Book Review (American Born Chinese)

Bibliography: Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York, New York: Square Fish, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0312384487.

Plot Summary: At first, you see three unrelated tales. You have the tale of the Monkey King, a famous figure in Chinese storytelling that can’t enter a dinner party because, despite being a deity and a king, he is still a monkey. The second story is about a first generation-Chinese-American, Jin Wang, grappling with living a white-majority area and wanting to belong. The third story is about a white boy, Danny feeling his idealized life getting thrown into shambles when a foreign cousin comes to visit. These tales have more in common than the reader finds initially and as the graphic novel moves forward, the reader finds themselves horrified by the characters’ mistakes but enthused when they succeed or learn.

Critical Analysis: This is not a comfortable book. It’s not. There is a racial caricature that is its own character within the third story, and it will make American readers in particular squirm in discomfort, given the history and prevalence of anti-Asian racism the United States. This book will especially feel uncomfortable now during COVID-19 when there are hate crimes toward Asian-Americans. The caricature is even given the name of what is a pun of a racial slur, and, so, I will only refer to the character as the cousin. The graphic novel is uncomfortable, but that is what makes it an important read for adults and youth alike. It is contemporary in that it shows that the United States still needs to learn from its mistakes. It also tells children a lot on self-image in American culture. The art by Gene Luen Yang is clean lines and simple colors, with a highlight usually used to mark people’s eyes. It has a rather Sunday comics sort of feel, which seems suitable to the graphic novel as it drives that Asian-Americans are as part of the American life and culture like everybody else. Its setting is set no particular year for the most part, beyond clothes that indicate it is somewhere in the 21st century. Therefore, the art does not truly age and it will be interesting to see how readers interpret that for years to come.

As a child, Jin is told by an elderly Chinese woman, “It’s easy to become anything you wish…so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.” The elderly lady says no more, concentrating on her work, leaving Jin befuddled. Not too soon after that, Jin is taken to a mostly-white elementary school. From there, he faces dog-eating jokes from his peers, and the teacher tries to help but ends up making it worse, countering, “I’m sure Jin doesn’t do that! In fact, Jin’s family probably stopped that sort of thing as soon as they came to the United States!” This graphic novel may be meant for younger readers to learn to unpack racism, but it is also a great teaching tool for adults, namely instructors, of how not to defend a student dealing with racism.

Jin’s story is the heart of the entire graphic novel, with the Monkey King story and the story of Danny complementing it in a way I will not reveal as it is what will conclude the graphic novel. However, I will say that readers may not initially like Jin and how he treats his friend Wei-Chen, but they may still nonetheless sympathize and enjoy when he grows and develops into himself. They might also laugh and sympathize with the ways Jin tries to assimilate, such as when he decides to perm his hair to copy a popular boy’s hairstyle (“Why is his hair a broccoli?!” Wei-Chen exclaims to his girlfriend, Suzy when they find out). Readers of all ages have been through that experience of following a trend to belong, only for the whole endeavor to backfire. I remember being obsessed with straightening my Middle Eastern wavy-curly hair back in high school and having to spend much of my early twenties undoing all that heat damage.

As the Monkey King says, “You know…I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey.”

My only reservation is the handling of Suzy Nakamura, one of the few other Asian characters that Jin befriends and Wei-Chen dates. She’s also the only speaking Asian American girl. In her last appearance, she talks to Jin and shares that she feels she doesn’t belong anywhere and how she felt when a classmate called her a slur. She tears up and Jin kisses her. She is upset, hits Jin, and walks off. While Wei-Chen confronts Jin and they have a fallout, she is not mentioned again. Even when Wei-Chen and Jin make up, she is never talked about again. It is a little disappointing that we do not get to hear more perspective from Suzy, especially as she can provide input on how it feels to be Asian and female and what micro- and macro-aggressions she deals in that.

That said, this is a story about accepting and embracing yourself and not choosing to let others define you. Whether the reader is Asian or not, it matters not except that maybe they will see similar struggles through these characters and see if they need to change their views of themselves.

Review Excerpt and Awards Won:

Winner of the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature (2007) (this is the first graphic novel to win this), Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults (2013), and the 2006/2007 Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award.

Following excerpt is from Publishers Weekly, reviewed on June 12, 2006:

“This much-anticipated, affecting story about growing up different is more than just the story of a Chinese-American childhood; it’s a fable for every kid born into a body and a life they wished they could escape…True to its origin as a Web comic, this story’s clear, concise lines and expert coloring are deceptively simple yet expressive. Even when Yang slips in an occasional Chinese ideogram or myth, the sentiments he’s depicting need no translation. Yang accomplishes the remarkable feat of practicing what he preaches with this book: accept who you are and you’ll already have reached out to others.”

Connections: Have readers partner up. Have the first partner and second partner draw the first partner and anything they would associate with them (if they like cats, put cats, if they are fashionable, have clothes drawn around them, etc.) Then have them show each other the pictures they drew of the first partner. They will discuss how their perceptions may differ and what will be similar, showcasing that self-image and other people’s perceptions may contrast each other. Once they are done, have the first partner and second partner draw the second partner and what they would associate with them and repeat the discussion. Another connection can be of having the readers make a comic to ask what is Suzy Nakamura doing at the end of the graphic novel and how it would fit with the canon.

Book Review (The Graveyard Book)

Bibliography: Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. New York, New York: Harper Collins, 2008. ISBN-13:  978-0060530921.

Plot Summary: A man goes into a house. He is meant to kill a man, a woman, a little girl, and a baby. He kills the man. He kills the woman. He kills the little girl. He cannot find and kill the baby. No, the baby wanders away and is found by spirits of an old graveyard. The baby is adopted and renamed Nobody “Bod” Owens. The living boy thus is raised by the graveyard, guarded by a man implied to have vampiric leanings. They tell him to never leave the graveyard for his safety, but how can the living stay always where the dead are? Who is after him? Why?

