Category Archives: Openmind

The One and Only Ivan

Often, the longer a book sits in my TBR pile, the less likely I am to read it. It gets forgotten, or it loses its initial appeal. Then there are the books in the pile that you look at and you think, “Oh, yeah! I still really want to read that one. I’ve got to get to it.” And months pass. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, somehow ended up stuck for ages in TBR status, and reading it has made me wonder what other miracle books might be in that pile, because I think this book is one miraculous book.

The One and Only Ivan is the story of a gorilla who lives in a cement and metal “domain” in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. He’s been there for 27 years. There’s a jungle scene painted on one wall of his cage and people pay to see him, though not as many as when he was young. Ivan is alone in his domain, but he has friends: Stella the elephant, and Bob, a stray dog who forages for scraps in the Mall trash. There’s also Julia, the daughter of the man who cleans the mall at night. She likes to draw the animals, and talk to them. Ivan is an artist too. He paints what he sees in his cage, mostly apple cores and banana peels. He wishes he could draw something that doesn’t yet exist, that he only imagines, but he’s not unhappy with his ordinary pictures. As the mall starts losing money, the owner, Mack, brings a baby elephant to be part of the show and hopefully to drum up business. Ruby’s arrival signals a change in Ivan. He promises Stella that he will protect Ruby no matter what and find a way to get Ruby to a safe place. It will take all of his courage, creativity, and hope, to make good on that promise.

And FYI, you will be needing tissues.

Applegate’s prose has a pared down quality that brings it close to poetry. The directness and simplicity of the language fits with how you might imagine a gorilla to think and perceive the world. Each short chapter is perfectly shaped for great emotional impact. It’s not often you find a book that will not intimidate a less confident reader but that still has such rich themes and gorgeous writing. I’d feel confident putting this one in the hands of a child who is more reluctant as well as an avid reader. It will prompt thinking and discussion about the issues connected to humans’ use of animals for profit, but also inter-species understanding, and compassion. The gentle sweetness of Patricia Castelao’s spot illustrations enhance the reading experience. Can you say perfect read aloud? Teachers everywhere, take note. You want this one.

Here’s a Q&A with Katherine Applegate, and you should take a look at the website for the book where there’s some extra information for curious readers and for teachers to bring into the classroom.

The One and Only Ivan is published by Harper, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.


The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook

Joanne Rocklin’s The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook is pretty special. It’s about cats and family and sibling relationships and home and loss and community. It packs a lot of depth into a short, poetic, and often funny narrative. It made me cry. It made me think. It made me want to hug my cat and never, ever let him go. (He’s good with that, by the way).

Wait a sec, now we must pause for picture of said remarkable kitty:

That’s my Yoyo. He’s beautiful, right?

So the book introduces us to Oona and her little brother Fred and at the beginning they are coping with the tough experience of leaving their beloved cat Zook at the vet. Zook is really sick and the vet is doing what he can, but from the kids’ perspective, it’s not enough. The siblings are sure that Zook needs to come home to get better and they come up with a plan to break Zook out of the vet. Alongside this, Oona does her best to reassure / distract her brother from worrying about Zook by telling him “whoppers,” or stories, about Zook’s imaginary past lives. There are connections between the stories and what is going on in the kids’ lives and what has happened in the past, including their father’s death two years ago. I think the book trailer really captures the whimsical and kind of homespun feeling of this book. Take a look:

One of the many impressive things about Joanne Rocklin’s work is how she manages to explore difficult topics head on like the death of a family member or a dear pet, but she does it in such a thoughtful and gentle way that you feel the complexity and sadness without being overwhelmed by it. This is not a depressing book. It’s not an issue book, best shelved alongside other books for kids that “deal with death.” It’s much more layered than that and so I think it will appeal to a wide audience. It’s for a kid who loves stories about animals, or who wants to become a writer, or who is experiencing changes in his or her family and doesn’t know how it will all turn out. It’s hopeful and honest and it will make readers want to reach out to the people in their lives and appreciate what they have. You might need kleenex in a few places, but by the end, you’ll be smiling. This is a good one folks. Don’t miss it.

The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook is published by Amulet Books.

The Sandwich Swap

Of course you know by now that I’m a sucker for a story that features food. Queen Rania’s picture book, The Sandwich Shop, is a food story, but it also encourages kids to be open to new experiences and different traditions. Delicious and instructive – a winning combination.

In general, I’m not a big fan of “celebrity picture books,” but I think this one deserves a recommendation. It is simple, and Tricia Tusa’s winning illustrations are wonderfully whimsical, a combination that makes a charming book that kids will enjoy and that could easily serve as a launch for classroom discussions and lessons.

