Publisher: Penguin

Middle Grade Bookish Illumination: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Middle Grade Bookish Illumination: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Published by Penguin on August 28th 2014
Genres: Autobiography, Literary, Middle Grade, Prejudice & Racism, Social Issues, Women
Pages: 336
Goodreads
five-stars

National Book Award Winner Jacqueline Woodson, one of today's finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.  Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become. Praise for Jacqueline Woodson: Ms. Woodson writes with a sure understanding of the thoughts of young people, offering a poetic, eloquent narrative that is not simply a story . . . but a mature exploration of grown-up issues and self-discovery.” —The New York Times Book Review

Illuminations of Spirituality in Brown Girl Dreaming

Not only does this autobiography in verse deal with issues of family relationships, dreams, and social justice, the story also highlights the topic of religion. For example, whenever Jacqueline stays with her grandparents in South Carolina, she is taught the ways of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she takes classes, attend church, and goes door to door. In this way, the author’s childhood religious formation figures in as an important dimension of the story.

What I really appreciated was the way the author came to some resolution about this faith through the closing “chapters.” You definitely finish the book knowing more about how Woodson came to terms with her childhood faith. I think the closing “poems” of the book are some of its strongest—I was truly impressed with the way she wrapped everything up. I was sad to see the book end and sad to say goodbye to the characters.

I believe that honoring our heritage and appreciating the sacrifices our family members have made for us can be a spiritual practice, in a way. Brown Girl Dreaming definitely reflects this aspect, and I found myself returning to the family tree at the beginning of the book again and again. I wanted to look up particular family members and trace the year they were born, and the year they died (if they weren’t still living). In this way, I felt a closeness to the story—the family tree invited me into the living room of Woodson’s life, and gave me a chair to sit in.

I felt like I knew Woodson’s grandfather and grandmother in South Carolina. I could hear the squeak swing from the backyard and smell her grandmother’s cornbread baking in the oven. This story was filled with sensory detail that put me right in the middle of the action.

To sum up: Brown Girl Dreaming reflects some aspects of spirituality in a sensitive and moving way. Woodson highlights one particular faith in her own life, but not at the expense of shutting out every other kind of faith.

Who Should Read This Book:

This is a Newbery Honor book for 2014—the ALA awards were announced just last month, and the Newbery is an award to take note of. I honestly thought this had a chance at the Newbery and I was right—for it received an honor. That being said, I think any and all readers should sit down with this beautiful novel in verse. It won’t take you as long to read a middle grade novel in verse as it would one in narrative form, but you may find yourself stopping to soak in the beautiful imagery and rhythm of these poems. You may find yourself reading certain pages aloud—and that’s a good thing.

If you’ve ever had a dream that seemed impossible, read this book. It’s a lovely testament to how someone who struggled with reading became a beautiful and world-changing writer.

The Final Illumination:

I LOVE novels in verse! When I taught Middle School English, my 7th graders read Crossing Stones by Helen Frost, and did we ever have fun with that book in the classroom! Poetry is also one of my favorite genres to read and write—so Middle Grade novels in verse (which are becoming more and more prevalent) are a group of texts I genuinely enjoy reading (if the story is something I’m interested in). In this case, I thought Woodson’s text was inspiring, lyrical, and moving. I know I’ll definitely return to it.

There are so many rich passages in the book, but I’ll leave you with just a few:

Then I let the stories live

Inside my head, again and again

Until the real world fades back

Into cricket lullabies

And my own dreams. (99)

 

I know

If I wanted to

I could write anything. (156)

 

Did you read Brown Girl Dreaming? What about other novels in verse you would recommend?

five-stars
What Katie Read

Middle Grade Review (with donuts!): Absolutely Almost (2014) by Lisa Graff

Middle Grade Review (with donuts!): Absolutely Almost (2014) by Lisa GraffAbsolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
Published by Penguin on June 12th 2014
Genres: Family, Friendship, Middle Grade, Realistic, Social Issues, Special Needs
Pages: 304
Goodreads
five-stars

