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This is My America
Author: Kim Johnson
Published: February 28, 2017 by Balzer + Bray

GoodReads Summary: Dear Martin meets Just Mercy in this unflinching yet uplifting YA novel that explores the racist injustices in the American justice system.

Every week, seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time—her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?

Fans of Nic Stone and Jason Reynolds won’t want to miss this provocative and gripping debut.

Review: This is a book that will stick with me forever. The characters are powerfully written, and the plot unfolds itself beautifully. It tackles complex themes that offer excellent fodder for classroom discussion. Some of these include implicit and explicit racism, the ripple effects of White supremacy and racism, White privilege, and injustices in the judicial system. I could go on. This book is truly exceptional, and I envision it winning some big awards this year. There is so much to unpack and so much to admire in Johnson’s writing. It’s absolutely brilliant. If you buy no other book this summer, buy this one. It will make you think deeply about equity and justice.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: I highlighted so many passages of this book while I was reading it. There are so many sections that would make phenomenal close readings in the classroom. I highly recommend pairing this text with portions or all of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Discussion Questions: What are some of the injustices in this text?; How can we, as a society, work to change these injustices?; How do the injustices have a ripple effect on other characters?; How does Johnson layer the plot to elevate the reading and message of the text?

Flagged Passage: “Corinne never held that memory [of Daddy getting arrested], but I know she feels it in everything we breathe. It’s in the polite nods across the street we have to make, the way our family turns down our music when there are others around. Say yes ma’am and no sir. Leave our jackets and backpacks in the car when we go shopping.

It’s in the way I carry myself that tells our story now. I can’t risk being accused of anything. Because if something goes wrong or missing, I know it’s in the back of someone’s mind that maybe I had something to do with it. And it’s in the way that the voice of the strongest woman I know stumbles when saying, ‘Hello, Officer’ as she walks through the visitation gates to see Daddy.”

Read This If You Loved: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson; The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas; All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely; by Ilyassah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon; The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon; How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon; Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles;

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The Refuge
Author: Sandra Le Guen
Translator: Daniel Hahn
Illustrator:  Stéphane Nicolet
Published June 1, 2020 by Amazon Crossing Kids

Summary: “There’s a new girl at school. She never stops looking up at the sky! She likes the stars and comets.”

Jeannette tells her mom about her new classmate, who also loves astronomy but seems sad. She realizes it’s not easy to move to a new place. So the next day, at recess, Jeannette asks Iliana to play.

At first, it’s a little hard to communicate because Iliana is learning a new language. The girls have to use their hands and their drawings. But they keep trying, and, soon, Iliana tells Jeannette about her difficult journey as a refugee who had to leave her country. Then their families meet, and Iliana’s parents share their story too. The girls’ friendship blooms, as limitless as the sky and their imaginations.

Originally published in France and brought to life with wonderfully expressive artwork, this is a book about sharing stories and finding refuge in friendship, family, and a new home.

Kellee’s Review: This book is beautiful. It shows pure empathy for a young girl, and her family, who needs all love in the scary new situation she is in. Their journey was harrowing and being in a new place where they do not speak the language must be completely overwhelming; however, this was something they felt no choice in doing because of the horrors of war back at their home. But sadly, refugees have been villainized–once again fear winning over empathy. However, The Refuge puts a narrative to the journey that many children and families face just to stay safe. And it is such a well-crafted narrative with beautiful illustrations–just an overall excellent book. A must read for ALL ages. 