There is often drama in the lunch room, right? It’s where many friendships begin and end. It’s where trades are negotiated and unwanted sandwiches get surreptitiously tossed so that mom will “never find out.” This story is about two girls who are friends in every way, even though Salma eats a hummus sandwich everyday and Lily goes for PB & J. This isn’t an issue for quite some time until one day Lily can’t keep her true feelings quiet any longer. She tells her friend that her hummus sandwich looks yucky. Salma responds by saying that Lily’s sandwich looks gross and smells bad. That’s all it takes for the perfect friendship to disintegrate. And you know how it goes with insults; they have a way of catching on. In the end, a massive food fight erupts. Eventually the girls mend things. All it takes is a little openmindedness and a few bites of the other’s lunch to realize that different doesn’t mean disgusting. Different can be exciting and interesting and delicious.

The message is not complicated, and it might be a shade too-good-to-be-true, but sometimes you need a book like that and I do think it will achieve its goal, getting kids to consider that diversity is cool and one of the best parts of life. Of course they will relate to the experience of having their lunches “judged.” It happens all the time. I think that this concept was a clever and non-intimidating choice for getting kids talking about themes of tolerance, inclusion and difference.

The Sandwich Shop is published by Disney Hyperion.

the year of goodbyes

Once you start reading, you will not be able to put down Debbie Levy’s book, the year of goodbyes. There are many books written for young people about the Holocaust, and yet Levy has found a uniquely powerful way to explore this dark period. This slim book has tremendous emotional force. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s a profound reading experience. I’ve read a lot of Holocaust literature for young people, and this book is one of the strongest.

the year of goodbyes tells the story of Levy’s mother’s experiences in Hamburg in 1938, her family’s last year in Germany prior to leaving for America. Levy was inspired to write this story after reading her mother’s poesiealbum from this period, which is essentially like an autograph or friendship book. The album was full of messages written to Jutta, Levy’s mother, during that year before she left Hamburg. Each chapter of the year of goodbyes begins with a handwritten message, an actual image of the page from the album and then Levy uses that entry as a launch into a free verse poem.

The poetry feels completely true to the voice of an eleven-year-old girl. The language is direct and honest, which makes it convincing. I was impressed by the way Levy keeps the narrative line clear and compelling from poem to poem. Tension builds and there is nothing choppy or separate about the different chapters. One flows to the next, which proves how skillfuly Levy has drawn a story from the entries of her mother’s album, as well as extensive research.

Close to halfway through the book, I had to stop for a moment when I came to one of the entries. When you’re a teacher, handwriting says a lot to you. You imagine the child behind the letters. As you get to know your students, a lot of the time, their handwriting makes sense given who they are. The crazy huge letters of the child with the world’s messiest desk. The flowy, curly script of some types of girls. The super-slanted, angled letters of kids trying to make their writing look grown up for the first time. There was something about the tiny, perfect script of Ellen Berger that reminded me so much of the handwriting of a child I taught in my first year of teaching, also named Ellen. Which of course, made me wonder about Ellen Berger. Was she a careful, precise girl? Was she quiet? Did she have small hands? Was she good at drawing things? Did she take pride in making things look just right? At this moment in Levy’s book it struck me how much I had to know if these children survived. This realization is what makes the year of goodbyes so poignant. Many of these children did not survive. At the end of the book Levy reveals the fates of many of Jutta’s friends, but there are some of those stories that she could not discover through research.

the year of goodbyes is a perfect book for anyone interested in experiencing a very personal and human portrait of the Holocaust. It is the right book to read with a younger reader as an introduction to many of the more explicit books on this historical period. It will make you imagine the people who were lost, as individuals, because their words are here, on the pages.

the year of goodbyes is published by Disney Hyperion.

Here is the trailer, which I think captures rather well the spirit of the book:


You can’t get away from the truth. That can be scary. Sometimes, you have no idea what the truth is. That is even scarier. In Borderline, Printz-Honor winning author Allan Stratton spotlights a story that reads like it might have sprung straight from today’s news. It’s scary, but not in the ways you might expect – and that’s what makes it worth reading.

Sami Sabiri is pretty much used to being the only Muslim kid at his school. It hasn’t ever been easy, and there are still kids who bully and abuse him for his different faith, but he copes with it, trying to fly low on the radar. Attention is exactly what Sami gets when out of the blue, the FBI raids his home, taking his father into custody under suspicion of involvement in an international terror plot. To make things even worse, Sami has been feeling suspicious about his dad’s behaviour for a while. Suddenly all that Sami once believed in is shaken. Truth seems completely unreachable.

Borderline is a thought-provoking book that will make you consider the human story behind those headlines we’ve all read about terrorism and terror plots and wrongful accusation. It will make you wonder to what degree your thinking and your perspectives have been skewed or influenced by stories in the news, even if you try to stay open and not stereotype or jump to conclusions. I thought it was a clever angle for Stratton to have Sami questioning his knowledge of his father, just as the larger community in the story (and readers) wonder about his guilt or innocence and form ideas right from the moment he is accused. The public has doubts. We aren’t sure. Sami is uncertain. It’s not just the people on the outside who are suspicious. I like how Stratton introduces readers to complex and current issues, in a subtle and accessible way, without making it seem didactic or like he’s just trying to grab onto something of the moment. Borderline is a tightly written, suspenseful family drama, about identity, prejudice, and the media’s influence on the way we perceive and judge others. Perfect for news junkies, and social justice activists in training.

