Sunday, February 28
Monday, February 22
Tuesday, February 16
- Nikki Giovanni
When I moved to Baltimore to teach in the summer of 2006, I became an avid hunter of fabulous YA books by African American authors. While I believe that children can and will learn from a variety of people over the course of their lives, I know that my eleven and twelve-year-old students are hungry to read the words and share in the experiences of people who look like them. So, when I was recently given the assignment to read and review a YA book from an African American author, I was excited! And then it got me thinking that perhaps my past few years of searching could be of use to other teachers, librarians or parents. To make this very long story short... here is a list of some of my favorite African American authors (and in ABC order so as not to show favoritism!) PS: They have all won a variety of awards and honors. Look them up for more info if you're curious!
- Christopher Paul Curtis (Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham have been two of my students' favorites.)
- Sharon M. Draper (see the post below for more info)
- Sharon G. Flake (see 3 posts below for more info)
- Nikki Giovanni (fabulous poet for both children and adults)
- Nikki Grimes (Bronx Masquerade is a must read! It has inspired an annual 6th grade volume titled "Baltimore Masquerade.")
- Angela Johnson (I think The First Part Last is better suited for high school students so I have not yet used it in a classroom, but it is an amazing story that has stayed with me for a long, long time.)
- Walter Dean Myers (The Handbook for Boys, 145th Street, and Street Love are all very different from each other and are each some of my students' favorites.)
- Jacqueline Woodson (Miracle's Boys is a book that many of my boys have really enjoyed.)
If you have new suggestions for me, I would love to hear them!
In closing, here are a few photos from the afternoon that some of my students got to meet Sharon G. Flake. She read aloud, answered questions, gave away copies of each of her books, and took the time to talk with every single student. She is an author they will never forget!
Monday, February 15
Equal parts horror story, inspirational narrative, and historical fiction—Fire from the Rock will transport you back to a time in history that many of us can only imagine.
Sylvia Patterson, our courageous protagonist, is an 8th grader living in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. Although three years have passed since Brown vs. the Board of Education handed down the decision that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” none of the schools in Sylvia’s city have been integrated. Sylvia is both shocked and flattered to learn that her name has been added to the list of students being considered to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. Notably missing from the list is the name of Sylvia’s older brother Gary, a perpetually angry, self-proclaimed “freedom fighter” who would give anything to be one of the first African American students to attend Central, but who is viewed as too volatile a choice.
Joining Sylvia on her journey toward Central High is a rich and diverse cast of characters: Reggie, her first boyfriend, who is growing more and more like Gary every day, and who ultimately makes a horrible choice that he will live to regret; Rachel, Sylvia’s Jewish friend, who does not fit firmly into either side of the black/white debate and whose father, an Auschwitz survivor, must endure evil hate crimes committed against his family and his grocery story; and the Crandall family, who does everything they can to make life hell for Sylvia, her family, and everyone else who looks like her.
Over the course of Sylvia’s story, the reader is given dozens of pieces of historical information about what life was really like during that time period. Through Sylvia’s journal entries, she explains court decisions, introduces members of the NAACP, debriefs the interviews that students who sought to integrate Central had to endure, and details the different ways that Little Rock’s African American population reacted to the variety of threats made against them as they moved forward toward true freedom.
I was deeply impressed by the sheer volume of information that Sharon Draper wove into this piece of historical fiction. I am now actively trying to create a meaningful way to use this book in my own classroom because I know that my students could learn so much from it. I believe that 5th graders or middle school students would be the best audience for Fire from the Rock, because although the ideas conveyed are intense, the language was often quite simplistic. This fact is something that I appreciate, because I know it will make the story more accessible to my struggling readers, while the highly engaging plot will hold the interest of my most advanced readers.
Sharon Draper is another of my favorite YA authors and my students have eaten her other books up like candy. Rather than telling you about each one, I’m just going to send you directly to her site: sharondraper.com. Need a little more direction? Draper’s Copper Sun is one of the best books ever written for young adults. Use it in class or give it to your own children; they’ll thank you for it!
One last important note: As I read Sylvia’s story, I got hungry to read more about the Little Rock 9. I immediately turned to Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, one of the original 9. This book has been sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read for a few years now, and I am glad that I waited because it is the perfect companion to Fire from the Rock. Patillo Beals used her personal diaries, newspapers she had saved, and accounts from family and friends to write the story of the year that she became a warrior on the battlefield of Central High. At turns shocking, heartbreaking, and inspiring, students will thoroughly enjoy Warriors Don’t Cry. With its more advanced vocabulary, this memoir would be a perfect tool for differentiation in a classroom that was already using Fire from the Rock.
Draper, Sharon M (2007). Fire from the Rock. New York: Penguin Books-Speak
Wednesday, February 10
How much would you be willing to sacrifice for a chance to stand on top of the world? That is the question that Peak Marcello must ask himself when he is given the opportunity to summit Mount Everest with his father, a man he hasn’t seen or spoken to for the last seven years of his life.
