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Recommended for ages 12 and up.
The prostitute with the heart of gold is a popular trope in fiction--although not one that we see often in YA novels, particularly with their focus these days on the supernatural and the dystopian. Ruta Sepetys
, who won so many honors with her first novel, Between Shades of Gray
, (no connection with the even bigger best-seller, Fifty Shades of Gray
!) transports us to 1950 and the seedy world of New Orleans' brothels and gangsters in her new just-released novel, Out of the Easy
The book, narrated by the protagonist, 17-year old Josie, begins: "My mother's a prostitute. Not the filthy, streetwalking kind...But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute." Her mother works for Willie, based on an actual New Orleans madam of the time, and her on and off boyfriend is a nefarious gangster, Cincinnati. Josie hates Cincinnati and has a difficult relationship with her mother as well. Willie, the generous madam with the proverbial heart of gold but a tough exterior, takes on the role of mother-figure for Josie, while her own mother seems to have little patience for raising her. Josie's made good grades in school, and lives above a bookshop where she works part-time. She also works part-time cleaning the brothel. She's hoping to go away, leaving the Big Easy. Her heart is set on college--not in New Orleans, where everyone knows who she is--and who her mother is--but at Smith College, where she hopes to make a fresh start.
Josie's carefully made plans and all her savings might come to nothing when she becomes mixed up in the police investigation of a a murder of a handsome tourist--one who happened to come into the bookstore shortly before his death and who afterwards had drinks with her mother. As Josie becomes entangled in a web of lies, will she be able to escape her fate in New Orleans? Will she become just like her own mother in the end?
I found this new work by Sepetys to be engaging from the get-go; Josie is a strong, smart, character with lots of "moxie." Many of the more minor characters, especially her friend who is a closeted homosexual, are also appealing. Sepetys portrays the 1950's as a world of secrets, where everyone is part of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, wearing a mask that disguises who they really are. One aspect of the novel which did bother me is that the world of the prostitutes at the whorehouse seemed to be somewhat prettified; although Josie's mother is an extremely unlikeable character, the other girls at the house who play more minor roles seem to be more stereotyped. The gangsters, also, seem like stock characters. However, I enjoyed the fact that the story is not predictable, a fault I often find with teen novels.
This novel, despite its setting in the underworld of New Orleans, does not have gratuitous sex or violence, and could be read by middle school students as well as high school. While Out of the Easy
did not engage me emotionally in the same way that Sepetys' earlier novel, Between Shades of Gray
, did, it is a skillfully crafted novel that is well worth reading for its compelling main character and its well realized setting.
Dr. King has been on my mind of late. Now that I am working as a full-time children's librarian, I was excited to organize a program for our family storytime in his honor. Since it happened that the program fell on his actual birthday, February 15, rather than the federal holiday, we read--and acted out--picture books about him, and sang Happy Birthday and instead of having cake, tasted his favorite dessert, pecan pie (served up in very small servings in cupcake liners!). The program turned into a family occasion, as my banjo-playing mother-in-law and my teenaged son came to teach the children and adults some of the iconic civil rights protest songs: We Shall Overcome, We Shall Not be Moved, and This Little Light of Mine.
There's a rich variety of books available on Dr. King, aimed at all ages, yet it was not difficult to choose which books I wanted to highlight. Here are some of my favorites, although I was not able to read them all at the storytime. I Have a Dream,
by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Schwartz & Wade, 2012). Kadir Nelson has outdone himself with the magnificent oil paintings he produced to illustrate some of the most iconic excerpts from Dr. King's most famous speech (the complete text is included in the back of the book, as is a CD with Dr. King delivering the address). This is a book that should be in every American classroom and library. The dignified and statuesque artwork, combined with Dr. King's inspirational language, cannot fail to move anyone who sees and reads this book.Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
., by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Hyperion, 2001). In a book suitable for kindergartners on up, Rappaport brings Dr. King's career to life using simple but eloquent language and Dr. King's own powerful words, taken from various speeches and letters from throughout his lifetime. Combined with outstanding artwork by Bryan Collier, her text is perfect for reader's theatre; at my own program, three children read the words of Dr. King and I read the narrator part, making a very moving small piece of drama perfect for the classroom or library storytime. My Uncle Martin's Big Heart,
by Angela Farris, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Abrams, 2010). This warm-hearted picture book tells Dr. King's life told from the perspective of his young niece. Dr. King comes through as a family man, Uncle M.L. who loved to laugh, not just an icon of the Civil Rights movement. My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
., by Christine King Farris (Simon & Schuster, 2003). In this outstanding book written by King's older sister, we see Martin Luther King as a mischievous young boy, not wanting to practice the piano, surrounded by a warm and loving well-educated family who tried to shield their children from the worst of segregation. Dr. King's father, stood up to the worst of the bigotry of that time, and the young King learns the importance of standing up for justice and equality. A powerful book that can be easily understood by elementary school-aged children.
