Vlog Review: American Betiya (scbwi emerging voices winner)

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Premise: Rani’s Indian immigrant parents want her to focus on school and not get distracted by other things, especially not boys. So when Rani meets and falls for Oliver, a senior at her high school who has tattoos, she has to keep her American world with Oliver separate from her Indian world with her family. But how long can Rani keep Oliver a secret before her parents find out she’s sneaking around with him?

Rating: 3/5
Target: 10th-12th grade

Title:  The title of this book sets the conflict on the cover: two cultures that look separate must somehow become one in protagonist Rani (betiya is a Hindi word meaning daughter).

Main Character(s): Rani, 18 y/o (she/her)

Motifs (not exhaustive): Indian culture, family, romance, first love, friendship, racism, objectification, cultural awareness, cultural appropriation, privilege, expectations of others, art, photography, sexuality, tradition, identity

Great for…* (readers): who appreciate a conflict of cultures or are children of immigrants, kids who have high expectations for themselves or whose parents have high expectations for them, anyone trying to figure out what love is and looks like as a teen or young adult

Great for…* (teachers): foreshadow, internal/external conflict, and discussion around racial and cultural respect

Parental Warning(s): Regular cursing, sexual innuendo and descriptions of acts (not graphic)

Interact: Oliver is Rani’s first love. They meet at an art show but already go to school together. How did you meet your first love or what is your dream for meeting your first love?

If you like the culture conflict in this book or learning a little about Indian culture, try this book.

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*The “Great for” category is not exhaustive and does not intend to neglect the multitude of readers/teachers who could learn from this book in any number of ways.

RATINGS GUIDE

٭ = DNF, would not recommend
٭٭ = would not recommend
٭٭٭ = enjoyable, would recommend
٭٭٭٭ = very good, would recommend
٭٭٭٭٭ = amazing, would definitely recommend

Vlog Review: Pippa Park Raises her Game

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Premise: Pippa Park loves basketball and her friends, but her family wants her to excel in school. When Pippa’s skills earn her a place at an elite, private school, her family jumps at the chance to send her as a scholarship student. The kids at Pippa’s new school are all wealthy, and Pippa’s family is working class. She’s reminded she does not belong even by the food she brings to lunch (Korean delights). So Pippa plans to make a new version of herself, one that will impress the private school kids and hide where she comes from. But how long can she fake a front?

Rating: 3/5
Target: 4-7

Title:  Of course there’s a basketball assumption here, but Pippa’s basketball skills have very little to do with the plot. They get her into the school, but that’s about it. Raising her game has more to do with her sense of acceptance for who she is — and possibly her math grades.

Main Character(s): Pippa, 7th-grader (she/her)

Motifs (not exhaustive): acceptance, belonging, authenticity, friendship, cliques, passions, family, social status, economic status, sacrifice, bullying, Korean culture

Great for…* (readers): who are drawn into the drama of being popular or just struggling to accept themselves in middle school. (The fact that the cool kids are called the Royals rings very Mean Girls to me.) The basketball could be used to draw a non-reader athlete in as it does start the book, but the sports won’t hold their attention as they fade into the background pretty quickly.

Great for…* (teachers): Lit Circles — I wouldn’t recommend this as a core novel, but as free reading and even guided reading groups absolutely. The publisher specializes in scaffolding such things with resources.

Parental Warning(s): None.

Interact: Food plays a repetitive role in Pippa’s narrative. Pick a question: (a) which food from the book do you want to eat? (b) what’s your favorite thing to eat? (c) Why is the significance of food, and specifically Korean foods, in this book?

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*The “Great for” category is not exhaustive and does not intend to neglect the multitude of readers/teachers who could learn from this book in any number of ways.

RATINGS GUIDE

٭ = DNF, would not recommend
٭٭ = would not recommend
٭٭٭ = enjoyable, would recommend
٭٭٭٭ = very good, would recommend
٭٭٭٭٭ = amazing, would definitely recommend

Vlog Review: Other Words for Home, a novel in verse

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Premise: Division erupts in Jude’s hometown in Syria, causing her brother to side and react differently than her father and sending Jude and her mother to live with family in Ohio. Jude needs courage to leave Syria and begin a life in the U.S. but she also needs courage to face a culture that sees her as someone who does not belong, as someone “middle eastern,” and figure out what home really means when everything is different than it was before.

Rating: 4/5
Target: 4-7

Title:  Jude must improve her English skills while living as a refugee in the United States, so the title can be taken literally, but there’s much more to the concept of home than a word.

Main Character(s): Jude, 12 y/o (she/her)

Motifs (not exhaustive): culture, hope, home, bravery/courage, war, change, terrorism, war, dislocation/refugees, language, middle eastern/syria, anti-refugee behavior, EMPATHY

Great for…* (readers): who appreciate deep thinking OR who are intimidated by the text on a page (as this book is written in verse).

Great for…* (teachers): Symbolism and discussion, discussion, discussion. There is so much in this book that lends itself to deeper meaning than just the words on the page (thereby also playing into the motif of language/communication). The book can be used to challenge preconceived notions and assumptions, so, again: discussion!

