By Wendy Wan-Lon Shang
Scholastic Books, 2011
Awards/recognitions: *2012 Children’s Literature Award from the Asian Pacific Librarians Association
Sixth grader Lucy Wu has life all planned out for what is sure to be the best year of her life. For starters, her perfect (and annoying) sister, Regina, will be leaving for college. That means Lucy will have her own room, become a star on the school basketball team, and enjoy it all with best friend Madison.
Unfortunately, the universe has other plans, and these include attending Chinese School and sharing a room for months with her grandmother’s sister who comes for an unexpected visit from China. So much for the perfect year.
Wendy Shang’s book is charming, funny, and a welcome addition to the canon of literature about kids navigating life inside two cultures. Lucy speaks lousy Chinese, prefers Italian food, and is mortified by Yi Po, whom she keeps at bay by building a dividing line in her bedroom – only one of the many strategies she employs to keep the old woman out of her life.
Lucy is the perfect strong girl in so many ways. She has a vision for herself, even in the opening pages, and when she’s challenged to change it, she doesn’t go down without a good fight. Sure, she eventually learns to widen that vision, but all along Lucy has the strength to face down her enemies, particularly snotty Sloane who has designs on Lucy’s spot on the basketball team.
Lots of books about bi-cultural experiences are dreary. Not this one. Wendy Shang gives us a strong girl who keeps us laughing. No matter what your cultural background, strong girls will find plenty to love here. MM
By Kathryn Erskine
Philomel, 2010; Puffin books, 2010
Awards/recognition: * National Book Award 2010 * International Reading Association Award *Crystal Kite Award *Golden Kite Honor *Southern Independent Booksellers Award *ALA Notable Children’s Book *Children’s Book Committee of Bank Street College Best Children’s Book (outstanding merit) *Junior Library Guild Selection
I couldn’t have completed my picks without including Mockingbird by fellow Virginian, Kathryn Erskine. This novel, which won a National Book Award, is the story of ten-year-old Caitlin, who struggles to make sense of her brother’s death in a school shooting – a struggle that is complicated by her Asperger’s Syndrome.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that one of my own daughters was born with disabilities. (Hers are intellectual challenges, not autism.) It’s a particular pleasure for me to find a novel that captures the gifts and obstacles of life with a disability so well.
Caitlin is mainstreamed in the fifth grade at a school that is still reeling from a shooting, where her older brother, Devin, was killed. In her highly structured world, she refers to the event as “The Day Our Life Fell Apart.” Complicating matters for everyone is the fact that Josh, a cousin of the shooter attends her school, too. At home, Caitlin’s father – depressed and isolated – is grieving his son’s death even as he continues to meet Caitlin’s needs as best he can.
Daily life at school is a challenge. As often happens with kids who live outside the norm, Caitlin is an outsider with her peers, who in turn want to help or throttle her. Erskine does a fantastic job of getting behind this character’s eyes so that what seems erratic (the rocking, the shouting, the refusal to budge on a seemingly simple matter) all makes perfect sense. She also shows exactly what’s involved for a girl like Caitlin to do a group project or simply to “look at the person.”
The book is often funny, thank goodness. (And really, how could it be anything else when you’re following a character that understands the world very literally? Just think of Amelia Bedelia.) There are excruciating scenes, too — often those moments when Caitlin injures those around her unintentionally – and moments of sheer beauty, such as the simple friendship between Caitlin and a first grader named Michael.
But what shines out more than anything else is that there is a way back from unspeakable grief. What it takes to find it is acceptance, patience, and an unfailing commitment to those we love. That, and a strong girl as our guide. MM
Learn more about Kathryn Erskine.
June 20, 2011 | Categories: Middle Grade | Tags: Asperger's Syndrome, Autism, disabilities, Girls of Summer 2011, Kathryn Erskine, middle grade, National Book Award, Philomel, Puffin, Virginia author | 1 Comment
By Steve Watkins
Candlewick Press, 2011
ISBN: 10-0763642509 / 13-9780763642501
Awards/recognition: Georgia Peach Award for Teen Readers
Once while at a writing conference, I heard a famous author ask, “Does the world really need more stories about child abuse?” Almost everyone in the audience laughed. I got kind of ticked off.
Does the world need more baseball stories? More World War II stories? More talking animal stories? Are children still being abused at the hands of their families? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Our world needs many more stories of triumph over trauma, especially those told by authors such as Steve Watkins who infuse the telling with insight, beauty, and clarity.
What Comes After is the realest of realistic fiction. In this, his second novel, Watkins fictionalizes a harrowing and true crime of an orphaned teen beaten at the hands of her extended family to the point of hospitalization. The story begins with a newspaper account of the beating, which conceals the victim’s identity. From there, we meet sixteen year-old Iris Wight just after her father’s death, just before she is sent to live with distant relatives in North Carolina. The story’s main villain, Aunt Sue, sees Iris – or more accurately, Iris’ trust fund – as a meal ticket. Free labor for the family’s goat farm. Right away, Aunt Sue begins to withhold all sustenance from Iris and attempts to strip her of her identity completely.
