Broken Memory: A Novel of Rwanda, by Elisabeth Combres

August 17, 2010

Rating: 3.5/5

Broken Memory is a story of a girl who survives her mother’s murder during the Rwandan 1994 genocide of the Tutsi people. She has no dreams, no ambitions, and no interest in her future. She has only one goal in mind: to fulfill her mother’s last wish…

“You must live, Emma.”

When I sat down to read this book, I braced myself for the horrors of genocide.

What I found was simple and thought-provoking.

This is not an in-depth look at a young survivor’s life or a detailed account of the horrors of genocide; it is a series of events that lead the character to catharsis and leave the reader with…an impression. A broken image.

It’s up to the reader to pick up the pieces and consider what makes us human and what can turn us into monsters.

It is a tiny book with barely a pause for characterization, where Emma’s story is quickly narrated and we are carried down a stream of words watching images of the old woman who takes pity on Emma and keeps her despite the danger to her life; of the gossiping women in the village who don’t like the sight of her; of the boy whose spirit and body have been broken but who she cannot help but befriend; of the old man who has suffered more than she thought anyone could bear; of the trials of murderers; and her journey back to her mother’s home.

While I want to give this book a high rating, its lack of characterization, its rushed prose and anticlimactic epilogue prohibit me from doing so. However, despite its shortcomings, it addresses an important part of history, and its fast pace will likely be appealing to many reluctant readers.

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Broken Memory won the Prix Nouvelle Revue Pédagogique and the Prix des lycéens allemands, where German high school students select their favorite book.

Broken Memory is part of the 2010 National Books for a Global Society’s list of outstanding K-12 multicultural literature.

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Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

June 30, 2010

Rating: 5/5

This is the second book in Suzanne Collin’s trilogy of the Hunger Games and it’s just as good, if not better than the first book. Check out a previous post if  you’re not familiar with the storyline. 

I an amazing twist of events, there are more survivors than previously expected, much to the embarrassment of the Capitol. Katniss’ year as the champion does little to settle her nerves, since she knows the Capitol is watching her every step. When the time comes again to pick this year’s “tributes”, a nasty surprise awaits all of the champions of recent years, as they must go back to fight for their lives. This time they are up against the best of the best. Behind the scenes, the districts are furious that their champions are in danger once more and keep a close eye on Katniss in particular. Will she be the one to set off the events that lead to a new rebellion? Who will survive this year’s Hunger Games?

I thoroughly enjoyed the transformation that takes place in this second book. In response to the Capitol’s new demands and cruel machinations, Katniss’ plight continues to unravel everyone’s beliefs about the system. The people of the capitol stir in discomfort; the districts begin to shake off their fear. The tension mounts with the turn of every page… 

I won’t say much else because I do not want to ruin the experience for those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to read this book.  😉

Questions: I like that this book makes you think and, better yet, it encourages you to ask very difficult questions that have no easy answer/s. One question that is still prevalent is: what does it mean to be human?

Other questions up for discussion could be:

  • How can one idea change the world?
  • In the story, the mockingjay becomes a symbol of freedom. What other objects or symbols do you know of that people have given specific meaning to? Why are symbols important to humans?
  • How do our experiences help shape our ideas of what it means to be human?

Topics in this book include: humanity, sacrifice, change, transformation, symbolism, ideas, rebellion, freedom, independence, justice, friendship, survival, community, family, politics, love, oppression, social classes…

Do pick up this book and ask yourself: what does it mean to be human?__________________________________________________________

The third book, Mockingjay, will be released August 24, 2010. I can’t wait!

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Parvana’s Journey, by Deborah Ellis

September 2, 2009

Rating: 4.5/5

Rating: 4.5/5

Awards: Jane Adams Award; The Canada Council Governor General’s Literary Award

In Parvana’s journey we meet a young girl in Afghanistan who has just lost her father and goes on a journey to find the rest of her family. She dresses as a boy to avoid persecution from the Taliban, but even that is not enough to guarantee her safety, as everyone around her is desperate and would not think twice about selling a young “boy” to gain enough money for food for their families. Trusting no one, she travels the dangerous desert and finds a starving toddler, a girl who believes the earth magically protects her from harm, and a severely brutalized boy with an amputated leg.

