawings as well as Oliver the cat. This book follows three baby kittens and their mischief-making when their owners leave the house, and this book will provide a similar dose of adorable for fans of Marshmallow.

Book talk ideas: Start by asking if any potential readers have cats or bunnies, and ask if anybody has both. If somebody does, ask how they get along. If nobody does, ask how they think a cat and a bunny would get along. Mention that this book is based on a true story, and that cats and bunnies can sometimes be good friends. Another strength of this book is its illustrations, so show a few pictures of Oliver and Marshmallow so that potential readers can get an idea of the cuteness factor of this book.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why is Oliver afraid of Marshmallow at the beginning of the book?
  2. Do you think Oliver is happier at the end of the book after meeting Marshmallow than he is at the beginning as a bachelor?
  3. Did you like the illustrations? In what way did they add to the tone of the book? Would you have liked different illustrations more

Reason for reading: This is another book that I have to admit I read mostly due to the cover. The title was too adorable to pass up, and I fell in love with the soft charcoal drawing of Marshmallow that was on the cover. This seems to be another classic book that I missed during my childhood, and I’m glad I used this opportunity to remedy the situation.

Additional relevant information: Clare Turlay Newberry is often jokingly referred to as the first “cat lady” because of her artwork. She is also credited with “instilling in children a compassion and sense of responsibility for animals” because so many of her books portray animals as having real, human emotions and needing love and protection just as humans do.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

  • Title: Eleanor and Park
  • Author: Rainbow Rowell
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 1250012570
  • List Price: $18.99
  • Page Count: 336
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: fiction
  • Award(s): Printz Honor book; more here.

Author information: Rainbow Rowell is the author of two other novels besides Eleanor and Park as well as a new forthcoming novel to be released in July 2014. Her website’s homepage includes new blog posts, her Twitter feed, and recent news. Her website also includes links to information about each of her books, her biography, a list of upcoming events, and praise for her works. In one of her blog posts, she addresses a frequent question she gets in regard to Eleanor’s weight, and discusses that Eleanor is “fat”, but that this doesn’t mean that Park can’t find her attractive. She says, “Park thinks Eleanor is beautiful. He loves her for who she is on the inside, and he loves her for who she is on the outside. He wants to kiss her. He wants to have sex with her. And it isn’t because he’s brave and deep — it’s because he’s attracted to her”.

Reviews: Booklist and Kirkus gave this title starred reviews and School Library Journal also gave it a favorable review. All of these sources applaud Rowell’s use of dual narrative and the multi-dimensional nature of the characters. John Green gave a glowing review of this book in the New York Times, saying that “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book”. He also talks about the strength of Eleanor and Park’s relationship in spite of the obstacles they face, and how Rowell presents an authentic look at young love.

Readers annotation: Eleanor and Park could not be more different, but that doesn’t stop them from falling in love. Can they stay together when it seems the world wants them apart?

Summary: Eleanor is the new kid at school who dresses funny and is overweight. Park is Korean-American whose father has lived in the town his entire life, but met his mother while serving in Korea and brought her back with him. They meet one day on the bus, when Park reluctantly lets Eleanor sit next to him. Gradually they become friends; Park lends her comic books to read and makes her mix tapes. They start to date, but their different social and economic circles proves challenging. Eleanor’s stepfather is an abusive alcoholic and Eleanor lives in constant fear of him in her unsafe home. Park is preoccupied with what people at school think and doesn’t understand why Eleanor gets mad at him or cuts him off for seemingly no reason. They persevere with their relationship and fall deeper in love, but things reach an intolerable point when Eleanor’s stepfather destroys her personal belongings and writes a foul message to her, causing her to realize that he’s been her invisible tormentor throughout the school year. She understands that she has to get out of her home and go somewhere safe, so Park, with the approval of his family, drives her to her uncle’s home. The distance between them proves painful and Eleanor cuts off contact with Park for a year, but the end of the novel ends on a hopeful note, with Park receiving his first postcard from Eleanor since she left.