Iris, however, instinctively reaches into the depth of her own heart and soul and memory, turning What Comes After into a story of resiliency. She writes letters to her deceased veterinarian-dad. She finds ease and relief in the natural world. As Iris begins to care for the animals on Aunt Sue’s farm with skills she learned while accompanying her father on his rounds throughout her childhood, we see vividly how her dad’s nurturing presence attends to Iris, even long after his death.
As a reader, I found myself grasping for Iris’ name about mid-way through the book. I willed myself not to forget the girl, not to let Aunt Sue take away everything even from the story. The almost-disappearance of Iris as a person throughout the narrative is no accident and is, I think, a sort of ghost journey for the identities of so many abused children, invisible and unknown to us. Watkins sets this up from the first page and though I wanted to turn away, put the book down, I did not do it because. Because I trust Steve Watkins and his knowledge of how resiliency works, how it unfurls and rises up when it is needed most. Because I do believe that we need to hear these stories so we remember there is work yet to be done.
Watkins is a mandated child abuse reporter who volunteers for his local Court Appointed Special Advocates office (CASA). In 2010, over 1,000 CASA offices throughout the U.S. restored 237,000 children in America to safety. Watkins brings his real-life experience of working to end family violence to his writing. From having witnessed healing and recovery, he knows that early nurturing, social connections, friendships, and support in a crisis are key to a child’s ability to survive and, ultimately, to thrive. Yes, he sends Iris on a journey to hell. Yes, he is very clear that the fictional character, Iris Wight, is willing to make this journey on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of children who we may only read about in the newspaper, but thankfully, Iris Wight is well-equipped to make the return trip. GA
Learn more about author Steve Watkins.
By Valerie O. Patterson
Clarion Books, 2009 (hardcover); 2010 paperback
Awards/recognitions * Agatha Award
The summer after her father drowns in a boating incident, 15-year-old Cyan and her mother return to their vacation home in Curacao. Surrounded by blue sky and sea, her mother, a celebrated painter, needs desperately to work and heal, but Cyan will have none of it. Feeling lost and unconvinced by the reported details of her father’s death, she is out to find the truth. One person in Curacao holds the key to the mysterious boating accident: Mayur, son of the physician who tended to the drowning. What does he know, and what is Cyan willing to give him in order to find out? Complicating matters even more is their houseguest, Kammi, the ever-pleasing daughter of her mother’s new fiancé.
The gorgeous Caribbean setting is irresistible for a summer read, but The Other Side of Blue offers much more. It’s a page-turning mystery, but a smart one that layers in a story about a dark and accusing dance between a mother and her teenage daughter. (Sound familiar?) Above all, this book gives us characters from the full spectrum of girls, from those who are a menacing blue, like Cyan, to those who are of the pink-and-easily-burned variety.
Also to its credit is the unflinching look at how even the puniest boy can pervert sexuality into a power play. Patterson courageously lays it out as it is, which is as much as you can ask an author to do for the readers she cares about. MM
On finding Cyan’s voice: “I’m not sure exactly how she came to me, but when she started to say things, her anger was always right there. That was unusual because I’ve never been a particularly angry person. But, at fifteen, I didn’t like my mother very much. At that age, not many girls do. Maybe part of it is the angst and part of it is competing with your mother…When I was writing, I was always afraid that I couldn’t recapture Cyan’s voice, but she always came back.” Valerie O. Patterson
Learn more about author Valerie O. Patterson.
By Jeannette Franklin Caines, illustrated by Pat Cummings
Publisher recommends ages: 4-8, Girls of Summer recommends ages 4-88
Harper Collins, 1984
Awards/recognitions: * Reading Rainbow Book
A summer road trip.
Two shoe boxes jam-packed with fried chicken, pound cake, and deviled eggs.
A summer road trip.
Jump off, journey back to the place where your skin and your hair and your heart feel free.
“No boys, no men, just us women,” is the refrain so joyfully sung is this story by the late Jeannette Caines and in the illustrations by Pat Cummings. What will Aunt Martha and her niece do on their road trip to North Carolina? Whatever they want! Where will they stop along the way? Wherever they want!
Just Us Women celebrates the special bond often present between Aunt and Niece, conjures that magical feeling you get when you arrive back to the loving arms of folks in whose faces you see your own, and affirms the truth that independence, curiosity, and sass are gifts taught and passed generation-to-generation, woman-to-girl.
First published twenty-seven years ago, Just Us Women is one of those books deserving of dual roles: picture-book essential and special-occasion-gift. Share this illustrated anthem to summer road trips with girls and women of all ages – little girls, graduating girls, and even silver-haired girls wearing red hats and purple dresses. GA
Learn more about illustrator Pat Cummings.
Visit the Jeanette Caines Fan Page.