Borderline is published by Harper Trophy Canada. It is set to be released in early 2010. (February / March-ish… looks like!)

This review is cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Into the Wild Nerd Yonder

I read quite a lot of YA realistic fiction, and almost none of the books that I read actually make me wish I could be a teen again. Most of the time, I’m glad to be a grown up. While I wasn’t a miserable teenager, looking back, I wasn’t ever content, and that was mostly because I wasn’t cool. I didn’t belong, and as much as I acted like my academic success was all that mattered to me, I always wanted to have more friends than I did and I always wondered what it would be like to live life in the cool crowd.

Was I a nerd? I never thought so. I guess I always thought that nerds were smart and really weird. Oddball genius types. Some probably gave me the “nerd” label because of the grades I got all the time. Bottom line was I didn’t really belong in the nerd category or in any other category. If I’d read Julie Halpern’s novel, Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, when I was in high school, I might have felt less nerdy, or at least, I might not have felt offended if others thought of me that way. This book is all about nerd-power, and it is fantastic.

Jessie is a sophomore in high school. She actually likes school, but she doesn’t want to crow about it, because then she might look like a nerd. She loves math most of all. In her spare time, she’s started sewing funky skirts with weird and hilarious theme fabric from the fabric store: jelly bean fabric, prairie dog fabric, dalmations & hearts fabric… She also likes playing the drums. Jessie has had the same two close friends for years, and she’s also had the same crush for ages, her brother Barrett’s band-mate, Van. Even though her social life and school life have always seemed more or less sorted out, Jessie can’t decide where she really fits. This feeling gets stronger when her best friends decide at the start of the school year that they are going to become punks and groupies for her brother’s band. Then one starts chasing Jessie’s crush and Barrett sheds his punk-status when he starts dating the homecoming queen. Nothing makes sense anymore. This turmoil launches Jessie into friendship territory she never considered exploring before: the Dungeons and Dragons crowd. Before she knows it, she’s deep in nerd land, and unbelievably, she kind of likes it there. This leads her to question all she thought she had decided about what’s cool, what’s geeky, and where she belongs. Continue reading

The Heart is Not a Size

heartThe Heart is Not a Size is a book that will make you want to go out in the world and do something that matters. It will take you into a community that you likely will never visit, and it will make you think about how much you have and what you really need. No surprise that the writer behind this inspiring and thought-provoking novel is Beth Kephart. It’s not released until March 2010, but you should put it on your TBR list right now. Books like this don’t come along every day.

The Heart is Not a Size was inspired by a trip Beth took a few years ago to a squatter’s village called Anapra, near Juarez, in Mexico. Like the characters in her novel, she went there with a church group of teens and adults, to build a community washroom. Her experiences led to this story. First, take a look at some photos Beth took in this short video, where she reads from the novel:

It’s a testament to the strength of Beth’s writing that her words brought to mind so much of what you see in those images – the openness of the children and their smiling faces, the dust everywhere, the shacks made of cast off materials. I’ve never been anywhere like Anapra, but I could imagine it through Beth’s words. The Heart is Not a Size is about a teen named Georgia, who convinces her best friend Riley to go on a trip to Anapra with an organization called Good Works to do community service. Georgia wants to go to Anapra to get perspective and to start believing in herself. Everyone thinks she’s a grounded, reliable sort of girl, and Georgia isn’t sure. She’s ready for something, but she isn’t even sure what that something is. So when she finds a flyer about Anapra she makes a choice and she wants Riley to come too. Riley is vulnerable in her own way, and the girls’ friendship is deep and complicated. When they get to Anapra, things that they used to be certain about start to change.

The Heart is Not a Size would stand up to rereading, so that you could feel you were getting everything out of it. It’s a quiet book that sneaks up on you. You’ll meet so many characters that are complex and present enough to make you imagine their whole life stories – even secondary characters who appear only briefly stand out more than many central characters in other novels, like Socorro, the little girl who hovers outside the compound where the visiting group is living. The novel is divided into two parts, which I think reflects the way Georgia’s experiences in Anapra have really changed her. There was her life before Anapra, and then after. This is a novel about the potential in people, and not just in the people who go to Anapra to do what they can to contribute to that community, but the potential and worth of the residents of Anapra as well. Almost at the end of her time in Anapra, Georgia thinks, “there was no measure for the people we were becoming, no limit to what we might become.” She sees the possibility of her own life and the lives of the people of Anapra too. The Heart is Not a Size is a novel worth thinking about. There is nothing moralizing about it. Rather, the characters experience first hand how life is messy and brutal and beautiful and the opposite of simple. Georgia doesn’t find easy answers in Anapra and we don’t get the sense that she finds just what she expected, but her experience gave her what she needed nonetheless. Give this book to a teen as a graduation gift. I wish I’d been able to read it when I was 18.

The Heart is Not a Size will be published by Harper Teen in March 2010.

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.