Posts tagged ‘School’

The Pants Project

Pants Project.jpg

Title: The Pants Project
Author: Cat Clarke
ISBN: 9781492638094
Pages: 267 pages
Publisher/Date: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc. c2017.

Bankridge Middle School had a strict uniform policy, unlike nearly every other school I could have attended. […]
Sexist. Dumb. Unfair. Even the moms agreed with me. […]
“Girls must wear a black, pleated, knee-length skirt.”
I bet I read those words a hundred times during summer vacation. I stared at the computer screen, willing them to morph into something sensible.
The problem wasn’t the last word in that sentence. Skirt wasn’t really the issue, not for me. The issue was the first word. Girls.
Here’s the thing:
I may seem like a girl, but on the inside, I’m a boy. (6-7)

A point of clarification seems necessary, because the only time that Liv is identified with the “he” pronoun is on the book jacket summary, since throughout the book most people are uninformed of Liv’s transgender status and it’s told in a first person perspective. I’m going to try to honor what is obviously the author’s choice to have Liv use “he” pronouns.

Olivia “Liv” Spark is starting middle school with best friend Maisie, but Liv already feels out of place. The dress code requires girls to wear a skirt and boys to wear pants, but while Liv might have been born a girl and looks like a girl, Liv definitely feels like a boy. Nobody knows though, and it’s hard enough to be the new girl in school, much less the outcast that the class bullies Jade and Chelsea are routinely ridiculing about everything, including the too short haircut, lesbian parents, and attempts at making the skirt more bearable. Liv knows that this rule needs to change, and isn’t afraid to start that fight, even if it costs friendships.

This impressed me as a very well written novel. It allowed for some thought-provoking reflection and relayed Liv’s plight with sensitivity but without becoming didactic and was age appropriate in it’s portrayal of a transgender person. Refreshingly unromantic in nature, Liv makes friends with both guys and girls by the end of the book and his struggle to find himself runs parallel with efforts to change the dress code. He’s a nuanced character, with one action at his previous school hanging over his head, making him fearful that he’s been pegged for life with labels (that have nothing to do with his gender) that don’t match how he sees himself. The bullies actions are accurately portrayed both for their spite and pettiness, and the adults are clueless about the behavior, with Liv being reluctant to reveal the specifics because he knows their ability to stop the bullying is limited. The solution to this problem is idealistic at best, but nevertheless resolves the issue.

Liv shows several different ways of activism, including petitions and protests that could serve as a primer for young activists, but his efforts are not always successful. The principal’s initial refusal to hear Liv out seems intended only to drag out the plot, but his exasperation at Liv’s insistence is realistic to an overtaxed and ambitious adult who doesn’t see the priority in Liv’s problem. Liv’s overworked mothers are much more sympathetic to Liv’s feelings, but they are also willing to step back and let Liv work out his own problems and follow his lead. Engaged parents who listen to their children? What a novel idea that isn’t showcased often enough in books! Liv’s confusion about how he feels about them also provides a side of the family that most books don’t show, where children love their family but also want to protect them and themselves from scrutiny.

Highly recommended for collections and children and families seeking this sort of representation.

Clementine, Friend of the Week

Clementine Friend of the Week.jpgTitle: Clementine, Friend of the Week
Series: Clementine #4
Author: Sara Pennypacker
Illustrator: Marla Frazee
Narrator: Jessica Almasy
ISBN: 9781440777929 (audiobook), 9780545283076 (hardcover)
Discs/CDs: 2 CDs, 2 hours
Pages: 161 pages
Publisher/Date: Recorded Books, LLC, c2010. (Scholastic Inc, by arrangement with Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of Disney Book Group, LLC.)

“It’s time to give us your presentation. That’s quite a smile. I’m glad to see you’re so happy about it. Come on up.”
I looked through my backpack in case I had forgotten that I remembered to make some notes last night, but nope.
“That’s all right,” my teacher said. “Just come up and tell us about your life.”
“So I went up to the front of the class. “I was born,” I began. And then nothing else came out, because it is very hard to think when you are standing at the front of the class with all those eyes on you. (40)

Clementine has been chosen as Friend of the Week, an honor that bestows upon her the ability to be line leader, feed the fish, collect the milk money, and tell the class her autobiography. At the end of the week, she will receive a book from her classmates detailing all her positive attributes. But Clementine doesn’t feel like a very good friend, as she doesn’t understand why Margaret is mad at her. She starts granting compliments, tattoos, names, and decorations for the upcoming bike rally. But when her kitten Moisturizer goes missing and that’s all she can focus on, will Clementine loose the friends she’s worked so hard to gain?