Parvana’s Journey is the sequel to The Breadwinner, where Parvana’s descent into poverty and despair begins. However, this book stands on its own and it’s a worthwhile read.

The author does a beautiful job of creating rounded characters that many children around the world can relate to. Parvana is kindhearted and full of dreams, but despair and hopelessness slowly eats away at her. The narrative hints that she would have lost her mind had she not found and rescued the other children but, even then, it is hard for her to hold on to her sanity.

Though reality is presented in all its harshness, (worm-infested sores and all), there is always at least an inch of hope that is passed from one character to another: hope of survival, hope of a warm meal and hope of finding Parvana’s family. This is one of those stories that tugs at your heart and will always stay there. I applaud this author’s efforts to foster awareness of what is happening to women and children in war-torn Afghanistan and showing through literature that we are all human.

I especially love the note in the back cover: For mature children.

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Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It, by Sundee T. Frazier

August 21, 2009

Rating: 5/5

Rating: 5/5

Award: Coretta Scott King Award

Brendan Buckley is a character you don’t want to miss. He is a ten year old Tae Kwon Do blue belt with a penchant for rocks and science. He keeps a list of confidential, top-secret questions and scientific discoveries in a notebook he carries with him so he doesn’t forget to write things down.

Having recently lost his grandfather, Brendan becomes curious about the other grandfather he’s never seen. All he knows is what his mother told him: he’s not dead, but he’s gone. Then one day, on a boring trip to the mall with his witty grandmother, he meets Ed DeBose: mineral expert, president of the area’s rock club…and Brendan’s grandfather! He is forbidden to speak of the incident, but Brendan disobeys and tries to establish a relationship with his estranged grandfather.

He is a curious, loving, highly intelligent boy that had never struggled with his biracial identity until he meets Ed DeBose. Brendan writes new questions in his notebook, such as: “What makes white people be mean to black people?” and slowly comes to realize that there are some questions in life that cannot be answered scientifically.

Though the author addresses serious topics such as racism, prejudice and discrimination, the tone is light and she delivers the message without sending the reader into an emotional tailspin (though I must admit I cried in the end, but I can’t say why! Read it. Trust me, it’s worth it).  There is a good dose of humor to keep the reader interested and turning the pages to see what new discoveries await Brendan.

This book deserves a 5/5 rating for its balance of serious topics and humor, complex characters, and realistic ending. It should be on every teacher’s bookshelf.

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The Year of the Dog, by Grace Lin

August 11, 2009

The Year of the Dog

Rating: 4/5

In this memoir/fiction for ages 9-12 we meet a little girl named Grace who is Taiwanese-American. We read about her struggles to find herself in the year of the dog, which is supposed to be a very lucky year, so she’ll probably get rich-so she hopes!

She and her sister are the only Taiwanese-American girls in the entire school until a new girl comes along and becomes Grace’s friend. Though Melody is also Taiwanese-American, Grace encounters many similarities and differences between their families, and together they experience a year that is made richer by their dual culture.

The story is lighthearted and provides an insight into a very complex issue of what it means to be bi-cultural in the U.S. Though Grace is very well-adjusted, she feels invisible. None of the books she reads in school ever have Taiwanese or Chinese characters in them; at least, none that she could relate to.

Despite this, she remains enthusiastic about school. When the time for the school play comes along she practices very hard before trying out for the lead role. On the day of the tryouts she is told something that had never crossed her mind:

“‘Dorothy’s not Chinese.”
Suddenly, the world went silent. Like a melting icicle, my dream of being Dorothy fell and shattered on the ground. I felt like a dirty puddle after the rain. All the girls continued singing, but I didn’t hear them. Becky was right. Dorothy wasn’t Chinese. I was SO dumb. How could I have even thought about being Dorothy? I’d never get chosen. It was stupid to even try.”