Critical Analysis: Parents might feel uneasy about their child reading a book about death, but they themselves will be drawn to the story of Nobody “Bod” Owens. This book shows the humor, the sorrow, and, yes, even the beauty and inevitability of death. In fact, this is one the best handlings of the subject of death for younger readers to read about. Bod Owens is not overshadowed by the supernatural that surrounds him, in fact, as he grows up, he shows to have, for lack of a better term, a noble spirit. When he sneaks into a living school, he wants the younger students to stand up to two bullies that are forcing them into giving up their money and shoplift for them:

“The other boy helped him pick the coins up, and handed them over…’Are you with them? Nick and Mo?’

The other boy shook his head. ‘Nope. I think that they are fairly repulsive.’ He hesitated. Then he said, ‘Actually, I came to give you a bit of advice.'”

Bod develops from an impulsive baby into a clever boy that wants to see wrongs be righted, whether it is for his original family or for what he witnesses as he peeks out toward the living world.

This book is also great at establishing strong female characters. At first, when you are introduced to Miss Lupescu, she iss described as follows: “[She] was not pretty. Her face was pinched and her expression was disapproving. Her hair was grey, although her face seemed too young for grey hair. Her front teeth were slightly crooked. She wore a bulky mackintosh and a man’s tie around her neck.” At first, readers would think she was a stereotypical prudish, stuffy teacher type, but as the pages unfold, you find that there is more than meets the eye to her. She and Bod eventually bond and she makes for a great addition to the cast.

“‘This is the boundary,’ said…Miss Lupescu, and Bod looked up. The three moons had gone. Now he could see the Milky Way, see it as he had never seen it before, a glimmering shroud across the arch of the sky. The sky was filled with stars.

“‘They’re beautiful,’ said Bod.

“‘When we get you home,’ said Miss Lupescu, ‘I teach you the names of the stars and the constellations.’

“‘I’d like that,’ admitted Bod.”

The novel has a villain, Jack, and the reader must delve further into the novel to find out more why he is after Bod. In the meantime, the reader reads chapter by chapter of Bod getting older and learning and maturing within his ghostly family and friends, including making mistakes here and there, such as getting his first living friend in trouble with her parents that they have to move away, playing with ill-intentioned ghouls, and getting in the crossfire with two con artists.

Dave McKean illustrates here and there with soft gray drawings that are framed by strong bold curves in black, adding the feeling that this is a book about what goes on after life. Bod learns to embrace life and so will the reader that has this book. It is humorous, adventurous, awe-inspiring, and bittersweet. It captures what life means and to cherish it when you have it.

Review Excerpt and Awards Won:

Winner of the Newbery Medal (2009), Hugo Award for Best Novel (2009), Locus Award for Best Young Adult Novel (2009), Carnegie Medal (2010). It was also nominated for the Mythopoeic Award for Children’s Literature (2009).

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, published September 30, 2008, and posted online May 20, 2010:

“Wistful, witty, wise—and creepy.

Gaiman’s riff on Kipling’s Mowgli stories never falters…Episodic chapters tell miniature gems of stories (one has been nominated for a Locus Award) tracing Bod’s growth from a spoiled boy who runs away with the ghouls to a young man for whom the metaphor of setting out into the world becomes achingly real. Childhood fears take solid shape in the nursery-rhyme–inspired villains, while heroism is its own, often bitter, reward.

Closer in tone to American Gods than to Coraline, but permeated with Bod’s innocence, this needs to be read by anyone who is or has ever been a child.”

Connections: Have the readers come up with how they would feel they want to be remembered as, and have them draw out their own personal epitaph/plaque. What life goals would they want to be remembered for?

Book Review (Code Name Verity)

Bibliography: Wein, Elizabeth. Code Name Verity. New York, New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012. ISBN-13:  9781423152194.

Plot Summary: This book is about a friendship between two female air pilots, both of whom crash land in Nazi-occupied France. The survivor, Verity, ends up in a gestapo prison, with the officers there, led by Haupsturmführer von Linden, into trying to get her into giving away secrets. She either says all that she knows or she is to face an execution. Verity writes out her confessions, but does so while thinking of her companion, Maddie and all that has happened before she ended up where she is.

Critical Analysis: I have never read a book so intricately plotted as I have with this book. This book is about someone with a secret mission. You go page by page wondering who is Verity and how did everything come to happen to her. You also start finding Easter eggs throughout all her writings. You even realize there is a reason why she underlines certain phrases (which I will not state why because they are important later on in the story.) The author knows much about the technology used in World War II. In her afterword, Wein states that because she was also a female pilot herself, she “wanted to explore the possibilities what would have been open to her during the Second World War…” Weis is also forthright on the liberties she has taken in the afterword. “Bear in mind that despite my somewhat exhaustive quest for historical accuracy, this book is not meant to be a good history, but rather a a good story.” She states that The Forgotten Pilots by Lettice Curtis helped her plot the story as did assistance from the Imperial War Museum of London and the Shuttleworth Collection.

In fact, combined with her pilot knowledge and books on the Air Transport Auxiliary, Wein was able to write convincingly of two pilots with the knowledge they are trained to have. This will be an excellent book for reluctant readers that have an interest in warfare, even if they might not be history fans. Her writing is an interesting combination of gritty and beautiful. She does not hesitate to have Verity talk about the tortures she undergoes, including having her head forced into a basin of water when she is not cooperating. But she also talks of the beauty in this world, such as the experience the women have when in flight. “God’s truth-the rim of the lowering sun, all they could see of it, had turned green. It was sandwiched in between a bank of low dark haze and a higher bank of dark cloud, and just along the upper edge of the haze was this bright lozenge of flaming green, like Chartreuse liqueur with light behind it. Maddie had never seen anything like it.”

