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.


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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Why we wish we had a thousand rejection letters, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson

August 13, 2010

I’m always looking for books that have magic, mischief and some mayhem. When I came across The Familiars, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson, I was intrigued:

“Running fast to save his life, Aldwyn ducks into an unusual pet store. Moments later Jack, a young wizard in training, comes in to choose a magical animal to be his familiar. Aldwyn’s always been clever. But magical? Jack thinks so—and Aldwyn is happy to play along.”

Magical animals?
A wizard in training?
Count me in!
The downside? The book isn’t out until September 7th, 2010.

The upside? The authors came to Once Upon A Book to write a guest post! (Thank you, guys!)

September 7th is slowly approaching, but in the meantime, check out what these authors have to say about their experience – er, lack of experience – with rejection letters.


Why we wish we had a thousand rejection letters
Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson, authors of The Familiars

We’ve all heard how every author has a box of a thousand rejection letters, from publishers, agents, and literary magazines. Many even have the sealed envelopes with the words “Return to Sender” boldly stamped across it. But sitting on our shelf in our office, there’s no box of rejection letters. You know why? Because in Hollywood, when you’re a screenwriter, you don’t even get the courtesy of a rejection letter. They just never bother writing back. You send your script out to production companies, agents, and managers, and 99 percent of the time you simply never hear back. And occasionally, when you do, it’s to hear that they don’t accept unsolicited material.

In a sense, we envy the author who can save up their memories of struggle and have a wonderful paper trail of those who didn’t believe in them for when they become “overnight” successes. We instead are left with a series of undocumented failures. But no matter how many times you hear the phrase, “it all happened so fast,” or “it was the FIRST thing I ever wrote,” take it from us, it never is. So we always tell people to keep their fingers to the keyboard and their pens filled with ink, and to keep writing like we did, until the right person reads the right thing at the right time. It happened for us and it will happen for you.

You can learn more about The Familiars at Tell us about your best rejection letters via email at or on our blog at


ADAM JAY EPSTEIN spent his childhood in Great Neck, New York, while ANDREW JACOBSON grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but the two met in a parking garage out in Los Angeles. They have been writing for film and television together ever since. The Familiars  is their first book.

One day, Adam asked Andrew, “Are you familiar with what a familiar is?” And from that simple question, Vastia was born, a fantastical world filled with the authors’ shared love of animals and magic. They wrote every word, sentence, and page together, sitting opposite each other.

Adam Jay Epstein lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Jane, their daughters, Penny and Olive, and a black-and-white alley cat who hangs out in their backyard. Andrew Jacobson lives with his wife, Ashley, and their dog, Elvis, four traffic lights away.

THE FAMILIARS will be produced for film by Sam Raimi and Sony Animation.

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Naruto volume 1, by Masashi Kishimoto

July 15, 2010

Rating: 5/5

You’re probably thinking: “You’re kidding me. She’s reviewing Naruto volume 1?! I know I’m quite late to jump on this particular bandwagon, though it was suggested to me about 5 years ago. Honestly, I should listen to my students when they tell me to read some of these titles! (Except for Death Note…that’s not a manga I would recommend to anyone K-12. Period.)

Naruto never attracted my attention, despite the hordes of students eating them up and begging for more. Now, however, I’m trying to catch up to the latest volumes and avoiding any fans so they don’t spoil the story for me. So, what’s to like about Naruto?

First, if you’ve been under a rock, self-imposed or otherwise, here’s the skinny: this is the story of a young ninja in training whose body was sacrificed to save his village from a 9-tailed demon fox, now imprisoned inside him. For the longest time he was the village reject without knowing why. When he discovers the secret locked in his body, his story truly begins. It’s one of exploring, creating, testing, and transforming the bonds that we form with others.

In the first volume, when we meet Naruto for the first time, he is the cocky class clown who can’t do anything right. It’s time for him to take his final exam, for the third time, so he can graduate from ninja school, earn his leaf headband, and continue his training. However, he fails a fourth time. Dejected and desperate, he is easily tricked into stealing one of the village’s most dangerous scrolls. Now the whole village is after him but all he wants is to learn what’s in the scroll so he can graduate.

I’ve met many teachers who have some reservations about this series, such as the violence and the occasional skirting of adult themes, but I believe the pros outweigh the cons. To be fair, here are some of the cons of this manga:

  • Sacrificing one for the sake of many: The way an entire village sacrifices the life of a baby by imprisoning a demon inside and then shunning said child, is quite horrible.
  • Violence: 12-year-olds are trained in the ninja ways and once they graduate they are expected to take on missions and risk their lives for the village. The fight scenes are lengthy and many characters get beaten to within an inch of their lives (and in later volumes they die).
  • Adult themes: Part of Naruto’s pranks includes a transformation into a sexy, naked blonde to unnerve his teachers and peers. Little poof of clouds are the only objects standing in the way of full frontal nudity.
  • The main character disregards rules and authority.

