Category Archives: Childrens

RED THREAD SISTERS by Carol Antoinette Peacock

51V1x2hEuoL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Our May mother-daughter book club read was Red Thread Sisters by Carol Antoinette Peacock. I’ve always been interested in Chinese adoption, so I was excited to add this title to our reading list.

Red Thread Sisters is about two Chinese girls who are best friends growing up in an orphanage. Wen was abandoned at age 6 by her family at the orphanage after her father lost his job and they couldn’t afford to keep two children, while Shu Lin was left at the orphanage as a baby because of a deformed foot. While the two often dream of being adopted, in the end, it is only Wen who is picked by an American family. When the book opens, Wen is meeting her adoptive family for the first time and having to say goodbye to Shu Lin.

Wen moves to the Boston area and tries to get used to life with her new parents and at her American school. She has a lot of trouble trusting that her parents will keep her and that she won’t be sent back to China if something goes wrong. Wen tries to reciprocate her younger sister’s affection, but she doesn’t know how to be a member of a family, or how to express love for someone other than Shu Lin. Meanwhile, she misses her best friend terribly, and feels guilty that she is in America living a comfortable, privileged life while Shu Lin is still at the orphanage.

Before she left, Wen promised Shu Lin that she would find her a family in the United States. She soon realizes that that is a hard promise to fulfill. At first, she tries to talk her new parents into adopting Shu-Ling too, without understanding how big of a commitment an adoption is. She then starts to learn more about the adoption process and how she can help Shu Lin’s chances of being adopted.

Red Thread Sisters prompted a good discussion among the group about girls in China, international adoption and the challenges of being integrated into a new family. We also talked about friendship and responsibility, and whether Wen should have made her promise to Shu Lin. The girls liked the book – it held their interest and they felt compassion for the characters. We all agreed that there wasn’t enough detail in the book: Wen seemed to have little problem understanding what was happening at school, and the months just seemed to fly by with no sense of her daily life in America. She was also pretty inconsiderate of her adoptive parents’ feelings, but that was in part due to her inability to connect emotionally.

Overall, Red Thread Sisters was a good perspective-broadening book, even if it wasn’t the best-written book we read this year. It led to a robust discussion between the girls and mothers, and that’s usually the sign of a good book club book.

SPY SCHOOL by Stuart Gibbs

My 11 year-old daughter starting hounding me to read Spy School by Stuart Gibbs as soon as she discovered it – and him – last year in 5th grade. She read Spy School and then its two sequels, and then anything else by Gibbs that she could get her hands on. And when it came time for me to pick the books for our Mother-Daughter book club this year, she insisted that I include Spy School.

So I finally read it for our book club meeting yesterday. And she was right – it’s great! It’s not my usual fare – thriller/adventure – but it was quite entertaining. Spy School is about a 12 year-old boy named Ben who is chosen to leave his typical public school to attend spy school run by the C.I.A. outside of D.C. Spy school is exactly what it sounds like – training grounds for kids who have shown aptitude to become a spy, with classes like self-defense and cryptography. At first, Ben is thrilled, as this is his dream come true. But once he gets to the school, he realizes that may not be cut out for it… and that he might be there under false pretenses.

As the plot unfolds, Ben finds himself being chased by an assassin, bullied by a dumb upperclassman, collaborating with the coolest girl in the school, and let down by the administrators who are supposed to protect him. There is a lot of action, as Ben is constantly on the run from danger. It’s a relatively lighthearted book, despite the high stakes of the story, with a lot of humor thrown in. Ben is a typical 12 year-old: nerdy and girl-crazy, quick to question authority, but underneath it all excited and earnest about what he’s doing.

Some reviewers complained about bad language – “damn” and “ass” – but that it didn’t bother me, and it didn’t come up during our discussion yesterday.

I am impressed by how much my daughter enjoyed this book and its sequels. She was totally involved with the story and loved trying to figure out who was after Ben and why. Some of the girls in the book club didn’t like reading a book with a male protagonist, while others didn’t mind, and in fact enjoyed getting a boy’s perspective.

Don’t be bothered by the fact that Spy School is totally implausible. (Why would these kids be in spy school in 8th grade? And how could so many high-ranking intelligence officers converge at this school and be unable to figure out who is trying to infiltrate it?) Gibbs has created a really fun world for middle-grade readers to experience without the weightiness or complexity of the typical spy or adventure novel.

 

WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech

I just realized that I never reviewed our last mother-daughter book club of 2015: Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, so here’s a quick review. Walk Two Moons is a rather sad book about Sal, a girl who moves with her father from a farm in Kentucky to Ohio after her mother leaves the family and moves to Idaho. Sal’s mother has died in a bus accident in Idaho, but she is either in denial about her mother’s death or has not been told by her father explicitly about it. (This aspect of the book is a little unclear and sparked a lot of discussion.) Sal ends up driving with her grandparents from Ohio to Idaho, tracing her mother’s final steps, so that she can learn about and get closure around her mother’s death.

During the road trip with Sal’s grandparents, she tells them a lot of stories about her life in Ohio, featuring her father’s close friend Margaret Cadaver, Sal’s new friend Phoebe, and some of the strange goings-on that happened to both of them. She also talks about Ben, a boy that she has developed a crush on, and another strange boy who keeps lurking in her neighborhood. In the end, Sal achieves the closure she needs, but she also experiences more losses and learns that she is not alone in feeling abandoned by her mother.

