“Front Desk” by Kelly Yang

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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.

“Wishtree” by Katherine Applegate

Image result for wishtree by applegateThe Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Red is a scarlet oak that has stood in a neighborhood for 216 years.  The local people use Red as a wishtree, writing wishes onto scraps of paper or cloth and tying them onto the branches.  When a Muslim family moves into a house close by, Red and its companion animals befriend the daughter named Samar.  But when an act of hate targets Samar’s family, Red finds that she must take a more active role in protecting the people and animals in her neighborhood.

My Take:  Wishtree is an excellent entry into the category of juvenile fiction that deals with immigration and racial tension.   This tale will certainly ring familiar to readers in Trump’s America.  Applegate doesn’t clutter up the tale and instead allows the simplicity of the story and the gentle voice of Red guide the narrative.  Adults who are struggling to explain racism and persecution to children will appreciate this book

One Interesting Thing About The Author:  Katherine Applegate is not only the author of The One And Only Ivan, 2013 Newberry Medal Winner, but also the Animorphs series.

The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin

ImageThe Plot in Five Sentences Or Less:  In the 1940’s, America was at war, but its military was still segregated.  Against this backdrop, fresh recruits arrive at Port Chicago outside of San Francisco.  They are black men and, because of this, they are given the highly dangerous job of loading ammunition onto the ships with little to no safety training.  On the evening of July 17, 1944 a huge explosion rips through the port, killing over 300 people.  In the weeks following, 50 of the men refuse to load any more ammunition and are therefore put on trial for mutiny.

My Take:  The Port Chicago 50 is not Steve Sheinkin’s most exciting book, but it is his most poignant.  I found that the narrative slows down some during the trial portion of the story, but the final chapters more than make up for this.  By the end of the book, I found that I had a knot in my throat as I considered the sacrifice that these black sailors made, really until the ends of their lives.  The Port Chicago 50 is another example of Sheinkin’s gift of making history interesting and relevant.  Highly recommended for ages 12+ looking for a non-fiction read concerning civil rights.

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Steve’s brother-in-law Eric Person was the first to bring the story of the Port Chicago 50 to his attention.  Eric mentioned the theory that the first atomic bomb was exploded not in the New Mexico desert in 1945, but rather a year earlier at Port Chicago.  Intrigued, Steve dug deeper and unearthed the story of the Port Chicago 50.

Brotherhood by A.B. Westrick

ImageThe Plot In Five Sentences Or Less:  Shad is a young man living with his older brother Jeremiah and their mother on the outside of Richmond, Virginia in the years just after the Civil War.  Their father has died during the conflict and the family is trying to adjust to a post-war reality where Yankee soldiers roam the streets and carpetbaggers and free blacks compete for jobs.   Shad, longing for security and fellowship,  soon follows Jeremiah and joins up with the KKK.  This allegiance is tested, however, when he begins taking classes at Ms. Perkinson’s, a transplanted Yankee that runs a negro school.  When Jeremiah and the rest of the clan begin to threaten the Perkinson’s, Shad must decide where his true obligations lie.

My Take:  As a native Richmonder, I very much enjoyed this book.  As I read about the characters wandering down, say, Broad Street, I could see clearly in my mind the area through which they were traveling.  I give credit to Westrick because, by focusing on the years just after the war, she has given us a Civil War book that stands out for its examination of post conflict adjustment.  I felt that the characters and situations were sufficiently complex and, even at the end, there was upheld a good deal of ambiguity which evaded easy answers.  Ages 12+

One Interesting Note About the Author:  According to her website, A.B. Westrick was born in Pennsylvania, but now lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia.  This, of course, still makes her a Yankee! 😉

Paperboy by Vince Vawter

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The Plot (in 5 sentences or less):  Set in 1959 Memphis, Tennessee, an 11 year old takes over a friend’s paper route for a few weeks during the summer.  The young man suffers from  stuttering and it colors his entire life.  As he slowly makes his rounds, he becomes involved in the lives of his customers which opens up greater questions.  What should he do, for example, about the possible domestic abuse suffered by one lady or the riddles scribbled on a dollar bill given to him by one erudite man?  Events come to a violent head when his housekeeper confronts the local homeless man about some items stolen from the household.

My Take:  Credit should be given to Mr. Vawter for using a protagonist with a speech impediment.  Any teen with a stuttering challenge should absolutely read this book.  The author does an excellent job of showing the reader what it is like to live daily with this problem.

    Vawter has a restrained writing style that allows him to slowly construct the characters and the plot.  Because of this, Paperboy may be too slowly plotted for some young readers.  Much of the book is committed to the narrator’s cautious approach to building relationships with adults in his life.  Still, towards the end of the book, I did get some goosebumps, that visceral test of any work of art.

One Interesting Note About the Author: Vince Vawter’s first memory of his stutter is just before the age of 5.  Despite his stutter, he has had a rewarding career in newspapers.  As he tell it in the author’s note, “have I been cured of my stutter? No.  Have I overcome it?  Yes.”

