Category Archives: Openmind

First Light

firstlightThere’s been so much talk over the past few months about Rebecca Stead’s second novel for Middle Grade readers, When You Reach Me. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Awards whispering. I’ve read it and I loved it, just like everyone else. Certainly, When You Reach Me makes book people look at Stead as a writer with many, many books in her future, and it’s the sort of book that should make readers wonder what she’ll write next. I decided to read First Light because I was so impressed by When You Reach Me. As it turns out, Stead’s first book has tremendous merit as well, and is in many ways, as creative and finely wrought as her latest novel.

First Light may be science fiction, but it is a story that is incredibly timely, as the “real world” thread of the narrative focuses on a boy whose scientist father is studying global warming. Peter is thrilled at the chance to travel with his parents to Greenland, where his father will be conducting field work. His mother is also a scientist, who studies mitochondrial DNA. For as long as Peter can remember, she has suffered from terrible, debilitating headaches that seem to shift her whole mood towards a sadness no one can penetrate. As the family is caught up in preparations for their journey, Peter begins to experience more frequent headaches himself, sometimes accompanied by strange visions. He wonders if he has inherited some secret illness from his mother, but neither of his parents ever speak to him about his mother’s headaches, and Peter wonders if there is a something serious that they are keeping from him. He doesn’t realize it, but this trip to Greenland will take him to the heart of the mystery he is only beginning to sense. The second thread of the narrative belongs to Thea, a girl who lives underneath the arctic ice in a community forged by a hunted people, generations before her. Her ancestors came to live in Gracehope, a secret world that they build under the ice, and ever since then, they have feared the outside world. Thea is not afraid, however. Rather she dreams of seeing the sky and the horizon and the constellations she has only read about. She wants to travel to the surface, but to do so, she must act in secret, turning against the wishes of many elders in Gracehope. Peter and Thea are destined to meet, and when they do both find answers to questions they didn’t even know they had.

What’s remarkable about First Light is its potential to appeal to all sorts of different children. Do you like science? Read this. How about arctic adventures or survival fiction? Read this. Realistic family stories? Yep. Unsolved mysteries? OK. Secret worlds? Here you go. With all this going on, you might wonder if Stead has taken on too much. Is she trying to bring together way too many genres and topics? No way. Somehow, everything feels balanced and connected. In creating and describing Gracehope, her world-building is outstanding. Stead pays attention to details and makes sure we can imagine them, from the berry pancakes that Thea eats for breakfast and her fur outerwrap and the seven bracelets on her arm, to the decriptions of the skaters streaming down the Mainway and the vast icy council chamber where the elders meet. All of it is there for us to picture. This makes for a more powerful reading experience, and of course, any science fiction or fantasy fan looks for convincing world building. Continue reading

My Invented Life

inventedlifePart of the great fun and excitement in reading debut authors is that if you find a really good one, you feel filled up with happiness in thinking of all of the great reading that is in store for you down the road, as this writer keeps on writing. This is exactly my feeling about Lauren Bjorkman. Her first novel, My Invented Life, is a fantastic look at sisterhood, drama geeks, and the far-from-simple subject of sexual identity. Funny with depth = my idea of pure reading delight.

Roz and Eva have always been as close as sisters can be. They share interests and friends and secrets. Sometimes, they’ve shared boyfriends (though not at the same time). In fact, currently, Roz would be more than happy if Eva would hand over her guy, sexy skate god Bryan. Roz hasn’t ever minded much that Eva is the prettier sister, the more talented sister, the more popular sister. She loves Eva like crazy, and that’s why it’s driving her nuts that Eva seems to be shutting her out. When Roz gets the idea that Eva has fallen hard for her friend and cheerleading partner, Carmen, she tries to get Eva to come out, but it isn’t so simple. So Roz comes up with a crazy scheme hoping to inspire her sister to open up. She decides to pretend she’s lesbian, to try coming out just to see what happens and gauge the response of their group of friends. Needless to say, her plan gets a lot of attention, and far from making things easier, just ends up turning everything upside down. Toss into the mix all of the gender-bending action in their school production of As You Like It, and Roz can barely keep up with the general insanity. It turns out that her invented life is no easier to manage than her real life, but it sure makes her think about labels and trust and the course of true love.

