Zaira and the Dolphins, by Mar Pavón, Ill. by Cha Coco

July 9, 2012

Zaira y los delfinesThe Book

This 32-page picture book, originally written in Spanish, is intended for children ages 5 and up, according to Amazon.

It was written by award-winning author, Mar Pavón, and illustrated by Cha Coco. Publisher Cuento de Luz has made this picture book adaptation available in English (in Spanish it’s titled Zaira y los delfines).

The Story

Zaira’s imagination has her seeing dolphins playing in a fountain, spending time with a cadre of imaginary friends, and taking joy in everything around her. But the town’s children keep making fun of her when she describes how the dolphins jump and play in the fountain. When Zaira’s world suddenly changes because she no longer sees water or dolphins in the fountain, the other children’s mockery truly begins to sting.  None of her imaginary friends are near and she is all alone…until a fairy appears. Will the fairy help bring back the dolphins?

The Good

This book can be appealing for kids who enjoy fairy tales. The writing is clear and kid-friendly. The descriptions of Zaira and her world encourage the reader to see the world from her point of view, despite the comments from the other children. The plot can help encourage conversations concerning friendship, bullying, and self-confidence.

The “hmm…”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book until the fairy made an appearance. What first gave me pause was her name: “Takethat”. I chuckled to myself thinking, it’s the revenge fairy. Then she used magic to wipe the smiles of the children who were laughing, followed by a proud “take that!” I wasn’t chuckling any more. I was puzzled.

I won’t give away the rest of the story, but the bullying was never addressed in a constructive way (actually, we never see the kids again). It was simply magicked away in an act of revenge. The story then continues Zaira’s journey to find her dolphins again, which involves paying attention and being a good girl.

Again, I am puzzled. Zaira had not misbehaved at any time in the story, but the fairy insisted that she observe and behave.

Perhaps this is part of the “whimsical” in this story. Then again, “whimsical” does not mean that issues like bullying should be downplayed. I can’t help but think that the story lost its way as soon as the bullying was simply shrugged off with magic.

The Art

This was my first time seeing Cha Coco’s work and I am now a fan. I must admit, the drawings are what first drew me to this book and I was never disappointed. She created a bright, whimsical, and colorful world for Zaira and her imaginary friends. Sometimes they were larger than life and helped illustrate Zaira’s fantastic view of the world.

Have you read this book?

If you have read this book (in either language), I’d love to know what you think.

Would  you recommend this book to parents and their children? Why?

Do you have reservations when it comes to this book?

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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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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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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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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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Middle School Confidential: Real Friends vs the Other Kind, by Annie Fox

February 28, 2010

Rating: 5/5

Middle school is a time for new experiences, new environments and new friends. But it is also a time where the meaning of friendship gets complicated. Suddenly old friends are not so friendly anymore and new friends don’t act in ways a friend should act.

Friendship is one of the most important aspects of middle school life, but what makes a true friend? How should kids handle the difficulties in making, maintaining and losing friendships?

In her second book in the series, Middle School Confidential: Real Friends vs. the Other Kind, Annie Fox delivers another powerful, helpful and entertaining book for kids. Jack, Abby, Mateo, Jen, Chris and Michelle are entering another stage in their lives and it all begins with a seemingly simple question: what exactly do we mean when we call someone a friend?

To answer the question, Annie Fox does not step in to preach, comfort or give a straight answer. Instead the characters and information sent in by real kids serve to create a guide of questions kids can ask themselves when evaluating their friendships. The characters are faced with many problems that threaten to break apart their friendship, including a new friend who has ulterior motives, a budding romance that gets bossy, a friend who stopped eating and more.

Ultimately, the book encourages readers to make informed decisions on their own. Kids can appreciate this straightforward, no-nonsense way of dealing with a problem. There are no easy solutions, but the book is full of possibilities, which is exactly what kids need to handle their problems with friendship.

The format is the same as in the first book, with a magazine-like design coupled with graphic illustrations by Matt Kindt. Reluctant readers could easily be attracted by this style where they can flip to any page in the book to get the information they need without having to read the entire book. This alone encourages the reader to keep flipping the pages until the book has been read from cover to cover.

Some of the sections of the book include: Friendship Dilemmas;  I Wasn’t Such a Good Friend; Don’t Add to the Garbage; Apologies; What’s a Friend Supposed to Do?; so-called friend; and Making New Friends. One of my favorite sections is the “Labeled and Judged Files”, where real kids share their experiences jumping to conclusions and making snap judgments only to find out that they made a mistake by judging a book by its cover.

Like Annie states in this book, never forget that “the most important part comes from inside”.

Check out her site here.
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