Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

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Thanhha Lai, Author

Harper Collins, Fiction, Feb. 17, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Vietnam, Cross-cultural experiences, Culture-shock, Diversity, Intergenerational relationships, Family relationships, Respect, Friendship, Vietnam War, History

Synopsis: Mai is a 12-year-old California girl eager to spend her summer vacation at the beach with her best friends. Instead, her Vietnamese parents have planned her summer for her. They want Mai to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam so she can meet a man who may provide her answers to her husband’s disappearance during the war and find some closure. Her parents also want Mai to learn more about her own roots, meet relatives and develop some bonds. Mai barely understands the language. Trapped in a remote village, Mai must find a balance between her two different worlds if she has any hopes of surviving Vietnam.

Why I like this book:

  • Thanhha Lai beautifully crafted a love story between a granddaughter and her grandmother, as they travel to Vietnam together. It is a powerful intergenerational novel for teens.  It is richly textured, emotional, honest and humorous.
  • Lai skillfully shows Vietnam as a land of many contrasts. Her setting is very realistic of Vietnam today.  Lai’s writing touches all the senses so that the reader smells, hears, sees, and feels the unforgiving heat, heavy rain, sticky moisture, nasty mosquito bites, pungent smells, toxic fumes, noises and seas of mopeds on the overcrowded streets of Hanoi.
  • This is touching character-driven story. Mai (Mia) is a head-strong, outspoken, humorous and compassionate protagonist. In the beginning, Mai’s constantly plotting her trip out of Vietnam. Every angry/whiny text message to her mother begins with “I want to come home.” As she settles into the gentle pace of life surrounding her, it is a joy to watch Mai deal with the culture shock and mature. She’s a trooper and her challenges turn into acceptance of her doting family and surroundings. Mai’s fragile grandmother has clung to the old ways and is proper. She is patient, tender, quiet-spoken. Her family is surprised by her strong resolve to track down important leads that may reveal the truth of her husband’s death. Mai’s cousin, Ut, is the complete opposite of Mai. She wears a buzz haircut, crumpled pants and t-shirts, and hangs out with her frogs. They become partners in crime that lead to many hilarious moments.
  • The plot is multi-layered, complicated, courageous and hopeful. Lai delves deeply into Mai’s loneliness, the shock of living in an unfamiliar culture and the courage that it takes for her to handle a difficult situation. There are unexpected surprises and a realistic and satisfying ending.
  • I enjoyed learning about modern Vietnam. The story is so detailed that it feels like you are walking with Mai as she experiences the homeland of her family. I loved this story.

Thanhha Lai is the author of the Newbery Honor and National Book Award-winning Inside Out & Back Again. Click [here] to read my review. She was born in Vietnam and now lives with her family in New York. Visit Lai at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Blackbird Fly

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Erin Entrada Kelly, Author

Greenwillow Books, Fiction, Mar. 24, 2015

Paperback Reprint Mar. 1, 2016, 320 pages

Suitable for Ages: 8-12 years

Themes: Bullying, Outcasts, Filipino Americans, Family relationships, Friendships, Middle School, Music, Multicultural

Book Synopsis:  Twelve-year-old Apple Yengko believes that there are at least three interesting facts about every person on Earth. Unfortunately, her three IFs make her an outcast in Chapel Spring Middle School in Chapel Spring, Louisiana. She has slanted eyes, a weird Filipino nickname, and a weird mother.

When Apple is voted the third ugliest girl in school, her life quickly falls apart. The boys bark at her in the halls and rumors spread that she eats dogs for dinner. Music is her only escape. All she needs is enough money to buy a guitar, and then she’ll be able to change herself and her life forever. So what if her mother doesn’t understand and thinks she’s becoming too American. So what if her supposed best friends turn the other way…

It might be the Beatles and their music who save Apple, or Mr. Z (Chapel Spring Middle’s awesome music teacher) — or it could be two unexpected friends who show her that standing out in a crowd is better than getting lost in it.

