By Atinuke; Illustrations by Lauren Tobia
Early reader, Ages 5 and up
Walker Books Ltd, 2007
Kane Miller EDC Publishing 2010 (paperback)
additional formats: audio book
Boston Globe Horn Honor Book 2011
Strong girls and their families have plenty in common the world over. Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke offers us a peek at them, African style. Anna lives in a large white house with her African father and Canadian mother. This is modern Africa, a place of blended cultures, “an amazing city of lagoons and bridges and roads, of skyscrapers and shanty towns.”
In simple chapters that work like a sophisticated interrelated short story collection, this book gives early readers a fresh lens on simple things like a beach vacation, boredom on a hot day, or the excitement and worries of relatives visiting.
The beauty of the book lies largely with the characters, all of whom are developed with simple, spare text. We meet elder grandparents who are held in the highest respect, fabulously-named relatives like Aunty Comfort and Uncle Bizy Sunday, poor girls selling oranges to sustain their families, and chattering cousins, aunts, and uncles who cheerfully attend to wailing babies without much regard to which child belongs to whom. There is plenty of gentle comedy that sits alongside thoughtful text about serious issues, such as poverty and the impact of modern ways on traditional values.
It’s not surprising that Anna Hibiscus was awarded the Boston Globe Horn Book Honor award in 2011. Best news of all? There is an entire series of Anna Hibiscus books to devour. MM
Two sisters, Summer and Bird, wake one morning and discover that both of their parents are missing. They search the house, the meadow, and the nearby creek. No Mom and no Dad. Together, they set off into the woods to find their parents, certain they haven’t gone far. Once in the forest, though, their quest takes a dark and mysterious turn. Summer and Bird are pulled into a strange world called Down. There, the birds can speak and songs are maps.
The tension between the sisters makes the journey hard on both. Their animosity toward each other causes stumbles, mishaps, and misunderstandings along the way. Summer is jealous of Bird who has a deep and meaningful connection to birds and even speaks their language, though all the birds in Down speak human. Bird envies Summer for being the oldest, a position that Summer exploits to her own benefit.
As they venture farther from home and deeper into Down, it becomes apparent that there are a number of puzzles to be solved besides locating their mom and dad. Who and where is the Bird Queen? Why are all of the birds locked out of the Green Home?
The sisters meet shape-shifting companions along the way who guide them toward their parents and, more importantly, help reconcile the sisters who grow more and more estranged. Their paths diverge when Bird abandons her sister for a quest of her own to join the evil Puppeteer, who is staging an overthrow of the missing Bird Queen. To find her little sis, Summer must scale every ravine of Down and every canyon of her fear.
The book unfolds in chapters that alternate between the sisters, yet each chapter of Summer and Bird explores discord and harmony, imbalance and alignment of the self, the family, and the earth. Katherine Catmull’s writing is whimsical, dreamy, and evocative. This book is a breathtaking fairytale and also remarkable for its nature writing. Here, the very Earth is alive, pulsing, and speaking our language. And perhaps even offering a map in the form of a song. GA
Listen to an audio excerpt from Summer and Bird
I love eccentric people. They feel like fresh air to me, and they offer a new view on even the most ordinary things. But as we all know, there are times in life when being unusual can be seen as a liability. The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar is a book about two young people caught in that web. It’s a celebration of two smart loners, Laura and Leon, who find their way to each other – and self acceptance – as they uncover the mysteries of an old mansion.
Laura despises school for all the usual reasons. The mysterious cliques of girls. The drone of teachers. The boredom. She’s a bright and artistic girl who lives with her parents – a sculptor and writer – in an old Italian mansion, the only one of its kind in the neighborhood. However, her living arrangement isn’t exotic in her view. It is yet another way for her to be outside of the norm.
When Leon Murphy, the grandson of an eccentric elderly neighbor, arrives at her school, Laura tries to keep her distance. A friendship with him would seal her fate as an outcast. Leon is rumored to be the son of a murderer, and he’s certainly capable of pummeling anyone who crosses him. It’s soon apparent, though, that he is brilliant – and much more than what others assume.
Eventually their paths do cross, and Laura does her best to keep it a secret from the prying and judgmental eyes of people around them. At what point should a strong girl take a stand on what and whom she likes?
If you are looking for big drama and an edge-of-your-seat mystery, this is not the book for you. You’ll find no knives, guns or bloodshed here. Instead, this is a quiet book, a romantic story about young teens on those borders of friendship and romance. It’s a lovely story for girls who like brains and originality.MM
By Tanita S. Davis
Young Adult, 12 and up
Random House, 2009
Additional formats: e-book, audio
NCTE Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts* Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choice Award * Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People *Amelia Bloomer Selection *Best Books for Young Adults by YALSA *Coretta Scott King Author Honor *Junior Library Guild Selection *NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth *Chicago Public Libraries Best of the Best
What’s the particular story-alchemy that leaves you a completely satisfied reader? For me, a book that offers a road trip backdrop, a fabulous grandmother character, and an unexplored era of women’s history is the panacea. With Mare’s Ware, Tanita S. Davis delivers all that along with beautiful writing and strong voice. The story opens in northern California. It’s from fifteen year old Tali’s perspective that we first meet Mare, a sassy, 80+ year old grandma, who drives a red coupe like “a bat out of hell,” wears padded push-up bras and panties with a fake butt, and drinks strong bourbon drinks. Mare greets her granddaughters, Tali and Octavia, with a “whacked” idea to drive across the country to a family reunion 2,340 miles away somewhere in Alabama. Naturally, Tali and Octavia have bigger plans than hanging out with completely random Mare all summer – plans that include friends, boys, and more boys but decidedly do not include Mare. But the adults have already decided, despite their protestations .