Friendship is central to this entire novel and the author shows both narrator and Maddie as doing anything for one another. In fact, Verity writes out her confessions thinking of how Maddie came to become a pilot. Verity introduces Maddie first before herself, even. That said, another theme this book has is mortality in war. Verity talks of her fears time and time again, once even stating, “I am no longer afraid of getting old. Indeed I can’t believe I ever said anything so stupid. So childish. So offensive and arrogant…But mainly, so very, very stupid. I desperately want to grow old.”

Wein also manages to show the Nazis as villains while not making them static. This includes the main one, von Linden. The reader learns that he has a daughter he wants to keep safe (He says to Verity, “‘Isolde is innocent of my war work.'”) He loves to read all sorts of literature. Not to mention, he used to work at a school. This does not mean that he is free from his crimes. In fact, this book serves as a great facilitator of discussion for readers about what can make a human do evil choices, why is it so much more horrifying to others that a normal man could make those type of decisions and actions. Wein has managed to show the Nazi characters not as stereotypes, but as full-flesh human beings, and it makes the book all the more powerful. This is a book about a war, but it is also about the people in that war.

This title has a lot of history in its pages, combined with a good, intricate story, strong female characters. It has young adults feel that they are being spoken to without any condescension. In fact, readers may enthusiastically read this book twice just so they can catch what they missed before as everything comes out at the end.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

Michael L. Printz Award (2013), Golden Kite Award for Fiction (2013), Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Young Adult Novel (2013), and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, published May 15, 2012, and posted online February 15, 2012:

“Through the layers of story, characters (including the Nazis) spring to life. And as the epigraph makes clear, there is more to this tale than is immediately apparent. The twists will lead readers to finish the last page and turn back to the beginning to see how the pieces slot perfectly, unexpectedly into place.

A carefully researched, precisely written tour de force; unforgettable and wrenching.”

Connections: Run a discussion group between all the readers and have them discuss what elements of war may have made them uncomfortable and why. Ask them how they felt the Nazis were portrayed in this book and how they are done differently in other forms of media. Ask them how they felt about learning of the female pilots of World War II.

Review (The Midwife’s Apprentice)

Bibliography: Cushman, Karen. The Midwife’s Apprentice. New York, New York: Clarion Books, 1995. ISBN-13: 9780395692295.

Plot Summary: In a medieval English village, a cantankerous midwife named Jane takes in a homeless girl. This is not out of the goodness of Jane’s heart though. She uses the girl for chores and errands and always keeps her outside when she goes into villagers’ houses to help the women in labor. This does not stop the girl from peering in through the windows and learning what Jane does exactly to have a baby be born healthy and safe. The girl goes from being nameless to being called Brat to Beetle and then, finally, to Alyce. She bonds with a cat, whom she names Purr, befriends a former bully, and takes care of a little boy that was in homeless circumstances like she had been. Alyce finds that there is a place in the world for her and it is not in a dung heap.

Critical Analysis: Cushman does not hesitate to show how the world back then would treat a girl like Alyce. While today’s world is terrible with homeless people, back then was even less humane. Alyce is first known as Brat and is trying to keep herself warm by being in a dung heap. Cushman details how midwifes worked in this society, “In medieval England, midwifery was a less than honorable profession, mostly because it was practiced by and on women. Midwives worked unsupervised and unregulated into the sixteenth century…Medieval midwifery was a combination of common sense, herbal knowledge, and superstition, passed from woman to woman through oral tradition and apprenticeship.”

Cushman manages to balance the effectiveness of herbs and the superstitions of that world well to showcase wisdom and misconceptions of the past. In one scene, Alyce is talking to a cook, who states she is uncomfortable with human twins. “…Alyce [wondered]…why twin cows such as Baldred and Billfrith should be such a joy and a boon while twin babies were ill-starred and unlucky.” In some ways, Alyce is a stand-in for the modern reader. Because she was an orphan with nothing to her name, she is able to observe the people around her without any bias and comes to her own conclusions on matters. In fact, there are times she takes advantage of the fact that no one pays attention to her, such as when she is secretly learning Jane’s midwifery. The reader will find themselves absorbed into this world, not only by strong characters, but the lush, vivid ways Cushman describes this world. “June burst into bloom–daisies, larkspur, meadowsweet and thyme, foxglove and thimbleberry, purple thistle flowers and yellow whorls of blooming fennel.” This an accessible book for young readers that may not know too much about the middle ages.

Alyce ends up using the villager’s superstitions against them in one chapter. I cannot say exactly what happens, but she does get back at the villagers that have been cruel to her with the clever use of wooden hooves. Cushman understands her younger audience, so she does not overtake the story with so many historical references, but just let the world be. Instead, she writes it almost like a smooth fairy tale, with how Alyce grows into her own person, learning from different settings, from the midwife’s home to the inn. She starts out as a young girl that has suffered so much that when she tries to comfort her recovering cat, she does not know how to be kind. “If she had known of gentle words and cooing, she would have spoken gently to him. But all she knew was cursing: ‘Damn you, cat, breathe and live, you flea-bitten sod, or I’ll kill you myself.'” She starts learning how to defend herself and using her wits to survive, such as when she threatens the bullies when they try to go after her cat, Purr again. She threatens that she has a potion that could command the Devil to turn them into women and give birth. The bullies stop doing what they are doing, and the cat and Alyce make it back to the cottage unscathed. “It was fortunate that the boys never tested Alyce’s magic, for the bottle she shook so fiercely at them was naught but blackberry cordial she was to deliver to Old Anna on her way home from nutting in the woods…”

Truly, the themes of this work is perseverance and dedication. Alyce learns to keep moving forward and develop as a person that deserves dignity and respect like everyone else. Readers will cheer her on as they move through this story. They will also enjoy the beautiful scenery she writes, despite the harsh era this story is set in.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

John Newbery Medal (1996), ALA Notable Best Children’s Books (1996).

