Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Running Dream
By: Wendelin VanDraanen

Jessica is a sixteen year old high school track star, running is her life. She discovered her passion for running while she was running on the soccer field in third grade.  Returning from a high school track meet Jessica's school bus is involved in an accident.  Lucy a fellow track team member is killed and Jessica loses her leg.

Jessica's recovery is slow and painful but her doctor's are optimistic and tell her she is healing well  and can soon be fitted for her first prosthetic limb. This should be happy news but Jessica constantly struggles with the fact that she will never run again.  She just wants her normal life back.

While she is waiting for her prosthetic leg to be made Jessica returns to school in a wheelchair.  Since there is no room for her wheelchair at her desk in  math class she is placed in the back of the class at a table next to Rosa, who is also in a wheelchair. Rosa was born with cerebral palsy and will never walk. Jessica and her friends never paid any attention to Rosa they just saw Rosa as the girl in a wheelchair with a disability.  Jessica needed help with math and it turned out that Rosa is a genius at math and offers to tutor Jessica. The two girls become friends and Rosa  gives Jessica encouragement especially when she is feeling down about not being able to run.  Rosa tells Jessica that she used to sit  out on her front porch on Saturday mornings just to watch Jessica run by, wondering how it would feel to be able to run and cross a finish line.

Jessica's track coach tells her about a special running leg that would enable her to run and rejoin the track team next fall, the only problem is the running leg costs $20,000.00, and her insurance will not cover it.  Her track team decides to try to raise the money by doing community events.  Gavin a reporter from the school newspaper, decides to do a special interest story about Jessica and sends a copy to the local television station.  The television station decides to air a story about Jessica and the fund raising efforts of the track team.  Soon the whole town is aware of Jessica's situation and donations start pouring in.  An anonymous donor offers to match whatever the track team has raised and in a short time Jessica has her running leg!

Jessica starts running and decides to train for the River Run ten mile race, the local town race.  As she is training she realizes  just about everyone in town knows her because of her disability, and not for the person she is.  She now knows how Rosa has felt all her life.  Jessica decides that she is going to run the race pushing Rosa in her wheelchair not only so that she can experience running a race and crossing a finish line, more importantly to make people see Rosa the person, not her condition.

Jessica and Rosa cross the finish line a victory for both and a new beginning for Jessica.

Although the ending was very predictable, the story kept my interest.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Keeping Hope Alive by Dr. Hawa Abdi as told to Sarah J Robbins

Abdi is a medical doctor who had the fortune to train in Russia on scholarship at a time when few women did.  Later her daughters and son would also receive education in Russia on scholarship.

While doing her residency in various specialties, she changed her mind many times about she wanted to do.  When she began caring for women and children she unexpectedly found her niche.  She wanted very much to help the many poor women receive needed medical care, find jobs, feed their children.  Abdi had resources both in land and in a bit of money that she used to establish first a clinic then a hospital for these needy people. Any money she had she poured back into the compound, adding farming, job training and so on. When drought hit and later during spurts of violent clashes between warring clans, Abdi expanded her hospital, served anyone in need who did not bring the fighting and intolerance into her compound.  Such was her dedication that she sent her children to safety in Kenya and remain behind to administer to the needs of those caught in poverty, starvation and violence. 

Abdi has a charisma, wisdom and strength that allowed her to keep out of politics, and keep her growing compound neutral territory.  As problems deepened aid groups from around the world tried to step in and help. One such agency was Doctors Without Borders which had to pull out when some of the aide workers were killed in violence.  Eventually the United States tried to help as well but their military tactics tended to add to the problems rather than help with solutions.

Things are a bit more settled now.  Abdi's two daughters do much to run the compound for their aging mother.  Abdi still focuses on women, children and anyone else in desperate need.  She concentrates on schooling and on campaigning against female circumcisions which are so harmful to women.  She has received several prizes for her tireless work for her beloved Somalians.  She has established a foundation to keep her projects funded.  See dhaf.org.

Although Abdi was blessed in many ways her life was not without hardship, errors in judgment, heartache.  I think its important to remember this. 

What bothered one reader most was that there was not more Somalian History and Politics explained.  For another reader the frequently out of sequence memories were confusing.

This memoir is mostly well written and quite riveting.  It would make a good Common Core Narrative Nonfiction selection.  It could be paired with Nick Lake's historical fiction book In Darkness as there are similarities in the cause of violence, and poverty.
LD/JW 7/22/13

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Are you Alice? By Ninomiya Ai

We all know and heard about Alice in Wonderland. However this book gives a new twist to the usual story we all were use to.

A boy wonders into Wonderland by accident. To his surprise he is given the name of Alice by the Queen of hearts. Even though he still refuses to take the name, it matters not for the habitants of Wonderland. Holding the name of Alice qualifies him for the game of Kill the White Rabbit. A game he refuses to take part of. However due to his circumstances and the fact that he still holds the name of Alice he has no other choice but to participate in the game if he ever wants to get out of Wonderland.

