Monday, December 5, 2011

Module 15: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (SLIS 5420 review)

Summary: Arnold (also known as Junior) is a teenage boy living with his family on the Spokane Indian reservation. When he was born, he had too much cerebral spinal fluid in is brain. Doctors performed surgery to remove the fluid, but he has been left with lasting health problems that make him the target of constant harassment and bullying. After a confrontation with a teacher at the school on the reservation, Junior leaves the school and transfers to a high school in nearby Reardan, where he is the only Indian student. His best friend Rowdy feels betrayed and hurt that Junior is leaving him and lashes out at him. Junior’s transition to Reardan is difficult. Eventually, he starts to make friends and even gets a girlfriend named Penelope. As Arnold deals with tragedies like the deaths of his older sister and grandmother, he finds that he has the support and love of his new friends, and eventually patches up things with Rowdy as well.

Alexie, S., & Forney, E. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Impression: Alexie’s book won the National Book Award in 2007, and it is easy to see why. The book is based on Alexie’s own experiences, and he has definitely captured an authentic teenage boy voice. Alexie doesn’t shy away from discussing all the things that teen boys are interested in— bodily functions, teenage girls, etc.— but he never does it in a graphic or gratuitous way. Junior is an extremely sympathetic character. Anyone who has ever been bullied or harassed will connect with Junior’s struggles on the rez and at Reardan, and they will cheer when things start looking up for him. (I was especially moved that he and Rowdy started to repair their friendship at the end of the book.) Also, Junior is an aspiring cartoonist, and the cartoons Forney has created to accompany the text are spot-on.

Horn Book:
The line between dramatic monologue, verse novel, and standup comedy gets unequivocally—and hilariously and triumphantly—bent in this novel about coming of age on the rez. Urged on by a math teacher whose nose he has just broken, Junior, fourteen, decides to make the iffy commute from his Spokane Indian reservation to attend high school in Reardan, a small town twenty miles away. He’s tired of his impoverished circumstances (“Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands”), but while he hopes his new school will offer him a better education, he knows the odds aren’t exactly with him: “What was I doing at Reardan, whose mascot was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town?” But he makes friends (most notably the class dork Gordy), gets a girlfriend, and even (though short, nearsighted, and slightly disabled from birth defects) lands a spot on the varsity basketball team, which inevitably leads to a showdown with his own home team, led by his former best friend Rowdy. Junior’s narration is intensely alive and rat-a-tat-tat with short paragraphs and one-liners (“If God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs”). The dominant mode of the novel is comic, even though there’s plenty of sadness, as when Junior’s sister manages to shake off depression long enough to elope—only to die, passed out from drinking, in a fire. Junior’s spirit, though, is unquenchable, and his style inimitable, not least in the take-no-prisoners cartoons he draws (as expertly depicted by comics artist Forney) from his bicultural experience.

(2007, September/October). [Review of the book The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian, by S. Alexie]. Horn Book Magazine, 83(5), 563-564. Retrieved from

Use in library: A library could use The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as part of a discussion on banned and challenged books.

Module 14: Crank by Ellen Hopkins (SLIS 5420 review)

Summary: Kristina lives with her mother and stepfather in Reno and has a fairly normal life. She visits her deadbeat father in New Mexico for a few weeks one summer, and her life takes a drastic turn when she tries meth for the first time. Kristina calls meth “the monster.” She becomes addicted quickly, and it sends her life into a downward spiral. The drugs bring out an alter ego she calls Bree. Bree is brash and reckless and not at all like Kristina. Kristina resorts to drastic measures to get access to drugs to satisfy her addiction. When Kristina is raped and becomes pregnant, she has to make some life-changing decisions.

Citation: Hopkins, E. (2004). Crank. New York: Simon Pulse.

Impression: Crank is one of those books that sucks you in and doesn’t let go. Kristina’s story is fascinating and heartbreaking. (When you think about the fact that it is based on Hopkins’s daughter, it makes it even more emotional.) Hopkins is an extremely descriptive writer, and she uses the free verse format to full advantage. She does interesting things with formatting. There are several poems where Hopkins separates out certain words on the page to create an entirely new poem. Some good examples of this include “Why Was Everyone,” (p. 286) and “I Would Celebrate Several Ways,” (pg 418). She also uses some concrete poetry, which creates visual interest. The subject matters make it suitable for older teens, and I think anyone who has seen someone struggle with drug addiction (or struggled with addiction themselves) would really connect with this story.