Parental Warning(s): Anti-refugee behaviors and words but no cursing

Interact: Who or what means home for you? (Consider sights, scents, textures, etc.)

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*The “Great for” category is not exhaustive and does not intend to neglect the multitude of readers/teachers who could learn from this book in any number of ways.

RATINGS GUIDE

٭ = DNF, would not recommend
٭٭ = would not recommend
٭٭٭ = enjoyable, would recommend
٭٭٭٭ = very good, would recommend
٭٭٭٭٭ = amazing, would definitely recommend

Vlog Review: Right as Rain

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Premise: It’s been 278 days since Rain’s brother Guthrie died, and Rain and her parents are moving 288 miles to have a fresh start (even if her mom is the only one who wants one). What happened that night is a big who knows to everyone except for Rain, but that secret means Guthrie’s death is her fault. With her secret and very few other items packed, Rain moves to NYC to process through the loss of her brother and the degradation of her parents’ marriage while she tries to fit into a new environment where she’s off on the wrong foot. (Check out the motifs section, there’s a ton of issues brought up by this book — and all well done.)

Rating: 4/5
Target: 4-8

Title: The title’s meaning remains open to numerous interpretations — so it’s a great discussion point post-read. I’ll wait for you to tell me your interpretation before I divulge mine.

Main Character(s): Rain Andrews, 11 y/o (she/her)

Motifs (not exhaustive): grief/loss, depression, friendship, moving, change, divorce/separation, gardening, teamwork, community, homelessness, gentrification, otherness/belonging, poetry

Great for…* (readers): who have friends experiencing grief. As a mother of kids with nuclear family member loss, I want to give this book to all their friends so that they get an inside perspective of what it’s like. Also good for kids who feel alone, different, isolated, or are experiencing change.

Great for…* (teachers): This book is rife with figurative language and symbolism. It even weaves poetry in (as a school assignment), so it’s kind of asking for work on that front. Many allusions to The One and Only Ivan make for a great pairing if Ivan comes first.

Parental Warning(s): For children who have experienced death of a nuclear family member, this book could stir up difficult emotions.

Interact: Rain runs to wipe her thoughts away and empty her brain. What works for you?

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*The “Great for” category is not exhaustive and does not intend to neglect the multitude of readers/teachers who could learn from this book in any number of ways.

RATINGS GUIDE

٭ = DNF, would not recommend
٭٭ = would not recommend
٭٭٭ = enjoyable, would recommend
٭٭٭٭ = very good, would recommend
٭٭٭٭٭ = amazing, would definitely recommend

Book Review: French Exit

I’ll tell you from the beginning. This is a post to declare to you that I would make a fabulous casting director. Or possibly a self-deceiving cheat.

I’ve finished reading French Exit by Patrick DeWitt.  I always want to add an article in front of the title, declaring this book to be about the French exit, but apparently there are many French exits, several in the book, more in reality. 

Anyway, I picked it up, knowing it was in production to be a film — but I didn’t know it was a finished film. In theaters now (in LA and NYC). 

The several French exits in the book are declared early. Fanny Price has gone broke. Her immense wealth that grew upon her marriage has run dry. Absolutely. Nothing left after seven years of warnings from her financial advisor Mr. Baker. When the money runs out, he asks Fanny what her plan had been through those seven years. Her response epitomizes her character: “My plan was to die before the money ran out. But I kept and keep not dying, and here I am.” 

Here, at the time, is stateside, but without a place to stay she soon finds it necessary to head to Paris where a friend has an apartment where Frances may stay. She travels to France with her son because it’s their only option (exit 1), all the while with the plan to rid herself of her final spending money and do as she planned: die (exit 2). But she’ll do it her way, as much as she can. 

DeWitt presents Price fully formed, take her or leave her, and take her you must. She’s just quirky enough, just witty enough, and just sane enough to be mesmerizing beyond her beauty. 

When I first began reading, I envisioned Price as Hepburn with a Brynn Mawr accent, an elitist prig from the early scenes of The Philadelphia Story. But as I read, as DeWitt presents flashbacks that explain the why of what you the reader already know the character is, Price took on more color. She could not be caught in the black and white films of Hepburn, held in the distance by time. No, she was fully-fleshed if standoffish, with a flat American annunciation. Her voice became Michelle Pfeiffer’s, flat and flavored as in I Am Sam where her character must hold it all together for appearances sake.

And this is where I return to my premise for this post. Can you guess which actress plays Frances Price in theaters? Why, none other than Michelle Pfeiffer herself. The character could not be played by anyone as well what with the coupling of physical beauty Pfeiffer possesses with her paradoxically cold voice with undertones of rich emotion — such that it made me wonder if DeWitt wrote the novel with Pfeiffer in mind for the role. If he did, he got what he wanted. 

Either way, I got what I wanted and thus I proclaim myself a great casting director without any other evidence than that which I’ve just noted (and will tell myself that is sufficient evidence to make a case — I’m not claiming I’d make a great lawyer). Either that, or somewhere I caught a glimpse of Pfeiffer in the role and have given myself the credit all the while keeping my conscious self from this knowledge. Deceiving at least myself and possibly you in the process. Take your pick.

