Category Archives: Childrens

THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate

Our final mother-daughter book club read of 2015 was the 2013 Newbery Medal-winning The One And Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. It’s the story of Ivan, a captive gorilla who has been living in a glass cage in a roadside mall for 27 years. Memories about his childhood in the wild, his deceased sister, and his strange years living with his keeper in a house are all painful for Ivan, so he mostly focuses on the present and the other animals in the roadside mall – Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. Ivan also paints (his paintings are available in the mall gift shop) and sometimes interacts with the humans who press their faces against the glass walls of his cage. A rather depressing existence.

The mall falls upon hard times, and in order to get more visitors, its owner buys a young elephant who has been captured from the wild. Ruby is wary and defensive at first, but thanks to Stella’s coddling and calming, she become more interactive. She reluctantly participates in the tricks her new owner trains her to do, but she questions him, and the whole setup, from the start. When Stella dies from a foot infection, she extracts a deathbed promise from Ivan that he will take care of Ruby and get her out of captivity, so that she doesn’t spend her life the way Stella did.

How will complacent (depressed?) Ivan find a way to get Ruby – and himself – out of the mall? And what will they find when they get out?

The One And Only Ivan is a moving – often very sad – exploration of the relationship between humans and animals, friendship, keeping hope alive, and making a change. It sparked a good discussion among our group of 11 year-olds about whether zoos are positive places for animals and how animals think and communicate. We all felt deeply for these creatures and were very sad about the way they were treated, though we also sympathized not only with the animals’ handler but also the man who ran the mall, who cared about them in his own way. It’s a very easy book to read, with short chapters and sentences that convey what Ivan is thinking, but the themes addressed are not simple or easy.

The girls in the book club liked The One And Only Ivan quite a bit, and for many of them it ranked among their two favorite books of the year.

ESPERANZA RISING by Pam Munoz Ryan

Our May mother-daughter book cub pick was Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan. It’s about Esperanza, a 12 year-old girl living a luxurious life in Mexico with her parents, complete with servants and a beautiful home. Her world disappears one day when her father is killed by bandits, and she and her mother are forced to sell their house to her uncle. With nothing to their names anymore, Esperanza and her mother flee to California, where they move into a Mexican farm labor camp. These transitions are extremely difficult for Esperanza, who is not used to working and who deeply misses her father.

Once in California, Esperanza’s mother goes to work in the fields, while she takes care of twin babies living in the home they are sharing with another family. But when her mother gets gravely ill with Valley Fever, Esperanza must take her place on the farm and is forced to grow up, quickly. She also has to contend with striking workers, picket lines, and the question of whether she and her fellow farm workers could afford to fight for better conditions when they were so dependent on the wages they’re getting.

Esperanza grows throughout the book, so that by the end, she is mature, unselfish, and much more aware of the world and its inequalities. When she gives a young friend a treasured doll she had gotten from her father, her coming-of-age is complete.

Unfortunately, very few girls attended our book club meeting this past weekend, so I didn’t get a good sense of how much they enjoyed Esperanza Rising. I found it to be a relatively quick and pretty easy read. I think it is a good pick for middle grade readers because it takes them far out of their comfort zone in terms of the types of situations Esperanza faced, and it sheds light on a section of society that hasn’t gotten much attention. I am sure many readers could relate to Esperanza’s early years, but not to the harsh reality of her life in America.  Esperanza Rising is ultimately a harrowing, but hopeful, story. (It’s no coincidence that Esperanza means “hope” in Spanish.)

RUNNING OUT OF TIME by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Our April mother-daughter book club pick was Running Out Of Time, by Margaret Peterson Haddix. In the book, a 13 year-old girl named Jessie lives with her family in an Indiana town in 1840. It’s a small town where she knows everyone, attends the school, and does everything a girl of her time would do. Except, it turns out, “her time” is actually 1996. Her parents moved to a historical village when she was a baby, and have raised her there, letting her believe it is over a century earlier than it really is. The town is observed every day by tourists behind one-way glass and secret cameras, letting visitors observe the goings-on without being noticed.