Recommended for ages 8-12.
Debut author Stephanie J. Blake
has written an appealing middle-grade novel about a heroine with an unusual name: Freedom Jane McKenzie. It's 1959, and Freedom is a tomboy through and through. She'd rather be playing marbles with the boys than engaging in more lady-like pursuits like tea parties and playing with Barbies. She dreams of winning the annual marble competition at the Autumn Jubilee, but it's not clear her mother will even let her enter, since her mom thinks marbles aren't proper for young girls. It's not easy growing up, particularly when your best friend (a boy, of course) doesn't want to have anything to do with you anymore, since he's getting teased for being friends with a girl. And on top of everything, your parents are constantly arguing over your dad's drinking. With her mother pregnant, Freedom has to take on plenty of chores at home, but still finds time to befriend the scary old lady who's their neighbor. Mrs. Zierk soon turns out to be the one person who has time to listen to Freedom, and soon is teaching her piano and jam-making.
Will Freedom become the Marble Queen, or will she have to give up her marbles and become a different person now that she's growing older?
This is a well-written story for 8-12 year olds; told with a humorous voice in the first person, the novel offers us an engaging heroine, a girl with plenty of spunk who we'd like living in our neighborhood. The author provides plenty of historical details about the era, including the building of bomb shelters, the novelty of television, having sundaes at the dime store, and the introduction of Barbie, among others, to give the book an authentic feel for the era. She also recreates effectively the pace of life at that period, when children roamed around their neighborhoods during the summer and after school without their parents fearing for their safety.
Freedom is a character I'd like to hear more from in the future.
Recommended for ages 12 and up.
Release date: April 17, 2012
It's June, 1956, and school's just about out for the summer. Teenage Nora and her friends have a party with a few boys, dance, hang out and drink too many beers. But none of them can imagine that their lives are about to change forever because of a shocking murder.
The next day, the bodies of two of the girls from Nora's group, Cheryl and Bobbi Jo, are found shot to death in the woods near their house. Everyone thinks that Buddy, Cheryl's ex-boyfriend, who looks like an imitation of James Dean, must be guilty of the brutal crime. But when no conclusive evidence is uncovered, he's released by the police, although everyone in the town still assumes he did it, and worse yet, that he got away with it.
This excellent mystery, written from the point of view of Nora, her friend Ellie, Buddy, and the actual guilty murderer, takes place in a time that seems so innocent now--a time of listening to Elvis records with your girlfriends, worrying what would happen if a boy touched your knee, and having ice cream sodas at the neighborhood drugstore. But with the murders life changed for all the teens in the story.
What would it be like to have your friends murdered, begin to question not only your Catholic faith, but your very belief in God, and not know how to go on living? And what if everyone in town thought you were a murderer? This is different from other Mary Downing Hahn
books I've read--not a ghost story, but a story nonetheless of how the dead can haunt us in other ways. It's a coming-of-age story as well as a mystery and a real page turner. Highly recommended.
Note: the novel is inspired by a similar crime which took place when the author was a teen; the author knew both girls who were the victims and remembers vividly being at a friend's house when the bodies were discovered. She writes in an afterword that the event has haunted her for years.
Recommended for ages 10-14.
Release date: April 18, 2011
In a companion to his acclaimed novel, The Wednesday Wars
, award-winning writer Gary D. Schmidt revisits the Vietnam era in Okay for Now
. Doug Swietech, a secondary character in the Wednesday Wars, becomes the focus of this story; it's close to the end of the summer, and Doug and his very dysfunctional family have just moved to a "dump" of a town in upstate New York when the book opens. Doug idolizes Joe Pepitone of the Yankees, and his most treasured possession is a jacket signed given by his idol. His home life is dominated by his abusive father and his bullying older brother, while another brother is off fighting in Vietnam.
The library and the town's kind librarian, Mr. Powell, play a key role in the story, as Doug discovers that although "maybe stupid Marysville was a dump,...this place wasn't." At the second floor of the library, he finds a special room, with a huge book--a book displayed under glass, with only one picture showing. It's a gigantic picture of a bird, and Doug can't take his eyes off it. "It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen. The most beautiful." It's an original Audubon, and it haunts Doug's imagination. Although Doug doesn't draw (since, as he quips in the book, only girls with pink bicycle chains draw), the kind librarian is soon leaving drawing supplies near the Audubon display that Doug is drawn to by some powerful magnetic force. When he finally picks up a pencil to copy Audubon's drawing, it felt "spectacular, " and Mr. Powell is soon giving him drawing lessons (was that in Mr. Powell's librarian job description?)