I written before how much I love and am charmed by Clementine. She’s got a personality that is impossible to not love. Marla Frazee’s pictures convey the emotions of the entire family, and it’s a shame that they aren’t included in the audiobook format. But Almasy continues her narration of the series, conveying these same emotions through her inflections. Clementine’s distress when her kitten goes missing is authentic to a third grader who looses a pet. She is intent on finding her, at whatever the cost (and it does cost, as more than a few wanted posters are printed by her parents). The outcome realistically solves all the problems. Pennypacker smartly restricts the action to a week in the life, letting everything play out naturally, and I’m excited to see what everyday adventures Clementine gets into next.

Study Hall of Justice

Study Hall of Justice.jpgTitle: Study Hall of Justice
Series: Secret Hero Society
Author: Derek Fridolfs
Illustrator: Dustin Nguyen
ISBN: 9780545825016
Pages: 175
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Inc., c2016 DC Comics

This school is weird!
Yesterday I felt a kid blur past me. Today I witnessed a girl flying through the air. I’m not kidding. Not to mention there’s a ton of clowns and . . . I think I’ve even seen ninja lurking about.
It’s crazy.
My mind and body have been trained by the very best (Alfred saw to that with private tutors). My eyes aren’t playing tricks. So there must be a logical explanation for it.
My investigation continues. But I must also make time to beat level seven of Vigilante Fighter Turbo. Resist the urge to download a cheat code. (28)

Bruce Wayne has recently been accepted to the prestigious Ducard Academy. Upon arrival however, Bruce keeps noticing unexplained things happening. With the administration ignoring the warning signs and possibly aiding in the classroom chaos, who can Bruce turn to for assistance? Equally confused Clark Kent and Diana Prince are also hiding something, but they seem the best options to aid in his investigations. Now the key is to solve the mystery without getting suspended.

This book is a fast read described by some as a hybrid graphic novel, which confused me for a while as to where to put it. After it arrived though, it obviously belonged with the graphic novels. While the primary story is told in panels and pictures, supplemental information is provided in paragraph format in illustrated diary entries, memos, reports, and text messages. Told in short vignettes that propel the main plot of finding out the school’s secrets, many readers with only a cursory knowledge of the DC Comics world will recognize superheroes and super villains featured, including the Joker, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Bane, Lex Luthor, and of course the three main characters. Clark is shown as a bumbling do-good, who on more than one occasion either spills or comes close to spilling information about his secret. Diana is shown as slightly more competent, but also more assertive and angry than either of the boys. Bruce is portrayed as a lonely know-it-all, although my favorite line is when he questions the lack of masks for both Diana’s and Clark’s secret identities. There are passing nods to future events, such as Clark becoming a reporter and Alfred’s at the time off-handed comment to Bruce that “I certainly won’t be a willing partner in your flights of fancy, sir!” (151)

The whole story however is relatively anticlimactic. While yes there are strange things happening in the school, no one is ever in any real danger, and even the weirdness is relatively low-key (getting pied in the face in the hallway, Brainiac as a library monitor, and even the ninjas repeatedly noticed don’t interfere with day-to-day operations until the very end of the book). Although it appears this is a start of a series, the resolution leaves me wondering how these three investigators are going to be able to combine their efforts again in the future. Overall, it becomes a nice introduction and mash-up for super fans or those who like their superhero stories light.

Fish in a Tree

Fish in a Tree.jpgTitle: Fish in a Tree
Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
ISBN: 9780399162569
Pages: 276 pages
Publisher/Date: Nancy Paulsen Books, published by the Penguin Group LLC, a Penguin Radom House Company, c2015.

She shakes her head a bit as she speaks. “I just don’t get it. Why in the world would you give a pregnant woman a sympathy card?” […]
I stand tall, but everything inside shrinks. The thing is, I feel real bad. I mean, I feel terrible when the neighbor’s dog died, never mind if a baby had died. I just didn’t know it was a sad card like that. All I could see were beautiful yellow flowers. And all I could imagine was how happy I was going to make her.
But there a piles of reasons I can’t tell the absolute truth.
Not to her.
Not to anyone.
No matter how many times I have prayed and worked and hoped, reading for me is still like trying to make sense of a can of alphabet soup that’s been dumped on a plate. I just don’t know how other people do it. (9-10)

Sixth-grader Ally Nickerson has moved a lot because of her father’s military job. Her mother and older brother work long hours at their jobs, so she’s spent an enormous amount of time smartly playing dumb. She hasn’t told a single person how difficult it is for her to read, and gets out of doing assignments and reading by being funny, causing distractions, and sometimes just flat out refusing. When her teacher goes on maternity leave and they get a substitute for several months, he starts to see through her attempts to blend in with the rest of the class. Ally realizes she might not be the only one who stands out, and starts to make friends with no-nonsense Keisha and science-obsessed Albert. Her safely guarded secret is about to become not so secret, and Ally’s biggest fears may come true.