There is a wild and crazy energy to this book, and Roz is at the heart of it all. Whether she’s skidding into dangerous territory with the sleazy-but-hot Bryan, or designing a new “femme lesbian” style for her starring role in “The Lesbian of Yolo Bluffs High”, or reading sentimental coming out stories online, she’s always going about 100 miles an hour. She springs off the page. She’s one of the most “alive” characters I’ve come across lately, like a gust of fresh air. You won’t always agree with her choices, but you can’t stop yourself from wishing she was your best friend in high school. Think of all the fun/trouble you’d have had.

Another great pleasure in My Invented Life is the cast of quirky secondary characters. Just when you think you’ve got each one figured out (“Oh yeah, there’s the nice guy love interest…” “OK, here’s the damaged but cool girlfriend…”) Bjorkman twists things around to show you a side of a character that you hadn’t predicted. Nobody is one dimensional (except maybe Bryan, “the sleazeball”). You know you’ve arrived at a whole different level of YA fiction when you find yourself imagining novels following the lives of several secondary characters.

If you’re feeling a little bit uncertain about the playful way in which Roz responds to her sister’s sexuality, I hear ya. At the beginning I was uneasy about Roz “pretending” to be a lesbian, just for the fun of it, treating coming out as a game, or as acting practice. But fear not! Bjorkman takes Roz from her prankish and somewhat disrespectful starting place towards real insights about the complexity of sexual identity. I was happy with the “all’s well that ends well” spirit of the ending, but perhaps there might be readers out there who feel it romanticizes the reality of teens who question their sexual identity. I’m curious to see what others say.

My Invented Life is a romp, but the issues it plays with are certainly worthy of discussion. I’ll be reading whatever Lauren Bjorkman writes next. (I’ll also be playing with the Elizabethan Curse Generator I found linked at her blog. Thanks Lauren!)

My Invented Life is published by Henry Holt tomorrow (September 29/2009).

Sunny Holiday

sunnyThis was a random library find for me the other day. I haven’t read any of Coleen Murtagh Paratore’s other titles, but I know of her Wedding Planner’s Daughter series. It was the cover that grabbed me, and it’s no wonder! My well-honed Julia Denos radar is clearly at work. I love her art (she’s got oodles and oodles of talent, that one). The brightness of the colours, the fab pink shoes and the quirkily-named title character all said “sweetness” to me. I was right. There is some serious sweetness going on in this slim novel for younger readers, with enough struggle to be thought-provoking and to inspire conversation.

Sunny is as bright and positive as her name. Her mother likes to remind her that “the sun shined so bright and long the day (Sunny) was born, the stars got jealous and complained to God.” She tries to see the good in the world, in the people around her and in herself. It might not always come easily, but Sunny is willing to work at it. She loves holidays more than anything and she’s troubled by the fact that January and August are lacking in the holiday department, so she starts planning holidays with particular kid appeal to fill in the gaps. Sunny’s life isn’t perfect in every way. Riverview towers, her apartment building, might be full of many interesting and warm-spirited people, but the neighbourhood leaves a lot to be desired, what with the litter, the straggly trees, the chain-link fences and the polluted river. Sunny’s dad is in jail and she only gets to visit him the first Sunday of every month. Her mom works long hours as a hotel maid and then fills up her nights taking care of Sunny and taking college courses. Still, Sunny’s home is full of love and creativity and wisdom. The novel is a gentle portrait of a little girl who faces some hard situations with natural grace, humour and hope.

I read Sunny Holiday in one sitting. It was Sunny’s voice that drew me in, her poetic way of seeing the world. I loved the first chapter called “Dandelions.” Here’s one of the nicest bits:

“We don’t have a park or a yard, either, just one long, dirty-gray cement sidewalk. But that doesn’t stop a dandelion. A dandelion seed is smarty-pants-smart. That seed sails off on a wispy balloon, riding free on a summer breeze, search-search-searching for a home. It knows for sure it will find one. All it sees is sidewalk, sidewalk, sidewalk. Does it give up? No, it does not. That little seed keeps searching until it spots a crack. “Whoopee! Whoopee! Whoopee!” it shouts, and dives in for a happy landing. But then that seed realizes it’s all alone and sits there shaking, not sure just what to do next. Does it give up? No it does not. It sends down a skin-skinny raggedy root, far below, where no one can see, look-look-looking for dirt it can trust. that may take a very long time.”

