Monday, August 3, 2009

Reaching for Sun

A. Bibliography
Zimmer, Tracie Vaughn. 2007. Reaching for Sun. New York: Bloomsburg U.S.A. Children's Books. ISBN 1599900378.

B. Plot Summary
Reaching for Sun tells the story of seventh grader Josie who has cerebral palsy. Written in first person free-verse poems, Josie gives the reader a year-long glimpse into her life as a 12-year-old with a disability and how difficult life can be with students at school who ignore her, a demanding mother, a do-it-all grandmother, and finally a true, close friend who doesn't see Josie's disabilities at all.

C. Critical Analysis
Reaching for Sun chose to not dwell on Josie's disabilities. How her cerebral palsy affects her physically is mentioned very little "with my odd walk and slow speech..." "the new occupational therapist" "But my thumb will always be pasted to my palm, and my left wrist and shoulder connected by an invisible rubber band called cerebral palsy".
Once the physical limitations are mentioned, Reaching for Sun focuses on Josie's feelings letting the reader know how it feels to be ridiculed or ignored by other "perfect" students as they do on Christmas Eve, "Kids from school who usually pretend I'm invisible wish me Merry Christmas and say hello in front of their parents".
A hint to the emotional family angst a disability can cause was mentioned to explain why the near 1,000 acres of her grandmother's farm had been reduced to 5 acres: " medical bills stacked up on the dining room table, Gran resigned herself to sell it to her friend..." Gran herself makes only one comment to the loss of the acreage, "My momma would understand what I had to do, but I'll have to answer to Daddy one day."
True friendship finally comes to Josie with a boy named Jordan, who, in his own way, has handicaps of his own with a mother who died when he was young and a father who copes with her death by being a workaholic. However, Josie says "...I've learned this fact for myself: Days spin faster than a whirligig in a spring storm by the side of my new friend."
Reaching for Sun will provide for much discussion on how students with disabilities feel and how student who are not in special ed classes should treat them. The novel would lend itself well to a class read aloud with students responding with journaling to each daily read.

D. Review Excerpts
School Library Journal—Josie, a girl with cerebral palsy, lives on the shrinking farmland owned by her family for generations and now being sold to developers. Her mother works and attends college and her grandmother tends her diminished patch of land. The story is told in the seventh-grader's voice in a series of free-verse poems. She is a bright and wry narrator, acutely aware of her limitations and her strengths. When Jordan, wealthy but neglected by his widowed father, moves into a mansion behind her farmhouse, they discover a common love of nature and science, and Josie finally has a real friend. She and her grandmother are both passionate about plants and gardening, and Zimmer does a nice job integrating botanical images throughout the novel. Josie feels like a "dandelion in a purple petunia patch" and thinks, "I must be a real disappointment—/stunted foliage,/no yield." Through growing maturity and Granny's wisdom, she gains confidence in herself. Reaching for Sun will have wide appeal for readers of diverse ability. Reluctant readers will be attracted to the seeming simplicity of the text, with short chapters and lots of white space on the page. They may not even realize that they are reading poetry. More sophisticated readers will find added enjoyment as they begin to appreciate the poetic structure and imagery. Readers of all levels will enjoy spending time with Josie and may gain an increased awareness of what it's like to live with a disability.

Booklist As if seventh grade weren't enough of a challenge for anyone, Josie also struggles with cerebral palsy, social isolation, a mom she needs more time and support from, and monster bulldozers that are carving up the countryside to build huge homes around her family's old farmhouse. Enter new neighbor Jordan, a sensitive kid whose geeky, science-loving ways bring a fun spirit of discovery into Josie's days. He melds with her and her family, especially the warm and wise Gram, and the friends create a kind of magic as they conduct all kinds of plant and pond experiments. Further challenges face Josie when Gram becomes ill and Jordan goes off to camp. Then, risking her mom's wrath, Josie secretly ditches her hated therapy sessions; when mother and daughter eventually reconcile, Josie emerges from her rough patch in a believable and transforming way. Written in verse, this quick-reading, appealing story will capture readers' hearts with its winsome heroine and affecting situations.