Why I like this book:

  • This is a painfully realistic story by Erin Entrada Kelly about the impact of bullying on an Filipino-American teen who is trying to find her place in a Louisiana middle school. It is an emotionally honest novel about Apple, who feels like an outsider because of her ethnic background. Her best friends turn on her and their boyfriends put Apple on a secret Dog Log list of the ugliest girls at school. Teens who feel different and deal daily with cruelty in middle school, will find Apple a must read.
  • Apple is a strong, smart, quirky and likeable character who loves the Beatles, wants to play the guitar, and be the next George Harrison. Music is her only link to her deceased father. Her over protective mother forbids her to play the guitar or join the school swing choir at school. Apple is embarrassed by her mother who speaks with an accent, clings to old values and cooks Filipino foods. She becomes friends with a new boy, Evan Temple, who is self-assured and doesn’t care what others think of him. He accepts Apple for who she is and encourages her music. They befriend Helena Moffett, who is overweight, is on the Dog Log and has a secret weapon — a powerful singing voice.  Together, the three friends take on the bullies.
  • Kelly’s first-person narrative is extremely effective. The plot is courageous and stays true the theme of what it feels like to be an outsider. I love that Apple spreads her wings like her favorite Beatles song, Blackbird. The pacing is fast, which makes this novel a quick read. There are many unexpected surprises, including the ending which is happily satisfying. 

Erin Entrada Kelly grew up in south Louisiana. Her mother was the first in her family to immigrate to the United States from the Philippines.  Blackbird Fly is her debut novel. Visit Kelly at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

Since many of my reviews include diverse books, please check out Diverse Children’s Booksa brand new book-sharing meme designed to promote the reading and writing of children’s books that feature diverse characters. This community embraces all kinds of diversity including (and certainly not limited to) diverse, inclusive, multicultural, and global books for children of all backgrounds. Spread the word by using #diversekidlit on Twitter. Check out the logo in my sidebar.

Emmanuel’s Dream

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Laurie Ann Thompson, Author

Sean Qualls, Illustrator

Schwartz & Wade Books, Biography, Jan. 6, 2015

Suitable for Ages:  4-8

Themes: Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, Ghana, Disability, Cyclists

Opening: “In Ghana, West Africa, a baby boy was born: Two bright eyes blinked in the light, two healthy lungs let out a powerful cry, two tiny fists opened and closed, but only one strong leg kicked.”

Synopsis: Emmanuel was born with a deformed left leg.  Many people thought he was a curse. His father left.  Mama Comfort was strong in her faith and named her beloved son Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”  His mother saw only his abilities and encouraged him. Emmanuel hopped on one leg as he did chores and climbed trees. He hopped two miles each way to school, learned to play soccer and ride a bike. He left home at age 13 to earn money to support his family. Refusing to beg like many disabled people, he found two jobs for two years. Emmanuel had a bigger dream. He cycled 400 miles across Ghana to share his message “that a disability doesn’t means inability.”

Why I like this book:

Laurie Ann Thompson has written a triumphant picture book that will resonate with children who have different abilities. It is an uplifting and courageous true story about determination, hope and believing in one’s own abilities. Emmanuel doesn’t see his limitations as other do. He embraces his differences and dreams of carrying his positive message for those who are physically challenged across Ghana. Emmanuel wants people to see him and his disability. He wants people to hear his message. Emmanuel becomes a champion for the disabled and shows that one person can bring change. Thompson’s narrative is simple but delivers a powerful punch for readers. Sean Qualls’ expressive ink and watercolor illustrations compliment and capture Emmanuel’s remarkable journey.

Resources: Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end of the story to learn more about the continuing work of Emmanuel and how your may get involved. He starred in a documentary about his life called Emmanuel’s Gift, which is narrated by Oprah Winfrey. Visit Laurie Ann Thompson’s website, where you will find a curriculum guide. Visit his website Emmaunel’s Dream.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

Maya’s Blanket – La Manta De Maya

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Monica Brown, Author

David Diaz, Illustrator

Children’s Book Press, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, Fiction, Aug. 15, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Bilingual, Blanket, Creativity, Recycling, Family traditions and relationships, Love, Latino, Multicultural

Opening: “Little Maya Morales had a special manta that she loved very much. The blanket was blue and green, with purple butterflies that Abuelita had stitched with her own two hands when Maya was just a baby.”