I counted five people in Walk Two Moons who were living without their mothers, some temporarily and some permanently. The book is about loss and adjusting your expectations and hopes to conform to the reality of your life. It’s also about empathy and understanding what other people are going through. The title of the book comes from an old Native American saying about walking two moons in someone else’s shoes to see their lives as they are living them. The book inspired a good discussion among the moms and the daughters, especially since some parts of the book was left a little vague and we were sharing our different interpretations. I found it a little slow at first, but it eventually picked up steam and was rather engrossing.

Overall, a sad but good middle grade read that our sixth graders enjoyed.

JAKE AND LILY by Jerry Spinelli

I am not on track for a record year of reading. Life just keeps getting in the way. Oh well!

I am almost done with the audio of Fates and Furies, which I have been listening to for several weeks. I  am in the home stretch and while I am tempted to just read the rest, I like the narrator of the second half and I want to hear it out. I have very mixed feelings about the book, and I’ve read a bunch of reviews and can’t seem to find anyone who sees it like I do. Review soon…

I am reading In The Language of Miracles too, which I think I would enjoy more if I didn’t read it for the 5 minutes before sleep every night. It’s very well-written and I want to get far enough in that I can’t put it down.

I did manage to finish a middle grade book for our mother-daughter book club last weekend. We read Jake and Lily by Jerry Spinelli. It’s about eleven year-old twins, Jake and Lily, who are going into sixth grade. They’ve always been very close, and have a special bond that lets them know what’s going on with each other even when they’re not together. But now they’re in middle school, and Jake is starting to want to spend time apart from Lily. He wants to hang out with other boys and do things that Lily doesn’t like to do. Jake goes along with a neighborhood bully who assembles a group of 4 to ride around on their bikes and find “goobers” (a.k.a dorks).

Lily, meanwhile, is devastated by Jake’s defection. She is left facing the summer without her best – or any – friend. She spends her days moping around and lamenting her brother’s decision to her grandfather, who finally urges her to move on make new friends.

I thought Jake and Lily was OK, but not great. There isn’t a whole lot to the story beyond what I summed up above. Lily does nothing but whine about Jake until the book is almost done. Jake’s story is more interesting, as he takes the blame for something his friend does and has to confront him about it. But in the end it isn’t a very memorable or deep book. I also thought it was a little young for 6th grade. Also – I didn’t buy the twin superpowers that Jake and Lily had, or their birthday tradition of sleepwalking to the train station.

None of the girls loved Jake and Lily (including my own eleven year-old twins), but it did prompt a robust conversation. There ended up being more to discuss than I expected. (Sometimes that’s the case with books we don’t like.)

So that’s where I am. I hope to pick up the pace going into the end of the year.

MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine

Whoa. Two weeks since my last post! Not good. My kids are back in school and I’ve been up late at night doing other stuff, I guess. I am halfway through two books – My Sunshine Away and Did You Ever Have A Family, so expect some reviews soon.

Meanwhile, I interrupted my adult reading to read our first Mother-Daughter Book Club book of the year: Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. This book ended up on our club reading list because it was one of the summer reading recommendations from my daughters’ school. Mockingbird is about an 11 year-old girl, Caitlyn, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Her beloved older brother Devon was killed in a school shooting, and her father, a widower, is deep in his own grief. Caitlyn is trying to process what happened to her brother and make it through the 5th grade with her limited emotional vocabulary, without a whole lot of support.

Mockingbird is a good middle-grade introduction to Asperger’s and spectrum disorders. Caitlyn’s syndrome manifests in a number of ways: she is extremely literal, she has trouble reading other people’s emotions through body language, she’s not empathetic, she hates loud noises and finds colors “messy”, and she likes memorization and definitions. Caitlyn’s school counselor spends a lot of time trying to get Caitlyn to make friends and understand how others are feeling. Over the course of the book, Caitlyn makes some progress on these fronts, and she and her father begin to connect and share in their grief.

Our book club conversation ended up changing my feelings about the book. One of the moms/daughters in our club has a family member with autism, and they explained that the book oversimplified several components of spectrum disorder and didn’t give an accurate picture of what someone with autism is really like. They took issue with some of the therapies Caitlyn’s counselor used to help her understand other people’s emotions, finding them patronizing and insulting. To be fair, Caitlyn has Asperger’s, which is high-functioning autism, and the author has a daughter with Asperger’s so she was clearly basing the character on her real-life experience. But my friend’s and her daughter’s reactions did color my view of the book. Also, I was bothered by the way that Caitlyn’s guidance counselor kept trying to “fix”or change her, rather than accepting Caitlyn for who she was and helping her navigate the world as Caitlyn.

The girls found Mockingbird to be very sad. They felt sorry for Caitlyn and her father, and were touched by the friendship Caitlyn developed with a younger boy who had also lost a family member in the same shooting. The book was appropriate for 5th-6th grade and held their attention. I found it very sad and compelling as I was reading it, but took issue with the end goal, which was to “fix” Caitlyn rather than work within her limitations.

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.)