E. Connections
Encourage students to conduct research into disabilities like cerebral palsy.
Research the American Disability Act.
Invite the school's special ed teacher to come to the classroom to describe teaching students with disabilities and how to accommodate for them.

RaInbow Road

A. Bibliography
Sanchez, Alex. 2005. Rainbow Road. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0689865651.

B. Plot Summary
Rainbow Road is the sharing of a cross-country trip three friends make after high school graduation. With each chapter focusing on the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of each boy, readers are allowed inside each character to understand his feelings on being gay in today's society.

C. Critical Analysis
Rainbow Road reads well and easily, but is definitely for the older teen as it has many scenes of sexual activity or characters thinking about sex.
The novel is exemplary in that it focuses on three very different young men, all of whom are gay, and the myriad of emotions involved in being gay in today's world. Flashbacks of how family members accepted the boys' "coming out" are woven into the story, along with experiences with other gay communities and bisexuals or those who call themselves "heteroflexible".
The boys' memories of how life was like when they were young comes out when, at one camp ground, they meet a little boy, age seven, who exhibits the same characteristics as the bigger boys, along with the same overbearing, abusive, narrow-minded father.
Mixed in to the story of examining emotions, feelings, and relationships are all the ups and downs of a 2,700 mile road trip, packed into a small car, characters getting on one another's nerves, ergo- a typical "family" road trip. A vacation of disasters many teens will be able to relate to.
Rainbow Road allows teens who are gay or lesbian to have a book they can relate to, that is written for them, and about them, that lets them know they are not alone on their life's journey.

D. Review Excerpts
School Library Journal–The final installment of this trilogy is a true winner. Even though coming out publicly resulted in Virginia high school basketball star Jason Carrillo's losing his college athletic scholarship, it turned him into an important role model for gay and lesbian teens. And so, when a new GLBT high school in Los Angeles is searching for a keynote speaker for its opening ceremony, it is not surprising that Jason is given an all-expenses-paid invitation. His boyfriend, Kyle, definitely wants to be there, too. And Kyle's best friend–pink-haired, boy-hungry Nelson–has a car and thinks that this would be the perfect opportunity for a post-senior-year road trip. Virginia to L.A. by car: 3000 miles and plenty of time to gain an understanding of what being gay in America is all about. These boys are distinct personalities and genuine teens, searching for clarity and identity and acceptance, trying to make sense of themselves and a world that can be equally bright and dark. Sanchez writes with humor and compassion. Some mature romance scenes, occasional frank language, and an inclusion of transgender/transsexual/bisexual story lines translate into a tender book that will likely be appreciated and embraced by young adult readers.

E. Connections
Encourage students to read other books in the Rainbow series, Rainbow Boys and Rainbow High.
If allowed, offer students access to LGBT websites mentioned at the end of Rainbow Road in the appendix.

Ask Me No Questions

A. Bibliography
Budhos, Marina. 2006. Ask Me No Questions. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN 1416903518.

B. Plot Summary
Nadira and her family are illegal aliens from Bangladesh living on expired tourist visas in New York City. After the horrific events of September 11, being Muslim changes everything. The family tries to leave the US for Canada only to be turned away at the border. When Nadira's father is arrested and detained at the border, Nadira and her sister Aisha are sent back to Queens to try to carry on life as usual- but noting in their lives will ever be the same again.

