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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The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

June 25, 2010

Rating: 5/5

Welcome! You have arrived at yet another blog entry of a reviewer who absolutely loves this book.

For those of us who are not surrounded and immersed in children’s and young adult literature 24/7, The Hunger Games is a story set in a post-apocalyptic world, once known as North America, where twelve districts must send two young tributes, (read: sacrifices), to participate in the annual, televised Hunger Games, where they must fight to the death as a reminder that rebellion is not tolerated. Only one can survive.

The good

I could write pages on what I like about this story, but I’ll spare you and mention only a couple of points.

First, the main character is complex, flawed, and oh-so likeable. Her name is Katniss and I found that sometimes I loved her, other times I was wary of her, and I could not stop rooting for her. She is cold, calculating and willing to risk everything to survive. You can’t help but wondering if she has risked too much…

Second, the world in which she is raised presents two very different, plausible sides: the impoverished, oppressed and broken districts, and the exceedingly rich, bloodthirsty, fashion-obsessed population of the Capitol. When the two sides meet through The Hunger Games, is it better to win or lose? Which is which? Death or life? 

The bad (?) – you decide

The book does have quite a few violent scenes. In fact, the whole premise of 12-17-year-olds killing each other for the viewers’ pleasure is in itself disturbing.  However, this could open the door to meaningful discussions around questions such as: what does it mean to be human? If you were chosen to participate in the games, would you choose to take a life? How does the government use the media to show the violence? What parts do you think are not televised to the districts and why? 

Topics in this book include: friendship, survival, community, family, politics, humanity, love, self/image, poverty, oppression, social classes, alcoholism…

If you have not yet read this book, I highly recommend it. It will keep you thinking and wondering long after you have finished the last page. The best part is that it’s a trilogy! (#2 Catching Fire and #3 Mockingjay)

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Emma, by Kaoru Mori

May 19, 2010


Emma Emma by Kaoru Mori
Vol. 1-10
2006-2009
CMX Manga 

A manga about a maid? Set in Victorian times?  You have to love it! It’s just too good to leave on the shelf. I first stumbled upon Emma in the Borders Books and Music store located in Boston, MA. I was surfing the manga shelves for my favorite titles and came upon this series. My initial reaction was amusement; a period manga about a maid involved in a love story between the lower and upper classes.  Interesting, but not my kind of story. I put it back. Later during my visit I stumbled upon it once more. There’s something about Emma that you can’t ignore. At first she reminded me of Belldandy, from Oh! My Goddess, she has that same warm, loving, innocent face. Then I was hooked on her story. 

Emma has everything: romance, action, comedy and sensuality. 

Emma

William and Emma

Romance is definitely the dominating theme through this series, not only between William and Emma, but among other characters as well. It has that doomed relationship between different classes that you just can’t help but root for. You know they are going to suffer, and catch a lot of criticism for daring to break with traditions, but you have to see how it ends. At the time I was reading this series it wasn’t complete. I had to wait for the next volume to be published, so if a volume ended with a cliff hanger I had to wait months for the next part of the story. I can tell you I browsed the manga section often. 

But it’s not just the romance that gets you hooked; there’s action, too.  William defying his father and all of society! Emma leaving. Emma captured. Emma lost and confused. It’s a wonderful rollercoaster told superbly by Ms. Mori with words and graphics. Her attention to details puts you in the time period. Her slow progression puts you in the moment. Fabulous. Simply fabulous. 

On a Different Note 

  • Reading period series always reminds me how fashion has changed throughout the years. What women wear today could be considered indecent exposure by walking around in your undergarments back in the days. It blows the mind that a simple act of removing a glove was considered an act of courtship (not just anyone could remove your gloves and take your naked hand).  Don’t you sometimes wish that mystery of courtship was still around?
  • There’s some nudity in this series; nothing distasteful, but it’s still there. It shouldn’t stop anybody from picking up this wonderful manga series, but I know that some people are offended by it. Just warning you (or your parental units).
  • I’ve also watched the Emma anime, and while it isn’t absolutely 100% faithful to the manga, it does a very good job at bringing the story from the page to the screen. If you’ve watched the anime I recommend reading the manga to fill in the missing stories and interactions between characters. If you’ve read the manga, I would recommend watching the anime to see how the producers translated the print to animation. Well worth the time.
Emma Anime

Emma Anime

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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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