Following excerpt from Kirkus Reviews, posted online May 20, 2010 and published originally March 27, 1995:

“How Brat comes to terms with her failure and returns to Jane’s home as a true apprentice is a gripping story about a time, place, and society that 20th-century readers can hardly fathom. Fortunately, Cushman…does the fathoming for them, rendering in Brat a character as fully fleshed and real as Katherine Paterson’s best, in language that is simple, poetic, and funny. From the rebirth in the dung heap to Brat’s renaming herself Alyce after a heady visit to a medieval fair, this is not for fans of historical drama only.

It’s a rouser for all times.”

Connections: Have the readers draw out a time they defended themselves, whether from friends, bullies, family, and whatnot. Ask them to state how they felt. Also, have them illustrate a scene where they are happy for Alyce and have them state why.

Review (Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat)

Bibliography: Steptoe, Javaka. Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York, New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0316213882.

Plot Summary: The author and illustrator of this book takes his cue from Basquiat himself and illustrates with the influence of Basquiat’s collages, symbols and motifs, and lush, thick slabs of paint. Steptoe writes in his notes that he “painted on richly textured pieces of found wood harvested from discarded Brooklyn Museum exhibit materials, the Dumpsters of Brooklyn brownstones, and the streets of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side…While [readers] will not find reproductions of actual Basquiat artwork…they will find…original pieces that were inspired by him…”

This is fitting considering the entirety of the book is on the formative influences of Jean-Michel Basquiat as he ascends to artistic fame. The book details his childhood, growing up in Brooklyn “between hearts that thump, double Dutch, and hopscotch and salty mouths that slurp sweet ice…” Basquiat is inspired to do art, even as a young child and he draws and draws to his heart’s content, particularly cityscapes. His mother, Mathilde, supports his endeavors and she teaches him “Art is the street games of little children, in our style and the words that we speak. It is how the messy patchwork of the city creates new meaning for ordinary things.” Even as his mother suffers mental health problems, he still pays his love and dedication to her, visiting and showing Mathilde his artwork. As a teenager, Basquiat moves to the Lower East Side. There he flourishes, constantly painting, making collages, and poetry. He turns to graffiti art under the pen name, Samo©. From there, Basquiat is able to showcase his work in art galleries and become a prominent figure. Despite his fame, Basquiat never stops working hard at his passions and his mother will always be his queen, “above all the critics, fans, and artists he admires…”

Critical Analysis: The text is bubbling with passion for Basquiat’s life and works. It is in normal text for the most part, but each splash page features one to two words or phrases that fully capitalized and in a type that looks handwritten and bigger that the rest of the words. “BEAUTIFUL” and “ARTIST” are the words that turn up the most in the book, but there also words that are emphasized only once that are still integral to the character of Basquiat: “PAINT,” “MATHILDE,” “HEALING,” “BREAKS,” and, of course, “RADIANT, WILD, A GENIUS CHILD…” The book gives a clear sequence of Basquiat growing up and showing what influences his art without outright stating it. The book also serves to avoid stereotypes, while showing his mother doing housework, Mathilde also encourages his artistry. “From her he learns that art is not only in the poetry books she reads to him or in the theatres and musuems they visit.” Mathilde teaches him to take the city as his inspiration. Steptoe also avoids stereotypes of mentally ill people being bad parents by showing that despite her illness, Mathilde is a loving force behind Basquiat. This can be a great opening for conversations between adults and children on mental illness and how to care for loved ones that have it.

As for the accuracy of this book, Steptoe goes the extra mile of depicting the illustrations all from the influence of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like Basquiat, he goes for thick, uneven lines, slaps of thick paint, like Basquiat, “His drawings are not neat or clean…They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.” While Steptoe does not explicitly list out the references he used to create this book, he does write out a one-page biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat at the end of the story. In the notes, he lists out the symbolism Basquiat enjoyed creating into his work and he challenges the reader to see if they can find those symbols and motifs in the book. He also states that he has known Basquiat’s work and impact through high school and college. Steptoe spent time in Greenwich Village where he saw his artwork. He also mentions attending one of Basquiat’s art shows and reading up about him in the 1985 New York Times article, “New Art, New Money,” written by Cathleen McGuigan.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

Awards and Honors: 2017 Caldecott Medal; 2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, published October 25, 2016, posted online July 20, 2016:

“Steptoe’s canvas is wood salvaged from the Brooklyn Museum and locales that Basquiat frequented. Spaces between the patched fragments contribute to the impression of a disjointed childhood. Steptoe shows that Basquiat was smart and driven early on, influenced by his Haitian father’s jazz records and his Puerto Rican mother’s style, encouragement, breakdown, and institutionalization when he was only 7. Prior to that, she drew with him, took him to see Picasso’s Guernica, and gave him Grey’s Anatomy following a serious car accident…Several sentences per spread speak with understated lyricism and poignancy, an occasional internal rhyme underscoring a point: ‘Jean-Michel is confused and filled with a terrible blues / when Matilde can no longer live at home.’ Acknowledging his multifaceted sense of connection, Steptoe interprets Basquiat’s style instead of inserting particular works. Vibrant colors and personal symbols channel the ‘sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL’ paintings, incorporating meticulously attributed collage elements and capturing the artist’s energy and mystery.

Connections: A connection can be made by teaching children how to create collages of their own and interject symbols and motifs of their own life. Another connection can be of them creating a story of how their parents or other adults in their life grew up as children, teaching them the value of biographies.

Review (Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America)

Bibliography: Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Terrible Typhooid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America. Boston, Massachusetts: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0544313675.

Plot Summary: She was a reserved but well-liked cook that served for many wealthy New York families. She was an Irish immigrant whose past is not well-known before she went to the United States as a teenager. She had few friends and kept moving about for her job. She was always diligent at her tasks, toiling in fourteen-hour shifts. In a lot of ways, Mary Mallon is not who you would typically write a biography about. She was an aloof servant, usually a character that would be in the background of a story. Mary Mallon however killed people. She didn’t intend to, but she was a “healthy carrier” for typhoid fever in a time where germs were barely understood. After serving peaches and ice-cream to a family that nearly dies of the fever, her life changes and she is locked into a battle. Medical professionals want her to not harm people with her bacteria, Mary Mallon just wants to have a normal life with privacy. This is a book where there is no bad guy, but a thriller-like situation that is not as simple as readers would first think.