Ricki’s Review: Magnificent. This book is truly and utterly magnificent. I am quite hopeful it will win some of the major literary awards. Whew! The writing depicts the myriad emotions that Iliana might have experienced on her journey, and Jeannette has such deep empathy for her classmate. The illustrations take the book to the next level. I would purchase a spread of this book and frame it for the wall in my office—the illustrations are that captivating. We share some of the illustrations below. There’s one illustration in which Iliana is carrying a giant boat on her back, and a star hangs from a string on the front. Two small children walk up the top of the steep boat. The words match the illustrations, and yet the illustrations have deeper, metaphoric meaning. This would be a terrific book to study at the high school and college level. It would sustain several classes of discussion. I plan to purchase a copy to use in my Teaching Reading class. If you haven’t read this book, I recommend it highly.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Metaphor is powerfully used in this text (both in the writing and illustrations). This would be a magnificent text to use as a mentor text for the instruction of metaphor. Students might select a written metaphor to illustrate and an illustrated metaphor to write in words to consider the flexibility and power of the use of metaphor. Then, they might craft their own metaphors related to the story.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Choose one illustration that you like. What is the surface level meaning? What is the deeper meaning attached to the image?
  • How does Jeannette demonstrate empathy for Iliana?
  • What did you learn about refugees?
  • Why do you believe the author titled the book The Refuge instead of Refugee?
  • How do the illustrations and writing work together?
  • What creative techniques does the author use?
  • What creative techniques does the illustrator use?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: The Arrival by Shaun Tan, Refugee by Alan Gratz, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi, Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

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**Thank you, Barbara at Blue Slip Media, for providing copies for review!**

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The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik
Author: David Arnold
Published: May 22, 2018 by Viking

Guest Review by Natalia Sperry

Summary: This is Noah Oakman → sixteen, Bowie believer, concise historian, disillusioned swimmer, son, brother, friend.

Then Noah → gets hypnotized.

Now Noah → sees changes—inexplicable scars, odd behaviors, rewritten histories—in all those around him. All except his Strange Fascinations . . .

Review: The longer I sit with this book, the more I feel like I’m still it; every time I sit down to think about it, I find new things to consider. If that’s not the sign of a good book,I don’t know what else is. The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hipnotik is a surreal exploration of identity, friendship, and family on the brink of the many changes protagonist Noah Oakman faces (both before and after his hypnotic episode) as he looks to the future beyond high school.

Above all else, I loved the nerdom in this book, both in its literary and historical detail as well as the variety of pop-culture references. In particular, much of the book (including its title) is drawn from musical icon David Bowie, so I’ll admit,  it’s hard to go wrong. The humor also brings some lightness to the moral questions and philosophical questions of self and reality, which helps keep the largely internal narrative afloat.

Through it all, this book captures an important to capture the emotional gamut of someone’s life, especially when it feels like everything is ch-ch-ch-changing around you. Whether you’re looking for fun or serious contemplation of reality, this book will let you escape for a while (and even for a while longer after you’re done!)

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: Though grounded in humor and pop culture references, this book would make for a really interesting companion to classics like James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. In asking students to compare the latter with Strange Fascinations, there are some really interesting parallels to be made both in the coming of age story and in the respective protagonists’ relationships with their sisters.

Discussion Questions: Do you agree, like Circuit, that genuine conversations are rare in the contemporary world? What do you think of Noah’s “strange fascinations?” Do you have any “fascinations” of your own, in this sense?

Flagged: “Some books are songs like that, the ones you go back to, make playlists of, put on repeat” (page 108).

Read This If You Loved: Mosquitoland by David Arnold, Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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The Forest Queen
Author: Betsy Cornwell
Published: August 7, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Guest Review by Rachel Krieger

Summary: When sixteen-year-old Sylvie’s brother takes over management of their family’s vast estates, Sylvie feels powerless to stop his abuse of the local commoners. Her dearest friend asks her to run away to the woods with him, and soon a host of other villagers join them. Together, they form their own community and fight to right the wrongs perpetrated by the king and his noblemen.

Review: Anyone familiar with the tale of Robin Hood likes the idea of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Betsy Cornwell’s twist on this idea changes it just enough to give the story some flavor and novelty. The characters were compelling and the relationships were truly touching, but everything felt a little too convenient to me. There were several times when characters all but died and ended up making it out without a scrape. In a world where all of the favorable characters are on the lamb, there was a fair amount of luck and inaction that saved nearly every one of them. As a gender bent twist on a fairytale and a lively retelling of an old story, this novel had merit, but there wasn’t quite enough to it to call it a masterpiece.