Each little chapter is so short and yet there is a lot of emotion packed into every tiny package. I was reminded of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (gosh I love that book!) There’s the same true kid’s perspective in this book and in places, the same heart-squeezing effect as Sunny struggles against the circumstances of her life. My only complaint is that in places, Sunny came off a little Pollyanna-ish. You almost couldn’t believe that she would be so persistently positive. This is a small thing however. Mostly, you’ll just wish you could manage to see the world the way she does, always looking for good things and working to make changes to improve the rest. This would be an excellent title for use in the classroom, to initiate conversations around inclusion, compassion and creativity. It handles the more challenging background issues carefully, with just the right amount of information for a younger reader. Perfect for Grade 4, I should think.

Sunny Holiday is published by Scholastic Press.

Elephant-y books, a giveaway & an interview with Carol Buckley

tarra_gifjust_for_elephants

Phew! Prepare yourself for one juicy, packed-full-of-treats post! Today I am happy to review two lovely non-fiction picture books from Tilbury House about the elephants at Tennessee’s amazing Elephant Sanctuary. These books are authored by Carol Buckley, one of the founders of the Sanctuary. As well, Carol has stopped by for an interview. Finally, Tilbury has kindly arranged for a few prizes in celebration of this blog tour: one is a copy of Just for Elephants signed by author and Sanctuary co-founder Carol Buckley, and the grand prize is a copy of Travels With Tarra, signed by Carol and featuring a scanned image of Tarra’s signature symbol – her footprint! Also, a package of Tilbury House Animal Books— The Goat Lady, Thanks to the Animals, and an advance copy of Bear-ly There will go to one lucky winner who leaves a comment on one or more of the respective tour posts (September 1-8, 2009). For all of these prizes, you just need to leave a comment on one of the posts in Carol’s blog tour. If you are on twitter, you can also win a copy of each of Carol’s books by tweeting before September 9th about the tour using the hashtag #trunktour. Winners will be contacted at the end of the blog tour after September 10th. (Note: open only to residents of Canada and the U.S.)

Let’s get on with the celebration!

Just for Elephants introduces readers to the Sanctuary and its philosophy by focusing on the story of how one of the resident elephants, Shirley, came to live there. Readers will steal a glimpse into everyday life for the elephants at the Sanctuary and through Shirley’s connection to the other elephants, begin to appreciate the complex and deep social relationships that elephants form. Travels with Tarra is the story of Carol Buckley’s amazing relationship with Tarra, the Asian elephant she has had for more than 25 years. It traces their early years performing together at circuses, theme parks and zoos, moving on to the years when Carol was establishing the Elephant Sanctuary. Both books are written in a simple and direct narrative style that will be accessible to younger readers, but with detail enough to engage older readers too, for both those who enjoy non-fiction and fictional texts. Some of the photography is fantastic, with pictures of the elephants hanging out, roaming and enjoying life and freedom on the land at the Sanctuary. A few of the photos in Just for Elephants were quite out-of-focus, which while this lent a certain “behind-the-scenes realism” to the text, I thought was a little distracting and surprising, given that I’m sure there were thousands of possible pictures to use. Travels with Tarra has some great shots of Tarra as a wee little elephant, sure to inspire more than a few “Aawww!”s.

As usual with Tilbury, teachers will find many good ideas for using these books in the classroom at Tilbury’s site. Also, while the Sanctuary is not open for visitors, they have established opportunities for teachers to schedule virtual tours via teleconference and there are excellent units for K-8 available for free downloading at the website.

Tilbury has come up with a lovely way to support the Elephant Sanctuary by planning a “Trunk Sale” running now through December 31st. For every 100 copies of the elephant books (Travels With Tarra and Just for Elephants) that are sold, Tilbury will sponsor a much-needed item from the Sanctuary’s wish list. These include 100lbs of peanut butter (a favorite treat), elephant-sized meals, and land to roam (to support the Sanctuary’s recent expansion). The books are available from indie stores across the country, online retailers, and direct from The Elephant Sanctuary, www.elephants.com.

Now for the interview. Welcome Carol!

I’m sure that in all of your years caring for and working with elephants, you’ve seem some pretty remarkable social interactions between elephants. Could you share the most memorable moment you’ve witnessed related to elephant interaction?

