Title: Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain In A Digital World
Author: Maryanne Wolf
Synopsis: Wolf examines the effect of digital devices and media on what she calls the ‘deep-reading brain,’ highlighting the detriments to attention, comprehension, memory, empathy, critical thinking, and reflection. To offset these effects, she advocates that educators and parents work towards developing a ‘biliterate brain’ in the younger generation that would allow children to become sophisticated readers across the mediums. The final chapters advocate the preservation of deep reading for the civic health of society and our species.
My Take: This is a fantastic book that I had to read slowly in order to absorb a lot of Wolf’s finer points on deep literacy in our digital media. Part of my slow reading stemmed from self-consciousness. Wolf’s major point is that digital devices have rotted out our capacity for deep, close reading. So, after finishing a paragraph and realizing that my mind had wandered, I would castigate myself, “You clearly have no attention span! Go back and read that paragraph and this time REALLY read!” A similar feeling occurs when I read a book on mindfulness. How “mindful” should I be as I read this? If I go faster, does that mean that I’m not being mindful? Does just thinking about being mindful prevent me from being mindful? And around I go.
But stepping back from my own reading experience, Wolf’s book will most likely inform you of new findings and research and also remind you of what you already know. For those interested in the neuroscience, Wolf devotes chapters on what is occurring in the brain during deep reading and how digital media may be short-circuiting this process. For the more pedagogically minded, she dives into how children become readers and how we can best help them arrive at what she calls a ‘biliterate brain.’ I also appreciated the several chapters she devoted to what are essentially ‘love letters’ to the deep reading process. “Reader Come Home” will inspire and motivate you to make deep reading a part of your life and those around you. That said, this is not necessarily and easy read. It is dense in some points and I feel it necessary to revisit this book to appreciate some of the points that I may have missed.
Title: Here In The Real World
Author: Sara Pennypacker
Publication Date: 2020
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: 11 year old Ware seems to be in for another depressing summer hanging out at the Community Rec Center while his parents are at work. His plans change when he plays hooky and discovers a demoed church lot just over the chain link fence next to the rec center. There he meets a girl named Jolene who is planting a garden next to the church ruins. Ware spends the rest of the summer skipping out on the rec center and adding his own touches to the lot with Jolene. But the impending end of summer and an upcoming auction for the lot may spell the end for their special place.
My Take: I thought that Pennypacker hit a home run with her novel Pax, so I was looking forward to reading this. Here In The Real World does not stand out the way that Pax does, but it is still an enjoyable read. I give credit to Pennypacker for staging the text in the 3rd person point of view. So many middle grade and teen books are written in the first person to capture the self-absorption of youth, that I find it refreshing when a book departs from this. Pennypacker is a deft writer and, while I would not characterize this book as especially plot driven, it did not feel like a slow read to me. She chose to keep the chapters short and punchy and this really drives the story forward. This is especially amazing to me, because this book is heavy on themes of rebirth, renewal, coming to terms with being different, first feelings of love, development of an artist, tension between generations, dealing with unfairness, the need for silence and being alone etc. Somehow Pennypacker guides the reader through all of this and yet the book feels well paced. That’s a pretty incredible feat for a writer.
(Side note: This book really reminded me of My Jasper June, in that it introduced a rugged, carefree character to shake up the protagonist and add to their family.)
Beyond that I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars. It is a solid addition to middle grade realistic fiction about young people finding themselves – which is really what every tween fiction book is about in the end.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to this interview with Publishers Weekly, when Pennypacker was writing the first Clementine book, she “overheard a conversation in which someone had recalled Carl Jung’s answer to a question. Jung had been asked, ‘Why is there evil in the world?’ And he answered, ‘There’s evil in the world when people can’t tell their stories.'” Frankly, I find this to be an incredibly inspiring quote to base your writing (and reading!) life around!
Title: Mary Underwater
Author: Shannon Doleski
Publication Date: 2020
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: 13 year old Mary Murphy lives on an island that borders the Chesapeake Bay. Her father is home from prison and as a result, her life at home has become much more unsettled. One bright spot is that she seems to be growing closer to her friend Kip as they work on a science project together. As her father demonstrates increasingly violent behavior, Mary strikes upon a way to focus her scientific mind on a project that will take her off the island: building a submarine.