Critical Analysis: Bartoletti keeps a neat organization of all her research, having a photo album, a timeline, sources. One of the reoccurring themes of this book is the ethics and if it was right for the medical community and media to treat Mary the way they did. So, it is no surprise that the author does the ethical thing, putting up not only a bibliography, but also two pages for acknowledgments and permissions for those that helped with her research. Lastly, there is an index where people can look at any of the social, cultural, scientific, and historical aspects of this story. In fact, Bartoletti categorizes her bibliography into the following: Understanding Mary: In Her Own Words; Understanding Mary : From the Words of Others; Understanding Mary From Newspaper Accounts; Understanding Mary, Secondary Sources; Understanding Mary’s World; Understanding George Soper and Josephine Baker; Understanding Typhoid, Hygiene, and Disease; Understanding Public Health, The Law, and the Trust Factor; and Understanding Yellow Journalism. Bartolettie is all about understanding how Mary’s world worked and how the people in it behaved and why.

Bartoletti knows the good and bad sides of them all. She approaches everyone in a nuanced manner: George Soper (who wanted Mary quarantined and fought to catch her) is overly vain and is even resentful of Mary’s and Josephine Baker’s strength as women. At the same time, however, he does genuinely care for public health. Josephine Baker is also dedicated to her job in health (she too also believes Mary needs to be arrested), but she has prejudices against Irish people like Mary. As for Mary Mallon, she is dedicated to her work but obstinate to many people. Mary is vulnerable to public perception of her but refuses to listen to reason.

What Bartoletti also does effectively is embrace the mysterious character of Mary Mallon. “To her employers and fellow workers, Mary never spoke of her growing-up years. Most of what we know about her comes from a few documents, from what others say about her, and a six-page letter written in her own hand.” Bartoletti trusts readers to decide for themselves why Mary distrusted medical professionals, why she wanted to continue cooking, and refused to admit that she carried a disease, despite evidence. Bartoletti lays out the context of the world Mary lived in, where “Good servants understood that all Americans were equal, regardless of class. But they also understood that employers were more equal than servants…For many employers, a good servant meant a specific race, nationality and religion.”

Bartoletti never overloads the information for the reader. Instead, she lays out all the action in a linear fashion and then adds context in areas that need context for twenty-first century reader. She also does not hold back from imagery such as describing North Brother Island, where Mary lived in isolation in a clinic. “Today, if North Brother Island has any secrets to tell about Mary Mallon, it guards them closely. The island is overgrown with kudzu, porcelain berry, poison ivy, weeds, and thickets. Riverside Hospital and other buildings are crumbling or lie in ruins. The tiny cottage where Mary lived for nearly twenty-six years is gone.” With this one paragraph, she manages to showcase what a haunting case Mary Mallon was and how her treatment impacts how we treat people in this day and age. As Bartoletti later states: “As a society and as individuals, we must protect healthy people from disease. We must also treat those suffering from disease in an intelligent, human, and compassionate way.”

Mary never got that. She was quarantined twice against her will. She could not hold a steady, decent-paying job. Her privacy was destroyed when newspapers gave away her name. Suddenly, she goes from Mary Mallon to “human typhoid germ,” “human culture tube,” “human fever factory,” and “Typhoid Mary.”

Review Excerpt and Awards Won:

NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor Book (2016); Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12 (2016); ALA Notable Books for Children 2016; 2016 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.

Following excerpt is from The Horn Book, written by Jonathan Hunt, August 12, 2015:

“Bartoletti focuses…on Mary, using her as a lens through which to view — and analyze — a wider swath of American society. What was it like to be a servant, an immigrant, a woman at the dawn of the twentieth century? Bartoletti skillfully weaves the answers into the beginning of the story, before moving on to Soper’s cat-and-mouse game of tracking Mary down and then keeping her quarantined for most of the rest of her life. And there are questions remaining at the end, too. How do we balance the rights of the individual with the safety of the entire community? Why was Mary made a public scapegoat, while other healthy carriers walked free? Despite the novelistic trim size and narrative, the book contains the hallmarks of excellent nonfiction: a photo album, timeline, source notes, bibliography, and index.”

Connections: This book can be used to facilitate a group discussion with young readers about how the whole case was handled. Would you have agreed that Soper approached Mary the right way? Does Mary have a right to feel angry about how she is treated? Would things have been different if Mary was not Irish or female or a servant? Another connection can be to discuss the basics of health, what constitutes as a cold or a flu, what are myths about diseases, and whatnot.

Review (Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist)

Bibliography: Greenburg, Jan and Sandra Jordan. Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist. New York, New York: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2001. ISBN-13: 978-0385328067.

Plot Summary: This book details Vincent van Gogh’s life from birth to death. It separates moments of his life into chapters, mainly the places van Gogh traveled to, the people who came to know him, and the process and creations of his artwork, especially his education. It is a linear type of storytelling. He is quoted at the beginning of each chapter, many quotes coming from his letters to his younger brother, Theo. The book depicts the loving but draining devotion the brothers had to one another, with Theo being one of van Gogh’s supporters, despite preferring the Impressionist style that van Gogh rejected. The book does not hesitate to show the struggles van Gogh had, ones that he had no control over, such as the cool reception his works would receive, but also the ones that he sabotaged himself. A prime example is when he gets fired from his uncle’s gallery and from there on, he spends most of his life in poverty, depending on his family, mainly his brother, to financially support him. As Theo notes to their sister, “‘It is as if he had two persons in him–one marvelously gifted, delicate, and tender, and other egotistical and hardheaded. They present themselves in turn, so that one hears him talk first one way, then in the other, and this always with arguments which are now all for, all against the same point. It is a pity that he is his own enemy, for he makes life hard not only for others but for himself.'” The book also talks of his failing health, mentally and physically, how his artistry evolved with every painting he did, and his yearning to make an impact on the art world. This is a bittersweet book that can teach readers history, art, but also how beauty and tragedy can intermingle.