C. Critical Analysis
Ask Me No Questions is set in modern New York City where the family lives in modern apartments with modern amenities. Nadira and her sister attend school and wear blue jeans, tennis shoes, and carry backpacks, like every other American school kid.
Culture markers occur in the novel through food like tea, fish, lamb, and rice, prepared especially for Nadira's father when he is allowed to go free after being detained.
Clothing is mentioned, especially the shalwar kameezs and saris and dupattas of the older women. Personal customs like bathing twice a day and using hair oil are spoken of.
Cultural names are used, 'Abba' for father and the girls use the term 'Ma' for their mother. The names of the uncles are used before the term 'uncle', ie, Ali-Uncle or Naseem-Uncle.
Religion is briefly noted but is not a major part of the story's plot. the Koran and Ramadan and praying at the mosque are not a major part of Nadira's family now that they live in the US. Nadira mentions, "Abba and Ma, they do some of the holidays, like they fast for Ramadan, but it's been a long time since I've seen Abba pull out the prayer rug from the closet."
The main reason for the cultural markers mentioned in the story is to explain why the story exists: that a family like Nadira's would be looked at suspiciously in the days immediately following 9/11.
A class of students whose family are not immigrants would benefit from hearing or reading a story that describes an immigrant family's desire to remain and fit in the US.

D. Review Excerpts
School Library Journal -As part of a U.S. government crackdown on illegal immigration after 9/11, Muslim men were required to register with the government and many were arrested because their visas had long-since expired. Families who had lived and worked in this country were suddenly and forcibly reminded of their illegal status without any likelihood of changing it. For 18-year-old Aisha Hossain, this means the end of her dream of going to college to become a doctor. For 14-year-old Nadira, her younger sister and the story's narrator, it means coming out from behind the shadow of her perfect older sister to reveal her own strength and find a way to reunite her nearly shattered family. Immigrants from Bangladesh, the Hossains have lived illegally in New York for years, their visa requests handled by a series of dishonest or incompetent lawyers and mired in the tortuous process of bureaucratic red tape. Following their father's arrest and detention, the teens put together the documentation and make a case that requires the judges to see them as individuals rather than terror suspects. The author explains their situation well, but the effect is more informational than fiction. Nadira and Aisha are clearly drawn characters, but they don't quite come alive, and their Bangladeshi-American background is more a backdrop than a way of life. Still, this is an important facet of the American immigrant experience, worthy of wider attention.

E. Connections
Encourage students to research the Patriot Act. Discuss why the Act was put into place and the effect it has had on Americans of Middle Eastern descent. How is this Act both good and bad?

Monday, July 27, 2009


A. Bibliography
Namioka, Lensey. 2006. Mismatch. New York: Delacorte Press. ISBN 0385731833.

B. Plot Summary
Family and national history play a vital role when two Asian-American teenagers, one Japanese-American, the other Chinese-American meet and begin dating.

C. Critical Analysis
Mismatch is definitely a modern teens' novel, set in modern times, complete with today's teen thought patterns: "He had a slim build but wide shoulders, and he moved in a relaxed, sexy way."
While the teens in the novel are securely modern American teens, the parents of the two main characters represent customs from the original homeland. Sue mentions that her grandmother, "...would have been insulted if an elaborate meal had not been prepared for her."
Mismatch's cultural markers are found in the description of the characters' physical characteristics, and are especially noted when the orchestra Sue and Andy belong to make a trip to Tokyo. Descriptions of Japan, the food, traditional clothing, and family home life are given. Forms of address are used, and especially noticeable are the polite exchanges between Andy and his host family in Tokyo, when Andy says, "It's very kind of you to drive me...Thank you very much for going to so much trouble."
Mismatch brings out a young person's argument about why one cannot date whomever they wish due to their family's nationality and history. Modern American teens will be able to relate to the family discussions in the novel about which cultural groups are acceptable to the elders in the families in the story.

