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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Ten Days and Nine Nights, by Yumi Heo

May 10, 2010

Rating: 5/5

A little girl marks a circle on the calendar. She has ten days and nine nights.

What is she waiting for?

Starting on May 1st, the reader accompanies the girl on her journey of ten days as she marks them off in the calendar. There are clues on every page as to what she could be waiting for so eagerly. Some of the things she does include saying goodbye to her mom at the airport; redecorating her room with her grandpa’s help; and practicing with a baby doll before, FINALLY, May 10 arrives, along with her mom and new sibling from Korea!

Yumi Heo’s story is a positive, heartwarming tale of adoption. It is written from the point of view of the little girl, which young readers can immediately relate with. The colorful, vivid illustrations emphasize the joy of family throughout the story. It’s a picture book you don’t want to miss.

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Happy Mother’s Day! – I’ll Love You Forever, by Robert Munsch, Ill. Sheila McGraw

May 9, 2010

Rating: 5/5

Happy Mother’s Day to all who toil incessantly for those they raise and love.

Motherhood has little to do with biology and more to do with caregiving, respect, and unconditional love.

I wish you all the best!

In honor of this day, I chose to write about I’ll Love you Forever; a book so powerful that the cover alone is sometimes enough to make me teary-eyed.

It begins with a mother singing to her baby:

“I’ll love you forever
I’ll love you for always
As long as I’m living
My baby you’ll be.”

The baby grows up and challenges the mother’s patience in many ways. However, her song remains the same and she rocks and sings to her child when he is asleep, even when he turns into an insufferable teen. Years pass in the blink of an eye; the mother turns old and frail and cannot rock and sing to her son any more. The roles are reversed and the son holds on to his mother gently and sings to her in her final days.

The illustrations are rife with color and show humorous images of both mother and child as he makes plenty of messes and she climbs a ladder to a second-story room to sing to him. It is a beautiful tale of the circle of life, family, and a mother’s undying love.

If you have not read this yet, you need to do so as soon as possible! Don’t forget to bring a tissue…or two.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Arthur Collins and the Three Wishes, by Linda Rash Pilkington

May 6, 2010


Young Arthur Collins’ mom is obsessed with anything having to do with the classic story of King Arthur-hence his name. Unfortunately, the stories she is so fond of have done little to help his current situation. Arthur has withdrawn into himself. He is like a mouse, skittering from one place to the other while trying to find the courage to stand up to school bullies. Courage, however, is elusive and his brother Lance seems to have inherited all of it, leaving him none. Arthur’s frustration mounts as he is tormented by the Ruffians. These bullies don’t know the meaning of mercy and they might soon set their sights on Arthur’s cousin, Gwynie.  It doesn’t help that he is very embarrassed by her, which increases his frustration tenfold.

As tensions mount, Arthur unknowingly receives the tools of bravery from his family, starting with a book and the idea of magic. On a night when a sudden fever overpowers him, he wakes up in the past, where the legendary Arthur Pendragon, the boy who would be king, has disappeared and he must take his place! An adventure ensues and the story is filled with fear, confusion, hope, magic and, of course, witches and a dragon!
 
Author Linda Rash Pilkington has weaved an Arthurian tale where a boy plagued with contemporary problems finds that people, no matter what era they may be born to, are faced with similar problems and must rise above them or be crushed underneath.  The journey to bravery is not easy and even near the moment of truth, our weaknesses are there to test us. However, like one of the characters states: “Even weak people can become strong.”
 
The language in the book has a fairy-tale quality and sometimes reminded me of a play. The characters are quick to think out loud and state their intentions. This may not appeal to some audiences, but those who appreciate a straightforward approach will enjoy the combination of the whimsical and candid. One aspect of the story that made it difficult to read was that the action took too long to begin. With each chapter I was eager for progression, but it was not until chapter five that the story began to take off. This is something that, unfortunately, could turn away reluctant readers.
 
Overall it was an interesting read and a different spin to the Arthurian tales that elementary school children can appreciate.

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To learn more about the author and the book, check out the Arthur Collins and the Three Wishes site.