Synopsis: Maya’s grandmother stitches a beautiful blanket for her as a baby and she loves her manta very much. The blanket becomes worn and Maya helps her Abuelita sew a new dress from the fabric. When Maya outgrows the dress, they make a skirt for her to wear. Over time the skirt is repurposed into a shawl, a scarf,  and a bookmark. One day Maya loses her bookmark and finds a creative way to keep alive the memory of her beloved manta.

Why I like this book:

Monica Brown’s heartwarming story celebrates family traditions, love, creativity, and recycling.  It is bilingual, written in both English and Spanish on double-spread pages.  The English text is sprinkled with Spanish words.

Children will delight in the use of repetition each time the blanket is made into another item and will chime along as you read, “So with her own two hands and Abuelita’s help, Maya made her falda (skirt) that was her vestido (dress) that was her manta into a rebozo (shawl) that she loved very much.” They will also have fun predicting what happens next.

This beautiful Latino story is based on a traditional Yiddish folk song about a coat that is remade into something else. In writing the story, Monica Brown honors both her Jewish and Latino heritage in her lyrical and lively storytelling. The ending is so charming, I won’t give it away.

David Diaz’s illustrations are richly textured, colorful, and bold. Each double-page spread conveys an energy that jumps off the pages. Children will enjoy watching Maya’s magical journey unfold through his artwork.

Resources:  There is a fun Author’s Note and Glossary of Spanish words in the back pages.  Children usually have a favorite blanket, stuffed animal or toy at home. Ask them share stories about their item. Encourage them to think about how they could reuse or recycle their favorite item into something else. Older children may want to write a story or a poem.

Monica Brown is the author of many award-winning picture books, including Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match. Visit Monica Brown at her website.

Mango, Abuela, and Me

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Meg Medina, Author

Angela Dominguez, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Aug. 25, 2015

2016 Pura Belpré Honor Book medal for literature

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Aging grandparents,  Love, Family relationships, Learning a new language, Hispanic, Diversity

Opening: “She comes to us in winter, leaving behind her sunny house that rested between two snaking rivers.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Mia’s “far-away” grandmother leaves behind her sunny house with parrots and palm trees to come live with Mia and her parents in the city. But when Mia tries to share her favorite bedtime story with Abuela, she discovers that Abuela can’t read the words.  Mia helps Abuela with her English while they cook, and Mia learns some Spanish, too. But it’s still hard for Abuela to learn the words she needs to tell Mia all her stories. So when Mia sees a parrot in the pet-shop window, she has the perfecto idea for how to help Abuela.

Why I like this book:

What a treat to review Meg Medina’s book, just after she received the 2016 Pura Belpré Honor Book medal for literature. Her heartwarming story about the bonds of love, family and culture is a testament to how important Latino books are for children.

Medina weaves her magic as she includes both Spanish and English words into her uplifting and endearing bilingual story about Mia finding a way to communicate with her Hispanic grandmother — especially since they share a bedroom together. Language barriers are likely a familiar issue for many multi-generational immigrant families.

Mia and Abuela’s memorable characters are artfully crafted. Mia is caring, creative and determined to find a way to bridge the communication gap and does so in a very clever and humorous way. (No spoilers.) Abuela is sad and homesick at first, until she begins to cook with Mia and learn new words. Both learn to be patient with each other.

The text is simple and lyrical, the plot engaging and timeless. The narrative is a springboard for Angela Dominguez’s lively, colorful and expressive illustrations which are a blend of  ink, gouache and marker. This is a lovely collaborative effort between Medina and Dominguez.

Resources: Children learn a second language very easily. No matter if your child is learning English or Spanish, you can teach them simple words. For instance, Mia makes words cards for her abuela and tapes them to the lamp, rug, door, phone, chair, blanket, pillow.  Teach your child to count and say the alphabet in Spanish or English. Visit this creative Bilingual Teaching Activities page for children on Pinterest.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

Written in the Stars

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Aisha Saeed, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction,  Mar. 24, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 14-17

Themes: Forced Marriages, Pakistani-American teen, Diversity,

Synopsis: Naila is a responsible and trustworthy daughter to her immigrant Pakistani parents. Steeped in cultural tradition, her parents allow her to attend a Florida high school, study subjects she likes, wear her hair how she wishes, dress like the other students and choose her career path in college. The only thing she is not allowed to do is date boys or choose a husband. Naila falls in love with Sajf, a Pakistani-American boy, during her senior year. She keeps her secret and meets Saif for lunch everyday. When Naila disobeys her parents and sneaks to the senior prom with Saif, her parents are outraged at her betrayal of trust and humiliated by their close-knit community. In attempt to help Naila understand her heritage, they pull her out of school, travel to Pakistan to visit relatives. Naila enjoys meeting so many family members and bonding with her cousin, Selma. Her vacation turns into a nightmare when her parents betray her, force her into an arranged marriage with Amin, and then leave Pakistan. She is alone living with a strange family, who see her as their ticket to America. Is this Naila’s destiny or is there any hope for escape?