This book has sat on my night-stand for too long, especially considering how good it is. I meant to read just a few chapters and sat up for several hours into the night devouring it. I’ll warn you there will probably be more than a handful of quotes sprinkled throughout this longer review as I try to gather my thoughts.

A little librarian love here: I absolutely love Ally’s new teacher Mr. Daniels. The title of the book comes from the quote that if “you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.” When I wanted to be a teacher, this was the kind of teacher I wanted to be, recognizing the fish in a sea of monkeys and helping them learn to climb, or at least recognize their own abilities. He’s engaging, he’s spirited, he’s invested in his kids, aware of their needs, and willing to alter his teaching to accommodate those needs. He rules his classroom, and the kids know that he means business with very little introduction, which seems slightly unrealistic, but I’m okay with that. I wish Mullaly had included some of Mr. Daniels book recommendations for books, since his book talks are mentioned repeatedly and I used to do book talks to sixth grade students and would love to have received recommendations. His ideas of hands on learning are replicable and impressive, like boxes with mystery objects where in one he suspends an item inside the box in with tape and string in order to fool the students. He also presents an entire list of famous people who exhibited signs of dyslexia, even if not officially diagnosed at that time, including Alexander Graham Bell, George Washington, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Patricia Polacco, Whoopi Goldberg, Henry Winkler, Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, John Lennon, and Walt Disney. I included the whole list here for future reference.

Albert and Keisha are great contrasts to Ally, and each other, and they make an excellent trio of friends. Neither one of them allows the opinions or the teasing of others affect who they are, what they like, nor how they act. That attitude eventually starts to impact Ally the more she socializes with them. Keisha’s no-nonsense attitude is admirable, and her creativity is as subtle as the messages she bakes into her cupcakes. She is the only one to initially stand up for Ally and Albert and anyone who gets picked on by the classroom, but she is also aware that she herself is different. Albert’s comebacks against Shay and Jessica’s snark and just plain meanness are laughably geeky but also laughably good zingers.

“Actually, I don’t take my appearance lightly. I take you lightly” (62)
“You know, logically, if a person was to pull another down, it would mean that he or she is already below that person.” (71)
“You say purple is the color of royals. They only wore purple because it was the most difficult and expensive color to make. In medieval times, they needed to collect three thousand Murex brandaris snails to have enough slime to make one cloak. So, good for you. I prefer beige. What about you, Ally? Slime or beige?” (121)

Ally is a sympathetic character, and I love her philosophy of life and introspective way of thinking. She stands up for her big brother when her classmates are teasing her about him by distinguishing that “An older brother is older. A big brother looks out for you and smiles when you walk into a room.” (113) Her family does just that, and is supportive of her in every way they can, even if they don’t recognize her inability to read. She recognizes it though, and when others start to realize it she reacts just as any kid would who sees her inability to read as a problem that she can’t solve. There are some heartbreaking scenes when you want to reach through the pages of the book and hug her. She’s asked to define the difference between alone and lonely.

“Well . . . alone is a way to be. It’s being by yourself with no one else around. And it can be good or bad. And it can be a choice. When my mom and brother are both working, I’m alone, but I don’t mind it.” I swallow hard. Shift in my seat. “But being lonely is never a choice. It’s not about who is with you or not. You can feel lonely when you’re alone, but the worst kind of lonely is when you’re in a room full of people, but you’re still alone. Or you feel like you are, anyway.” (123-124)

But she struggles and puts in the hard work in order to triumph, and although I’m not sure most kids would, it serves as an excellent role model for kids who find themselves in the same situation. Give it to fans of Wonder, fans of Rules, fans of Out of My Mind, and buy multiple copies as I feel like this one is going to become an instant favorite with those readers. Hopefully not just with those readers, but with non-readers as well, who really need the message of hope and perseverance, and of making the impossible possible.

Fuzzy Mud

Fuzzy Mud.jpgTitle: Fuzzy Mud
Author: Louis Sachar
ISBN: 9780385743785
Pages: 183 pages
Publisher/Date: Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2015.