To learn about Arthur Collins and The Great American Book Race! TM , the effort on behalf of children’s literacy, check out City Castles Publishing. Don’t forget to click on “Media Kit” at the bottom of that page!
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La bruja Maruja, by Ana Galan; Ill. Natalie Ponce Hornos

May 4, 2010

Rating: 5/5

(Note: This is one of those books written in Spanish that I really wish were translated to other languages so that more kids would get to read it!)

The day she met Maruja, she realized she was a troublemaker.

Maruja snuck into her room to give her nightmares.

Maruja blamed her when she got in trouble.

Everyone was bewitched by her smile.

But…how does this little girl really feel about her sister Maruja?

This is a heartwarming story of sibling rivalry written from the point of view of the older sister, who did not expect life with her new sister to be quite so disruptive. The sentences are simple and the images colorful and uncluttered. Other than sibling rivalry, themes in this picture book include: change, jealousy, problem resolution, patience, friendship and family. There is so much emotion packed into these 14 pages that you won’t want to miss! (If you can’t read Spanish, just get a friend to translate 😉 )

The book was written by Ana Galán, illustrated by Natalie Ponce Hornos and published by Kumquat (Buenos Aires, Argentina).

If you are interested in this and other titles from this published, click here: Kumquat
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Middle School Confidential: What’s Up With My Family?, by Annie Fox

April 29, 2010

Rating: 5/5

The word “family” evokes many feelings; some happy, others nostalgic.

Sometimes we would like to think it stops at that. In reality, happiness and nostalgia are also accompanied by anger, worries and problems that plague every family, which range in scope and intensity. Some can hang these negative feelings in a closet and put on a happy face in the morning as they walk out the door. Others carry their feelings tucked under their clothes—an uncomfortable fit that is difficult to hide—or buried deep in the pit of their stomach, struggling to claw their way out. Still others constantly work through their problems and grow as individuals and as a family.

That’s just us adults. Imagine how these problems affect kids.

When I was still a middle school teacher, I witnessed many students suffering due to family problems they were ill-equipped to deal with. Those who felt they could confide in a grownup would share concerns like: “My dad hates me because he’s having a new baby with a lady who is not my mom”; “My sister got pregnant and she’s just sixteen”; and “My family is worried I might end up in jail.”
While it is helpful to talk to these children and send them to a guidance counselor who can begin to work with the child and family, it is important for kids to learn about others who are dealing with similar issues. Many kids feel constantly talked down to by adults and family members, so they are more open to shared experiences and plans of action suggested by other kids their own age.

In her third book in the series, Middle School Confidential: What’s Up With My Family?, Annie Fox once again provides this vicarious experience for children, where they can find questions and advice from other kids from various backgrounds who also struggle with family problems. The book again incorporates a magazine-like design and beautiful graphic novel-style illustrations by Matt Kindt, which are always a visual treat. New, reluctant and returning readers of this series will easily be attracted by this style, as it encourages the reader to scan, choose and interact with any page in any order. The quizzes, character conversations and kids’ quotes invite the reader to form part of a conversation and constantly explore ways to actively participate and work effectively in a family.

What’s Up With My Family? simply and straightforwardly states some of the most annoying, problematic and emotionally difficult family situations, such as Mateo’s case, whose family will not stop asking questions and invading his privacy, to the child who is forced to only interact with other children from his family’s culture. As always with this series, the rose-colored lenses are tossed in favor of reality, which every child can appreciate. There is no lecture, nor does it speak down to the reader. The text is a safe place to ask, wonder, reflect and look for more information on family issues.

Annie Fox delivers valuable, practical advice on family relationships with real life examples that tug at the heartstrings. I highly recommend this book to children, families and educators. Though its intended audience is middle school children, all families can find some comfort and friendly advice between the pages of this book.

Amidst the questions, confusion, anger and fuel-ish thoughts in the family, the need for things to change is always at the forefront. For this to happen, there is one concept from the book that should be pervasive. As Annie Fox writes: “It has to start with you.”

Check out her site here.
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