The story alternates points of view between Mare’s of “Then” during World War II and “Now” during the mismatched trio’s road trip to Alabama . In the “Then” chapters, we meet seventeen year-old Mare who has lied about her age to join the African-American battalion of the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) in World War II. Through her recollections, we follow Mare’s own sort of road trip as a young solider from Alabama to Iowa to Birmingham, England, and, finally, Paris during the war. In the WAC, Mare learns new skills, makes friends from all-over, and experiences bitter racism in America and beyond. In the “Now” chapters, mostly told from Tali’s point of view but also with postcards and texts from Octavia, the girls at first resent being Mare’s captive audience. They’re so annoyed with Mare: she smokes long, skinny cigarettes, she’s a bad driver, and she has major stomach issues. And the sisters pluck each other’s nerves as well. But slowly, they come to appreciate that Mare is a treasure they have yet to fully discover.
Davis infuses Mare’s story with some of the most unforgettable characters in YA – Peaches, a sister-solider and closeted-lesbian-by-necessity in the WAC; Sister Dials, an elder of Mare’s church community back home; and Feen, Mare’s baby sister who’s getting an education in Philadelphia. I really love this book and am so grateful to the author for using her storytelling gift to lift up the sheroes of the Women’s Army Corps. GA
We here at Girls of Summer love a little scandal, especially if it involves strong, smart girls. So, we’re happy to include Margarita Engle’s latest novel-in-verse, The Lightning Dreamer, about Cuba’s great abolitionist poet, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, whose work was once considered so scandalous for its interracial, feminist and abolitionist themes that it was burned.
Never heard of Avellaneda? No problem. Margarita Engle is a master at digging in the dark corners of history to shine a light on figures from Latin American history that you might not otherwise meet. And she does it with impressive results. Engle is the first Latina winner of the Newbery Honor Award, twice the recipient of the
prestigious Pura Belpre´ prize, and the recipient of the 2012 Américas Awards.
In The Lightning Dreamer, we meet Tula (Gómez de Avellaneda’s nickname) as a young girl growing up in early 19th century Cuba. This is the Cuba where slavery is the backbone of the sugar economy, where an educated woman is seen as a threat, and where Tula’s best choice for becoming well-read may actually lie behind the walls of a convent where her access to books would be unfettered.
Tula struggles against her mother’s plans for her marriage, and in this she has several key allies, including her faithful brother, Manuel. Despite every effort to the contrary, Tula awakens to the power of books, the outrage of her own situation, and to the abolitionist movement.
The story is told in Margarita Engle’s signature style: short poignant poems where each character is given a chance to speak. Tula’s voice is strong and unapologetic, but the secondary characters also build her world: her frustrated mother, Manuel, Caridad the servant, the orphans, and the nuns who prove to be pivotal in her education.
It has never been easy to be a strong girl, but Tula reminds us that female visionaries have existed in all countries throughout history. I admire this book for celebrating a woman who was ridiculed and shunned for having ideas that were far ahead of her time. MM
Back when I was little, I went to Hannah Krohner School of Dance in Queens. I would tap dance in our bathroom until the neighbors banged on the ceiling to quiet me. Then, I’d slip into my ballet slippers and head to the edge of the kitchen sink (my barre) and practice pliés. I had no talent to speak of. Just enthusiasm.
Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to the newest Ian Falconer picture book, Olivia and the Fairy Princesses. In this seventh adventure, we find our bovine darling depressed and facing an “identity crisis.” Must she be a Degas-style ballerina like the other girls?
Uh-oh. Olivia is a strong girl, and she was bound to discover the awful limitations of aspiring to be a princess or another delicate thing. Life as a part of the gentle herd simply isn’t bold enough for a pig who can pull off matador pants and pearls. No, what Olivia wants is a rebirth of her soul, a real future as a girl of substance.
As usual, Falconer (whose work you might recognize from The New Yorker) has created a new picture book with plenty of punch lines for both the child and the adult. The vocabulary absolutely requires a partnership for reading and conversation, but I think that’s a good thing. What works best in my view are the visual gags for both the parent and child, including a gorgeous two-page spread of Olivia as a Martha Graham contemporary dancer.
Who needs pink tulle when what you really want is to rule your world? MM
This collection of short stories is an older title (2004), but I’m so grateful that it was brought to my attention by our friends at The Open Book Foundation in Washington D.C.
Sharon Flake’s book is a collection of girls’ voices that spans everything from the marginalized and violent to the girl-next-door. In every case, we have a girl in relationship with a young man, and as we all know, that can mean drama. Girls will see themselves in these stories and the thoughtless (and even dangerous) boys who’ll sometimes cross their paths. The possibilities for conversation in a classroom, in a book club, and among friends are endless. How important are boys to your sense of self? What should you be willing to give away if anything at all? What does a respectful relationship look like when you’re fourteen? What are your responsibilities in a relationship?
I love this collection because it offers no easy answers, only the platform for good conversation. The characters (adults included) are layered, and their strengths and weaknesses make them hard to judge easily as victims or victimizers. I have to give a gold star for the hilarious “Girl, Didn’t I Say I Don’t Write Letters” about a forced pen-pal relationship between Jaquel and Devita Mae. But I’d run out of gold stars on this collection. I found something to love about virtually every tale here. Church girls stalking boys at a schoolyard behind their parents’ backs. Girls taking advantage of the intellectually disabled. Girls willing to fistfight “for their man.” Girls who want white boys. The options are dizzying and wonderful. MM