As much as Doug hates "stupid Marysville", he is quickly befriended not only by Mr. Powell, but also by Lil, a girl whose family owns the town's deli, and gets Doug a job delivering groceries on Saturdays for some of the more eccentric citizens of Marysville. Things aren't going too bad for Doug, until his older brother is suspected of some local robberies, his father's physical abuse is revealed to all his classmates, his brother comes back from Vietnam maimed physically and emotionally, and to top it off, pages of the precious Audubon manuscript are being sold off to pay the town's bills. Can Doug stop the cycle of abuse in his family and perhaps even put the town's Audubon book back together?
Schmidt is a masterful writer, managing to incorporate pathos, humor, loss, the power of art, friendship and more into this memorable novel. Doug's voice and his journey is one that the reader will not soon forget. The novel is pulled together by the Audubon prints, which serve as titles for each chapter and are pictured in the novel as well, and often seem to mirror what is happening in Doug's own life. As Doug comes up with ways to reconstruct the precious book, he is also making sense of his own life and future.Okay for Now
is already getting some pre-Newbery buzz, and perhaps Schmidt will be adding a Newbery to his two Newbery honor awards (for The Wednesday Wars
and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
. Schmidt, who is a professor of English at Calvin College
with six children of his own, is working on the third volume of The Wednesday Wars
trilogy. That's a book that will definitely be on my "to read" pile.
Recommended for ages 8-12.
Release date: September 1, 2011
The newest in Scholastic's relaunch of its beloved Dear America series, this book by award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney tells the story of Dawnie Rae Johnson, a fictional twelve-year old Virginia girl who's the first to desegregate an all white school in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education.
Dawnie tells us she's always been blessed with the gift of gab, so a diary is a perfect birthday gift, especially prized since it was made by her little brother, Goober. It seems her dream is coming true when she finds out she's going to attend Prettyman Colburn, Hadley's white school, instead of the "colored" school, Bethune, where everything is broken, from the books to the toilets to the clocks. Dawnie's especially bright, and dreams of becoming a doctor one day, although she's never seen a colored doctor or nurse either. After passing an especially difficult test with flying colors, she's one of the students tapped by the NAACP to start the school integration process in their town.
Dawnie will need every bit of her courage and resolve, as she is confronted by demonstrations, small children spitting at her, adults calling her names, and police escorts needed just to get her into the school building. No one will talk to her, and she spends the first day in the principal's office. Dawnie writes in her diary, "By most counts, I'm a normal girl. But with the way those kids were staring at me today, you'da thought I was a bearded lady at the Lee County Carnival." But that's not her only problem, as her daddy loses her job when locals don't want to support a business that employs someone whose daughter is desegregating their schools. About the only people nice to her at school are the colored custodian and the lunch ladies, and Gertie Feldman, a Jewish student at the school. Will Dawnie be able to triumph in this hostile environment?
While both Andrea Davis Pinkney's heroine and the setting of Hadley, Virginia, are fictional, the narrative was inspired by several different integration stories, including one involving the author's own cousin. Pinkney herself was the only black student at her very first grade school, although her experience was not as harsh as Dawnie's. Pinkney incorporates many real historical events into her story, including the Montgomery bus protest of Claudette Colvin, the debut of Sports Illustrated magazine, and Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball. Dawnie Rae's distinctive and colorful voice and personality help bring this important period in our history to life for young people today. It's a must for school and public libraries, as well as all fans of the Dear America series.
Like the other Dear America volumes, back matter includes a historical note on American in 1954, as well as brief biographies of real people mentioned in Dawnie Rae's diary, a Civil Rights timeline, and an "about the author" note describing her background and her research on this topic.
Pinkney remarks in the author's note: "I wrote this book to remind young readers of the great privilege they enjoy--that of attending any school they wish, with classmates of all races--and to show them that even in the harshest situations, hope can shine through the darkest days."
Disclosure: Review copy provided by publisher.
Recommended for ages 10 to 14
The first in a new series on the Vietnam War for young readers, I Pledge Allegiance
introduces us to four ordinary guys who are best friends: Rudi, Ivan, Beck, and Morris, our narrator. Morris is haunted by nightmares about Vietnam, visions of "torn flesh and burned flesh and the end of everything we know, all dying there in the scorching jungle of Vietnam." The friends have a sacred pledge--if one of them gets drafted, they would all be drafted, even if they weren't serving together. And when Rudi is drafted, each of them enlists in a different branch of the service. Morris picks the Navy, where he thinks he can somehow watch over his friends and keep them safe. But can he stop his nightmares of death and destruction from coming true?