One of the most remarkable scenes I have witnessed occurred was shortly after Bunny arrived. Bunny had live 44 years alone in a small zoo. Her keepers were highly protective of her to the point of sheltering her from experiences that might have helped her to become a more confident individual, but they cared deeply for Bunny and felt they were doing the right thing by being over protective. When Bunny arrived at the Sanctuary she was insecure about the very ground she walked on. The surface was not level as she was used to and she had no experience with negotiating trails, climbing a gentle sloop or crossing a rocky creek. This evening Bunny was making her way back to the barn with a caregiver at her side gently coaxing her over this new and scary terrain. Bunny failed to recognize the land dropping slightly and tripped. She fell to her knees. She was visually shaken although she had not fallen down or injured herself, she was afraid. The caregiver tried to comfort Bunny and encourage her but she would not move. She was frozen in fear. At that point Barbara, another elephant, appeared in the distance, she was looking in Bunny’s direction. Bunny was not uttering an audible sound at least not audible to the human ear. But Barbara appeared to be responding to something as she came directly over to Bunny, gently laid her trunk on Bunny face and then just as silently as she arrived, Barbara turned to leave. Bunny rose from her knees and immediately followed Barbara without hesitation.

Continue reading

Secret Keeper

secretkeeperI was so impressed by Mitali Perkins’ Rickshaw Girl when I read it two years ago for the Cybils awards that I had a humming excited feeling as I prepared to read her latest, titled Secret Keeper. Today I turned the last page one very happy reader. This is a beautiful book that you won’t soon forget, a story about true sisterhood that is full of heart and heartbreak and characters you’ll care about.

Set during the political turmoil in India in the mid-1970s, Secret Keeper focuses on a family facing a major transition. Asha’s father loses his job and makes the difficult decision to leave his family behind to travel to America to look for work. He plans to secure a job and then send for them to join him. This means that in the meantime, Asha, her older sister Reet, and their mother must move from their home in Dehli to Calcutta to stay with Baba’s brother and his family. This is not something that anyone really wants. Even though Uncle is welcoming and quite kind to his relatives, since he is the man of the house, the three women are entirely at the mercy of his decisions. They wait for word from Baba, hoping that it won’t be long before they leave to start their new life in America. Things don’t progress quickly, however, and money starts to run low. Reet’s beauty attracts a lot of attention in the neighborhood, and soon there are marriage proposals. Asha doesn’t want to lose her sister, and she has never felt more confined by the traditions and expectations of her Uncle’s household and the community beyond. She dreams of continuing her education and having the freedom to do the things she loves, to play sports and enjoy herself like her cousin Raj. She escapes to the rooftop where she writes in her diary and steals some time for herself. In these stolen moments, she meets the boy next door, Jay Sen, and over time, the two begin to care for one another. Then news arrives from America that changes everything and sets Asha and her family on a course none of them ever imagined.

Secret Keeper is incredibly moving. It kind of sneaks up on you, because at first it’s just the story of a family, going through a lot of changes, but then it slowly becomes a lot more than a simple family story. Mitali creates the relationship between Asha and Reet so convincingly. I can’t think of a YA novel in which I’ve appreciated a depiction of sisterhood more than here. Their bond comes through on these pages with real intensity, which makes what happens in the later part of the novel heartwrenching, and really quite unforgettable. You will be inspired to imagine these characters ten, twenty, fifty years down the road in their lives. You will wonder what happened after. I love books like that. I think Mitali also has a talent for writing about the culture of distant places in a way that is fully integrated with the rest of the story. You will never feel like she’s just taking a moment to fill you in on Indian society before getting back to the narrative, and yet you finish her book feeling as if you have gained substantial insight into a different place and the people who lived there. Another thing I admire in this story is the ending. It’s hard, but it’s perfect. Mitali didn’t choose the easy way out. I kept waiting for something to happen to take the story towards a more conventional “happily ever after,” but it is just right.

I’d seen the book trailer for Secret Keeper when it came out earlier this year, and for some reason it left me with the impression that the story was middle grade, so it came as something of a surprise as I was reading along that this is definitely a book for teens that deals with intense emotions and issues.

Secret Keeper is rich and powerful and crafted by a writer of true talent. I’m not waiting two more years to read all the rest of Mitali’s books. I’m off to the library right now.

