The Best Thing about this Book is the combination of the adventure genre with verse.
Premise: Nora blames herself for her mom’s death. If it hadn’t been her birthday or if she’d chosen a different restaurant, her mom would still be alive. Instead, one year later, she and her anxiety-ridden dad who no longer trusts people (except Nora) brings her to a canyon to hike and climb. When an unexpected natural event separates Nora and her father, Nora must survive in the desert and find her father before she loses two parents.
Rating: 4/5 Target: 5-8 grade
Title: Interspersed in the events of the narrative, Dusti Bowling inserts flashbacks as well as therapeutic moments and reflections. The symbolic meaning of both a canyon and an edge are played with here in terms of the wariness we have of falling and the necessity to climb up when we’ve been pushed in (see cover art), among other things.
****************NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST****************
The Best Thing About this Book is either what Bekah does for Nina in a time of need or the art works referenced and explored.
Premise: Nina loves her boyfriend Seth. She’ll do anything for him. She’ll worship him. But something about that doesn’t settle in to her experiences with her mom, who tells Nina there’s no such thing as unconditional love, and takes her to Italy to visit iconic sculptures of women.
Rating: 5/5 Target: 16 and up (technically YA, but I wouldn’t bookend it there)
Title: Make sure you know this nursery rhyme (called “What Are Little Boys Made Of?”) to be able to fully analyze this title. Elana K. Arnold adds assistance to understanding the title in the Author’s Note at the book’s end. Highly Recommend It. I’ll just give you this little teaser: “I now see that the stuff of girls is meant to be consumed — sugar and spice and everything nice — yummy sweet treats that melt in your mouth. And it reads to me now as a warning […]”
Main Character(s): Nina 16 y/o (she/him) with flashbacks to 14 y/o
Great for…* (readers): who want to think deeply about female gender roles and latent messaging in art and society.
Great for…* (teachers): I wouldn’t use this one in a classroom unless it’s past high school. However, selections could be used to study the female role in society and/or the nature of flashbacks and structure compounding overall meaning.
Parental Warning(s): Some cursing, holds nothing back in description of bodily functions, doctor visits, sexuality alluded to and pictured
Interact: What is your memory of nursery rhymes as a kid? (especially if you grew up with “What Are Little Boys Made Of”)
***********GRAPHIC NOVEL AND NEWBERY HONOR BOOK***********
The Best Thing about this Book is the world of roller derby, of course. So fun.
Premise: Astrid has always been best friends with Nicole, but as they age, their interests are parting ways. While Astrid wants to learn to roller skate and participate in roller derby, Nicole wants to spend her summer at dance camp. Astrid must figure out her way on skates, in derby, in friendships, and family over the course of the summer.
Rating: 3/5 Target: 2-8
Title: This one’s more-or-less what you see is what you get: Astrid wants to be a roller girl.
Main Character(s): Astrid, 6th grade (she/her), 12 yo
Great for…* (readers): who are reluctant readers. It’s a graphic novel after all and the artwork is great. Good for goofy girls or edgy ones as well as athletes and roller derby enthusiasts. There is a girl power sub-element to roller derby that comes through in this book with few male characters.
Great for…* (teachers): This is not a book I’d use in class or as an assignment unless it were specific to the study of the structure of a graphic novels (perhaps in comparison to a traditional one).
Parental Warning(s): N/A
Interact: Have you ever been to a roller derby bout? Or would you?
Premise: Simon is a musician. But he can’t hear. So how can he continue to study music, create music, play music? And, most of all, experience music he will never hear again? Everything about music seems impossible to him. If Simon is going to have a happy life, he’s going to have to accept his new sensations and his new modes of communication — but can he?
Rating: 3/5 Target: 9th-12th grade
Title: The first thought about where the title comes from is the premise. And it seems, for much of the book to be just that, but there’s more to it that has to do with a performance I won’t get into because I don’t want to spoil anything.
I will say it again. (I said it on social media already.) And again and again and again. Holy Snow.
I love books. I enjoy most books. I read fun books, mostly, with some element of depth to them, but let’s call a spade a spade. They’re mostly about entertainment and empathy. But this book. Holy snow.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a powerful, heart-wrenching work about more than its premise, which is weighty and deserving in itself. Although statistics vary, data shows 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys fall victim to sexual abuse at some point in their childhood. Yet, I cannot think of a single middle grades book (other than this one) that deals with the topic at all, let alone as tactically and expertly as Bradley’s Newbery Honor Book.