Hypnotic and jagged free verse wrenchingly chronicles 16-year-old Kristina's addiction to crank. Kristina's dating alter ego, Bree, emerges when "gentle clouds of monotony" smother Kristina's life--when there's nothing to do and no one to connect with. Visiting her neglectful and draggy father for the first time in years, Bree meets a boy and snorts crank (methamphetamine). The rash is irresistible and she's hooked, despite a horrible crank-related incident with the boy's other girlfriend. Back home with her mother, Kristina feels both ignored and smothered, needing more drags and more boys--in that order. One boy is wonderful and one's a rapist, but it's crank holding Bree up at this point. The author's sharp verse plays with spacing on the page, sometimes providing two alternate readings. In a too brief wrap-up, Kristina keeps her baby (a product of rape) while Hopkins--realistically--offers no real conclusion. Powerful and unsettling.

(2004, October). [Review of the book Crank, by E. Hopkins]. Kirkus Reviews, 72(19), 961. Retrieved from

Use in library: Libraries could use Crank as part of a Poetry Slam for teens. Teens could get up in front of the crowd and read their favorite poems. The librarian could set out Crank and other poetry books for the teens to look through, and they could also encourage the teens to read their own original work.

Want to see my book trailer for Crank? Click here.

Module 13: Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale (SLIS 5420 review)

Summary: Rapunzel has grown up in a luxurious villa with Mother Gothel, but she’s never been completely happy. One day Rapunzel finds out that Mother Gothel is not her real mother at all. Gothel stole her from her real parents, and how her real mother is a slave in Gothel’s mines. When she confronts Gothel about it, she has Rapunzel locked in a tree. For four years, she is a prisoner in that tree (and her hair grows and grows). Rapunzel uses that hair to break out of her prison, and with the help of a new friend named Jack, she exacts her revenge and saves her real mother.

Citation: Hale, S., Hale, D., & Hale, N. (2008). Rapunzel's revenge. New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury.

Impression: I loved this book from start to finish. The Hales’ take on the take of Rapunzel is fresh and funny and should appeal to both boys and girls. The graphic novel format is the perfect format for this story because the visual elements add so much to the telling of the story. The quasi-Wild West setting lends itself to lots of action and adventure. Also, there is plenty of witty dialog, especially between Rapunzel and Jack. (I loved that Jack calls her Punzie.) Nathan Hale’s illustrations are full of visual humor. He gives the characters especially Rapunzel and Jack, some great facial expressions. I liked this book so much I immediately read its sequel, Calamity Jack, and I enjoyed it as well.

This graphic novel retelling of the fairy-tale classic, set in a swashbuckling Wild West, puts action first and features some serious girl power in its spunky and strong heroine. Young Rapunzel lives a lonely life, never knowing what lies beyond the high garden walls of her mother’s royal villa until one day she climbs the wall to see what’s on the other side. When she finds that the world outside is a dark place oppressed by her mother’s greed for power and uncovers the real secret of her own birth, she is imprisoned in a magic tree tower. In her years of captivity, she learns a lot about self-reliance and care for her exceptionally long hair, and eventually she is able to escape, vowing to bring down her mother’s cruel empire. Hale’s art matches the story well, yielding expressive characters and lending a wonderful sense of place to the fantasy landscape. Rich with humor and excitement, this is an alternate version of a classic that will become a fast favorite of young readers.

Coleman, T. (2008). [Review of the book Rapunzel's Revenge, by S. Hale and D. Hale]. Booklist, 105(1), 100. Retrieved from

Use in library: Rapunzel’s Revenge could be used as a book for a middle school club. They could discuss the book, draw their own pictures of Rapunzel and Jack, and watch the movie Tangled.

Module 12: The Road to Oz by Kathleen Krull and Kevin Hawkes (SLIS 5420 review)

Summary: This charming biography of L. Frank Baum tells readers about the various careers and circumstances that lead Baum to write the classic children’s book The Wizard of Oz.

Citation: Krull, K., & Hawkes, K. (2008). The road to Oz: twists, turns, bumps, and triumphs in the life of L. Frank Baum. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Impression: The Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite books, but I never knew much about the man behind the book. After reading The Road to Oz, I know more about Baum’s story, and it makes me like his work even more. I thought The Road to Oz was captivating because Krull includes so many interesting details about Baum and his various careers— actor, chicken breeder, newspaper editor, and window decorator, just to name a few. She doesn’t skip over the more difficult parts of his life, such as how he was cheated out of some of his money by various business partners. I think this sends a positive message to young readers that they should keep pursuing their dreams and happiness, and not get discouraged by failures. Hawkes’ illustrations are a good match for Krull’s bright, cheerful text.