When diptheria starts spreading among the children of the town, Jessie’s mother finally confides in her and asks her to try escape to present-day and get medicine that will cure the children. The people who founded the town, Clifton, have refused to give the townspeople access to modern medicine, despite promises that they would when they recruited the people to come live there. They now have their own sinister plan to refuse medical care for the people living there in the name of science, and are forcibly keeping them there. Julie’s mother sees her as the final hope to get the medicine they need before children in the town start dying of a disease with an easy medical cure.

Julie learns the truth about her life on the same night she has to escape, so her mind is reeling when she dons her mother’s old jeans and sneakers and sets out to explore the real world. There are several twists along the way, but Julie is brave and resourceful and manages to tell the world about the truth behind the historical town: that people there are being forced to stay against their will, and that children are being denied life-saving medicine.

This was an unusual book pick for our book club, as we haven’t read many action/adventure books before. I wouldn’t say that it was the girls’ favorite book of the year, but I found it quite creative and suspenseful. It was fun to see the differences between 1840 and 1996 through the eyes of a young adult. We actually had one of our best discussions of the year, covering topics like a parent’s responsibility to her child, the ethics of medical experimentation, and whether the girls would rather live in the past or the present. The book also reminded quite a few of us of The Truman Show.

I enjoyed Running Out Of Time and was surprised that more girls didn’t like it as much as I did.

HOLES by Louis Sachar

Our last Mother-Daughter book club read was Holes by Louis Sachar.

Holes is a weird, dark book. It takes place at a juvenile detention camp in the middle of the desert, where delinquent boys are sent as punishment for their crimes. While at Camp Green Lake, the boys are required to spend their days digging holes – circular in shape and 5 feet deep and in circumference – in a dried up lake bed. They aren’t told why; they are just told to dig. All day, every day.

Stanley Yelnats has been sentenced to 18 months at Camp Green Lake for a crime he didn’t commit – stealing a famous baseball player’s sneakers which had been donated to benefit a homeless shelter. Stanley was convicted of stealing the shoes, and arrives at Camp Green Lake resigned to serve his time there. He’s an overweight, out of shape, unpopular boy, but after his arrival at Green Lake, he is eventually accepted by the other boys there and starts to fit in. He gets in better shape from the unending digging, and even starts teaching one of his fellow campmates how to read. But Stanley carries with him a curse that was delivered on his family a few generations before, and he believes it is the Yelnats’ fate to fail, despite his increasing self-confidence.

The boys in Stanley’s group figure out that they are digging the holes because the warden is trying to find something that is buried in the lake bed. When Stanley finds a lipstick case that is of great interest to the warden, the boys’ desire to find whatever else might be buried – and possibly put the endless digging to rest – only intensifies.

Holes reminded me of a fable. There are some elements of the fantastic, like lethal spotted lizards who are repelled by the smell of onions, as well as coincidences and plot twists that steer the book strongly off of the path of realistic fiction. And it’s a dark story, with some pretty awful authority figures and a lot of greed to go around. But it kept my attention, and it certainly kept my daughters’ attention. I was surprised by how high the girls in the book club rated it – most gave it a 9 or a 10. We had a good discussion about what they would do if they were in the boys’ shoes, and whether Camp Green Lake was worse than jail (everyone thought it was).

By the way, it had a happy ending.

Holes was an interesting, offbeat pick for middle grade readers.

BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT by Rob Buyea

Our February Mother-Daughter book club book was Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea. It was a big hit with the girls.

Because of Mr. Terupt is about a fifth grade teacher, Mr. Terupt, and the effect he had on seven of his students one fateful year. The students are a diverse lot – the class bully, the class clown, the brain, the withdrawn boy, the new girl from California, the outcast, and the bully’s sidekick. Over the course of the year, they each change – for the better – thanks to their teacher, who recognizes the good in them and gently coaxes it out.

Some of Mr. Terupt’s efforts were done unconsciously. He was hit by a snowball during recess about halfway through the book, and shockingly ends up in a coma. Yet even when he was in the hospital, he managed to bring the kids together and help resolve some of their problems, especially those that originated outside the classroom.

