Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Akata Witch Review

Book talk:  "Akata Witch!" Sunny was used to the taunt, but that didn't make it sting any less. As an albino who spent the first nine years of her life in America, Sunny was used to not fitting in with her Nigerian classmates, but she had no idea how different she was until she saw the end of the world in a candle's flame and discovered  that she really did have magical powers.  In Nigeria, those with magical abilities are called Leopard People and at first Sunny doesn't know what to make of their world.  Among Leopard People what sets you apart is what gives you strength and because Sunny is so different she is also very powerful.  At first her abilities and the new world they show her are thrilling, but before long she realizes that with her powers come a price and for every benefit the Leopard People have to offer there is a hidden danger lurking as well.

Rocks my socks: I have always been drawn to tales of outsiders and this is a story that any outsider will love.  In the world Okorafor creates when Sunny's friend Orlu's parents were informed that their son was dyslexic, they rejoiced because it meant that he would be powerful. Wisdom is also highly valued: when you learn something chittim, the Leopard People currency, rains down from the sky.  The most powerful Leopard Person in town is the head librarian--what's not to love about that? Books are powerful, but they can also be biased and I appreciated that little lesson in information literacy as well.  While valuing wisdom and oddities are the ideals of this world, Okorafor avoids unrealistic utopian imagery by showing that it is not always the case.  Nature plays a big part in the world but it's still clear that the story takes place in modern times: when Sunny has to make a blood pact her first thought is of HIV and when she is first initiated into the society of Leopard People her teacher explains it to her by saying that she was like a computer that came with programs pre-installed that just needed to be activated.  There are several strong females characters and a great scene where Sunny negotiates her way into a soccer match that is usually all-boys and proves her ability to play.  There are many great, imaginative pieces throughout.  My favorite is the artist wasp that stings you if you don't praise its work enough, which briefly paralyzes you so you are forced to watch as it creates a final masterpiece and dies dramatically. This novel is best summed up by the passage "Sunny couldn't stop grinning. Life was getting weirder and weirder.  But this weirdness she really  liked."

Rocks in my socks: Sunny spends the first part of the novel confused from a lack of information about the magical world and the reader shares her confusion.  There are also occasional details that don't add up.  For example at one point Sunny says to Orlu "you and I have been going to the same school since we were about five" but at several other points in the novel she says she did not return to Nigeria until she was nine.  They often say that chittim can only be earned through knowledge but though that is how it initially appears it is also used as currency--it is exchanged for goods and services so clearly you can earn it the usual way as well.  Learning things just seems to be the way inflation is created.  The villain of the novel is often mentioned in passing but never interacts with the protagonists until the end and when they finally do confront him it is very brief and anti-climatic.

Every book its reader: Those who feel different or like they don't belong will find a welcome waiting for them in Okorafor's world. Fans of fantasy who are looking for something beyond the usual fare will delight in this unique world of imagination and magic.  The novel can get a dark at times (the villain regularly appears in the newspaper for killing and maiming children) but it is not particularly violent and violence is not glorified.  In fact any injuries made with their magical knives are reflected on their own bodies.  I'd say it's good for 5th grade and up.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Witches! Review

Book talk: In the winter of 1692 two girls began to twitch and choke and twist their bodies into odd configurations on the floor as snow piled high outside their home.  Their parents tried every remedy, but the symptoms prevailed.  When a doctor was finally called to examine them, his diagnosis was that the girls were bewitched.  The original cause of the girls’ symptoms remains unknown to this day.  What is known is that the girls’ strange behavior set off a case of witch-hunt fever that would turn neighbors against each other and result in the loss of innocent lives and ruin many others.    The Salem Witch Trials are an iconic chapter of American history and its name has been evoked in modern times to point out our folly when suspicions cause us to turn against each other.  But what really happened in Salem in 1692?  Will we ever be able to learn the lessons this dark period of history has to teach us, or will we be forever doomed to repeat it?

