The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (hardcover)
by Karina Yan Glaser
I put off reading The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, because I generally read books with real world problems, relevant to current events, or about misrepresented youth. This book seemed too happy. Well, I wasn’t wrong. It is about a family of 7 (mom and dad, twin daughters, a son, and then 2 more younger daughters). They are being evicted from their brownstone in Harlem, New York, but they don’t know why. The kids are deeply troubled by this, because they love their home and don’t want to leave all they’re familiar with, including the friendly neighbors. They decide to win over their grouchy landlord, who lives upstairs, but each attempt ends in failure.
What I liked about this book was that it was a pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did. While it wasn’t my favorite of the year, I really liked that the kids were raised in a family where they were taught tolerance, respect, and individuality. The kids were cared about, were given responsibilities (like cleaning and cooking), and their parents clearly cared about their mental well-being. It seems like most books these days DO focus on tougher problems. While my genre happens to be underrepresented youth, it was refreshing to read something so wholesome, but still engaging. I think my own daughters will enjoy this when they’re a bit older. I also really enjoyed reading about all of their cooking, baking, and crafting, and I was forced to create a Pinterest board of recipes and crafting activities. Forced by myself, because I want to remember these things.
What I didn’t like about this book was that it was a little predictable. While I hadn’t worked out ALL of the details, I basically figured out in the first few chapters what the deal was with the landlord, and what would happen in the end. Maybe it’s because I’m such an experienced, worldly reader. I don’t think this really takes away from the story, though, because it was still thoroughly enjoyable.
Book 80 of 40 (I doubled my school year goal!)
(Book 46 of 2018)
Out of the Dust (paperback)
by Karen Hesse
Out of the Dust is a Newbery Award winner that I’ve always heard of, but never picked up until now. My class is really into novels written in verse, so I thought this would be a great addition to our library. Billie Joe is a fourteen-year old girl living with her mother and father in the dry, dusty panhandle of Oklahoma during the Great Depression when FDR is offering money to people to get back on their feet. However, with the lack of rain and intense and destructive dust storms, Billie Joe’s family is left frustrated. One day, her father accidentally leaves a pail of kerosene on the counter by the stove, and her mother thinks it is water, and creates a rope of fire. Billie Joe accidentally throws it onto her mother, not knowing she was running back into the house after calling for her father. Her mother is burned beyond recognition, and both she and Billie Joe’s baby brother die during childbirth a few days later. After that, Billie Joe and her father begin to drift apart and fall into a deep depression. Between the dust, lack of piano playing, and her burned hands, Billie Joe is left depressed and hopeless.
What I liked about this book is that it is a good way to teach about a time period and location students might not otherwise know much about. Most are familiar with World War II, but they don’t know much about the United States before then. I also appreciated that Billie Joe was in a desperate situation, but also found ways to help and show compassion for others.
What I didn’t like about this book is that it is just so depressing! She felt guilt for hurting her mother, although it really was an accident, and she carried that with her for years. She was also lonely with her father since he also wasn’t able to move on after his wife’s death.
Book 79 of 40
(Book 45 of 2018)
The Poet X (audiobook)
by Elizabeth Acevedo
The Poet X is about a girl named X (Xiomara) who is looking for her voice. Rather, she’s found her voice, but she’s looking for someone to hear it. X lives with her immigrant parents and her twin brother. Her mother is a devout Catholic who wishes X were more like herself and less opinionated and outspoken. She is rigid and unaccepting of who X is. Her father has a shady past and basically ignores her. Her twin, who normally sees and accepts her, has his own secret, so he is not as supportive as he could be. He does, however, give her a nice leather journal, which she uses to write down her poetry. She writes about her doubts about God and confirmation, her teacher, and the boy she’s been hanging out with. She realizes poetry is her best outlet when no one else is listening.
What I liked about this book was that it was written from a perspective I’m unfamiliar with. I will never be in her position, and reading about hers gives me a broader world view. I also really like that it is about something many of my students are also feeling, or will be feeling soon, which is searching for themselves and their own voices. Although I am not able to hand this off to one of my sixth graders due to the content, I would definitely recommend one of my former students read it.
What I didn’t like about this book was X’s mother. I felt the same as when I read I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. I was so frustrated with both of their mothers, because they were unable or unwilling to view their daughters for who they were, and both were brilliant, beautiful young women who were searching for more than what they had been dealt in life. I was particularly upset with X’s mother, because oh my gosh… the first period is a huge milestone for a young girl, and her mother turned it into a dirty, shameful, embarrassing moment. That upset me. As a mother of two daughters, I pray to God I learn from these mothers and make sure to see my girls and not expect them to be my clones. Because really, I’m not that great, and they can be greater if I allow them to be.