These are valid points, but to dwell on simplistic ideas of violence and what is or is not “appropriate” would be to completely miss the point in Naruto. Compared to most of what passes for entertainment in television these days, this series is quite mild and it actually has a lot to offer. Here’s how:

  • Sacrificing one for the sake of many: this is a controversial topic that can open the door to a lot of discussion in the classroom. For example, we could compare what happens in the story to the way soldiers sacrifice their lives for their country and the way they sacrifice the lives of others for the same reason. No longer so clear-cut, is it?
  • Violence: There are many types of violence in life and bullying is one of them, to which children are no strangers. In the beginning of this series there is a lot of bullying of Naruto by peers and adults. This could open the door to conversations on how to address bullying in school.
  • Adult themes: Some of these inappropriate scenes are brought on by Naruto’s yearning to be acknowledged. This could begin an insightful discussion on what people are willing to do for others to pay attention to them and why. Kids can easily relate to Naruto’s feelings. He desperately wants to belong and make friends, so he resorts to becoming the trickster and become the center of attention.
  • Disregard for authority and rules: This is very prevalent in schools and can open the door to discussions concerning respect  and the meaning behind having and following rules.
  • Perseverance: Naruto lacks talent, intelligence and common sense, as he’s reminded constantly, yet he defies all odds  with hard work, perseverance and big heart. Children can discuss if this idea of working hard to achieve one’s dreams is realistic. Indeed, Naruto provides many examples where he apparently fails despite how hard he tries. But, does he really “lose”?
  • Bonds: Naruto does not have a family, but he begins to make one for himself through bonds with instructors and peers. Students can discuss the importance of forming bonds with others and different types of families extant.
  • Acceptance: This term is quite different from “tolerance”, which is so popular yet implies that there is something negative we have to put up with. Naruto, in having experienced hardship, pain, segregation and loneliness has developed empathy for others, which allows him to give people the benefit of the doubt and see beyond the surface.  This facilitates discussion about differences and how they inform our lives.
  • Growth: This is what keeps me going back to Naruto. From the first volume we witness his growth as a ninja, as a friend, and as a human being. It’s this growth that encourages inquiry and sends a clear message: It’s OK to make mistakes as long as we learn from them and continue to move forward.

Is Naruto worth the read? Should we tap into this story in the classroom? It’s my hope that you will pick up the first volume and decide for yourself. It gets two thumbs up from me!

Topics in this series (so far) include: persevering, sacrifice, friendship, family, humanity, freedom, independence, choice, justice, survival, community, oppression…


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The Library, by Sarah Stewart, Ill. David Small

June 23, 2010


Rating: ?/5

“Elizabeth Brown
Entered the world
Dropping straight down from the sky.

Elizabeth Brown
Entered the world
Skinny, nearsighted, and shy.”

So begins the tale of Elizabeth Brown, a girl whose life revolved around books.

When I first picked up this colorful picture book, I was excited about both the premise and David Small’s fantastic illustrations. A woman who dedicated her life to books finds she has too many and makes a decision that benefits the town she resides.

Cute story, right? Well, I have very mixed feelings about this book. I’ve loved to read since I was a little girl and would ignore my dolls and sneak some reading at night when I was supposed to be sleeping – just like the character in this story. But as much as I love reading, there is life outside the page.

This character reads in school, at home, while cleaning, while exercising and in every possible situation you can imagine. This ends up being pretty hilarious because it’s so silly. However…

“Elizabeth Brown
Preferred a book
To going on a date.

While friends went out
And danced till dawn,
She stayed up reading late.”

While I can imagine some readers thinking, “This is hilarious!”, I can also imagine others shivering: “I never want to be like that!” She misses out on a lot of life experiences because all she wants to do is read.

In all fairness, the book does allude to friends borrowing books, Elizabeth tutoring to pay her bills and moving in with a friend after she made a decision about her books. I’m just not sure if this is enough to balance this story.

Have you read this book? What do you think? Is this a funny and endearing story of a bibliophile, or is this a stereotypical and disappointing tale of unhealthy obsession?

I’m leaning towards “disappointing”, even as the bibliophile in me is screaming “how could you say that?!”


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CHLA conference and author interview

June 6, 2010

It’s time for another conference!

The Children’s Literature Association is hosting their annual conference this week in Michigan:  Children’s Literature and Media. Here is the description, taken from their site: 

Many texts from various media now constitute children’s culture: novels, picture books, and poetry as well as video games, text messages, Facebook, television shows, and films. It is important that we expand our understanding of these child-oriented cultural forms and media platforms. Doing so expands the way we define and analyze children’s culture and, hopefully, provides new critical tools by which to understand children’s books. This conference, the 37th Annual Children’s Literature Association Conference, therefore seeks to illuminate the broader electronic children’s culture within which children’s literature exists and thus highlight the multivalent, dialectical relationship between literature and other media written for younger readers, viewers, and consumers.”

