A Blog of Children's Literature

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom April 18, 2011

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for FreedomThe Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle (2008)

Novel in Verse, 158 pages

A Newberry Honor Book and the winner of the Pura Belpré Award, The Surrender Tree captures the struggles of Rosa Castellanos Castellanos, or Rosa la Bayamesa, the former slave turned herbal healer who takes care of the sick and wounded during Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain. Broken into five parts, the story begins around the time Rosa is freed from her owner but still must run from slavehunters who work for the Spanish Crown which does not recognize the slaves’ freedom. The slavehunter Lieutenant Death, as evil as his name implies, has an eye out specifically for Rosa because of her ability to slip out of his sight right before her capture. The poetry documents the next fifty years of Cuba’s history, most of which Rosa and the other rebels must hide from Spanish rule and slavehunters in makeshift hospitals in caves and the jungle. Rosa’s empathic soul and commitment to her oath of healing shine through all she does, including treating Lieutenant Death and injured enemy Spanish soldiers. Peasants who were not able to escape were forced to leave their homes and move into the world’s first “reconcentration camps,” a decree by Captain-General Weyler. In alternating voices, the reader hears the perspective of Rosa, her husband José, Captain-General Weyler, Lieutenant Death, and Silva, a reconcentration camp escapee. To avoid confusion, each poem is titled with the name of its speaker. In her short but stirring verse, Margarita Engle draws on the emotions of a war-torn country through the hearts of all those involved, exemplifying the pain, courage, frustration, determination, and exhaustion war brings. While the author takes some liberties with characters’ words since there are holes in the recorded history of Cuba’s Wars for Independence, The Surrender Tree is a great addition to young adult lessons on the history of Cuba with its more personal accounts of guerilla warfare.


Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection

Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic CollectionTrickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection by Matt Dembicki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection edited by Matt Dembiki (2010)

Graphic Book, 231 pages

In a compilation of work from over 40 storytellers and artists, Trickster shares a diverse collection of trickster tales from various Native American cultures and regions. In some the crafty coyote plays the trickster who ends up being taught a lesson, in others it is the sly raven who gets away, while in some it is the rabbit or the raccoon, depending on the cultural origin. Many of the tales share a reason behind a natural landform (“Moshup’s Bridge”) or an animal’s appearance/ways (“How the Alligator Got His Brown, Scaly Skin”), while others teach a lesson about behavior to learn from (“The Wolf and the Mink”). The novel’s true success draws from its diverse collection of tales and the art that captures them. Each tale highlights a different artist’s style that sets the tone of the story. Specifically, the composition in “Coyote and the Pebbles” is to be lauded with its strong storyline by Dayton Edmonds and amazing illustrations by Micah Farritor. Trickster not only creates an anthology of trickster tales but creates an anthology of artist’s interpretations of the cultural stories, a unique gem in both Native American and graphic novel publications. This book could add so much to various units of study within folklore, illustrations, and cultural anthologies, as well as provide plenty of stories for anyone looking to read about wily characters. I would recommend Trickster to anyone ages 11 and up, especially those drawn to graphic novels.


The Breadwinner April 13, 2011

The BreadwinnerThe Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis (2001)

Adventure, 170 pages

In this heart-wrenching story, Deborah Ellis creates the life of Parvana, a Afghan girl whose father has been arrested and whose family now depends on her to provide for them because of the strict laws forbidding women to leave home without a chaperone. Parvana’s own more restricted life as a young girl soon changes as she cuts her hair and dons a deceased brother’s clothes to become a boy street merchant to make a living for her family. Ellis’ writing style shares the truth and hardship inflicted by the Taliban and a brave young girl who works around their laws to survive. Parvana’s life is full of sacrifice as she gives up her childhood to become the breadwinner for her family. At only age 11, her life has been full of bombs, beatings, and war, and yet she fights to be brave like Malali, a historical young girl who tore off her veil and spirited Afghanistan’s troops into a battle against the British who invaded the country. Ellis does a fine job writing material that is accessible to younger readers, yet does not paint a perfect picture of an Afghan woman’s world or its culture. She dances a fine line through Parvana’s experiences, celebrating family and instances of women’s rights, while shining light on the harsh reality of many. Similar to Persepolis and The Shadows of Ghadames, The Breadwinner questions the roles of young women in a changing world, providing a protagonist that attempts to overcome a cruel social system and does not live a fairytale existence.


The Underneath

The UnderneathThe Underneath by Kathi Appelt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (2008)

Fantasy, 336 pages

Both a Newberry Honor Book and a National Book Award Finalist, The Underneath is a story about a pregnant calico cat that has been abandoned by her family on the side of the road. With nowhere to go, she tramps through the forest and the Bayou Tartine until she hears the baying of a lonely hound named Ranger. Forming a strange pair, the cat and dog have an instant bond of friendship and build a family together with the two new kittens, despite Ranger’s evil owner, Gar Face. The alternating narrative also offers the tale of Grandmother Moccasin, a Water Moccasin snake over a thousand years old, who patiently waits for the day she is freed from her imprisonment in an ancient jar. In her debut novel, Kathi Appelt does a stellar job intertwining stories to build a mystical bayou’s past and present full of animals and their human spirits, weaving in the culture and beliefs of the Caddo people. The Underneath shares characters’ struggles to put aside vengeance and accept love, desires to conquer their fears for their loved ones, and despair to find someone to fill the void in a solitary existence. David Small’s illustrations pepper the book, personifying imagery that Appelt creates in a dark forested tale that ultimately sheds light on the meaning of love. Reminiscent of oral traditions with repeated lines and poetic narrative, the book might not normally appeal to reluctant readers. However, the multiple layers and short chapters of the narrative will attract diverse readership in grades 4-8.


Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice March 21, 2011

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward JusticeClaudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip M. Hoose
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Philip Hoose (2009)

Biography, 144 pages

Lauded by history legends Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice tells the tale of an unsung teenage hero who risked it all twice to fight the unconstitutional segregation on Montgomery, Alabama buses. At only 15, Claudette refused to give up her seat in the “colored” section of the bus for a white woman who wanted it. Colvin argued it was her constitutional right and was arrested and removed from the bus in a physically and mentally abusive manner. While Rosa Parks was eventually chosen to represent the movement because of her age, quiet demeanor, activist status, and background that crossed classes, Colvin was actually the first to refuse to move in Montgomery and jailed for her actions. Civil rights leaders hesitated to put their faith in the image of a working-class teenager who supposedly fought back and was too emotional. Many in the black community disowned Colvin and blamed her for her legal troubles, saying she should have known what happened. However, Colvin lit the fire that eventually sparked hope and bravery in the adults in her community, which led to the bus boycott in 1956. Interspersed narration from Phillip Hoose and Claudette helps paint the historical picture for the reader, while quoted dialogue allows the reader to be in the courtroom as witnesses are questioned. Side bars and primary source pictures and documents help acclimate the reader to the volatile time period. Books like Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice provide realistic role models for young adult readers and encourage them to make a difference at any age.


The Shadows of Ghadames March 7, 2011

The Shadows of GhadamesThe Shadows of Ghadames by Joëlle Stolz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Shadows of Ghadames by Joelle Stolz (2004)

Historical Fiction, 118 pages

Ghadames, a city in Libya near Algeria and Tunisia, is changing along with its customs and gender roles. Caught between the past and the future at the end of the nineteenth century, Malika, a girl on the brink of adulthood, is bothered by some of the cultural restrictions of women and yet scared of her unknown future and womanhood. Built on tradition and religious beliefs, Ghadames holds two unique cities—the streets below belong to the men, who roam freely doing their business and the city atop the roofs belongs to the women to do their work, buy from the traveling market, and communicate with other women to build solidarity. It is here that women free of men’s eyes can remove their veils and display the beautiful tattoo artwork on their bodies, symbolizing fertility, safety from evildoers, and pain on their rivals. Malika dreams of learning to read and write but knows her mother does not support this idea outside of custom. However, Malika’s father and his second wife, Bilkisu, both know Malika shows promise and desires to learn more of the world than rooftops. These looming restrictions of womanhood all start to change when Bilkisu rescues an unconscious man in the streets, pursued by the Aïssaouïa men of the city, forcing Malika’s mother to reconsider her social constructions. As a French journalist reporting on the past, Stolz fascinatingly weaves culture, tradition, and history along with beautiful language of imagery and detail in Malika’s observations. Malika’s position in life is metaphorically described like a dirt plot, currently fallow, but evolving into an extensive garden full of education and womanly knowledge. Young adult readers interested in Muslim culture, gender roles, and the evolution of society will enjoy this short but powerful tale. In this unique coming-of-age story, Malika questions the invisibility of women, adulthood, and what it means to love. Can any person who loves, man or woman, actually be free?


Nation March 3, 2011

NationNation by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nation by Terry Pratchett (2008)

Historical Fiction-Survival Story, 367 pages

When a tsunami-like wave wipes out an entire civilization, the sole survivor, Mau, questions the gods’ existence and struggles to find a reason to live. Without his people’s acceptance of his transition into manhood, Mau wavers between a boy’s fears and a man’s determination. Fortunately for him, his reason to continue on is found in the marooned existence of a ghost girl, a trouserman girl who is the sole survivor of her British ship. The two overcome the loss of their cultures, societies, and faiths as they struggle to communicate and do what is right to restore the Nation. As more and more people show up looking for shelter and assistance, Mau becomes a leader and challenges death in order to save others. Throughout the narrative, gods speak to him and question his defiance, but ultimately his innervoices teach him much about being a man, using reasoning, and believing in the unseen. While the book is set in what appears to be 19th century on a small island in the Pacific during British reign, its setting is in “a parallel universe” on one of the Mothering Sunday Islands in the Pelagic Ocean. Although the setting and historical time periods are blurred, the true attraction in Pratchett’s work is the complex lens in which the narrative examines culture, spirituality, humanity, and truth through the eyes of two teenagers, forced to quickly abandon worthless traditions and cling to important moral beliefs. With its twists and turns, Nation takes its readers on a journey full of adventure and discovery. I would highly recommend this book to any young adult reader who enjoys the challenge of weighty subjects and adventure.