This short, action-packed novel (under 200 pages) is perfect for reluctant readers, even those in high school. Told in the first person, we can easily identify with Morris and his fears and insecurities. Lynch does a great job evoking the close bonds between the four friends, as well as the atmosphere of serving on a Navy missile cruiser: the day to day routines, and the terror of actually seeing action in Vietnam. Boys will be particularly attracted to this new series. I was not able to find any information on the rest of the series, but I'm betting that there will be three more volumes, each concentrating on a different one of the four friends, thus profiling a different branch of the service. This new series is an excellent addition for school or public libraries.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by publisher.
Recommended for ages 8-12.
In this new novel, debut author Katherine Schlick Noe
tells a fresh and compelling story, based on her own childhood experiences of growing up on an Indian reservation as one of the only white families in the community.
When our eleven-year old heroine, Kitty, arrives at the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon in 1962, she's used to being the new kid--her dad works for the government as a forest manager and they're always moving around. But it's hard to fit in at the reservation school where she's one of the only non-Indians. She doesn't feel comfortable with the white girls dressed in their fancy dresses and stiff petticoats whom she meets at church on Sundays either. They dismiss all Indians as drunks, and their prejudice bothers Kitty deeply. Even her teacher tells her that none of the Indian students are going anywhere, and that "they will drag you down if you let them."
The story, narrated by Kitty herself, takes Kitty through her first year living on the reservation, a year of growth and change for this sympathetic character. As Kitty gets to know her classmates, she begins to appreciate them and their culture, as well as striving to understand the "dark shadows" in their lives, which are so much more complicated than her own happy two-parent family. She even becomes friends with Jewel, the powerful and angry girl who once intimidated her, and is faced with the difficulties of keeping Jewel's secrets. Should she speak out to help Jewel and her brother? Something to Hold
was recognized by Amazon as one of its best books for December for children
. Although the book discusses sensitive subjects, particularly prejudice and an abusive father, these difficult topics are always handled in an age-appropriate way, and in the end the novel is an uplifting coming-of-age story with appealing characters and an unusual setting.
Tomorrow, I am pleased to feature a guest post from author Katherine Schlick Noe about her new book!
Disclosure: Review copy provided by publisher.
Recommended for ages 14 and up.
Abortion is a topic few YA authors dare to broach in their books, and this reality alone would be enough reason for me to applaud award-winning author Ellen Levine
's 2011 young adult novel In Trouble
. But the book has plenty of merit as an unsentimental look at the hard choices (or lack thereof) teens confronted when they became pregnant in the 1950's.
The film noir style cover, portraying a lonely teenaged girl waiting late at night on a deserted street, sets the stage for this dark novel set in 1956 New York, when choices for young girls who got themselves "in trouble" were limited indeed. The author tells the story of best friends Jamie and Elaine, who both find themselves with unwanted pregnancies while in high school. However, the pregnancies are ultimately dealt with in very different ways, with a sensitive portrayal of how two different families dealt with this difficult situation.
Note: some spoilers....
Elaine has a steady boyfriend already in college, and is sure that he will marry her when she tells him about the pregnancy. Jamie's circumstances, on the other hand, are slowly unveiled by the author through a series of nightmares as the reader realizes that she was date-raped by a friend of her sophisticated Manhattan cousin. Jamie's family is already under plenty of stress, since her dad has just been released from prison, having been convicted for refusing to answer questions during the McCarthy hearings. But when they discover her circumstances, her family steps up, even helping her find a doctor who will do an abortion, despite abortions being illegal at the time. Elaine, on the other hand, is sent to a home for unwed Catholic girls, where she is pressured to give up her baby for adoption despite her wishes.
In Trouble is based on dozens of interviews Levine conducted, and although the characters are fictional, each event in the book actually happened to someone. In an author's note, Levine explains why she felt compelled to tell Elaine and Jamie's stories. "If we don't know what has happened, we can't appreciate our choices today and what we might lose if laws are changed," she writes. She explains that although we might think things are totally different today, with the availability of legal abortion, in 87% of U.S. counties you can't get a legal abortion, because there's no doctor who will do it.
I believe this is an important novel for young people, particularly girls to read; unfortunately, I'm not sure it will be widely purchased by school and public libraries. Despite the fact that Levine has won many awards for her work, including a Caldecott Honor for Henry's Freedom Box, few of the library systems in my area (Southern California) have purchased it, although the novel came out in September. Whether this is because of the controversial subject matter or limited budgets, I can't say, but I hope librarians will not be reluctant to add this to their collections because the book deals with abortion. It is a gripping story that deserves to be on the shelves.