Critical Analysis: This is a well-organized book, not only compartmentalizing all the significant events of Vincent van Gogh’s life, but doing so in a way that still respects both the artist and the reader for not watering it down. The book does not hesitate to describe the famous ear incident, where he cut off his earlobe. Rather, it explains exactly what transpired, explaining it was due to his fight with Gauguin that he did it. In the notes section, the authors mention that there are two versions of the ear incident. “…the first story Gauguin told their mutual friend [Emile] Bernard about Vincent’s accident is more likely the truth than the version Gauguin recounted fifteen years later…The first is the one we have followed. In the second, more melodramatic version of the story, Gauguin claimed that Vincent threatened him with a razor, something he didn’t mention at the time.”

The authors take a no-nonsense approach to their research while writing in a clean, narrative style that, yes, goes into a storytelling flair, but gets descriptive only when discussing van Gogh’s paintings. And they do it in a way that tell young readers why this artwork is beloved: “The color scheme was dark, his favorite bistre and bitumen heightened with gold. The heads he painted ‘the color of a very dusty potato, unpeeled of course.’ He left the brushwork purposely rough. ‘It would be wrong to give a peasant picture a certain conventional smoothness. If a peasant picture smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam–that’s not unhealthy…to be perfumed is not what a peasant picture needs…We must continue to give something real and honest.'” The authors avoid creating any dialogue as way to drive the authenticity of the narrative. They only use letters to show what the people were saying to one another, which also gives intimacy to the reader as these were originally meant for the sender and the receiver. They choose many emotional parts of letters to drive the sorrow and passions of a complicated man.

The book features illustrations, a map, a postscript, a biographical timeline, museum locations of van Gogh’s famous works, a glossary of artists and terms. The book also includes notes that state where the authors took their resources from and stating the page number where the resource is utilized. There is, of course, also the bibliography that shows the array of research authors went into, sources ranging from the 1950s into the early 2000s, including books on the letter exchanges Vincent van Gogh partook in.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

2002 ALA Notable Children’s Books Winner; 2002 Sibert Medal Nominee; 2003 Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee.

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, published August 14, 2001, and posted online June 24, 2010:

“After a brief prologue about a key moment in his work, the biography follows van Gogh’s life chronologically (with the dates covered given as part of each chapter title), followed by a relevant quote from a letter. Many chapters end on notes of anticipation, sometimes almost cliffhangers, leading the reader eagerly into the next phase of the painter’s life. Information about van Gogh’s personality, moods, and relationships is interwoven with descriptions of his progress in art to form a seamless whole. Two drawings and 17 color reproductions of his paintings from different periods illustrate the changes in his style as described in the text. The authors attain their goal stated in the introduction of getting ‘beyond the myth without losing touch with the power of its appeal.’ They clarify the widely-known story about van Gogh cutting off his ear, all the while conveying the artist as a sympathetic man who suffered greatly but also recognized and took joy in his own talent. The biography focuses on van Gogh’s life rather than on a critical look at his work; those hoping for commentary on specific paintings will have to look elsewhere. But the reader who wants insight into the life of this remarkable painter will find it in this lively, beautifully written biography. “

Connections: Teach children how to paint like van Gogh and reproduce his painting, Starry Night by imitating the brush strokes used as well as the main idea of the artwork. Another way to teach them is to have them paint a relative or friend and see how they feel about the endeavor.

Review (Brown Girl Dreaming)

Bibliography: Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York, New York: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Books USA), 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0399252518.

Plot Summary: Jacqueline tells the story of herself and her family and how her home is in the South and in New York. She is born when so much history is happening around her as stated in the poem, “second daughter’s second day on earth.” While her birth certificate is getting done, “In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr./ is planning a march on Washington, where/ John F. Kennedy is president. / In Harlem, Malcolm X is standing on a soapbox/ talking about a revolution.” She writes out her memories as she grows up, as so many changes happen in her life, such as getting a younger sibling, moving to a new home, dealing with her uncle going to prison. She writes about how she handles it all and how even her own siblings grow into their own persons.

Critical Analysis: Woodson’s writing is sparse but loaded, effective with the way she foreshadows her grandfather, Daddy’s death, “I do not know yet/ how sometimes the earth makes a promise/ it can never keep. Tobacco fields/ lay fallow, crops picked clean./ My grandfather coughs again/ and the earth waits/ for what and who it will get in return.”

Jacqueline loves words but finds herself going a different way about approaching them compared to her older sister, Dell. Where Dell excels at reading book after book quickly, Jacqueline takes a longer time to finish, letting the words absorb her. She makes up her own phrasings inside her head. Unfortunately, teachers at first get excited at having her for a student until they realize she learns differently from Dell. And, unfortunately, while the reader realizes that Jacqueline observes and reads like a poet, that Jacqueline is going to grow up to be a writer, the teachers themselves dismiss her. In the poem, “the other woodson,” the teachers keep waiting to see if she will act like Dell, but then they remember that she is “the other Woodson and begin searching for brilliance at another desk.”

Jacqueline’s narration says so many things in so few lines. She can show how limiting the adults’s viewpoint is that there is only one way to brilliance and that is by how quick children go through things, such as Dell. They end up ignoring great minds like Jacqueline. She also shows how that viewpoint is so limiting because the reader is reading Jacqueline’s point-of-view, we see what she utilizes for an emotional, sensory experience.