With sudden ferocity, Chad lunged at him. He slugged Marshall in the face, and then in the side of the neck.
Tamaya screamed.
Marshall tried to protect himself, but Chad hit him twice more, then grabbed him by the head and threw him to the ground.
“Leave him alone!” Tamaya shouted.
Chad glared at her. “You’re next, Tamaya,” he said.
Marshall tried to get up, but Chad’s knee caught the side of his head, knocking him back down.
Tamaya didn’t think. She just reacted.
She reached into the fuzzy mud and grabbed a handful of thick and gooey muck. She ran at Chad, and as he turned toward her, she shoved it into his face. (32-33)

Marshall always walks younger neighbor Tamaya home from their prestigious school. In order to avoid a fight with antagonistic new kid Chad, Marshall takes them deep into the neighboring woods, but Chad follows. They escape, although the next day they realize they might have discovered something that impacts not just them but possibly the entire world. Sachar makes it pretty clear that the fuzzy mud is the culprit for all their troubles, especially since the book is titled after the substance. Excerpts from public hearings that take place prior to and after the primary events are lightly interspersed, but they serve more as info dumps and red herrings in building suspense then actually advancing the plot. The happy ending is plausible if a little convenient, but sometimes scientific discoveries happen that way. For younger readers not ready for Hiassen, this might be a good introduction to the eco thriller genre.

El Deafo

El DeafoTitle: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Color: David Lasky
ISBN: 9781419710209
Pages: 242 pages
Publisher/Date: Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS, c2014.
Awards: Newbery Honor (2015)

I wake up every morning happy and relieved to be home. I stay close to Mama, no matter where she is. But suddenly, I lose her. Where is she? I call out but she doesn’t answer me! When I finally find her, I know that everything is different. I think she knows it, too. I can’t hear. (11-12)

As a result of meningitis when she was four, Cece spent some time in the hospital. When she got back home, her parents and her realized that there was something wrong. She had become deaf. After being fit with hearing aids, Cece attends a special school to adapt to her lost hearing, but a family move means she leaves behind the welcoming environment. A new school means she needs to adapt to kids not understanding what the hearing aids do and how to react and interact with her.

The idea of portraying the people as bunnies was an inspired choice on the author’s part. Deafness seems more pronounced when exhibited by an animal with such pronounced ears, and that makes real the anxiety that the author feels when trying to hide her defining characteristic. I had a classmate with a similar hearing device that Cece wears and uses in school, and it’s interesting to see the world from that perspective. Cece’s reluctance to learn sign language was surprising to me, but her reasoning makes sense. She is trying so hard to not appear different that she is isolating herself because she can’t change her differences. It’s when she finally embraces her differences and uses them to the class’s advantage (like a super power) that she makes friends. But honestly, I’m glad she made friends like Martha, who didn’t care about her hearing aids, either as a positive super power or a negative disability.

Most of the feelings of acceptance are universal, they are simply amplified by Cece’s difference. Fans of Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and R. J. Palacio’s Wonder will probably enjoy this graphic novel with a similar story line. These books are important to have to teach acceptance to children and share unique perspectives, but some may be turned off by the continued emphasis of the differences and the primary role they play in the plot.

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay

My Three Best Friends and Me ZulayTitle: My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay
Author: Cari Best
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
ISBN: 9780374388195
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, c2015.
Publication Date: January 13, 2015

A multicultural cast of characters support Zulay, an African-American student learning to use her cane for the first time. Zulay resents how conspicuous the cane makes her among her classmates. When the field day events are announced, Zulay is intent on competing in the foot race in her new pink shoes.

I love how adaptive the classroom is portrayed, with three-dimensional math diagrams and counting blocks, name tags written in Braille and written letters, and Zulay using a Brailler. Readers don’t realize in the beginning that Zulay is blind, with the first pictures showing her skipping and singing down the hallway with her friends. While probably an intentional decision by the author and illustrator showing similarities before differences, I wish it had been carried through to the front cover. Receiving assistance from her aid, Zulay doesn’t lose her independence, and her feelings are succinctly portrayed in just a few brief sentences. “I don’t like when I hear my name sticking out there by itself. […] But I don’t say the way I feel. I might stick out even more, like a car alarm in the night waking everybody up.” On my copy, the back cover contains a raised Braille alphabet for readers to experience, which is a unique and welcome addition. Use this book for discussions on disabilities or what makes people unique, especially asking what’s the same and different about the girls on the first page before and after the reading.

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