But if you want to read this book, you’ve got to want to read it for the dark humor and intoxicating horror of Price, whose grown son lives with her because he wants to and she wants him to. Their relationship keeps Malcolm Price from marrying his fiance. (I’m still perplexed as to why the fiance is interested in Malcolm, but that enigma is never meant to be explained. The Prices are an addiction. Logic need not have anything to do with it. And like all addictions, they’re rather dark and a bit dirty.) The book centers on Frances Price, but it’s not necessarily about her. Once you’ve read it, think about it. Tell me: is the book about Frances or Malcolm or someone else altogether? I’ll be interested to know.

Oh! By the way… I’m eager to see this movie — I hope it’s as arty as I want it to be. And since I’m already a fantastic casting director, I can confidently declare it’s in the film’s best interest to follow the notions I’ve never voiced regarding its most apt aesthetic.

Rating: 3.5/5
Target: adult readership, 16 y.o. and up

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RATINGS GUIDE

٭ = DNF, would not recommend
٭٭ = would not recommend
٭٭٭ = enjoyable, would recommend
٭٭٭٭ = very good, would recommend
٭٭٭٭٭ = amazing, would definitely recommend

Book Review: Anxious People

The structure is the meaning. The meaning is the structure. The structure’s in the meaning. The meaning’s in the structure. If that’s too much for you, you may want to either skip this read or read it without much care.

I admit it. When I started Anxious People by Fredrik Backman, my first Backman book, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the short, choppy chapters that read as unique short story submissions to literary journals with flashpoints in the final lines that change the entire reading of the story. Again and again and again. One was good. Two okay. Then, it irritated me. I couldn’t get my feet on the ground of this narrative without having Backman purposely launch me off them.

The interjections of interviews with equally irritating, if not obnoxious, characters proved nothing if not a nuisance.  

Precisely as they were meant to do. 

This will be a short review (if you can call it that) because I have no intention of revealing the plot resolution of Backman’s book featuring a bank robber without a robbery and a hostage situation with the “world’s worst hostages.” You’ll have to experience the details for yourself. But here is what I’ve come to conclude: despite all that Backman himself will tell you the book’s about (in the text itself, he will use the phrase repeatedly), if you can trust him, the story is about isolation and connection. 

The jagged pieces that begin the book are reflections of the characters themselves: intriguing, well-crafted, but ultimately awkward in how they attempt to be more than alone. Because as the reader, I was somewhat lost in the nameless characters and their stories at the start, I found myself like them, weighing whether or not connecting to these characters is worth it. The more they revealed, the less annoying the characters were, and the more I recognized bits of myself in them. 

That’s the genius of this narrative. You find yourself in characters who you assumed were nothing like you. You connect with them as Backman transitions from his short, stop-and-go chapters to lengthier ones. Even the shorter interviews reveal connections you may not anticipate and which bolster the meaning of the narrative.

The book is well done and meaningful. It is unusual and unique, like we are, yet immensely relatable, too. Also, like we are. If that seems enigmatic or problematic or paradoxical, well, you’ll just have to read Anxious People to understand what I mean.

Rating: 4/5
Target: adult readership, 16 y.o. (not due to word or subject-matter but due to nuance)

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RATINGS GUIDE

٭ = DNF, would not recommend
٭٭ = would not recommend
٭٭٭ = enjoyable, would recommend
٭٭٭٭ = very good, would recommend
٭٭٭٭٭ = amazing, would definitely recommend

Vlog Book Review: When You Trap a Tiger

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Premise: When Lily, her mom, and her sister move from California to Washington to live with her halmoni, Lily comes in contact with a car-sized tiger who her mom and sister can’t see. The tiger claims Lily’s halmoni stole stories that belong in the stars. Lily must return the stories to the tiger in order to get what she wants from the tiger. But can tigers ever be trusted? Can halmoni? Can her mom or sister? Can she?

Rating: 4/5
Target: 4th-8th grade

Motifs (not exhaustive): Korean folklore, family, female relationships, grief, coming of age, independence, tame vs. wild, captive vs. free, identity, otherness, truth

Great for..* (readers): students who are quiet or feel left out, children dealing with grief or moving

Great for…* (teachers): character development, figurative language, folklore, Asian literature/studies, character contrasts

Other Reviews referenced by KZ in this vlog: Fighting Words, a Newbery Honor book

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*The “Great for” category is not exhaustive and does not intend to neglect the multitude of readers/teachers who could learn from this book in any number of ways.

RATINGS GUIDE

٭ = DNF, would not recommend
٭٭ = would not recommend
٭٭٭ = enjoyable, would recommend
٭٭٭٭ = very good, would recommend
٭٭٭٭٭ = amazing, would definitely recommend

Book Review: Fighting Words

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.

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RATINGS GUIDE

٭ = DNF, would not recommend
٭٭ = would not recommend
٭٭٭ = enjoyable, would recommend
٭٭٭٭ = very good, would recommend
٭٭٭٭٭ = amazing, would definitely recommend