Publisher’s Weekly:
With customary vivacity and a fine sense of irony, Krull portrays her subject as a genial family man who suffered reverse after reverse thanks to a bad combination of deep-seated optimism and zero business sense--but pulled through when his love of storytelling and sense of audience at last led to a novel that instantly became (she notes) the Harry Potter of its day. She does mention Baum's anti-American Indian screeds, but in general tells a brisk, admiring tale that mirrors the tone of his talespinning--aptly illustrated by Hawkes's scenes of a frail, dapper looking gent, generally sporting a smile beneath a bushy mustache and gazing abstractedly into the distance. An admirable companion to Krull's Boy on Fairfield Street: How Ted Geisel Grew Up To Become Dr. Seuss (2004), this profile not only provides a similarly illuminating peek beneath the authorial curtain, but leaves readers understanding just how groundbreaking The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was, as an adventure story with both a female protagonist and no overwhelming Moral Lesson.

(2008, August). [Review of the book The Road to Oz, by K. Krull and K. Hawkes]. Kirkus Reviews, 76(15), 230. Retrieved from

Use in library: A library could use this book as part of a Wizard of Oz program. The librarian would read excerpts from this book and/or The Wizard of Oz, and other books on Baum and Oz would be out on display. Patrons would make a Wizard of Oz-related craft and watch the movie.

Module 11: Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan, and Brian Floca (SLIS 5420 review)

Summary: Greenberg, Jordan, and Floca tell the story of Appalachian Spring, a dance performance with choreography by Martha Graham, music by Aaron Copland, and set by Isamu Noguchi. The dance was first performed on October 30, 1944 in Washington, D.C. The authors and illustrator describe how the creative efforts of Graham, Copland, and Noguchi all came together in one cohesive work.

Greenberg, J., Jordan, S., & Floca, B. (2010). Ballet for Martha: making Appalachian Spring. New York: RB/Flash Point.

Impression: Ballet for Martha is a beautiful book, and it tells the story of what must have been a beautiful dance performance. I was glad the authors discussed both the ups and downs of creating Appalachian Spring because it gives the reader a realistic picture how difficult yet rewarding the production experience can be. For example, during the rehearsal process Martha “has a tantrum. She screams. She yells. She throws a shoe. The dancers wait. Martha always figures it out” (p. 17). They also emphasized the collaborative nature of the work and discussed how each of the three people on the creative team effected the final product. A thorough bibliography at the end of the book provides resources for anyone who wants to learn more about Graham, Copland, or Noguchi.

I was especially impressed with Floca’s watercolor illustrations. One of my favorite is a two page spread of composer Aaron Copland. Copland is sitting at the piano, and the background of the pages is a piece of sheet music. I thought the spread was clever and well-composed. There are many illustrations of the dancers in rehearsal for the production and at the first performance, and I was also fascinated that he was able to indicate the movement of the dancers so well.

School Library Journal:
Gr 2-6 --If Martha Graham's choreography for "Appalachian Spring" was a "valentine" to the world, as critics wrote in 1944, then this book is a love letter in return. Simple, poetic prose tells the story of the creation of one of the world's most-loved ballets and compositions, and Floca's graceful watercolor illustrations take admirers through every part of its development. Written in the present tense, the narrative has a sense of drama that carries readers along as if the events were happening in real time. Fascinating details about the collaboration among Graham, Copland, and Isamu Noguchi (set design) are well documented in the lengthy "curtain call," notes, and resources pages, which read like a fantastic set of liner notes. Floca varies the illustrations from vignettes to bird's-eye views to landscapes and expertly capture the fluid movements of the dancers. The page layouts are well planned to create the most movement and interest. The authors researched extensively but found a way to crystallize all of the information into a gem that is approachable for young readers. More than anything, this work emphasizes the value of collaboration and celebrates the work that Graham, Copland, and Noguchi did to bring together the performing and visual arts. Readers may be inspired to go to Russell Freedman's Martha Graham: A Dancer's Life (Clarion, 1998) and should be encouraged to check out one of Leonard Bernstein's definitive recordings of "Appalachian Spring" and a video of the ballet.

Dobbs, C. (2010). [Review of the book Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, by J. Greenberg, S. Jordan and B. Floca]. School Library Journal, 56(8), 119-120. Retrieved from

Use in library:
Libraries could use this book as part of a display or booktalk featuring books on the creative arts.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Module 10: Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (SLIS 5420 review)

Summary: In August of 1973, an epidemic of yellow fever hits Philadelphia. 14-year-old Mattie lives with her mother and grandfather above the coffeehouse they own and run, and their lives are forever changed by the plague. When her mother becomes ill, Mattie and her grandfather leave the city in the hopes of avoiding the disease. They both become ill and never make it to their final destination, but eventually they recover and return to Philadelphia. They find that Mattie’s mother has gone to try and meet them in the country, and their shop has been ransacked. When Mattie’s grandfather dies, she feels like she is truly alone in the world. By relying on her own resourcefulness and determination, as well as accepting the help of a few kind friends, Mattie is able rebuild her life.