Though Grace is comforted by the stories her mother tells her, it is not until the audience claps when she, as a munchkin, gives Dorothy a present that she feels it’s ok to be Chinese/Taiwanese and act in a play.

How many of our multicultural students feel this way? It is very important to find books like these that help all kids see themselves and others like them, not in a stereotypical way, but in many different ways; as different as Grace and Melody’s families.

Overall, this book is very good and apt for its target audience. I hope that more books like these continue to be written and appear in all school libraries.

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Becoming Naomi Leon, by Pam Munoz Ryan

June 20, 2009

Becoming Naomi LeonAwards: Pura Belpre Award; Jane Addams Children’s Book Award; Americas Award Honor Book; Judy Lopez Memorial Award; ALA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults; New York Public library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing; Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year; IRA Notable Book for a Global Society; NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People; Jefferson Cup Award—Worthy of Note; Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist

Can you believe the list of awards for this title? I had heard of this book a few years ago but never had the opportunity (or motivation, unfortunately) to pick it up. Now that I did, I regret not having read it earlier.

Naomi and her brother Owen (who is handicapped), have lived with their great grandmother since they were very young. Always curious about the mother who abandoned them, but nevertheless happy with their Gram, they love their experiences in Lemon Tree Trailer Park. That is, until one day their mother shows up and it becomes painfully obvious that she is there to take Naomi away from her family so she can babysit her new stepsister.  Desperate to find a way to avoid separation from her brother and Gram, the family and a couple of neighbors set out on a journey to Mexico, where Naomi’s father works as a fisherman and expert wood/soap carver.

My favorite part of the book, by far, is when Naomi visits Mexico. There are no ridiculous stereotypes so many people are used to, just everyday life in Oaxaca, where people are fond of traditions and strive to provide for their families. Highlighted is the yearly festival de los rabanos, a festival where carvers all over Mexico present their carvings on radishes.

This is a believable story about a broken family that manages to find hope in the smallest of places. It is about finding your own voice and defending what you believe in. Hope, in the end, is what makes a great children’s/young adult book.

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The Conch Bearer, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

June 10, 2009

The Conch BearerLately I’ve been reading a lot of young adult literature that is set in India. If you read my previous post about the novel Sold by Patricia McCormick, you know that it deals with the realities of being sold into sex slavery and quite the emotional roller coaster well worth the time.

The Conch Bearer, by Chitra Banejee Divakaruni, on the other hand, is an adventure story set in Kolkata, India and the Himalayas. Though its tone is certainly not as serious as the one in Sold, this story deals with loss, poverty, friendship, loyalty, compassion and honesty.

Anand is a 12 year old boy whose father has disappeared while working in Dubai. After a few months, his family has to move out of their apartment into a shack in the slums of Kolkata, India, where his sister witnesses something so horrible that she is lost in the dark corners of her mind. Trying to avoid a life on the streets, he takes it upon himself to look for a job to help his family and is lucky enough to find one, in a tea stall, to a man who humiliates with words and fists. Regardless of his cruel fate, Anand does not want to give up hope and secretly believes in magic. One day he imagines a string of magic pass him by. His mind rides on the stream and he desperately calls on it for help. Soon he finds himself away from home, in the companion of a child of the streets and an old man, battling dark magic, on a quest to return a magical conch to its rightful place.

What I most love about this book (other than the suspense and adventure), is Anand’s constant battle within himself. He is not the typical hero found in a book who is sugary sweet and resists temptation or, on the contrary, is prone to fits of rage. His battle with evil takes place inside his mind and heart. As he travels and is forced to make life-altering decisions, he simultaneously battles with his jealousy, envy, strong emotional attachment and dark magic that wants to take over his mind.

When he almost kills one of his companions, it is not his strong sense of morality that stops him, but an accidental injury. He feels impotent, confused and terrified that he will do it again. It is much later that he realizes he must sacrifice something precious to him if he and his companions are going to survive.

His battle continues until the very end of the story, which is not so much a happy ending as it is a new beginning for Anand. It was a satisfying read and I can’t wait to read the second book in the series.

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