D. Review Excerpts
School Library Journal When her Chinese-American parents move to an affluent suburb of Seattle, 15-year-old Sue Hua, a viola player, joins the school orchestra in hopes of finding a niche among her mostly white classmates. Although Sue wants them to consider her an American, she is frustrated that many think all Asians are members of a single ethnic group, without distinct cultural differences. She is attracted to Andy Suzuki, a talented violinist with disarming friendliness and concern, but she is wary of his Japanese ancestry. Her grandmother survived the Japanese invasion of China during World War II and has frightening memories of her abusive oppressors. Conversely, Andy's father dislikes the Chinese because he was treated disrespectfully on a business trip to Beijing. When the orchestra makes a trip to Tokyo, the teens must adjust to their host families and confront issues of heritage, bigotry, and stereotypes. These are mature, sensitive teenagers whose mutual attraction fortifies them to question and move beyond the historical prejudice of their families. And yet, they respect their separate backgrounds and want their parents approval. Although occasionally didactic, this story tackles issues of assimilation into American society, preserving and respecting different cultures, and accepting the past. The theme of cultural vs. personal identity drives the plot, provides the conflict, and defines the characters. Sue and Andy experience believable adolescent bouts of insecurity, anticipation, jealousy, and affection as their mutual understanding grows. A story that is current, relevant, and upbeat.
Booklist When Suzanne Hua, a Chinese American, and Andy Suzuki, a Japanese American, meet in their high-school orchestra, their white classmates see them as a good match (Aren't all Asians the same?). But at home, things are different: Suzanne's beloved grandmother can't forget the brutality of the Japanese who invaded China, and Andy's father is prejudiced about the "dirty, backward" Chinese. Still, the personal conflicts bring the diversity issues close. Andy's dad hopes his son will find his roots when he visits Japan; instead, Andy discovers he's more American than he realized. Then comes the question, Does Andy want to shake off his cultural heritage? It's a question Suzanne must face as well.

E. Connections
If older students wish to, allow them to share stories of how they coped with family discrimination against someone they liked.
Encourage students to read more novels of this theme: mixed-culture dating.

The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

A. Bibliography
Yep, Laurence. 2006. The Earth Dragon Awakes: The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 0060275243.

B. Plot Summary
On Wednesday, April 18, 1906, a catastrophic earthquake hit San Francisco. Two boys, one a prominent banker's son and one the son of the Chinese house boy, discover real life heroes who emerge from the rubble of the quake.

C. Critical Analysis
The Earth Dragon Awakes is not a picture book, but photos of the aftermath of the quake are included at the end of the book along with an afterword by the author discussing more history of San Francisco's recovery. Additional books are also suggested with two websites for readers to explore.
Since the novel is about a major historical disaster, cultural markers are revealed through characters' behaviors and conversations. Ah Sing is a grown man, but is employed as a "house boy" who cleans cooks, and helps around the house for the Travis's family, a prominent family in the community. Attitudes of Americans in early 1900s San Francisco are revealed when Chin, Ah Sing's son reflects that "The Americans make is difficult for Chinese man to bring his family to America." Chin remembered how when he immigrated to America, the "...immigration officials spent a week asking him questions. If he had made a mistake, they would have assumed he was lying. They would have sent him back to China."
Other cultural markers are the description of Chinatown in San Francisco where Ah Sing and Chin live. Chin says he and his father could live with the Travis family, but Chin said they live in Chinatown because his father "...doesn't want Chin to forget he's Chinese."
Skin color, facial features, and language are not brought out in the novel; it is more the lifestyle of the Chinese and the American attitudes of the time that are mentioned, though Chin and Henry, The Travis's son, are good friends.
One final slap of discrimination towards the Chinese is the refusal to allow the Chinese quake survivors to stay in Golden Gate Park with the American survivors.
The Earth Dragon Awakes will be an exciting novel for reluctant readers to explore. Chapters are short but maintain interest. The novel lends itself well to encouraging further research of earthquakes or other natural disasters.