The story begins with Peak scaling the Woolworth Building in New York City, but just before tagging the skyscraper as the third in his string of conquests, Peak is arrested on the roof. Just one day later, a boy falls to his death while attempting a copycat climb, igniting a media frenzy. In a shocking turn of events, Peak’s absentee “rock rat” father shows up at his trial with a plan to take Peak back to China with him. The judge agrees to the plan as a part of Peak’s plea bargain, in the hope that his absence would calm the press and dissuade any other kids from following in Peak’s footsteps. This is when his adventure really begins.
When Peak arrives in Tibet, he and his father are joined by Zopa, a “cagey” Buddhist monk and former climber who is revered by everyone on the mountain, and Sun-jo, a Nepalese boy the same age as Peak. As this dynamic group approaches the climb of a lifetime, Peak soon realizes that his father’s promise to get him to the summit of Everest comes with more than a few strings attached.
Over the course of the rest of his story, Peak is tested both mentally and physically, far beyond what he ever thought he could bear. He is forced to make tough choices, and he ultimately learns that, “the only thing you’ll find on the summit of Mount Everest is a divine view. The things that really matter lie far below.”
Peak is truly a fantastic read! It is fast-paced and would be equally appealing to both middle school and high school age boys. Roland Smith does a skillful job of explaining climbing concepts and vocabulary, so that instead of becoming cumbersome to younger readers, the lingo only enhances the story. While the setting of Peak’s story is far beyond the familiar for most of us, students will identify with his intense emotions as he attempts to reconnect with his father, and the questions that come up as he forms relationships with a diverse cast of characters.
Peak could be a strong tool for teachers. One of the sub-plots of the book is the fact that Peak is actually writing the story himself as a graduation requirement, since his impromptu journey interrupted his second semester of school. As Peak goes back to his Moleskin notebook at various points throughout the book, he gives insight into how to craft a great story through pre-writing and careful plot development, at one point noting, “[my teacher] wouldn’t let me write a word until I’d finished my research. Hold the story inside until you are ready to burst.” In addition, the book easily lends itself to teaching characterization, conflict, figurative language, and point of view. A fully developed teaching guide and student companion are available here.
Finally, information about what life is like for children growing up in Nepal is subtly woven into the story through Sun-jo’s sub-plot. The reader learns that although Sun-jo is only fourteen years old, he has had to drop out of school because his family only has enough money to educate his two sisters. Sun-jo’s climb up Everest is due in large part to the hope that being the youngest climber to reach the summit will provide a better life for him and his family. Readers who are interested in learning more about Sun-jo’s culture should check out Patricia McCormick’s Sold. Sold is the story of a thirteen-year-old girl named Lakshmi, growing up in Nepal. When Lakshmi is given the opportunity to become a maid in India, she jumps at the chance, thinking that what little money she makes could help alleviate the poverty her family lives in. Tragically, Lakshmi’s new life is like nothing she ever anticipated, and she is forced to draw upon inner strength that she never even knew she possessed.
Both Peak and Sold will keep readers captivated from the first word to the last!
Smith, Roland (2007). Peak. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Books
 I’m sure there are more than a few girls out there who will fall in love with Peak. However, I know many educators who are continually on the hunt for great “boy books” to add to their recommendation lists, and Peak certainly fits that bill.
If you have ever fallen in love, if you have ever had your heart broken, if you have ever sputtered, “Just who does he think he is?,” if you have ever wondered in the privacy of your own heart, “Who am I without him?” then you need to get your hands on this book.
Who Am I Without Him?: Short Stories About Girls and the Boys in Their Lives by Sharon G. Flake is a collection of twelve short stories that tell it like it is. This addictive collection of realistic fiction begins with “So I Ain’t No Good Girl” where the reader meets Raheem’s girlfriend. While she is jaw-droppingly confident in front of the “good girls” at the bus stop, once Raheem arrives we learn that she isn’t quite as self-assured as she appears. After she catches Raheem eyeing one of the “good girls,” she starts to give him a piece of her mind, but he angrily cuts her off and the reader gets a glimpse of the little girl behind the tough exterior:
“I apologize just like my momma does when my daddy slaps her. Like Raheem’s momma does too. Raheem says he’s gonna forgive me this time. But I better check myself, ‘cause he needs a cooperative woman. ‘Not a whole bunch of drama.’ He’s right. A boy like him can get any girl he wants. He ain’t gotta take no stuff off nobody. ‘Sorry,’ I say, thinking ‘bout how jealous girls be when they see him with me.”
The remaining stories each relate a different experience in the ongoing battle to understand the sexes. Some stories are told from the male perspective, like “Jacob’s Rules” where Brandon is linked up with Marimba, the absolute last girl he would ever choose to date, for a class assignment. Because this is realistic fiction and not a romantic comedy, Brandon does not ultimately end up with Marimba, but he does learn a valuable lesson about using people and being used himself.
My favorite story is the last chapter, “A Letter to my Daughter.” The narrator this time is not a teenager, but a grown father who has been absent for most of his daughter’s life. Now that she is a teenager herself, he is starting to realize how much he had missed out on. His letter lays out ten life lessons that I wish every real girl’s father could be there to teach her. I think one of the most important lessons is number nine:
“Boys is nice, so is men, but sometimes it’s just you and you. So if you ain’t got a boyfriend, remember you still got you. You still got your dreams, your talent, and your smarts… let it out and don’t bury it for nobody. ‘Cause you is so much more than a pretty face and a tight pair of jeans, some boy’s girlfriend or some man’s wife.’”