However, as far as representation goes, Betsy Cornwell hit it on the head. The Forest Queen, as the title lets on, has a female leading things. The role of Robin Hood was usurped by a woman and amplified by the fact that the woman is stealing from her own family to give to the poor. The other females in the novel show strength in the face of things like rape and a shocking lack of agency. There are even LGBTQ characters that add to the sense that women in this world are the epitome of overcoming their circumstances.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation:This novel is a great outlet in which to discuss rape culture. Although it is not the most prominent part of the story, it plays a part and is represented in an ideal way in relation to discussion. Because this subject is extremely difficult to discuss in general, let alone in a classroom, talking about it within the realm of this fantastical society may make it a bit easier. It would be interesting to reflect upon the similarities between the culture in the novel and our own culture in this society. It is so incredibly important to discuss difficult subjects in the classroom, but when it is in reference to a novel like The Forest Queen, it can be looked at in a more academic way.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Did Sylvie have a right to encourage the village people to rebel against her brother?
  • What do the ties to the story of Robin Hood do for this novel?
  • How do women take power in this story and how does that differ from classic fantasy?

Read This If You Loved: Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

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The Upside of Unrequited
Author: Becky Albertalli
Published: April 11, 2018 by Balzer + Bray

Guest Review by Rachel Krieger

Summary: Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love—she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness—except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny and flirtatious and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?

Review: This heart-warming, flirtatious, love-filled book will bring you a wave of nostalgia. From the sunny summer days to all of Molly’s firsts, Becky Albertalli’s story is sure to set your heart a-flutter. The main characters make up an interracial family with LGBTQ members and an amazing affinity for love and forgiveness. With every passing page, the characters grow a little more, figuring out how to live their own lives while still making time for each other. There can be no doubt for the reader that despite all the conflict, Molly and Cassie will survive their teenage years with their strong relationship intact. Albertalli’s firm grasp on young love makes this book sweet and fun, with twists and turns that will make you read until the last word. This is a must read for any young adults, parents of teens, teachers, or anyone who enjoys a quick, uplifting read.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: The Upside of Unrequited can start a lot of amazing conversations in the classroom. One really important aspect of the story is the main character, Molly’s weight. She has felt her whole life as though she deserves the harsh words people send her way simply because of her weight. It could be very interesting to start a conversation with students about bullying and the effect it can have on people in the long run. Another important aspect of the story that can be brought up in the classroom is identity. In the novel, Molly self-identifies as fat. She doesn’t necessarily want to become skinnier or have people stop looking at her as fat, but she wishes that her weight didn’t matter. She adopts it as part of her identity and wants acceptance for it. It would be really beneficial to discuss identity and the specific positives and negatives that can stem from it.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What did the first-person point of view do for the story?
  • Did you find the adult characters in this novel realistic?
  • What was important about the familial relationships in this novel?
  • What is the poignancy of the title?

We Flagged: “I think this is me letting go. Bit by bit. I think these are our tiny steps away from each other. Making not-quite-identical footprints in not-quite-opposite directions. And it’s the end of the world and the beginning of the world and we’re seventeen. And it’s an awesome thing.”

Read This If You Loved: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

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Isle of Blood and Stone
Author: Makiia Lucier
Published: April 10, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Guest Review by Rachel Krieger

Summary: Nineteen-year-old Elias is a royal explorer, a skilled mapmaker, and the new king of del Mar’s oldest friend. Soon he will embark on the adventure of a lifetime, an expedition past the Strait of Cain and into uncharted waters. Nothing stands in his way…until a long-ago tragedy creeps back into the light, threatening all he holds dear.