Evaluation: One difficulty I had with reading this book is that I had read quite a bit about it before I read the book itself, which I think colored my approach to the book. With that being disclosed, I thought the book did a good job creating two characters who were flawed and had a lot of uncertainties and showing how these two characters developed a relationship in spite of (or because of) these imperfections. Rowell portrays Eleanor’s home situation in a stark and heartbreaking fashion, allowing the reader to understand what is going on with her on a personal level, making her bullying at school that much more tragic. The dual narrative perspectives allow the readers to get a glimpse inside both lovers’ heads and have a better understanding of what each character is feeling and why, and the prose of the novel is witty and sharp while also being brutally honest. The major fault I found in this novel was its portrayal of minority characters. I think Rowell does a good job addressing the racism that minorities in this town are subjected to as well as the complicated identity and self-esteem issues that Park has as a result of them, but many of her minority characters fall flat. The two black students who hang out with Eleanor seem like they are only there so Rowell can have black characters, and their potential is thrown away–the only dialogue we hear them speak is when they talk about boys or the stupid white bitches at the school. Park’s mom also toes the line between character and caricature due to her broken English, her job as a stylist, and the fact that her husband brought her from Korea. In spite of this, the book resonates as an honest story about young love and the terrible obstacles some teenagers have to face in their lives.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5 The writing is elegant, the main characters are believable and likable, and the situations the characters face are horrifying yet not outside of the realm of possibility of things a teenager might have to face. Some of the supporting characters feel underdeveloped, but the strength of the plot and the endearing nature of Park and Eleanor and their love story is enough to carry this novel.
  • Popularity: 4/5 This novel doesn’t feel like a traditional love story because of the heavy issues that Eleanor has to deal with at home, so it will appeal to readers of the romance genre as well as those who don’t typically read romance books. Both protagonists are smart and their voices are sympathetic and keep the reader engaged with what happens to them, and the story of Eleanor’s home life will appeal to more serious readers. This book may not find a wide audience in the male population, but male readers who are sensitive and open to reading different perspectives will find much to enjoy.
  • Appeal factors: witty protagonists, dual narration, romance, family issues and abuse.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Again, I would recommend John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars for readers who enjoyed Eleanor and Park’s witty voices and unconventional love story. Both romantic pairs have to deal with falling and staying in love when life throws terrible obstacles in their paths. For Eleanor and Park, this is familial abuse. For Hazel and Augustus, this obstacle is cancer.
  2. For readers who want another title that deals with difficult home situations, alcohol abuse, and questions of self-esteem and identity, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Both books feature dark humor, and Alexie’s protagonist, Arnold Spirit, deals with the similar feelings of helplessness and self-loathing that Eleanor experiences.

Book talk ideas: This book is rife with good quotes, so start with a piece of dialogue to pique readers’ interest, possibly the conversation about high school love lasting that mentions Romeo and Juliet and Bon Jovi. Talk about how different these characters are but how they fall in love with each other anyway, and talk about the struggles Eleanor faces both at school with bullies and at home with her stepfather. 

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What role does Eleanor’s mother play in her life? Why doesn’t she try to protect her children?
  2. Was the love story between Eleanor and Park believable? Why or why not?
  3. How did you feel about the portrayal of Park’s mother? Did you think she was a strong character or did she fall flat?
  4. Park has a difficult relationship with his dad. Why do you think this is?
  5. What role does music play in this novel? Did setting it in the 1980s and using 1980s music enhance the book? If so, how?
  6. Were you satisfied with the ending? What did you think the postcard said? What do you think happens next?

Reason for reading: I’m actually using this book in a teen book club at the library this summer, so reading it served a dual purpose both for this class and for my work. I chose this book for the book club because of its popularity; I felt that this selection may encourage teens to read it because they had heard so much about it from friends, and those who have already read it may attend so they can talk about how they felt. I am worried that we won’t have a large number of males attend due to the nature of the book, but I do think that our teen base includes some thoughtful young men who would be willing to step out of their comfort zone and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that.

Additional relevant information: When researching books to choose for my teen book club this summer, I read quite a few reviews about the portrayal of race in the novel. Bloggers at Respiring Thoughts and Clear Eyes, Full Shelves gave thoughtful commentary on this subject, focusing both on the casual racism of Eleanor and other white characters as well as the deeper problems associated with the portrayal of Park and his family. I had read these reviews prior to reading the novel and they definitely impacted how I read the book and my opinions of it, and I think they raise some valid points about how flawed the examination of race is in this book.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

  • Title: Princess Academy
  • Author: Shannon Hale
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Year Published: 2005
  • ISBN: 0756981808
  • List Price: $17.60
  • Page Count: 314
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: fantasy
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor book; ALA Notable Children’s Book; full list here.