My Take: I thought that this was a strong debut from author Shannon Doleski. The story is straight forward and the theme of female empowerment is conventional, but Doleski does not waste the reader’s time. At no point does the narrative bog down in heavy description or indulge in extraneous side stories. This is Mary’s story of coming into her intellectual powers and experiencing love for the first time and that is enough. I also found the basic mechanics behind submersibles to be fascinating. Due to the love interest, I found this to be more of a tween than juvenile selection.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Shannon Doleski curses too much.
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Harriet is an 11 year old who spends her days eavesdropping on others and filling her notebook up with honest observations. When her notebook falls into the wrong hands, Harriet finds her life thrown into turmoil as her schoolmates digest all that she has written about them.
My Take: This book clearly earns its place as an enduring classic in juvenile literature. Having never read it before, I thought from its title that it would be about a girl solving small mysteries in her neighborhood and saving the day. What I discovered instead was a more complicated book about a girl with a compulsive writing habit, grieving over the absence of a caregiver, and learning to navigate the power struggles of 6th grade. I loved the characters in the book because, like real people, they are frequently less than pleasant. I laughed, for example, when Harriet was eating dinner with her parents and, stewing over their recent idea to give her dance lessons, she screams, “I’ll be damned if I’ll go to dancing school!” At another point, her former nurse writes to her and includes the line “If you’re missing me, I want you to know that I’m not missing you.” Such hard bitten interactions between the characters really kept my attention and made Harriet’s world come to life.
I also appreciate how Fitzhugh made the stakes very high for Harriet. Losing her notebook and becoming an outcast at school are frontal assaults on Harriet’s life and mind. And she does not go down easily in this fight. Apologies are long in coming from her and for a few days she is physically abusive to her peers. This struggle really pulled me along through the story.
I look forward to reading more about the history of this beloved book and recommending it to many readers.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According this article, while Fitzhugh was working on Harriet the Spy, she was also working on a novel about a teenage girl who fall in love with another girl. It never saw publication, but if it had, it would have been one of the earliest gay novel for teens.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Mia and her parents have recently immigrated to the United States from China and are having difficulty finding work. They procure jobs to run a motel and feel grateful that they are also able to live there and thereby save on rent. They soon discover that the work is grueling, the hours long, and the owner of the motel is a martinet who docks their paychecks for small infractions. Mia pitches in to help her parents by working the front desk. As she befriends the residents of the motel, she slowly works out a plan to spring her family out of poverty and into a better life.
My Take: This is an excellent book in its portrayal of working conditions of Chinese immigrants to the United States in the 1980’s and 90’s. Yang should be commended for introducing her characters to the wrenching irony that the quality of life in China was improving. It is possible that their lives may have been better had they stayed in China. To counter such heartaches and to endure the many humiliations of their poverty, the characters develop strong bonds among each other. These relationships, along with the portrayal of immigrants’ difficult lives, are certainly the greatest strength of this book. I did find the ending too pat, as a last minute plot device saves the day. Still, I recommend this book to anyone middle grade reader.
One Interesting Note About the Author: The character of Mia was based on Kelly Yang’s life growing up, who immigrated to the United States and worked in motels with her family.
The Plot: Olympia is a twelve year old growing up in early 1980’s in SoHo. Her father, an art restorer, has run off to France with another woman. In response, Olympia’s mother, a sculptor, has not been out of bed in days. Olympia fills up her summer days hanging out with friends and her dad’s friendly art assistant Apollo. Over time she finds the courage to reach out for help and to begin to piece her family back together.
My Take: This book lacked enough narrative momentum for my taste. I thought that a good deal of it could be trimmed to focus on the disappearance of her father and Olympia’s efforts to help her mother. Her relationships with her friends, their parents, and Apollo takes up most of the book and was a bit of a slog for me. A side trip to an island near the culmination of the story seemed exceptionally unnecessary.
One Interesting Note About The Author: “All the Greys On Greene Street” is Laura Tucker’s first novel.
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Sara’s life as a Jewish girl in a small French town is upended in 1940 when Germany invades her country. As the precariousness of her new life under Nazi rule becomes undeniable, she is separated from her parents and hidden in a barn by a school acquaintance named Julian. The war draws on and Sara realizes that she may have to endure life in the barn for quite some time. With this understanding comes the grief that she may never see her parents again but also gratitude for the enormous risk that Julian and his family are taking to keep her hidden.