As a middle school teacher, I know that my students are the ultimate audience for this book. Every boy and girl—from the most reluctant to the most voracious of readers—will find a story to personally connect with in this collection. Sharon Flake does not sugar-coat anything. Her stories are real and her words ring true, so teenagers will find her to be a voice that they can trust. I sincerely wish that each of my female students could read, “A Letter to my Daughter,” and take those lessons about self-worth and self-respect to heart.
Anyone who is interested in similar stories needs to look no further than Sharon G. Flake’s other novels of realistic fiction. The Skin I’m In is the fantastically engaging story of Maleeka Madison, a middle school age girl with skin like “a blue-black sky after it’s rained and rained.” Maleeka, with the unsolicited help of her teacher Ms. Saunders, learns to stand up for herself against overwhelming popular opinion and, ultimately, to love the skin that she’s in. My middle school students have also fallen in love with Bang!, Begging for Change, and Money Hungry, all by Sharon G. Flake. Her website, sharongflake.com, includes synopses of each of her books, a peek at upcoming books like You Don’t Even Know Me: Stories and Poems about Boys, resources for teachers, a list of the many awards she has won, and videos of students reading from and discussing her books. Can you tell I love this author?
Flake, Sharon (2004, 2005). Who Am I Without Him?: Short Stories About Girls and the Boys in their Lives. New York: Jump at the Sun
Monday, February 1
The end of the storm was only the beginning of the story…
A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge tells the rest of that story. A graphic novel, A.D. paints a picture in both words and images of the city of New Orleans and the residents who survived one of the most devastating natural disasters in America’s history. No single book could hope to encompass all of the varied perspectives of Hurricane Katrina’s survivors, but A.D. presents its readers with the stories of Denise, Leo, Michelle, Abbas, Darnell, Kwame, and “the Doctor.” Through the eyes of these seven New Orleanians, the reader is able to gain a glimpse into the plight of the young and the old, those who evacuated the city and those who chose to remain and “wait out the storm,” and people of all different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
A.D. is divided into four different sections: The Storm, The City, The Diaspora, and The Return. In “The Storm,” the reader is given a bird’s-eye-view of the hurricane spiraling into full strength over New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi. “The City” delves into the lives of, and the decisions made by, the seven central characters. Denise is a social worker who lives with her elderly mother, young niece, and her niece’s daughter. Abbas and his friend Darnell ride out the storm and ensuing floods while trying to protect Abbas’ store. Kwame is a high-school senior and the son of a pastor. Brobson, “the Doctor,” is a physician and man-about-town who throws a hurricane party in the midst of the chaos. Leo and Michelle opt to evacuate the city, never even imagining that all they leave behind could be lost. “The Diaspora” explores the various paths that each of the men and women choose to take after the flooding subsides. Finally, “The Return” gives a glimpse into the reconstruction of both New Orleans itself and the lives of the people who chose to remain in or return to the city. “The Return” was one of the most fascinating parts of the book to me. I knew little about how residents who returned to New Orleans viewed those who chose not to, and a quote from Leo gave me some perspective on how loyal New Orleanians can be: “It was around then that the defections really started to annoy me. I couldn’t believe how many people were calling it quits on New Orleans! For me, it was never a question that I’d move back somehow. For better or worse, I’m married to this place.”
A.D. would be a fantastic resource for high school students. It could be used as a tool for discussing the role of government and as a means for analyzing the different choices that people make in times of crisis. In addition, the storyline easily lends itself to instructional standards such as drawing conclusions, analyzing character and conflict, and determining the author’s purpose. A.D. would be ideal for struggling or reluctant readers, because the vocabulary is accessible to students at all levels, and the engaging illustrations, the endearing cast of characters, and the real-life drama of the story would quickly draw them in. That being said, teachers should be aware that the book contains adult language and some intense imagery. I highly recommend that teachers fully review A.D. before using it in the classroom.
Anyone who is interested in learning more about author Josh Neufeld’s experiences in creating A.D. should find his or her way over to the book’s homepage at www.smithmag.net/afterthedeluge. This site offers the original comic book version of A.D., a video explaining how the book was created, and closer look at Neufeld’s history as an author and artist. For teachers who are interested in using A.D. in the classroom, Random House offers a fantastic website full of guiding questions, discussion prompts, extension projects, and additional resources.
Fans of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge might also enjoy Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis, another graphic novel, is the author’s personal account of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Although the content is both heart-felt and serious, Satrapi’s words and illustrations will make her readers laugh out loud. The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg is another of my favorite graphic novels. The Plain (People Loving Art In Neighborhoods) Janes is perfect for anyone who has ever felt the urge to create, who has looked at an everyday object and seen the artistic potential within. If you have really gotten the graphic novel bug, check out Minx Books and Pantheon Graphic Novels for more great titles to add to your reading list!