Author information: Shannon Hale has written many books for young readers, most of them with female protagonists at the forefront. Her website includes her biography, contact information, writing history, and book recommendations as well as a links to information about all of her books. Her site also includes links to her blog, upcoming appearances, and tips about writing and links to games and stories that her fans may enjoy. Hale also has a blog post in which she discusses how many in the YA field are sick of certain tropes (love triangles, absent parents, complaining protagonists), but that these are used for a reason: they resonate with and represent a teenager population in a way that is true.

Reviews: School Library Journal and Kirkus both gave this title starred reviews, and Booklist also gave it a positive review, all of which can be found here. SLJ says, “each girl’s story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, but this is not a fluffy, predictable fairy tale, even though it has wonderful moments of humor”, and both other reviews also highlight the spunk and intelligence of the female characters and how those qualities help this book stray away from the traditional fairy tale genre.

Readers annotation: Miri has the chance to be a princess. But the question is: is that what she really wants?

Summary: Miri has always felt out of place in her village. While everybody else spends their days working in the quarry to produce enough linder to trade for supplies, she believes she is too small and weak to contribute, and she is deeply ashamed of this fact. Her life changes when dignitaries come to her rural mountain village with news that all young girls must participate in a Princess Academy and the kingdom’s prince will choose his bride from among the graduates from the Academy. Miri does not like the way the girls are treated at the Academy and protests, getting herself and others into trouble, but she does become a top student and learns a lot that can help her village and gets her selected Academy Princess. When she finally meets the Prince, she isn’t impressed, and he leaves the Academy without choosing a bride, which means that all of the girls have to stay at the Academy for another season. During this time, bandits attack their school and Miri once again shows her courage and quick thinking by saving everyone, using the villagers’ ability to “quarry speak” to alert the village to the girls’ plight. Eventually it is revealed that one of the girls grew up with the Prince and is in love with him, and when he returns to find her among the Academy girls he happily chooses her as his bride. Miri finds contentment in remaining in her village and teaching others all she has learned, and is happy at the prospect of a romance with her childhood best friend.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. The title, Princess Academy, gives the reader a preconceived idea about what this book will be about, and for me, the title immediately turned me off to the book. Once I began reading, however, I found much to applaud. Miri is a complicated protagonist who struggles with feelings of inadequacy and a desire to fit in, but she also displays strong positive traits, such as courage, loyalty, intelligence, and self-sacrifice. She struggles with the question of whether she actually wants to be a princess and what that would mean, and ultimately she decides that she would rather improve her community and stay with her friends and family than move away for the glamour and glory of being royalty. Many of the other female characters are portrayed with similar complexity; Katar, an older girl, makes it clear that her desire to be princess has nothing to do with wanting to marry a prince, but rather is because she wants to travel and see the world. Portraying girls at a Princess Academy who have more ambition than just getting married to a prince is gratifying and one of the highlights of the book. However, much emphasis is placed on the romantic aspect of the book and prevents the characters from reaching a fully developed point. Even though Miri does not want to be a princess and marry the prince, she still has a love interest and it’s clear that Peder is one of her major reasons for choosing to stay in the village. Similarly, Britta, the girl who grew up with the prince, turns into a shaky, sick mess when he comes to visit and can’t even force herself to get out of bed. We discover that her backstory is that she was sent to the mountain specifically to participate in the Princess Academy and be married off, and even though it’s clear she’s a pawn in her father’s power games, she’s more than content to go along with it so that she can marry her prince. Also, the entire idea of a Princess Academy, from which a prince gets to select his bride from any one of two dozen willing girls, may rub some readers the wrong way, especially since the Academy ends up working exactly as intended and the prince does choose his bride this way. Overall, this novel does a good job of portraying strong female characters within the confines of a male dominated society in which they have no true agency, but Hale had the opportunity to do more to make this novel more empowering for girls and show that falling in love and getting married isn’t the only path a girl can take. This book was fun and stronger than I expected, but could have done more with its premise.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5 This book is entertaining and has some complex female characters, but while it bends the expectations of the traditional princess genre, it never breaks them. The pacing of the novel and the obstacles and perils Miri and her friends face keep the reader engaged until the final page.
  • Popularity3/5  The title is the major deterrent of this book. Very few boys will even consider reading something with “princess” in the title, and some girls may balk at the prospect as well. Those who do read it will identify with Miri’s insecurities and will root for her success, and they will enjoy reading about her relationships with the other characters as well as her courage dealing with difficult situations.
  • Appeal factors: princesses, strong female protagonists, magical elements, romance.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is a natural recommendation for readers who enjoyed a princess story with a little more substance and a stronger than usual female character. Like Miri, Ella takes control of her own fate and displays traits of ambition, intelligence, and courage.