From the author of the National Book Award nominee A Tangle of Knots comes an inspiring novel about figuring out who you are and doing what you love. Albie has never been the smartest kid in his class. He has never been the tallest. Or the best at gym. Or the greatest artist. Or the most musical. In fact, Albie has a long list of the things he's not very good at. But then Albie gets a new babysitter, Calista, who helps him figure out all of the things he is good at and how he can take pride in himself. A perfect companion to Lisa Graff's National Book Award-nominated A Tangle of Knots, this novel explores a similar theme in a realistic contemporary world where kids will easily be able to relate their own struggles to Albie's. Great for fans of Rebecca Stead's Liar and Spy, RJ Palacio's Wonder and Cynthia Lord's Rules. (GoodReads)

Suggested age range: 9 and up

Illuminations of Spirituality:

“You couldn’t get where you were going without knowing where you’d been.”

Wow. Where do I begin with this one? Lisa Graff’s books are spiritually deep, in my opinion, but they aren’t religious in any way. The protagonist, native New Yorker, Albie, is figuring out who he is in the story, but this isn’t a typical “discovery of one’s identity story.” We watch Albie navigating his struggles in school, making new friends, and dealing with bullies. It’s through his relationships with others that he find authentic connection that ultimately affects the way he sees himself. Calista who watches Albie every day after school is fabulous! She lets Albie use his allowance to buy a donut every day, and donuts are near and dear to Albie’s heart. Just wait for the drawings of Donut Man towards the end of the story! Calista uses the figure of Donut Man to encourage Albie with a valuable message that ends up affecting him in a profound way.

The quote I included at the beginning of this section reflects a word of wisdom Albie receives in the story. We have to start somewhere to get to somewhere else, even if that place doesn’t seem very appealing or much to be proud of. These insightful quotes throughout Graff’s story are like little gems you want to highlight and hold onto.

Who Might Want to Read This Book:

If you read and loved any of Lisa Graff’s other books, like A Tangle of Knots, or books by Jennifer Holm, I think you’ll love this. Many of us know what it’s like to struggle with something, especially when it comes to academics, but how often do authors effectively represent the perspective of a struggling middle grade student? Graff has pulled this off flawlessly in my opinion, and the result is a refreshing and luminous narrative about Albie—honest and kind Albie, who is valuable because of who he is, and not what he can do. This is a good pick for struggling readers, but readers who appreciate an insightful realistic narrative would do well to pick this one up.

The Final Illumination:

As I read this book, it reminded me of how often I judge by appearances without reflecting on what might be going on inside a person. The interesting thing about the story is that we do know what’s going on inside Albie, but those around him often don’t. So WE understand why he acts the way he does, but many of the kids and adults around Albie don’t. It’s a good reminder of the way that people are quick to judge based on outward appearances, but if we take a step back and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we often will respond differently. I loved this aspect of the story–the way it really made me think.

There aren’t a huge number of middle grade books that effectively pull off the perspective of the struggling student. After all, it is an adult author attempting to authentically represent the perspective of a person who is an age that the adult can no longer get back to. However, sometimes an author comes along who is able to do this very well. John Boyne is one who I think pulled it off with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Absolutely Almost is another pick—the adults in the story struggle to understand Albie and his way of thinking and navigating the world, just as Albie attempts to figure out why the people around him act and say things the way they do. Albie is honest and heartfelt, and like many readers, I suspect, I grew to love him as a character, and wanted to share some choice words with the bullies at school who made his life difficult. I cheered for him when things went well, and loved the way his babysitter, Calista, created a superhero just known for liking donuts. This is a humorous and authentic realistic read from Lisa Graff, and you may end up liking Albie just as much as I did.

“I’m Donut Man. I don’t have a superpower. I sure do like donuts, though. Yum!”