The girls in the book club really enjoyed the book. They liked the complexity of the characters, who faced difficult situations like the death of a sibling, very strict parents, and absent fathers. They liked Mr. Terupt. We even had a discussion about negligence, fault and causation, which reminded me of my torts class in law school. Some of the girls had read the sequel already – Mr. Terupt Falls Again – and my daughters have already downloaded it onto their Kindle (and book club was today). Definitely the mark of a good book! Recommended for the middle grade set.

ELLA by Mallory Kasdan

When I was little, I loved the book Eloise by Kay Thompson. Six-year old Eloise was was spoiled and messy and totally self-absorbed, but she lived in the Plaza hotel and ordered room service! She had a nanny! She played on the elevators and had a pet turtle! What a life.

A Brooklyn writer named Mallory Kasdan has written an update of Eloise called Ella. In this version, our protagonist is still six, but she lives in a Brooklyn hotel called The Local Hotel. She’s just as precocious as her predecessor – she kicks off her day with yoga poses and “energizing breathwork”. She turns her American Girl dolls into “twin orphan sisters who live in Costa Rica and run their own zipline business in the rainforest”. She’s into “flossing, meditation, zumba, drum circles, and mani/pedis”. She is “hotel-schooled” by a tutor with a PhD from Harvard because her mother “summers with the Dean”.

Kasdan has perfectly captured the rhythm and style of the original. Ella is not really a parody of Eloise; it’s a modern tribute. It perfectly captures modern Brooklyn childhood: “I am artsy of course. I have a shop online where I sell my photographs.” (She’s 6!). “Altogether I have been to 62 events including that Hillary Clinton fund-raiser.” “Tomorrow I think I’ll drop an organic watermelon off the Roof Deck.”

If you were a fan of Eloise, give Ella a try. I liked it, and my 10 year-old did too. She said that it is “a more fun version of Eloise”.

RED SCARF GIRL by Ji-Li Jiang

Our January Mother-Daughter Book Club read was Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang. This was probably the most serious and definitely one of the saddest books we have read for book club. It’s a memoir about the author growing up in China in the late 60s during the Cultural Revolution.

Ji-Li’s family had been relatively well-off before the Revolution, especially compared to other families around them. They all lived in one room – Ji-Li, her parents, her grandmother, and her sister and brother. But they employed a housekeeper and had nice things in the house. After the Revolution, they were considered to be a “bad class” because her grandfather had once been a landlord. Red Scarf Girl is a chronicle of the years of anxiety, fear, deprivation and pain that Ji-Li’s family suffered when the Communists targeted them as capitalists who had built a fortune on the backs of working people. Her parents were persecuted, her father was jailed, her grandmother was physically abused, and their apartment was repeatedly ransacked and looted by the Red Guard.

Ji-Li had been an honors student before the Revolution, and when the book opens, she is still trying to remain faithful to the party and obey the directives she is given in school. Over time, however, she becomes aware of the capriciousness and ruthlessness of the Red Guard, and when her loyalty to the Party is tested against her loyalty to her family, she chooses her family. Her disillusionment with authority, exacerbated by her disappointment with her schooling under the new regime, makes for a powerful coming-of-age novel about adherence to political views and the nature of sacrifice for one’s beliefs.

I had feared that the girls wouldn’t enjoy Red Scarf Girl, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many girls had read it and really thought about it. The subject matter was difficult, but it was easy to digest. We had a good discussion about how different characters in the book reacted to the harshness of the Cultural Revolution and what the girls would have done in Ji-Li’s shoes. We admired how brave she was, even as things just kept getting worse and worse. The Epilogue is worth reading, as it talks about how Ji-Li looks back on those years (she now lives in America). Rather than feeling angry at Chairman Mao and his government, she explains how her classmates and the families around her were brainwashed by Mao’s messages and believed that the Cultural Revolution was necessary for China’s survival. Her message – that without laws, a small group or even a single person can take control over an entire country – is just as relevant today, and we talked as a group about how important it is to preserve and retell stories like Ji-Li’s.

Red Scarf Girl was not an uplifting or easy read, but it was an important one. I am glad that we picked it for book club and that my daughters read it.