Book talk ideas: I think the best way to book talk this book is to focus on how it differs from traditional princess stories. Ask the potential readers: what if you were forced against your will to train to be a princess, even if you weren’t sure you even wanted to marry a prince? What if you were locked in a closet with rats if you disobeyed, and soldiers guarded the gates so you couldn’t return home and see your families? This is what Miri faces when she’s told a prince will be coming to her rural mountain village to select his bride from the eligible girls of the town. Miri must use her quick thinking and courage to protect herself and her friends from the obstacles they face at the Princess Academy, and she has to decide what it is that she really wants.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Miri says the most precious thing she owns is the week after she was born when her mother held her. Why do you think this is?
  2. All of the girls at the Academy have their own reasons for wanting to marry the prince. What are some of these reasons? What are some other ways they can achieve these goals?
  3. What do you think happens after the novel ends? Choose a character and write another chapter about what this character does once the book is over.

Reason for reading: This book was recommended to me by one of my co-workers, who is also getting her MLIS and has taken a class in which she had to read quite a few Newbery books. She said that this book was one of her most surprising reads because, due to the title, she didn’t expect to get much out of it or enjoy it very much. Based on her suggestion, I decided to check it out. When I was leaving the library with the book, another librarian saw I was carrying it and mentioned that she had read it and was surprised at how much she liked it. I had seen this book on lists of award winners but never even considered reading a summary of it because of the title, and it seems that I’m not alone in being put off by it, but I do agree that the book itself is much better than the title would imply.

Additional relevant information: This book would be an ideal candidate for a Blind Date with a Book/Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover display. The cover (and, thankfully, the title) could be covered with a brown paper bag that has words and phrases about the book written on it. I think that someone would be more likely to pick up a paper bagged book that said things like “bandit attacks”, “there’s magic in the rocks”, and “spunky protagonist” than a book called Princess Academy, but then again, it’s impossible to deny that some girls just really love reading about princesses.

Golem by David Wisniewski

  • Title: Golem
  • Author: David Wisniewski
  • Publisher: Clarion Books
  • Year Published: 1996
  • ISBN: 0618894241
  • List Price: $15.95
  • Page Count: 32
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: mystery
  • Award(s): Caldecott Award Winner

Author information: David Wisniewski (1953-2002) wrote and illustrated many children’s books using his cut-paper method. When he was young, his mother taught him how to draw, which instilled in him a lifelong love of art. When he was older, he joined the circus as a clown and met his wife when she hired him to perform in a puppet theater. Once he and his wife had children, traveling with the puppet show became impossible and he turned his artistic talents to writing and illustrating children’s books. More information can be found at the HarperCollins website.

Reviews: Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly all gave this title favorable reviews, most often citing the beauty of the illustrations and their ability to set a stark and dramatic effect of the cut-paper artwork. Publisher’s Weekly likens this effect to an eerie puppet show. Kirkus mentions the added layer of depth that Wisniewski gives to his Golem that is reminiscent of Shelley’s treatment of her monster. Although SLJ spoke positively of this book, it compared it to another Caldecott book on the same subject, saying, “while the plot is stronger [. . .] Wisniewski’s text lacks the power and child appeal of McDermott’s spare, well-crafted tale”. 

Readers annotation: When the Jewish people are threatened with violence, the only thing that can stop them is the terrible Golem.