If you have a craving for gourmet donuts and you find yourself in Costa Mesa, CA (not the Brooklyn of the book), you should check out Sidecar Donuts. I’ll take a Huckleberry donut and a Madagascar Vanilla Twist!

Visit the 51st Kid Lit Blog Hop and discover other fantastic Kid Lit Blogs!

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five-stars
What Katie Read

Middle Grade Monday: The Secret Hum of a Daisy (2014) by Tracy Holczer

Middle Grade Monday: The Secret Hum of a Daisy (2014) by Tracy HolczerThe Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer
Published by Penguin on May 1st 2014
Genres: Death & Dying, Family, Multigenerational, Social Issues
Pages: 320
Goodreads

Happy Monday, Readers!

This isn’t my BIG BLOG ANNOUNCEMENT (that’s coming later this week) but a small announcement: I’m starting a new feature on Mondays—Middle Grade Monday! As you know, I already read and chat about a LOT of Middle Grade books, but Monday will be especially devoted to a book in that genre, and it will always be one that I’ve read recently and that I REALLY LOVE! And I think you will too. So here goes for my first Middle Grade Monday!

Suggested age range: 10 and up

“ ‘You deserve to be loved. But sometimes, you can’t see what that looks like for yourself’” (p. 15)

“Sometimes we lose pieces of who we are in times of great sorrow and distress. And then we have to find a way to get them back.”

The Book: Set in California, this poetic realistic story follows the journey of twelve year-old Grace. Grace and her mother have always been on their own, moving from place to place, but when her mother tragically dies, Grace is sent to live with a grandmother she has never met. Struggling with trusting this woman who turned her daughter away before Grace was born, Grace has to navigate a new life in a new place. Can she move on and open her heart to a different family and relationships? Will she uncover the puzzle of clues she thinks her mother left her, perhaps leading her to the answers she so desperately needs in this new town? The Secret Hum of a Daisy charts Grace’s journey as she discovers more about herself, the mother she so desperately loved, and those with whom she might learn to trust.

Spirituality in The Secret Hum of a Daisy: This story has spirituality written all over it. Not in an overbearing way, but because it treats issues of death, grief, healing of the heart, forgiveness, and love. It’s all there, and the way Holczer weaves these themes together is beautiful! How do we say goodbye to a loved one we thought we would never lose so soon? How do we open up our hearts to those who have hurt us? How do we forgive ourselves and those around us? What does it take for the heart to heal and to be ok with settling somewhere and building community? These are all questions raised in the story, and that I think, highlight spiritual aspects of the narrative.

Grace finds solace in writing—but after her mother is gone, it is difficult for her to write anything at all. We find out just how important writing is to her in the opening pages:

“That was how the words felt sometimes as I wrote them down. Like I was taking something scrambled and unscrambling it.” (p. 24)

Who Should Read This Book: This is an award-worthy book that I think all lovers of middle grade fiction should sit down and enjoy. The writing is poetic, the pace is just right, and though the story has its sad parts, it ultimately ends with hope and new beginnings. Though some young readers might have trouble reading a book that opens with the death of a mother, I think the right readers would appreciate this book and its thought-provoking moments of mystery.

The Final Word: What a wonderful debut contemporary middle grade novel! The cover is beautiful, the title is poetic, and there is plenty more poetry throughout the story. This was on my top ten list of anticipated reads for 2014, and I was so happy to finally read this for my children’s book club. I think the entire group loved the book, and I’m excited to host Tracy for an interview on the blog soon. There were definitely moments of tears, so keep tissues nearby, but also moments of laughter and hope. This is a splendid story, with some lovely quotes that I want to return to again and again (you’ll see I’ve included some within this post) and the reminder of how important poetry will always be within the human experience. READ IT!!

“ ‘You will go your whole life, Gracie May, and every single person in it will fail you in one way or another. It’s all about the repair’ ” (p. 187).

What Katie Read
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