Father Groppi: Marching for Civil Rights by Stuart Stotts

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The Plot (in 5 sentences or less):  Father Groppi was a leader in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s in Wisconsin.  While he attended seminary as a young man, James Groppi worked in youth centers in underprivileged areas in segregated  Milwaukee where he learned about the travails of the African American population.  After becoming ordained, he traveled the south during the 1950’s and early 60’s where he witnessed first hand the violent racism of the south.  Deciding to bring the civil rights movement to Milwaukee, Father Groppi began organizing marches demanding treatment in equal housing and public education.  His most famous moments came when he marched a group of blacks over the Sixteenth Street Viaduct into the working class white enclaves.

 

My Take:  This is a straightforward book that will not only introduce young readers to Father Groppi’s struggles in Milwaukee, but also to the broader struggle of civil rights. Throughout the book, the author defines and explains terms and concepts such as “boycotts” and “civil disobedience” that may seem unfamiliar to younger minds.  If you are looking for a biography on a lesser known civil rights advocate, this would be an excellent choice. ages 10+

 

One Interesting Note About the Author:  Stuart Stotts is not only an author, but also a dynamic speaker, performer, and early childhood educator trainer!  Check out more about him at his website:  stuartstotts.com

 

 

 

Etched in Clay: the Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet by Andrea Cheng

etched-in-clay-andrea-chengThe Story (in 5 sentences or less):  Dave is a slave purchased by Harvey Drake in Augusta, Georgia in 1815.  Harvey takes him to Pottersville, South Carolina and not only teaches him pottery, but also how to read.  Over the span of years, Dave suffers greatly as his loved ones (including two wives) are sold away.  Dave begins carving words and poems into some of his pottery, a small act of sedition and outlet for his grief.

My Take:  I wondered if this book would be able to measure up to the quality of the Caldecott Honor book “Dave the Potter;” I believe that it does.  Written in short chapters of verse in 1st person, the poetry is never intrusive or self conscious, but rather breathes real life into the characters.  The poems are lean and spare, but sketch out the characters enough so that we grieve at the tragedies in Dave’s life.  I’d recommend this book to readers ages 11+ who are interested in knowing what being a slave feels like.  An appendix explains the life and times of Dave from an historical perspective.

One Interesting Note about the Author:  Andrea Cheng’s interest in Civil Right’s issues began at an early age when, growing up in Cincinnati, she remembers “sitting in the front yard with [her] friends, most of whom were African American, and hearing the sounds of the 1968 race riots just a few blocks away.”

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

manicamagee Plot: Jeffrey Magee is a an orphaned boy who blows into the town of Two Mills, Pennsylvania (a fictional place) one afternoon. Within the first day he has already made an impression on the neighborhood. He butts into an ongoing little league game and hits line drives off of ace pitcher John McNab. He strays into Finsterwald’s backyard, a place that no other kid will venture due to the local grinch that lives there. And the Pickwell kids claim that they saw him running on top of the steel rails of the railroad tracks. With all of these crazy stories floating about, people begin calling him Maniac Magee.

But Jeffrey soon hits upon the split reality of Two Mills: the town is divided strictly along racial lines of white and black. Maniac is oblivious to it all. Although being white himself, he openly wanders into the black part of town and remains oblivious to his blunder. He stays with the Beale family on Sycamore street until they begin receiving threats because they are housing a “honky fishbelly.” Maniac knows then that it is time to move on.

He takes up residence in the bison pen at a local zoo, until he makes friends with the local groundskeeper, an elderly man named Grayson. During his weeks with Grayson, Jeffrey listens to his tales about playing minor league ball and he also teaches the old man how to read. When Grayson passes away, Jeffrey again hits the road and eventually ends up back in Two Mills. This time Maniac will examine even more closely the racial strife in the town and take action to ameliorate it.

Personal Reaction: A couple of years ago I tried to listen to the audiobook version of Love Stargirl by Spinelli. I say “tried” because a couple of chapters into it, I found it to be so annoying that I turned it off. It may not have been the writing. It may have been the subject matter or the grating voice of the narrator.

As I listened to the audiobook of Maniac Magee, I thought that I was going to have a similar reaction to this book. I enjoyed the opening when Jeffrey rolls into Two Mills like
a supernatural event, performing heroic acts and getting everyone talking. Midway through, however, during the scenes with Grayson, I felt that Spinelli had lost the momentum of the narrative. I found the interaction between Maniac and the elderly groundskeeper to be cloying, especially when he was teaching him to read. Where was the hook, I wondered, to keep the reader, well, reading?
The book picks up again when Maniac returns to Two Mills and encounters the racial conflict. At this point, older readers will realize that the character of Jeffrey is really not much of a character at all. He is the personification of racial tolerance and color blindness. He is the unearthly hero who can perform great miracles and open people’s hearts. I appreciated Spinelli asking readers to make this leap to study the symbolism surrounding the character of Maniac. For this reason, I can understand why this book is taught in many middle school classrooms and also won the 1991 Newberry Honor Medal.
Themes: racial conflict, heroism/heroic acts, orphan, individual vs. society, community healing.