Woodson is strong in conveying a sensory experience, especially as she links it to nostalgia and the bittersweet emotions from that. She plays the senses with a rhythm to her verses. Part of the experience is how she paints the North and the South as contrasts. There are emotions tied to both places. With the south, Jacqueline feels free in many ways that is close to serene, such as running barefoot or catching fireflies in jars. In the winter, she talks of how it is like to be with her grandfather on the porch swing, ” a blanket around us as we sit on the front porch swing./ Its whine like a song. / You don’t need words/ on a night like this./ Just the warmth/ of your grandfather’s arm. Just the silent promise/ that the world as we know it/ will always be here.” Things are not always so sweet in the South, however. In a previous poem, Jacqueline narrates about the trauma of segregation in Greenville, where, despite a White Only sign being painted over, “…you can still see the words, right there/ like a ghost standing in front/ still keeping you out.”

When Jacqueline and her siblings move to New York with their mother, they miss South Carolina constantly, but then they start growing and start forming their own selves within New York while never forgetting their roots. For one thing, Jacqueline makes a best friend, “All the dreams this city holds/ right outside–just step through the door and walk/ two doors down to where/ my new best friend, Maria, lives.” New York is also where Jacqueline falls in love with the form of a poem. She is entranced when her teacher reads a poem about a birch tree and talks of how enthralled the whole class is, “And even though we’ve never seen an ice storm/ we’ve seen a birch tree, so we can imagine/ everything we need to imagine/ forever and ever/ infinity/ amen.”

This is a book about the many parts a person can have. They carry the legacy of both sides of the family, they can believe different things, they can consider different places their homes. As Jacqueline says near the end, “I believe in johnny pumps and jump ropes,/ Malcolm and Martin/ Buckeyes and Birmingham/ writing and listening, bad words and good words–/ I believe in Brooklyn!/ I believe in one day and someday and this/ perfect moment called Now.” This memoir of verses should be read-aloud, for both the beautiful imagery and the lilting rhythm that can empower anyone.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Author Winner (2015); National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (2014); NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Young Adult Fiction (2015); John Newbery Medal Honor (2016).

Following excerpt is from The New York Times, by Veronica Chambers, dated August 22, 2014:

“I thought of Nikki Giovanni and the teenage girl I was, almost constantly, as I read Jacqueline Woodson’s wonderful memoir in verse, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” because I suspect this book will be to a generation of girls what Giovanni’s book was to mine: a history lesson, a mash note passed in class, a book to read burrowed underneath the bed covers and a life raft during long car rides when you want to float far from wherever you are, and wherever you’re going, toward the person you feel destined to be…t is as rich a spread as the potluck table at a family reunion. Sure, you can plow through the pages, grabbing everything you can in one go, like piling a plate high with fried chicken and ribs, potato salad and corn bread. And yes, it’s entirely possible to hold that plate with one hand while balancing a bowl of gumbo and a cup of sweet tea with the other. But since the food isn’t going anywhere, you’ll make out just as well, maybe even a little better, if you pace yourself.”

This verse novel is organized in a way that it is thick as regular novel, but you find yourself quickly sweeping through, entranced by the vivid words Woodson writes. She even organizes them like memories, where one would experience vignettes of a daily life. This is truly a coming-of-age story.

Connections: A connection that can be made by reading this story is to have students interview guardians, parents, or grandparents over a favorite childhood memory. Have the student then write a poem out of that childhood memory. This can show students how to create poem out of a topic.

Review (A Pocketful of Poems)

Bibliography: Grimes, Nikki and Javaka Steptoe. A Pocketful of Poems. Boston, Massachusetts: Clarion Books, 2001. ISBN-13: 978-0395938683.

Plot Summary: A vibrant story about a little girl named Tiana who lives in Harlem and keeps words in her pockets. As she says in the beginning, “I play with [words] sometimes./ I use them in haiku./You can borrow most of them/if you want to.” She takes you, the reader, on a tour of seasons and celebrations, providing both wordplay and a sensory language that makes a familiar world new all over again. There are free-verse poems but also haiku playing against the illustrations. This is a book that reminds young minds of the beauty around the world. It also reminds older minds of the exuberance and beauty that children can take of their own surroundings.

Critical Analysis: This book will have children analyze it time and time again. Not only by the author’s clever, pretty phrasings, but by how the illustrator plays up to the sensory language. Steptoe makes moonlight out of aluminum foil on Tiana’s quilt and has it look almost like siren blares to complement the haiku that follows across it: “Full moon, magic in/silver, speaks to me, drowning/the sounds of sirens.” Steptoe completes the feeling of sleepiness by using a real-life texture to the quilt that takes up two pages of the book.

Steptoe adds a further experience with the senses with how he texturizes so many things. Tiana’s baseball bat is made of bendy straws. The Harlem buildings are made of maps of New York. The haiku tends to blend more against the illustrations while the free-verse is traditionally set in a more blank area of the page. Most often, the illustrator and author do not work together in making the story. Usually the illustrator sees the work sent to them and interprets them their own way. So, it is

There is emotional impact in this story, and it is of love and relishing every moment. The author does this by playing with simile and metaphor. For example, for Tiana, showers are like “soap and water for the sky” and snow makes “each streetlight into a star on a stick.” One of the best parts of the book is with the poem, “Harlem.” Tiana is an African-American girl and in the poem, her father, in his own way, says to cherish her heritage on Fourth of July. As the poem goes, “HARLEM/What a restless word!/It kicks up its black heels/day and night./I slide it into my hip pocket/next to AFRICA/and zip it tight./Daddy says these/are not words to spend/but to save.” Steptoe creates an image of Tiana being embraced by her father while holding the American flay. This serves a great purpose of highlighting that there are different ways of being an American and can start an excellent discussion with a child on heritage.

In the author’s note, Grimes writes that she’s “always loved what traditional haiku teaches about Eastern cultures, but [she] also thought it would be fun to read haiku poetry with contemporary images that [she] could relate to as a Harlem-born city girl, who grew up in North America.” Reading A Pocketful of Poems will serve as a great way to show children how to analyze words and images as well as appreciate their own surroundings.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

Awards and Honors: There are no honors or awards for this book, but the author’s career has led her to gain the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, 2003 Coretta Scott King Author Award, 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literacy Award, and the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal.