Citation: Anderson, L. H. (2000). Fever 1793. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Impression: I really liked that Anderson used a first-person narrator for this book. Having Mattie tell the reader her story herself made her a very sympathetic character. (My heart broke for her when her grandfather died.) She faces hardship after hardship, and you root for her every step of the way. I also appreciated that each chapter started with a quote from a historical figure or historical publication. I felt like it added to the authenticity of the text. The book also includes an Appendix with more information on some of the subjects touched on in the text. I had never heard of Philadelphia’s yellow fever outbreak before, and reading Mattie’s story piqued my interest and made me want to know more.

Horn Book:
For fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook, the epidemic begins with the news of the sudden and unexpected death of her childhood friend Polly. It is summer 1793, and yellow fever is sweeping through Philadelphia; the death toll will reach five thousand (ten percent of the city's population) before the frost. Mattie, her mother, and grandfather run a coffeehouse on High Street, and when others flee the city, they choose to stay--until Mattie's mother is stricken. Sent away by her mother to escape contagion, Mattie tries to leave, is turned back by quarantine officers, falls ill herself, and is taken to Bush Hill, a city hospital run by the celebrated French doctor Steven Girard. Without ever being didactic, Anderson smoothly incorporates extensive research into her story, using dialogue, narration, and Mattie's own witness to depict folk remedies, debates over treatment, market shortages, the aid work done by free blacks to care for and bury the victims, the breakdown of Philadelphia society, and countless tales of sufferers and survivors. With such a wealth of historical information (nicely set forth in a highly readable appendix), it's a shame that the plot itself is less involving than the situation. While Mattie is tenacious and likable, her adventures are a series of episodes only casually related to the slender narrative arc in which she wonders if her mother has survived the fever and whether they will be reunited. Subplots concerning Mattie's own entrepreneurial ambitions and her budding romance with a painter apprenticed to the famous Peale family wait offstage until the end of the book. Still, Anderson has gone far to immerse her readers in the world of the 1793 epidemic; most will appreciate this book for its portrayal of a fascinating and terrifying time in American history.

L. Burkam, A. (2000). [Review of the book Fever 1793, by L. Anderson]. Horn Book Magazine, 76(5), 562-563. Retrieved from

Use in library: This book could be used in a booktalk or display featuring books about little-known events in U.S. History.

Module 10: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (SLIS 5420 review)

Summary: Calpurnia “Callie” Tate, an 11-year-old girl living in Fentress, Texas, spends the summer and fall of 1899 studying nature with her grandfather. They bond over their observations, and Calpurnia records their findings in a notebook. Although Callie’s mother pushes her to do more “feminine” things like playing the piano and needlework, Callie would much rather discuss plants and animals with Granddaddy. When they discover a new species of plant, Callie feels like their work is validated and people finally see how important it is to her.

Citation: Kelly, J. (2009). The evolution of Calpurnia Tate. New York: Henry Holt.

Impression: The thing that stuck out to me the most about this book is Callie’s irrepressible spirit and enthusiasm. She has to reconcile her family’s expectations for her to look pretty, play the piano, and learn how to cook with her own desire to work with her grandfather and learn more about the world around her. I think the fact that she remains true to herself and continues following her passion for scientific study send a positive message to young readers.

Based on what I already knew about the book, I expected it to be somewhat dry and laden with scientific facts and terminology. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the scientific aspects of the book are presented in such a way that they are not overwhelming or difficult to understand. However, this book will definitely hold the most appeal for young readers who have an interest in science to begin with.

Publisher’s Weekly:

Life at the turn of the century is not easy for a girl who loves books and science. Kelly's first novel presents spirited heroine Calpurnia (Callie) Virginia Tate, a middle child with six brothers, growing up in the isolation of Fentress, Tex., in 1899. To her family's dismay, Callie is stubborn, independent and not interested in darning socks or perfecting her baking skills like a lady. "I would live my life in a tower of books," she thinks to herself. She spends most of her time with Harry, "the one brother who could deny me nothing," slowly befriending her Granddaddy, a mysterious naturalist who studies everything from pecan distillation to microscopic river bugs. Together they dream up experiments and seek answers to backyard phenomena, discovering something new about the invisible world each day. Callie follows her passion for knowledge, coming to realize her family "had their own lives. And now I have mine." Callie's transformation into an adult and her unexpected bravery make for an exciting and enjoyable read. Kelly's rich images and setting, believable relationships and a touch of magic take this story far. Ages 10-up.

(2009, May 4). [Review of the book The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by J. Kelly]. Publishers Weekly, 256(18), 51. Retrieved from

Use in library: A school library could use this as part of a joint project between an English class and a Science class. The librarian could discuss the literary aspects of the book with the English class and the scientific aspects of the book with the science class, and both classes could discuss how those two elements work together. The teachers could also come up with some kind of joint assignment based on their book and their discussions.