My Take: I was enormously impressed by this graphic novel. Palacio has certainly proven that she has more in her artistic well than just the popular book Wonder. I was gripped by the intensity of the story and the growing bonds between the characters as they suffer under Nazi cruelty. Due to some violent content, librarians and teachers may consider treating this a Teen rather than a Juvenile read. Highly recommended.
One Interesting Thing About The Author: In addition to writing, Palacio also illustrated the graphic novel.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: The past year has been rough for Leah as her family deals with tragedy and her friendships are changing at school. As the summer begins, she finds that she and her best friend Tess have drifted apart, leaving a hole in her life. Luckily Leah soon meets a curly redhead girl her age named Jasper who is new in town. The girls become instant best friends, but Leah discovers that Jasper’s life is full of hurtful secrets. As each girl grapples with the broken parts of their lives, they realize that being a true friend is neither simple nor easy.
My Take: This book convincingly portrays a friendship between two girls who are each grappling with pain. The story is less of a thrill ride and more of an unfolding of the characters as the reader gets to know each of them. I was most interested in the sense of co-dependency that forms within moments of the girls’ meeting. Each senses in the other something that they are missing and that they desperately need and want. This urge is so powerful that at times they end up hurting the other person. I knew from the start that the friendship between Leah and Jasper would not be smooth, but I definitely enjoyed the bumpy relationship between them. Highly recommended to girls around the age of 11 – 13.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Ms. Snyder lives in Ormewood Park in Atlanta which is the setting for “My Jasper June.”
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Boy lives a simple existence on a manor estate in 14th century France: he tends the goats, sleeps in his hut, and tries to hide his hunchback from those who tease and call him names. His life is upended when a lone pilgrim named Secundus appropriates him for a trip to a local town to offer prayers to a holy relic. Along the way, Boy learns that Secundus has a longer journey in mind and divulges that he is on a quest to collect seven relics and take them to Rome. Boy finds himself swept up in an adventure that will open him up to the world beyond his manor home and learn extraordinary lesson about his true self.
My Take: Murdock has written an excellent novel here and definitely deserves its place as a Newberry Honor. I found myself caught up in the rough characters of Secundus and Boy. I marveled at Boy’s ability to rationalize his miserable existence at the manor and wondered how much grief was stored inside of him and how was he going to process it. Secundus is a more mysterious character who leaves the reader guessing at his motivations until deep into the book. I was touched by the convincing changes that both of these characters undergo and by the end was left feeling very close indeed to both of them. Mudrock deserves credit for weaving in supernatural elements in a seamless manner that almost makes them feel realistic. I often found myself wondering if something was real, the perspective of an unreliable narrator, or perhaps just the general beliefs of a more superstitious time in history. By keeping much back, Murdock kept me guessing, something that children’s literature rarely does. A highly recommended read for ages 12 +!
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to an interview with her, Catherine Gilbert Murdock prefers reading children’s literature to grown up books because she finds them “long-winded, depressing and lacking in resolution.”
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: When Crow was an infant, she washed ashore onto a tiny island located off of the coast of New England and a man named Osh found her and raised her as his own daughter. Local rumor held that Crow had come from the leper colony on Penikese Island, but there was never any proof of this. Now older, Crow has begun to question her origins and wants to know who her biological parents are. She and Osh visit Penikese and there find the beginnings of a mystery that will bring great wealth but also great danger to their small island.
My Take: I greatly enjoyed Wolk’s novel Wolf Hollow and was excited about Beyond the Bright Sea. I was impressed by Wolk’s description of the Elizabeth Islands and I thought that she did an excellent job of situating the reader into the rhythms of Crow and Osh’s life on the ocean. Wolk makes a good choice of framing the narrative around 3 characters, each with their own rough charm and simple decency. Some of the mystery turns on events that are a little too neat and coincidental, and I believe that book would have been stronger with a twist along the way. However, this remains a solid choice for young readers looking for a mystery or a historical fiction.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Lauren Wolk lives on Cape Cod and has visited many of the Elizabeth Islands.