D. Review Excerpts
School Library Journal Yep looks at the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 from two points of view. Chin is a young Chinese immigrant whose father is a houseboy for a prominent banker and his family. He has become friendly with young Henry Travis, the banker's son, through their interest in low-brow but exciting penny dreadfuls. The stories depict heroic people doing heroic things and, while both boys appreciate their fathers, they certainly do not regard them as heroes. Not, that is, until the Earth Dragon roars into consciousness one spring morning, tearing the city asunder and making heroes out of otherwise ordinary men. Yep's research is exhaustive. He covers all the most significant repercussions of the event, its aftershocks, and days of devastating fires, and peppers the story with interesting true-to-life anecdotes. The format is a little tedious one chapter visits Henry's affluent neighborhood, the next ventures to Chin's home in Chinatown, and back again and the ordinary heroes theme is presented a bit heavy-handedly. Throughout the text, the boys compare their fathers to Wyatt Earp. But the story as a whole should appeal to reluctant readers. Its natural disaster subject is both timely and topical, and Yep weaves snippets of information on plate tectonics and more very neatly around his prose.
Booklist On the evening of April 17, 1906, neither eight-year-old Henry nor his friend Chin is aware that the earth beneath their San Francisco homes is shifting. Devotees of "penny dreadfuls," both boys long for excitement, not their fathers' ordinary routine lives. When the earthquake shakes the city and a firestorm breaks out, Henry and his parents scramble in the chaos and battle the fire, but must ultimately evacuate their home. Chin and his father survive the collapse of their Chinatown tenement, and flee to the ferry through the debris and turmoil. In the midst of catastrophe, the boys realize that their fathers are real-life heroes. Henry and Chin's stories are told in alternating chapters with a few interruptions for the insertion of earthquake information. Told in the present tense, the narration provides a "you are there" sense of immediacy and will appeal to readers who enjoy action-packed survival stories.

E. Connections
Match this fiction novel with non-fiction books on earthquakes. Compare this earthquake to the one that hit nearby San Francisco in 1989.

Grandfather's Journey

A. Bibliography
Say, Allen. 1993. Grandfather's Journey. Ill. by Allen Say. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. ISBN 0395570352.

B. Plot Summary
A Japanese-American man tell the story of his grandfather's journey to America at the start of the 20th century, and how he returns to Japan only to dream of someday returning to the second land he loves: America.

C. Critical Analysis
Much of Grandfather's Journey takes place in early 1900s America, illustrating that time period's style of living. The Japanese characters are given authentic representation in the illustrations through the hair styles, facial features, and skin tones. What could possibly be construed as a stereotype is shown by none of the Japanese characters ever smiling, except one picture of the grandfather smiling as he plays with his grandson. When the Grandfather returns to Japan, Japanese culture is illustrated through clothes, building architecture, and the environment, but names are never mentioned, nor is an direct Japanese language.
The overall impression is one of a quiet narrative in the oral tradition. One feels as if one is sitting by the fire while another individual is quietly retelling a story heard long ago from the beloved grandfather.
Grandfather's Journey would be appropriate to read to a class on a dark, rainy day, allowing time for reflection by either writing in a journal or drawing a picture.

D. Review Excerpts Home becomes elusive in this story about immigration and acculturation, pieced together through old pictures and salvaged family tales. Both the narrator and his grandfather long to return to Japan, but when they do, they feel anonymous and confused: "The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other." Allen Say's prose is succinct and controlled, to the effect of surprise when monumental events are scaled down to a few words: "The young woman fell in love, married, and sometime later I was born." The book also has large, formal paintings in delicate, faded colors that portray a cherished and well-preserved family album.

E. Connections
Encourage students to ask older relatives for stories of how their family came to America, and if able, bring a photo of the relative to show when sharing the story.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Rain Is Not My Indian Name

A. Bibliography

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. Rain Is Not My Indian Name. NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

ISBN 0688173977.

B. Plot Summary

Losing your best friend to a fatal accident is bad at any age, but when combined with the angst of becoming a teen, the emotional turmoil is enough to cause one to hide from the world for at least six months, and that is just what Cassidy Rain Berghoff did. But after six months of near seclusion, Rain has to decide how involved she will be when a politically correct controversy in her town regarding "Indian Camp" run by her own aunt clashes with her desire to remain neutral despite her own American-Indian heritage.