Summary: The story of the Golem takes place in Prague in 1580. Jews were being persecuted, being accused of using the blood of Christian children to bake their bread, and these lies were inciting violence against them. Rabbi Loew had a dream telling him how to create the Golem and how it could protect his people. The Golem finds himself enchanted with life and the world around him, but his only purpose is to fight the enemies of the Jews. A mob tries to attack the Jewish ghetto and the Golem destroys it, striking fear into the hearts of the emperor, who promises safety for the Jews if the monster is destroyed. Rabbi Loew is satisfied that his people will be protected, so he returns the Golem to clay, but the Golem could be reawakened if the Jewish people are threatened again.

Evaluation: There were two great strengths of the novel: the rich, captivating cut-paper illustrations and the tender humanization of the Golem. The use of cut-paper adds drama to the artwork and allows for interplay between dark and light, which echoes the tone of the story. The detail on each page will grab the reader’s attention and make him linger on each page in order to absorb the supernatural quality of each illustration. Wisniewski portrays the Golem in a much more sympathetic light than other retellings do, focusing on its feelings as it experiences the world for the first time. The childlike sense of wonder that the Golem has juxtaposes with its violent purpose and destruction, causing the reader to see it as more than just a murderous, unfeeling machine. The reader cannot help feeling sympathetic when the Golem does not want to be destroyed, and wonders what may have happened if the Golem hadn’t been created solely as a tool of protection and destruction. The author’s note at the end of the story puts this folktale in context by explaining the Jewish ghettos of Prague and what was happening at the time, which makes this story resonate more than it would without this background information.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 The artwork is gorgeous and the Golem is presented in a way that is fresh and will linger in the readers’ minds much more than the traditional depiction of this creature would. Overall, this title does a beautiful job making this cultural folktale accessible and for a younger audience and giving them a character to sympathize with.
  • Popularity3/5  Unlike Greek mythology or Native American folktales, there is not a huge audience for Jewish folklore. Additionally, because of its dark subject matter and tone, some readers may find this title to be too scary or depressing for them to enjoy. Mature readers who like learning about other cultures and their tales and who don’t mind a darker read will fall in love with this book.
  • Appeal factors: Jewish folklore, folklore, cut-paper illustrations.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Mature readers who want to learn more about Jewish persecution may want to read Meg Wiviott’s Benno and the Night of Broken Glass. This picture book follows a neighborhood cat who starts to see changes in its town before Kristallnacht, and, with thoughtfulness and an informative afterword, it offers a good introduction to the Holocaust for young readers.
  2. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel may be a good fit for readers who want to learn more Jewish folklore. This story depcits Hershel outwitting some hobgoblins who are bent on destroying Hanukkah, and offers a great example of the type of tales that is often found in Jewish lore.

Book talk ideas: The artwork in this book is captivating and would be a great place to start with a book talk. Show the audience a few of the incredible illustrations, and then, as a way to make it interactive, kids could create their own cut-paper illustrations. As they do this, explain the plot of the book, highlighting the folklore aspects, the persecution of the Jews and the Golem’s role in protecting them, and the human traits that Wisniewski gives to his Golem.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What kind of protection does the Golem offer the Jewish people? Why did they need this protection?
  2. How do the cut-paper illustrations enhance the story?
  3. Do you think it’s fair that the Golem was destroyed once its purpose had been served? Did you feel bad for it?

Reason for reading: I love folklore, and I was a religious studies minor in college, so when I saw this retelling of the story of the Golem, I had to read it. I think the myth of the Golem is incredibly interesting, because it stems from a religious culture that has been so abused and oppressed throughout history, and I was curious to see how this would translate for a young audience. I also read The Golem: A Jewish Legend by Beverly Brodsky McDermott, which received a Caldecott Honor, but I felt that this title was more accessible and the artwork was more captivating, so I decided to select Wisniewski’s version for inclusion in my database.

Additional relevant information: Kay E. Vandergrift wrote an article for Rutgers about Golem that provides amazing insight into the book as well as resources for those who may want to use it in a classroom setting. It includes background information on the Golem myth, information on Wisniewski’s other works, discussion questions, correspondence between fans and the author, and information on shadow puppets and paper cutting. This could be a very valuable resource for a program about cut-paper illustrating, puppetry, or folklore.