Rocks my socks: I thought I knew a lot about the Salem witch trials, but really most of what I knew came from watching too many performances of The Crucible.  This book takes the facts and presents them clearly and concisely.  It describes what happened without sensationalizing it or trying to use those events to serve modern ends.  Schanzer presents the questions the events pose and the various attempts to answer them at the end, but does not take any one side (other than the fact that they were no actual witches involved.)  Instead she takes the rather sensible path of proposing that it was probably a ‘perfect storm’ of many factors that caused it and that we will never know exactly what happened.  The last part of the book is devoted to summaries of what happened to those involved after the trials, which provided a nice perspective.  A bibliography and index are included at the back, which always makes me happy.   My favorite part of the book is the woodcut illustrations throughout.  They are in black and white with touches of red added later on the computer that really cause elements to pop.  There are many interesting images involved with the trails and this book is worth it for these illustrations alone. 

Rocks in my socks: My only complaint is that I wish the book was longer and had more detail.  I found all of the information presented fascinating and craved more. Schanzer quotes from the trial transcripts and other historical documents occasionally, but I wish she used more direct quotes.  She did note her souces in the end matter, however so interested readers can find the whole documents to read.

Every book its reader: Even though Schanzer doesn’t sensationalize the story or emphasize the violence, the story is inherently violent and this can’t be avoided.  I’d save it for fourth grade and up.  The spectacular illustrations and clear narration will entertain adults as well.

Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Nick of Time Review

Book Talk: Nick MacIver loves reading tales of adventure in the lighthouse where his family lives.  But when a mysterious old chest washes ashore and pirates appear on his island, he finds himself in the middle of his own adventure.  The infamous Billy Blood takes his dog hostage to get his hands on the contents of the chest.  Now Nick must travel back in time and fight on the high seas if he ever wants to see his dog alive again.

Rocks my socks: The use of time travel allows Nick to fight Napoleon's army while his younger sister helps the British gather essential intelligence on the Nazis.  All the while time-traveling pirates fight them in both eras.  The combination of these two pivotal moments in history allow the stakes to remain high and the pace to move quickly along.  I enjoyed Nick's sister in particular and her quick-thinking.  I appreciate that the younger sister got to have her own adventure.

Rocks in my socks: The book was all about what it means to be a hero, and I'm not sure I agree with Bell's definition.  Other than the fact that his definition seems to be pretty narrow and connected entirely with the military, he also defines it as being without fear.  At one point Nick is in the middle of battle and he loses all fear and thinks to himself that that is what it means to be a hero.  I always thought of fear as being an essential part of courage.  Courage to me is doing what you believe in despite fear.  I particularly wouldn't want readers to walk away with the lesson that if they feel fear they are cowards.

Every book its reader: I'd give this to anyone interested in either the Napoleonic Wars or the lead-up to World War II or anyone looking for a classic style adventure novel.   I listened to the audiobook, which was well read and the fact that both a Nick and his sister are followed would make this a good book to listen to as a family on a road trip.

Nick of Time  by Ted Bell

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Masks

I tried a new activity with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students in my library last week and they really enjoyed it.  I call it book masks and it was inspired by an advertising campaign I saw online with people's heads in books arranged in such a way that the cover image seemed to extend to the person reading the book.

The first step is the hardest: find some books where the cover had  a large head on it.  Unfortunately this isn't a subject heading so to find them we mostly went to sections that would be popular like pets and browsed through the books until we found some that worked.  We found the face to face series very helpful.  Then find an "I am" poem template on line that you like.  There are a lot to choose from.  We ended up modifying one so that it would be age-appropriate and short enough to be able to do in a thirty minute class period.  Then we did some examples to show the kids what we were talking about, I like that the way I posed gives the green knight has a cute braided bun.

Then we made a template with the prompt for each line and enough space for the kids to write their poems in.  Before each class came in we arranged the books facing up around the edge of the room so that they could choose one.  Then we introduced the activity to them, showed them the examples, handed out the templates and let them go wild.  When they finished their poems they brought it up to us and we took their picture.  I think they showed a lot of creativity in their poems and I found it interesting seeing what they thought others would wonder, hope, etc. The best part was that if they got stuck writing the poem the mask was a book so they could open it up and read it to find out more about their creature and get inspiration.  Some of the kids even made multiple poems and asked to take some templates home so they could do more.  It was a great activity for Halloween when they were all antsy and I think I'll do it again next year.  I've included examples of the student poems below: