Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Black Brother, Black Brother

Jewell Parker Rhodes, Author

Little Brown and Company, Fiction, Mar. 3, 2020

Suitable for ages:

Themes: Fencing, African Americans, Brothers, Racism, Preparatory schools, Family life, Friendship

Opening: I wish I were invisible. Wearing Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak or Frodo Baggins’s Elvish ring. Whether shrouded in fabric or slipping on gold, it wouldn’t matter to me. I’d be gone. Disappeared.”

Book Jacket Synopsis:

“Framed. Bullied. Disliked. But I know I can still be the best.”

Sometimes, 12-year-old Donte wishes he were invisible. As one of the few black boys at Middlefield Prep, most of the students don’t look like him. They don’t like him either. Dubbing him “Black Brother,” Donte’s teachers and classmates make it clear they wish he were more like his lighter-skinned brother, Trey.

When he’s bullied and framed by the captain of the fencing team, “King” Alan, he’s suspended from school, arrested and taken to jail for something he didn’t do. Just because he is black.

Terrified, searching for a place where he belongs, Donte joins a local youth center and meets former Olympic fencer Arden Jones. With Arden’s help, he begins training as a competitive fencer, setting his sights on taking down the fencing team captain, no matter what.

As Donte hones his fencing skills and grows closer to achieving his goal, he learns the fight for justice is far from over. Now Donte must confront his bullies, racism, and the corrupt systems of power that led to his arrest.

Powerful and emotionally gripping, Black Brother, Black Brother is a careful examination of the school-to-prison pipeline and follows one boy’s fight against racism and his empowering path to finding his voice.

Why I like this book:

Jewell Park Rhodes’s Black Brother, Black Brother is a timely, intelligent and well-executed novel for children and adults. Rhodes masterfully captures the pain of racial injustice for a 12-year-old black boy attending an all-white prep school outside of Boston. It is also a story about hope, believing in yourself, and choosing a higher path.

The characters are multi-layered and complex. The bond between brothers Donte and Trey is strong. Donte’s skin is like their African-American mother, and Trey’s is like their Norwegian father. Trey is a star athlete at school; Donte is not.  But what really stands out is the love and support they share as brothers. Their bond is unbreakable. And their parents are right there with them. Then there is a privileged  Middlefield Prep student, Alan, who punishes Donte for being darker than his brother. Alan is filled with so much hate and taunts Donte by calling him “Black Brother.”

Black Brother, Black Brother is also an engaging sports story. Readers will find fencing fascinating, as it requires skill, focus, honor, respect, patience and intuition.  Learning the sport from Arden Jones, an African-American national fencing champion, helps Donte find his voice and embrace who he is. For me, Donte’s relationship with “Coach” is the best part of the story. And it becomes clear that both coach and student need each other. They practice at the Boston Boys and Girls Club along with black twins, Zion and Zarra. Trey joins their small team in support his brother and learn the sport.

This is a compelling book to use to jump start the discussion about racism, privilege, and bias in our country — especially at school. Readers will be able to gain insight into the everyday experiences of their friends of color. It will help them develop empathy for others and hopefully encourage them to stand up for fairness and respect when they observe injustice at school and in their communities. If you are reading this book, it means you can make a difference! I hope this book becomes required reading in middle schools because it offers an opportunity for important dialogue among students.

*This book hit home for me, because we adopted a 13-year-old son from India in the 1985. He was darker than many black people and had shiny black hair. Everyday he dealt with questions like, “What are you?” Fortunately some white neighbor boys his age befriended him and had his back with school bullies. They remain his best friends today. As a successful adult, he still deals with racial profiling.

Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of Ninth Ward, winner of a Coretta Scott King Honor, Sugar, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the New York Times bestselling Ghost Boys, as well as Bayou Magic and Towers Falling.  She has also written many award-winning novels for adults. When she’s not writing, Jewell visits schools to talk about her books and teaches writing at Arizona State University.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library book.

The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer

The Story That Cannot Be Told

J. Kasper Kramer, Author

Atheneum Books for Young Reader, Fiction, Oct. 8, 2019

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Romania, History, Revolution, Folktales, Family life, Writers, Courage

Opening: “Once upon a time, something happened. If it had not happened, it would not be told.”

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Ileana has always collected stories. Some are about the past, before the leader of her country, tore down her home to make room for his golden palace; back when families had enough food, and the hot water worked on more than just Saturday nights. Others are folktales like the one she was named for, which her father used to tell her at bedtime. But some stories can get you in trouble, like the dangerous one criticizing Romania’s Communist government that Uncle Andrei published — right before he went missing.

Fearing for her safety, Ileana’s parents send her to live with the grandparents she’s never met, far from the prying eyes and ears of the secret police and their spies, who could be any of the neighbors. But danger is never far away. Now, to save her family and the village she’s come to love, Ileana will have to tell the most important story of her life.

Why I like this book:

J. Kasper Kramer’s The Story That Cannot Be Told is gripping and haunting, powerful and hopeful. The tempting title and perfect opening line beckon readers to enter Illeana’s world. Once they begin, they won’t be able to put this novel down.

It is set in Romania in the 1980s, when communist leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, terrorized his country to control them. His secret police, the Securitate, enlisted ordinary people and kids to spy on their neighbors, friends and family. There is greed, death, starvation and brutality under his regime.