We will see familiar characters in this story but a bit difference from the ones we have known. Artist Katagiri Ikumi gives a different aspect to the characters in the story, as well as very detailed backgrounds. Lovely art in general.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

In Darkness by Nick Lake

This is a fictionalized account of Haiti's history as told through the thoughts of Shorty.  He is a boy who was buried in a cave of rubble and dead bodies after the catastrophic earthquake of 2010.  There was actually a boy pulled alive from the wreckage after 8 days, after rescue workers no longer expected to find anyone living. The real boy was badly dehydrated but otherwise mostly ok. 
The fictional boy is a gun toting, murdering drug gang member. While in his dark cave, he sings songs he can remember words for.  He thinks about his recent experiences in the gang, when his father was hacked to death and his sister stolen.  He remembers revolutionist Dread Wilme's voudou funeral.  He remembers making mud cakes to tide himself and his mother over til real food can be gotten.  He remembers the poverty, violence, chaos.  When he drifts off to sleep he dreams of Toussaint L'Ouverture an early revolutionary leader who tried to stabilize his people and government after the French pulled out, freed the slaves and the British tried to take over. 
In the early 1700's and in the 1600's Haiti was a thriving trade center.  One of its export/imports was,  unfortunately,  slaves.  The country became unstable, violent, and impoverished when the French pulled out and a new strong government failed to be formed and it remains so today. 
The darkness in the title has multiple meanings as readers will discover.  This is a hard novel to read.  There is a lot of violence.  And, there is much difficult to understand language from French, from Kreyole (creole or Haitian dialect), from blanc (a blend of English and gang language and swearing), from voudou and African language.  I did not understand all of it and most readers will not, though perhaps unfamiliar words could be found on the Internet.  This is a Prinz Award winner which is the top honor for Young Adult Literature.  It could easily be an adult crossover book.  Anyone wanting to become more familiar with Haiti and its history could learn from this title.  But, most teens are unlikely to get through story. JDW 7/14/13

Monday, July 08, 2013

The Face on the Milk Carton Series by Caroline B. Cooney

This book series follows Janie Johnson, a teenager who discovers that she was kidnapped as a child. The first book in this five book series was originally published in 1990 while the last book came out this year. Despite a twenty-three year gap between books, this story flawlessly bridges that gap in a timeless tale.
Book One: The Face on the Milk Carton
In this novel, Janie Johnson looks at the back of a milk carton during lunch and sees the picture of a three-year-old girl that went missing twelve years ago. Janie instantly recognizes herself in the picture and struggles with the realization that she had been kidnapped as a child.
Book Two: Whatever Happened to Janie?
The truth about Janie's kidnapping comes out and now she's being forced to live with her biological family - the Springs. They expect her to resume live as their long lost daughter Jennie, but how can she be Jennie when all she's ever known is Janie? How can she be with one family without betraying the other?
Book Three: The Voice on the Radio
Janie's boyfriend Reeve has the opportunity of a lifetime to host a radio-show at college. When he gets on-air, however, he draws a blank. The only thing he can think to talk about is Janie's riveting story about her kidnapping. He figures Janie will never figure out about his betrayal, but things don't always go as planned after his stories become a huge hit.

Book Four: What Janie Found
After the father that raised Janie suffers as severe stroke, Janie is asked to take over his financial responsibilities and makes a shocking discovery - he knows where her kidnapper is and has been supporting her with monthly checks. Janie doesn't know what to do with this information because bringing the kidnapper to justice would destroy her already fragile mother.

Book 4.5: What Janie Saw
This is an e-book update on Janie. I did not read this book and it is only about 32 pages long.

Book Five: Janie Face to Face
This is the conclusion of Janie's story. This novel finally tells the kidnapper's story - from why she kidnapped the little girl and what she's been doing for the past fifteen+ years. It also wraps up Janie's life with college and marriage.

This is a great series with characters that you care about. Everyone is a victim in this situation and it seems as if no one will walk away a winner because the villain cannot be punished. It is nice to see everything work out as Janie finds her place with two families who both love her.

While the multiple years between books seems to work flawlessly, there are a few issues - although they might go unnoticed depending on how you read these novels. I read them all within a few months of each other, so the details of one book were still fresh in my mind when I read the next. There were thirteen years between book four and five and I noticed an inconsistency in the sense that according to book four, a large amount of money was being sent for only three years, whereas book five said the money had been sent since the kidnapping and it wasn't nearly enough to survive on. This point with the money is a minor detail that people might not even pick up, but it definitely had me stopping and saying "Wait a minute...," probably because I'd just read the previous book. It did affect a few other points in the novel, but I suppose a few forgotten points should be expected and forgiven in a gap thirteen years in storytelling. 

On the other hand, an intentional change was that book five acted as if this kidnapping happened fifteen or so years ago via 2013. Now the characters have Facebook accounts and cell phones and all of the modern technologies. Does this change or the point about the money alter the overall message of the story - not so much. It would have been interesting, though, to see how the story would have evolved if the author had kept the story authentic to the original time frame - as in five years later via 1990. It might also be interesting to see how the original story might change if it all started only a few years ago.

Changes aside, I really enjoyed this novel. Many people might shy away from a novel written "so long ago," but this is really a story that bridges that time gap. Children are kidnapped all the time, so the story itself is not dated (aside from an occasional mention of a phone booth or payphone which don't really seem to exist in the age of cell phones). This is definitely a series worth reading.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkins

Mara Dyer wakes up in a hospital not knowing how she got there. Her friends have died and she can't remember what happened in the accident. Her family moves to another town to help her start anew, and because she keeps seeing her dead friends everywhere. There she meets Noah, the guy all the girls want, Mara included, reluctantly. She also meets Jamie her only other friend. Noah helps Mara remember what exactly happened in the accident and fall for him at the same time. The subtle supernatural part disappears a bit in the middle as Michelle Hodkins focuses on the romance angle, but you're so involved you get lost as well. She smoothly brings it back in and ends with a vengeance. It looks like this book is the start of a series, there is just enough action and romance.