Following excerpt is from Publishers Weekly, date unknown: “Narrator and girl poet Tiana begins with an invitation to join her in wordplay, and the accompanying illustration depicts her, literally, with hands outstretched and bearing what appear to be carved letters in her palms. The poem ‘Tiana’ launches the volume, then the heroine leads readers through the seasons with more than a dozen words, from ‘Spring’ to ‘Gift’ at Christmastime… Tiana’s bubbling personality shines forth from each verse, and Steptoe…in an extraordinary feat, sculpts each of his character portraits from construction paper in a single, uninterrupted linear outline. His glorious mixed-media collages make the transition from intimate interior scenes to electric urban landscapes. Readers can only hope that this dynamic duo has many more pockets full of poems.”

Connections: This will be a great way to teach children to write their own haikus. Have the children think about their favorite places or weather and have them write out them out in haikus. Another connection will be teaching children about personifications–have the children choose a word that they can illustrate its meaning. For example, for the word, “fur” a child could draw the word with hair and a tail coming out of it.

Review (Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy)

Bibliography: Sones, Sonya. Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. New York, New York: HarperTeen, 1999. ISBN-13: 978-0439250702.

Plot Summary: On Christmas Eve, Cookie’s older sister has a mental breakdown. Cookie’s sister is eventually placed in a psychiatric ward. Cookie grapples with many things after this happens. Her parents fighting, and she feels isolated in both home and school. Cookie fears how her friends and peers will view her once they find out that her sister is mentally ill, “Sometimes/ I worry that/ the truth will break out all/over my face, like a fresh crop/of zits.”

Cookie also worries that whatever her sister is dealing with, she may have it. This fear goes as far as to form into this idea (this hope) that her sister may be adopted, “She’s not my real sister./ I don’t have/ any/ of the same genes as her,/ not one single same gene,/ not one/single/insane/gene.” Cookie is ashamed, Cookie is angry, Cookie is in despair. Cookie is going through what many people do when they are coming to terms that a loved one is sick and needs help and treatment. As the months go by, there are ups and downs in Cookie’s life where she learns to accept what her sister is going through, discovers who her real friends are, and even falls in love with an understanding boy. Little by little, poem by poem, Cookie grows up, and, through all that, never stops loving her sister.

Critical Analysis: This is not an easy book. It is not an easy topic. This is why this verse book is significant today. Sones based this book on her own journal when her sister was taken to the psychiatric ward. Sones would have been the same age as Cookie in the early 1960s, but the book never specifies the time it is set in. We only know that Cookie is twelve and eventually turns thirteen. There is a brevity to this work, especially at the beginning as, poem by poem, Cookie slices into the many emotions toiling inside her. The dissection of the many things going on is further emphasized by most of the falling rhythm Sones uses.

Sones also uses rhyme for an eerie effect in “Sister’s Voices,” where “She tried to block them out, but couldn’t make/ them go away./ The voices asked her why/ she’d lost her mind. Her hands began to shake.” Sones also likes to use only one word for certain lines of the poem as a way to establish the harsh thoughts and emotions Cookie is dealing with.

Cookie later on develops an interest in photography, but the reader may see hints of this with the way the book is arranged. The poems are all titled and they look similar to how one captions a photograph, such as “Boston,” or “In English Class,” or “Her Self-Portrait.” These poems indicate that these are snapshots of both Cookie’s life, but also snapshots of what goes on in her own mind.

While the poetry is written in a clean-cut way, Sones does not hesitate to showcase uncomfortable things, especially with imagery. During art class, Cookie draws herself and her parents and it is unsettling. “I’m drawing my sister/ with sauces for eyes./ The saucers are spinning out sparks./ I’m drawing my mother/ with zippers for eyes./ The zippers are zipped up tight./ I’m drawing my father/ with windows for eyes./ The winds are broken and cracked./ I’m drawing myself/ without any eyes/ at all.” Unnerving, but it perfectly encapsulates what Cookie is feeling.

The imagery does not just end with Cookie’s emotions. She also uses it to fully paint to the reader the extent of her sister’s illness. In one visit, she describes her as feral. She acts feral the way she freezes her hands “like rabbits freeze when danger’s near,” and she is later “hissing” her words to Cookie. The book does not hesitate to show that Cookie’s family is going through a difficult period, and that Cookie’s sister can’t simply be cured.

This book is a raw book. It is hopeful, but it is raw, and it can be a great introduction on how mental health is viewed and treated for young readers. Cookie’s sister does get better (but, like I said, she isn’t cured) and there is an optimism entwined with that uncertainty throughout the second half of novel. The author’s own notes state that her sister now takes medication after undergoing several treatments. The real-life Cookie’s sister is now married and has become a librarian. She also writes and draws and does volunteer work. This is an excellent verse book to teach readers compassion and empathy towards mentally ill people.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

Awards and Honors: Winner of the 2000 Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry; Winner of Myra Cohn Livingston Poetry Award (2000); chosen for the ALA Best Book for Young Adults (2000), and the ALA Popular Paperback for Young Adults (2000.)

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, posted online on May 20, 2010 and originally written October 31, 1999:

“Collected, [the poems] take on life and movement, the individual frames of a movie that in the unspooling become animated, telling a compelling tale and presenting a painful passage through young adolescence. The form, a story-in-poems, fits the story remarkably well, spotlighting the musings of the 13-year-old narrator, and pinpointing the emotions powerfully. She copes with friends who snub her, worries that she, too, will go mad, and watches her sister’s slow recovery.”

Connection: Use this book for teens as a way for them to create their own journals but only write poetry in them, this will help them express themselves. Another way to use this book is to facilitate a group conversation about mental health and what are the good and bad ways of handling someone with mental illness.