Della informs you that she’s ten from the start of Fighting Words, the story she narrates. She begins with the simple facts and builds to the difficult narratives and sub-narratives. From the beginning of Della’s account, she and her older sister Suki find themselves in foster care. Their mother, whom Della barely remembers except for one explosive incident (literally), is an incarcerated meth addict. The man with whom they were left at her incarceration, well, that’s where some of the difficulty resides. It was his inappropriate assault of Della that led to their removal from his care. The scene gets told, once Della is ready to tell it, leaving the reader with a sense of horror and revulsion without feeling the scene crossed a literary line for the target audience. How can a scene be appropriately inappropriate? I don’t know. But I read one in this book.
The quality of the writing and the voice is worthy of the topic here. It would have to be to have the audacity to attempt to deal with sexual abuse, abandonment, and the aftermath. Importantly, Bradley writes from experience, and confesses to such in the author’s note. But this is not a book about trauma; it’s a book about healing.
Like any healing process, Della and Suki do not have a clear and easy path to follow. Della has trouble with a boy named Trevor at school. She pushes people away with her use of four letter words (which, in the book, she substitutes for snow, snowman, snowflake, etc.) both deftly and intelligently. Suki is the only person Della could rely on to take care of her. But Suki has had to parent Della since she was herself six. Now that they’re in foster care, and preparing for court with their abuser, there are plenty of proficient adults to care for Della. And for Suki, too. But Suki and Della don’t always know how to let them or how to trust them.
The characters grow in themselves as the narrative progresses. Della tells you the hard parts. Even the hardest part. (Read with tissue nearby. She’ll warn you it’s coming.) And show you their courage along the way.
There are multiple characters with “bad stories” in this book. Some of which you hear, some of which you don’t. (Even Della and Suki shy away from the explicit and ugly details of everything– making it both tasteful and challenging for a middle grade audience, yet better to be read with someone to talk to through it.) Some of those bad stories relate to poverty, some to abuse, some to mental health. What Bradley makes clear is each character has a story whether they tell it or not.
Fighting Words embodies its title. This is Della. Telling you her story. In her words. With courage. With bravery. With love. With fight. You may not hear many ten-year-olds tell you about their abusive experiences. I pray you don’t (not because they won’t tell you but because they don’t have them to tell). Listen to her voice. It may inspire you to use your own.
You’ve gotta read this book. It’s the kind of book I live for because it’s not just literature. It’s art.
Rating: 5/5 Target: 6th grade and up for general audience, younger for children of abuse
Parents, please read this book with your child. Do not send them off to read this and struggle through its content on their own. Better yet, you read it first. Then read it a second time with them. There’s nothing easy about it. But, much like parenting itself, it’s valuable and important. No one said it would be easy. For snowflake’s sake.
Readers, don’t scoff at the target audience. This book is for older readers as much as it is for middle grade readers. Snow. I could use this in a college course curriculum. It’s that well done.
I like art museums, so call me a nerd. You wouldn’t be the first.
It started in Boston, like several of my hobbies, as an assignment to visit the MFA. While the art students sketched in their journals, I wrote. I lament, in this shut-down world, the ability to go to an art museum, to be in the presence of an original, to stare and study and consider every movement in it. And, of course, the story of it.
I came across this poem, written many years ago while at an art museum viewing Rembrandt’s Faustus in His Study, in my journal. Read it. Then comment: a) What I could improve/what you like OR b) Where you most miss visiting (or maybe not most miss just miss — no judgments)
Faustus in His Study
Faustus, Faustus Glowing grandly Spreading soundly Your own dark light Watching, waiting, Waxing impatient By your soul’s own Grand Delight. Faustus, Faustus Staring starkly As the magic disk revolves Never noting Naught before thee But your own design to grow. Pride, Impatience Desire for Greatness You’ve wound yourself into The disk that flows. Spinning, it’s spun you Woven, it’s won you To its delights to keep you Alone. Alone, you are Alone, you aren’t. You are man Caught among men Guided by the same sin.