The characters are multi-layered and complex. Illenia is smart and courageous. Like her missing Uncle Andrei, Illenia is a writer and storyteller. She’s named after a character, Cunning Ileana, in a Romanian folktale that her father tells her at bedtime. This tale is woven throughout the novel. Illenia has written a collection of stories, poems, and folktales, that she’s compiled in her Great Tome. Most of them are harmless, but a few stories reveal truths that could get her family in serious trouble. Her father becomes fearful for his daughter’s safety, burns her tome and sends her to her grandparent’s farm village high in the mountains. Life there is backwards and operates at a slower pace. She dislikes her new environment at first. Illenia makes a new friend, Gabi, and learns that the village may soon be overtaken by the Romanian Army. She and Gabi make a plan to save the townspeople’s property.

Kramer’s original debut novel is a collection of folklores, memories, research, and fairy tales, that she beautifully weaves together into this unforgettable story that is part fact and part fiction. It is a story that will remain with you because of the profoundly human characters, thrilling and dangerous plot and the worthwhile ending. It is an excellent discussion book for teachers to use in the classroom, because it’s a part of history many students aren’t likely to know. It is very relevant today.

Resource: Make sure you read the Prologue at the beginning and the Author’s Note at the end. Visit Kramer at his website.

J. Kasper Kramer is an author and English professor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She has a master’s degree in creative writing and once upon a time lived in Japan, where she taught at an international school. When she’s not curled up with a book, she loves researching lost fairy tales, playing video games. and fostering kittens.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Kindred Souls

Kindred Souls9780060522995_p0_v2_s260x420Kindred Souls

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Katherine Tegen Books, Fiction, 2012

Suitable for ages: 6-10

Themes: Aging Grandfathers, Sod houses, Prairies, Family Life, , Dogs, Loss

Book Synopsis: Jake’s grandfather, Billy, hears the talk of birds, is eighty-eight years old, and is going to live forever. Even when Billy gets sick, Jake knows that everything will go on as always. But there’s one thing Billy wants: to rebuild the sod house where he grew up. Can Jake give him this one special thing? 

What I like about this book: Patricia MacLachlan’s book is a heartwarming story about a bond between a boy and his grandfather (kindred souls), their shared love of nature, and what Jake does to fulfill his grandfather’s wish.  The story is set on the family’s prairie farm. The story has a lovely rhythm about it. The plot is paced well for young readers with short chapters and an air of adventure in building the sod house, from research to recruiting the entire family to help after Billy becomes ill. Even the sudden appearance of Lucy, the stray “angel dog,” who never leaves Billy’s side, adds to the love and grace that permeates this story about family and letting go. This is a beautiful story.

Patricia MacLachlan is a Newberry Medalist for her book Sarah, Plain and Tall. I reviewed her powerful 2013 picture book about grief and renewal, Snowflakes Fall, which was dedicated to the families of Newtown and Sandy Hook, CT. I also reviewed Fly Away and The Truth of Me,  both middle grade novels about complicated family relationships.

 

Fly Away

Fly Away9781442460089_p0_v3_s260x420Fly Away

Patricia MacLachlan, Author

Margaret K. McElderry Books, Fiction, April 2014

Suitable for ages: 7 -10

Themes: Family Life, Brothers and sisters, Floods, Farms, Poets, Music

Book Jacket: “Family means — offering help when it’s not asked for, accepting help when you think you don’t need it, sharing joys, keeping secrets, and singing your song. Unless you’re Lucy and you can’t carry a tune. Lucy thinks she has no voice. But family means — even if you’re sure you can’t sing, you’ll be heard.”

Synopsis: Lucy and her family (and Mama’s chickens) pack into an old Volkswagen bus and travel across Minnesota to spend the summer with her Aunt Frankie in North Dakota. They time their annual visit to help Aunt Frankie plan for the flooding of the Red River.  When they reach the Red River, it is high and flowing fast.  Lucy’s mother, Maggie, remembers the dangers from her childhood.

Lucy has a secret. Everyone in her family sings, but she can’t. Her father, Boots, loves opera, her mother likes Langhorne Slim and her younger sister, Gracie, sings in a high perfect voice. When Lucy opens her mouth nothing comes out. Even her little brother Teddy, who can’t talk, can sing. He sneaks into her bedroom at night and coaxes Lucy to sing with him. His sweet “la la la’s” are pitch perfect and no one knows but Lucy. As the flood waters recede and the house is safe, another crisis occurs when Teddy turns up missing. Will Lucy find her voice and save him in a way no one else can?

Why I like this book: With the heavy rains and major flooding we are experiencing across the country, Patricia MacLachlan chooses the perfect time to release a new book for children about this phenomenon of nature. It is a story that touches the readers emotions. I love the quirky nature of Lucy’s family, the secrets, the fears, the joys and the strong family bonds that keep the family afloat during a dangerous flood.  Fly Away is poetic and written simply for young readers wanting to read longer chapter books. The plot is engaging, well-paced and full of adventure. This is a great summer read and is 107 pages.

Patricia MacLachlan is a Newberry Medalist for her book Sarah, Plain and Tall. I reviewed her powerful 2013 picture book about grief and renewal, Snowflakes Fall, which was dedicated to the families of Newtown and Sandy Hook, CT.  I also reviewed The Truth of Me, another middle grade novel about complicated family relationships.