Book 78 of 40
(Book 44 of 2018)
Front Desk (hardcover)
by Kelly Yang
Front Desk is about a girl named Mia who is a Chinese immigrant. Her parents left in search of the American Dream, but they find themselves practically destitute and living well below the poverty line. Mia gets made fun of for her clothing and the way she speaks, and her dream is to become a writer, but her teacher just marks her papers in red ink. Mia’s mother even tells her you cannot beat a car when you are a bicycle, which leaves her feeling hopeless. Mia and her parents end up running a motel in Anaheim, California on Coast Boulevard (aka Beach, I think) for a horrible, cheap, owner, who treats them terribly and expects way too much from them. Mia also faces a lot of racism not only against her as a Chinese immigrant, but racism against black people, and she finds this especially intolerable. Mia takes it upon herself to start writing letters to make situations better for herself and those she cares about.
What I liked about this book is that I wasn’t expecting the level of care when it came to telling the stories of Chinese immigrants. I read a lot about immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries and even middle eastern countries, but rarely about immigrants from China. I appreciated that I was able to learn something I didn’t already know, as well as see basically no sterotyping. I also liked how Mia was able to make use of her skills to change the injustices that she saw.
What I didn’t like about the book was the frustrations that Mia had with the adults in her life, especially her teacher. We as teachers are supposed to be better than that. I have many students who need to work on their grammar and spelling, but never in my life would I mark a paper up in red pen with exclamation points emphasizing how horrible it is. She had a responsibility to be supportive and watch out for Mia, but she failed miserably.
Book 77 of 40
(Book 43 of 2018)
When I Was the Greatest (paperback)
by Jason Reynolds
I just love Jason Reynolds. When I Was the Greatest took me a bit longer to get into, though. It is about a boy named Ali and his friends Noodles and Needles. Ali is a teenage boy living in Brooklyn. His mom works two jobs to support him and his sister while his dad lives in his car, stealing clothes and selling them. He was once in jail for armed robbery, but this is not the life Ali wants. He had a good friend named Noodles who lives next door. Noodles has a brother with Tourette’s named Needles, and he knits to keeps his ticks under control. Ali is a loyal friend, and does his best to keep himself and his friends out of trouble. The three boys go to a party and get themselves into a bad situation, and face tough consequences where they learn several life lessons the hard way.
What I liked about this book is the way Reynolds developed his characters. The relationship between Needles and Noodles, and Ali’s relationship with them, the frustration Noodles felt with his brother… there’s a backstory to it all, creating people and not just flat characters. Also, with a gun on the cover, one would expect to read a book about gun violence, but the irony was that the gun in the story wasn’t even loaded. This isn’t a story about violence, but choices and growth.
What I didn’t like about the book was the treatment of Needles. I have a hard time when someone with a disability is mistreated.
Book 76 of 40
(Book 42 of 2018)
Positively Izzy (paperback)
by Terri Libenson
Positively Izzy is a middle school story about a spacey girl named Izzy. She is always daydreaming, and misses important assignments or information, because her passion is acting, and she plans to be in the talent show. Brianna (Invisible Emmie’s best friend) is the brain, and she never has problems concentrating, but needs to loosen up and enjoy life a little more. Their lives both change on the day of the talent show. Although they aren’t friends at school, we see how their lives are connected in the end, and it will leave you shocked and wondering how you missed it.
What I liked about this story was the way Libenson developed these characters, involving the readers in their lives. We think we know what’s going on, and wonder how they’ll meet since these two independent characters are both performing in the talent show at the end. When I finished the book, I had to sit there and think about clues I missed. Then I realized the author just did a really good job of leaving no clues!
What I didn’t like about this story was that it left me wondering about the dad still… I think I need to go back and reread it.
Book 75 of 40
(Book 41 of 2018)
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (audiobook and hardcover)
by Erika L. Sanchez
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is an award-winning novel about a teenage girl named Julia who lives with her parents in a bad part of Chicago. We learn immediately that her older sister Olga has just died from being hit by a semi, and Olga was the preferred daughter. Julia is left alone with her grieving parents, and she is ignored and left to fend for herself emotionally. Julia soon discovers that Olga was keeping secrets, and she’s determined to find out what they are. In the meantime, she falls into a deep depression that no one notices, and every slight opportunity for happiness is dashed by her mother or sabotaged by herself.
What I liked about this book was the main character, who was so well-developed, I felt all of her feelings with her. Julia also has a great sense of humor, and even when she’s angry or frustrated or sad, and her rants and internal thinking made me feel so much better about myself. I really liked the author’s voice, and it made me think that maybe she was Julia. I could tell she was definitely writing from some personal experience, at least.
What I didn’t like about this book was not knowing about Olga for most of the story. I was left to speculate and guess what happened, and then I started wondering if I was missing clues, because I couldn’t remember what my predictions were and what actually happened in the story. When it ended, I was left wanting a prequel to the story. I was also SO frustrated with Julia’s family, especially her mother, that I kept begging Julia in my head to tell her therapist or her teacher about how terrible her mother was. Then I started wondering if I acted like Julia’s mother, and that made me sad.
Book 74 of 40
(Book 40 of 2018)