I’ll be tweeting the conference. The “official” hashtag is #chla10.
If you’re interested, feel free to follow me: @pm_rodriguez

Shameless self-promotion –> And if you’re attending, come join us, Thursday, June 10th, concurrent session 5: Prisca Rodriguez and Brian Trutschel, University of Florida: “Beyond Electronic Media: Dynamically Engaging Young Readers in Multi‐modal Environments”. 🙂

Author interview –>Finally, as part of the presentation, the fabulous Annie Fox agreed to an interview on her thoughts as to how electronic media has affected  the way children engage with reading and how it has impacted her as a reader/author. She also talks about choices she made about the format of her Middle School Confidential series. It’s an interview you don’t want to miss! (It will be available on the blog this Thursday, June 10th)

I hope you join the conversation in the blog and on Twitter. If you’re on Facebook, you can also join the CHLA unofficial page.

Have fun with children’s lit!


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Hollow Fields, by Madeleine Rosca

June 6, 2010

Hollow Fields by Madeleine Rosca
Vol. 1-3
GoManga/ Seven Seas

In this world, the children of mad scientists are sent to a special school, called Hollow Fields, to study the art of becoming a great evil mad scientist. The school is run by Miss Weaver and her mechanical engineers. The kids take classes like grave robbing, anatomy experiments and killer robot construction. All is fun and games until Friday comes, when the lowest achieving student is sent to detention in the mysterious Windmill. This is the way it’s been for years, until Lucy Snow arrives and one “lucky” child escapes from the Windmill. Just what is Miss Weaver working on? What happens to the students who go to detention? Will Lucy survive the school year?


I love the character designs for Miss Weaver, Miss Notch and Miss Ricketts. The robotic clockwork graphics created by Mrs. Rosca was what attracted me to this manga. Her attention to detail is fantastic. It’s also a nice twist to the school manga stoylines: a  school for mad scientist! How can you pass that up?

My favorite character is Miss Weaver. Her design is fabulous and her personality is perfect for a mad scientist school principal: impatient, cruel and ingenious. Of course, I get a kick out of having such a strong female character being in charge and bossing people around. Definitely a plus. Another thing I love about this series is that it starts and finishes in less than ten volumes. So many original American manga are left unfinished by creators or publishers that sometimes I hesitate to buy the first volume because I never know if it will continue. Others drag on in endless volumes and pretty soon your shelf is full of multiple volumes where, sincerely, there is not much plot advancement. My congratulations to Mrs. Rosca for creating and illustrating such an entertaining story. I look forward to her next series.

Hollow Fields is available from GoManga as both three separate volumes and an omnibus collection.




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Pixie, by Mathieu Mariolle, Ill. Aurore Demilly

May 31, 2010

Mathieu Mariolle & Aurore Demilly
Vol. 1-2

Pixie is a two volume graphic novel published in the United States by Toykopop. It follows the adventures of Pixie, a young red-haired thief; Prince Ael, a young prince with the power to move through dreams; Elvynn, a spellcasting warrior; and Balor, a wise werewolf. Together they are trying to stop Ankou from unleashing his terrible machine on the different worlds.

Didn’t that sound like any other review? LOL, I picked up this series at my local Barnes and Noble store. Why? Because I like the illustrations. That is usually the reason why I pick up graphic novels, the pictures. If the illustrations don’t catch my eye, I probably will not buy it. I know that sounds awful, but it’s the truth. (Same goes for most books I’ve picked up.) Now that’s not to say that I buy everything with cute illustrations or that it is the only reason I pick up books or comics. It is the leading reason, not the only one. Got it? Great.

The Good

  • I love the art! (Have you gotten that fact clear yet? LOL!) The colors are rich and vibrant. It has that fantasy look down. Glowing-sparkling fairies and what-nots. Beautiful creatures: mermaids, fairies and even dragons. What can I say? Aurore Demilly is an excellent artist! If you’re not familiar with her work, please visit her website. She has excellent pieces in her gallery (like the one below).

  • The story: one thief helping out a confused prince. Classic. I love that they’re not perfect characters (ok, they’re kind of typical). Pixie is the typical do-first-ask-later hero that has a lame plan for every situation. But I like the idea of having the ability to control your surroundings with your dreams. What if I dream that I was a mermaid and woke up under the ocean? What if I have a really ugly nightmare and wake-up in that scenario? You have to admit, it’s an interesting idea.

The Bad

  • This comic is a translation. Pixie was originally published by Delcourt in France. When I was reading it, it seemed that in some instances some of the context was “lost in translation”. Or I got the feeling that it was translated literally and that the meaning didn’t come across as intended. Really, it comes across as a bad translation.
  • The action moves way too fast. One moment you are trapped in a jail cell; the next you are roaming around the palace halls. The ending is rushed.

Parting thought: I took French in high school and then one semester at the university, so technically I can read the original French version of this comic. What stops me? The prices. I wish I could afford to buy a lot of French comics. They have some gems over there that I know I would love. Maybe I should purchase some through Amazon.



Aurore Demilly

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