What I love about Written in the Stars:

  • Aisha Saeed has masterfully written a bold, heart wrenching and complex cross-cultural novel that will be an eye-opener for many young readers. It is also beautiful love story between two Pakistani-American teens.
  • The setting is culturally rich for teens reading Written in the Stars. It is about Pakistani traditions, extended families living together, food preparations, small villages, the landscape, neighbors knowing everyone’s business, and shopping in local markets.
  • The first-person narrative with Naila offers greater depth into her character. Naila is a strong and determined protagonist. Her anger and pain are palpable, as is her desire to escape. All of the characters are well-developed, memorable and stay with you after you finish. The plot is suspenseful and brutal at times. The author shows much of the action, which is more powerful than words. The reader experiences Naila’s prison. Written in the Stars is a page-turner and I could not put it down. The ending is unexpected.
  • The author shares that although her own marriage was arranged by her parents, she wrote the book to shed light on the many arranged forced marriages.  I have never read anything like this powerful book, and I mean that as a compliment. Saeed sheds so much light on the problem of forced marriages in America and around the world. Although her characters are American-Pakistani, Saeed points out that “the issue is not limited to one particular culture or religion.”

Resources: There is a lovely Author’s Note at the end, along with resources for individuals needing advice, and a glossary. Visit Aisha Saeed at her website.

Aisha Saeed is a Pakistani American writer, teacher and attorney. Written in the Stars is her debut novel. She is on of the founding members of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign.

Whispers of the Wolf

Native American Heritage Month 2015

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Pauline Ts’o, Author and Illustrator

Wisdom Tales Press, Fiction, Oct. 7, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8 years

Themes: Pueblo Indians, Southwest, Wolves, Human-animal relationships, Wildlife Rescue

Opening: “Over five hundred years ago, a Pueblo boy and his grandfather were looking for medicine plants high above their village.”

Synopsis: Two Birds, a shy Pueblo boy living in the desert southwest, discovers a whimpering wolf pup in a deep hole. The cub is weak and hardly moves. He asks Grandfather if he may rescue the pup. Two Birds nurses the wolf pup back to health. The wolf goes with Two Birds and his friend, Gray Bear, on hunting trips. A bond forms between Two Birds and his wolf as they explore the natural world together. He hears the wolf’s thoughts in “whispers” of the wind, sun and rain. He shares these  “whisper” stories with Gray Bear. Word spreads through the village and children come to listen to Two Birds’ stories. One night the wild wolves begin calling from a distance and Two Birds’ wolf responds. The wolf yearns to be free and Two Birds will have a decision to make.

Why I like this story:

Whispers of the Wolf is a gratifying portrayal of the community life of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico and Arizona before the arrival of the Spanish explorers. Pauline Ts’o spent over ten years visiting with Pueblo families in their homes and learning about their strong sense of community. Read the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book to learn about her impressive research for this work of historical fiction.

The result is a heartwarming story about a shy boy trying to find his voice and place among his Pueblo community. When Two Birds finds the wolf pup, his unlikely relationship with the wolf helps him gain self-confidence and develop reverence and respect for the natural world. The characters are memorable and the storytelling will appeal to children and adults of all ages. Ts’o has written a beautiful tale about Native Americans tribes of the southwest. She captures the warmth and beauty of the Pueblo culture in her rich and lively illustrations.

Resources: There are “Notes on the Illustrations” that include fascinating details about the Pueblo culture, family life, adobe houses and living spaces, language, storytelling, traditions and wolves. There is also a map showing the tribal regions in North America. Visit Wisdom Tales Press for resources on American Indians and the Native American Heritage Month website for other resources.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.