C. Critical Analysis
While Rain Is Not My Indian Name was written by an author who is a "mixed-blood" member of the Muskogee Nation, the novel does not provide many "traditional" Native American elements. The setting of the story is in the fictitious town of Hannesburg, Kansas in today's modern times, complete with laptop computers, fast food, and lemon-fresh furniture polish.
However, what is noticeably brought out are the conversations between Rain and the college student with whom she works on the newspaper assignment covering the Indian Camp. The conversation includes The Flash's asking Rain why the kids at Indian Camp were building bridges. He thought the bridge must have been some kind of tradition or symbol of Indian beliefs or culture.
Rain had a hard time explaining that the bridges had nothing to do with Indians, that it was just a team work assignment given by the sponsor, her aunt.
Parallelisms were shown when The Flash confessed that he was Jewish and Rain begins to respond with, "But you don't seem..." then realized that she was about to slip into the same attitude that she herself had been subjected to by people telling her that she "didn't seem" like a Native American.
Cultural names are not used unless a Native American group name was mentioned, and no other cultural markers were used save the discussion on what it was like to be American-Indian or Jewish in Hannesburg, Kansas.
Rain Is Not My Indian Name is not so much a novel about being Native American in modern middle America as it is a novel about rediscovering oneself in the midst of all life throws at you. Many tees will be able to understand Rain's need to redefine herself after the untimely death of her best friend.

D. Review Excerpts
Publishers Weekly Multiple plot lines and nonlinear storytelling may make it difficult to enter Smith's (Jingle Dancer) complex novel, but the warmth and texture of the writing eventually serve as ample reward for readers. The sensitive yet witty narrator, 14-year-old Cassidy Rain Berghoff, grows up in a small Kansas town as one of the few people with some Native American heritage. That experience alone might challenge Rain, but Smith creates a welter of conflicts. Rain's mother is dead (she was struck by lightning), and as the novel opens, her best friend is killed in a car accident just after he and Rain realize their friendship has grown into romance. Six months later, her older brother urges her to go to her great-aunt's Indian Camp. At first she shrugs it off, but later volunteers to photograph the camp for the town paper and begins to share her Aunt Georgia's commitment to it. When public funding for the camp becomes a contested issue in the city council, Rain decides to enroll. Some of Smith's devices such as opening each chapter with a snippet from Rain's journal add depth and clarify Rain's relationships for readers, although other elements (the detailing of song lyrics playing in the background, for instance) seem stilted. Even so, readers will feel the affection of Rain's loose-knit family and admire the way that they, like the author with the audience, allow Rain to draw her own conclusions about who she is and what her heritage means to her.
School Library Journal Rain and Galen have been friends forever, but for Rain's 14th birthday, the thrill of finding that her burgeoning romantic feelings are being reciprocated puts the evening into a special-memory category. The next morning, she learns that Galen was killed in an accident on the way home. Plunged into despair, Rain refuses to attend the funeral and cuts herself off from her friends. Skipping to six months later, the main portion of the story takes place as she thinks about Galen's upcoming birthday and summer plans are complicated by the girl's Aunt Georgia's Indian Camp and political efforts to cut its funding. Rain participates in nothing and her family members, loving though they are, seem preoccupied with their own needs and concerns. Gradually, Rain's love of photography resurfaces and lands her an assignment with the local newspaper. She becomes involved in examining her own heritage, the stereotypical reactions to it, and her own small-town limitations. There is a surprising amount of humor in this tender novel. It is one of the best portrayals around of kids whose heritage is mixed but still very important in their lives. As feelings about the public funding of Indian Camp heat up, the emotions and values of the characters remain crystal clear and completely in focus. It's Rain's story and she cannot be reduced to simple labels. A wonderful novel of a present-day teen and her "patchwork tribe."

E. Connections
If students are willing, allow them to role-play various situations which demonstrate conversations between individuals of different ethnic groups and the way in which to answer questions about them and their nationality.