The people of St. John del Mar have never recovered from the loss of their boy princes, kidnapped eighteen years ago, both presumed dead. But when two maps surface, each bearing the same hidden riddle, troubling questions arise. What really happened to the young heirs? And why do the maps appear to be drawn by Lord Antoni, Elias’s father, who vanished on that same fateful day? With the king’s beautiful cousin by his side—whether he wants her there or not—Elias will race to solve the riddle of the princes. He will have to use his wits and guard his back. Because some truths are better left buried…and an unknown enemy stalks his every turn.

Review: I absolutely adore this book. Makiia Lucier did an excellent job of incorporating strong characters, resistance to discrimination, mystery, romance, and interesting elements of the fantastic all in one novel. The plot had me completely riveted and I spent a lot of time while not reading thinking about the big reveal I knew was coming. Lucier had strong female characters who consistently proved to be as independent and capable as their male counterparts. The quest narrative was something new and fascinating that will certainly have all readers sticking around until the end. And best yet, this was the first book I have ever read about map-making. The incredible world building required no info dump, nor unrealistic exposition, because Lucier’s characters are often seen either drawing or studying maps. The issues discussed, the characters created, and the world formed came together to make a wonderfully mysterious and incredibly fun novel to read.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: This book is a great way for students to look at discrimination. Although the races represented in this novel are of a fantastical nature, they are still ripe for discussion. You can ask your students to think about the real-life connections to the way that Mercedes is treated, being of mixed race. There are many books that address this type of racism directly, making it one of the main aspects of the story. Lucier addresses the issue a few times but does not make it a major plot point. It would be really interesting to discuss this as a plot element but not a form of social commentary.

It could also be interesting to look at and start a discussion on the treatment of illness in our society. There is an island in this novel where lepers are quarantined, often against their will. Although we have nothing exactly like this in society, there are certainly loose parallels in the ways that we treat people with diseases and disorders. It would be really beneficial to start a conversation with students about this form of social imprisonment that is rarely discussed.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What parts of this novel reaffirm gender stereotypes, and which break away?
  • Can you think of any ways that Mercedes’s treatment in the novel is reflected in the real world?
  • What does this novel say about the way that illness is treated in society?

We Flagged: “It was not the first time someone had spat at Mercedes, or even the fifth, but it had been some years since Elias had witnessed the insult.”

Read This If You Loved: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Scythe Scythe by Neal Shusterman

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On the Come Up
Authors: Angie Thomas
Published: February 5, 2019 by Balzer + Bray

GoodReads Summary: Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it—she has to make it.

On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’s homage to hip-hop, the art that sparked her passion for storytelling and continues to inspire her to this day. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; of the struggle to become who you are and not who everyone expects you to be; and of the desperate realities of poor and working-class black families.

My Review: After reading this book, I promptly went into my course syllabus for next semester and swapped out another book to include this one. There are so many things that I love about this book. In particular, I really liked how this book tackled the issues of violence against and the assumptions stereotypically made of black females. There are only a few other recent books that tackle these issues, and they are critically important. I get incredibly frustrated by assumptions like “aggressive black female.” Angie Thomas deftly addresses these assumptions and provides a variety of angles for readers. Bri, the narrator, is incredibly strong, and I admire her greatly. I will never have a daughter, but if I did, I would be so proud if my daughter turned out to be like her. This book just feels different from any book that I’ve read. It offers something different that is going to make for great classroom conversations.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: I am going to be using this book in a Social Movements and Collective Action course. I will be using it with other texts to talk about the history and currency of the #blacklivesmatter movement. I am very excited that this book exists in the world, and I know that my students will love it.

Discussion Questions: How does the author craft dialogue? What might other writers learn from her work?; What messages does the text reveal? Which messages are less obvious but implicit in a reading of the text?; What connections does this text have with the world today?

Flagged Passage: “There’s only so much you can take being described as somebody you’re not.”

Read This If You Loved: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas; All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely; by Ilyassah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon; The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon; How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon; Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles; Audacity by Melanie Crowder; The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

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