Secret Keeper is published by Delacorte.

Teacher Book Alert: When it’s Six O’clock in San Francisco

sixoclockI received my copy of When it’s Six O’clock in San Francisco a while back, but I put it away and hadn’t looked at it until today, because I didn’t want to think about anything even remotely related to school so early in my summer holiday. Now that we’re into August, and my mind is starting to turn back to teaching, I thought I could safely pick it up. As it turns out, my feeling that it would be a great teaching book was exactly right. This lovely picture book is the perfect way to help students understand the tricky concept of time zones.

Cynthia Jaynes Omololu has created a text that is accessible and lyrical, and Randy DuBurke’s evocative and warm illustrations bring the multicultural aspect of the work vividly to life. The book begins with a boy waking up one February morning in San Francisco. From there, as the pages turn, the reader moves around the world, from Montréal to Santiago to London and Cape Town and beyond. At each new place, the text starts off, “When it’s six o’clock in San Francisco…” and goes on to give the time in that part of the world and to describe what a child who lives there is doing at that time of day. Omololu describes ordinary things – going to school, playing in a soccer game, running errands, having dinner and cycling home. There is something comforting and beautiful in the way she describes the ordinary events of daily life, and I think kids will appreciate this and make connections to the text easily.

I remember being fascinated as a child by the idea that somewhere on the other side of the world a kid was going to bed when I was just getting up, or heading home from school as I was climbing onto the bus. There was some magic in that, even when I understood the real explanation for it. It made me feel oddly connected to people I knew I would never meet. Omololu’s book captures that spirit, and I imagine it will get kids wondering what other children are doing, at all different times of the day, on the other side of the planet.

When it’s Six O’clock in San Francisco is published by Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Also Known as Harper

harper

Harper Lee Morgan wants to be a poet. Actually, she’s already a poet. She just wants to have a chance to share her poems onstage, at her school’s poetry contest. She writes about her experiences, and she has had a lot of pretty difficult ones in her young life. Her Daddy walked out on her family soon after her little baby sister died. Now her Mama has to work even harder to provide for Harper and her brother Hemingway. It seems like things couldn’t be much worse, but then the family gets evicted from their house. Harper ends up having to stay home from school to care for Hemingway, right at the time when she wants to be there most, to get her poems all perfect for the poetry contest. Feeling stuck and forced into circumstances no one would choose, Harper discovers a lot about responsibility, creativity and the secret places beauty can live.

I loved this book, from start to finish. Debut author, Ann Haywood Leal, is a writer worth watching. Her novel addresses challenging real world issues (homelessness and poverty) in a way that is entirely understandable for children, without shying away too much from how scary the situation is for this family. Kids will grasp the desperate circumstances of Harper’s family, and no doubt be interested in seeing how this girl copes in such an unimaginable situation for most children. You’ll fall for this character, for the way she is an ordinary child and yet sometimes sees the world with a kind of wisdom and forbearance beyond her years. I enjoyed the way that Harper’s poems were scattered throughout the narrative. I’ve read numerous children’s books with main characters who are aspiring poets, and I think that Leal did a fantastic job creating poetry that could indeed have been written by a child. The poems read very believably – never overly refined and seemingly too adult in tone and style. There are several memorable secondary characters as well, particularly Dorothy, an older woman Harper meets early in the story and who has secrets that Harper does not discover until much later. Leal has a way with words that seems graceful and natural, never forced. She tells the story simply but with real care.

Also Known as Harper has much to offer readers in its themes and would make an outstanding choice for literature circles in the classroom or book club discussions. I’m imagining conversations about hope and the way people judge each other. This narrative has a lot to say about compassion, feeling compassion for others even while you’re in a situation that deserves compassion as well. I was reminded of Waiting for Normal, although I thought Harper was a more believable character than Addie in Waiting for Normal, because while Harper was optimistic and hopeful, her strength was tempered by frustration and sadness too. I plan to recommend Also Known as Harper to many, and I will be looking out for Ann Haywood Leal’s next books. Ann will be here soon for an interview, and I’ll hopefully be giving away a few copies of her book when she visits.

Also Known as Harper is published by Henry Holt.

Other reviews:

A Patchwork of Books
Mrs. Magoo Reads