YA: African American History Month

9780590481090_p0_v2_s114x166So Amy has been sharing some books with you for African American History Month.  Now it’s my turn, and since my speciality seems to be young adult books that’s what I’m going to share.  There are some wonderful stories out there.  First I want to share a non-fiction book that I read aloud during February the one year I taught fifth grade.  Now often non-fiction books can be uninteresting to kids, especially longer ones but this book caught both their attention and mine.  It helps that it’s a biography, but the writing is very much in narrative format so it’s much more story like than dry non-fiction reading and by a YA author that I highly recommend: Walter Dean Myers.  The book is Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary.  This book, as you would expect, tells the life of civil rights leader Malcolm X and it is totally accessible for kids at least as young as fifth grade.  I’d say there are probably even third or fourth graders that could read this one.  Btw just a plug Walter Dean Myers has written many more books both fiction and non-fiction and my favorite of his books is Monster.

9780375858871_p0_v2_s260x420Next one of my favorite picture books from my classroom library: I Have a Dream, this book is the text of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech which before you read it aloud may need to be clarified.  I read this book to a class of third graders that was largely African American and they were seriously miffed at the use of the word Negro.  We had to stop reading and have a discussion that at that point in America’s history that was acceptable term for African Americans and a reminder that it was MLK Jr himself who was using it in this speech.  Besides being the inspirational words of Dr King, the pictures are all by artists who have won the Coretta Scott King (Dr. King’s wife) Award for art.  They are amazing, my copy of the book also came with a poster that I laminated for my classroom.

9780385382946_p0_v1_s260x420Now on to fiction books.  There are a number of wonderful historical fiction books that can be used to help teach the history of African Americans, and more generally the history of America.  All that I’m sharing are books I have used in my classroom that I have “taught”, or rather facilitated, discussions about.  The first is by author Christopher Paul Curtis: The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963.  The Watson family is an African American family living in Michigan.  Being as they live in the North, they don’t experience the same things as African Americans living in the South at that point in time.  The story centers on Kenny the middle child of the family.  Kenny’s older brother Byron is well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent when their parents have an idea, they will take Byron to live with Grandma in Birmingham, Alabama.  While the parents are well aware of the differences between the way they live in the North and how they are allowed to live in the South, this is all new to the three children.  While they’re visiting Grandma her church is bombed, Curtis uses the real life bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church as a catalyst in this story.  It is chilling and the type of book you just can’t put down.

9780553494105_p0_v2_s260x420Another of Curtis’s books that I really enjoy and enjoyed reading aloud to my students is Bud, Not Buddy.  Bud is a ten year old orphan tired of living in foster home after foster home, he decides to set out and find the man he is sure is his father Herman E Calloway and jazz musician.  The story starts as Watsons did in Flint, Michigan this time though in 1936.  Bud takes off on a journey to find Calloway, and has quite a few adventures along the way.  It is certainly interesting to read about the Great Depression through the eyes of this 10 yr old African American boy.  As Bud is in the North there are some differences between the way he and the band are treated when he finds them and African Americans living in the South.

9780140384512_p0_v1_s260x420To get a better picture of those differences I’d recommend a book that was a required read for my eighth grade classes: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.  Roll is the story of the Logan family; a rare African American family that owns its own land in the South rather than sharecropping on a white owner’s land.  Yet this does not change how the Logans are treated by their white neighbors, or maybe it does but not in a good way.  Much of the story centers on nine year old Cassie. Through her eyes we see the difference in education of African Americans, their treatment in stores, and why the land is so important to the Logan family.  Teaching in a school that was predominantly white with few other nationalities present at all I found this book to be a great way to show exactly what life was like in the 30s, especially for African Americans.  There are several other books about this family as well. Two prequels: The Land about Cassie’s grandpa, and The Well: David’s story about Cassie’s dad and uncle give some great background on this family.  Then there are shorter stories that are almost companions to Roll: The Friendship and Song of the Trees both center on Cassie, Mississippi Bridge is about Jeremy Simms and happens not long before the events of Roll.  There are two direct sequels that follow the Logan kids as they grow up, especially Cassie: Let the Circle Be Unbroken and The Road to Memphis.

While we’re featuring these books right now for African American history month please note they are great to read anytime, especially along with a history curriculum as you cross those time periods.

WAIT – I nearly forgot one of my favorite books while not one I teach it is one I’ve read and referenced with my students (I taught middle school and knew they would read it in high school) To Kill a Mockingbird, I think the trial of Tim Robinson for the rape of a white woman being seen through the eyes of a young white child, especially the child of the man defending Tim is powerful.


Roots: The Saga of an American Family

9781593154493_p0_v4_s260x420Alex Haley, author of Roots, sparked a movement when the book was first published in 1976.  It was inspiring for African Americans to hear this long family history, from Africa, enslavement, war, and separation.  Through it all, there was a preservation of their history and heritage.  It also encouraged its readers to get in touch with their own history and heritage too, their “roots”.  The miniseries was incredibly popular.  It first aired in 1977, and starred Lavar Burton as Kunta Kinte, the main character through which the first half of the story was told.  To this day it remains one of the most successful mini-series in TV history, I’ve even heard there’s a remake in the works.

Before writing Roots, Haley had served in the Coast Guard.  After retiring from twenty years of service, he began his writing career.  His first book was published in 1965; he co-wrote Malcolm X’s autobiography.  Ironically, this was the same year Malcolm X was assassinated.  The publication of Roots represented years of work, it was a story that involved Haley’s own family history.  Haley, in researching his own family’s history, was able to trace his family tree back to a small village named Juffure.  In researching this book, he traveled to Africa and claimed to have met a distant relative in Gambia.  He received a Pulitzer Prize for his work, but was later sued by another writer named Harold Courlander, who was able to prove that Haley plagiarized part of his work, which was used in over 100 pages of Roots.

In a distinguished literary career, this was a small setback.  Highlighting the importance of oral history, the story of Kunta is told through many generations.  It was something the family was incredibly proud of, as Kunta considered himself to be a warrior.  He was kidnapped and forced into slavery in the colonies.  Here he is talking about this experience, and being separated from his family.  He wonders if he was being punished by God:

“What sins was he being punished for in such a manner as this?  He pleaded to Allah for an answer.  It was sin enough that he hadn’t prayed once since the morning he went for the wood to make his drum.  Though he couldn’t get onto his knees, and he knew not even which way was east, he closed his eyes where he lay and prayed, beseeching Allah’s forgiveness.”

The story of America’s past is also told through this family’s history.  Living through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the early Civil Rights era, all of this is told through the eyes of this African American family.  While living on a Virginia plantation Kunta is given the name Toby.  It is there that he meets Bell, a house slave, that he falls in love with.  Their daughter Kizzy is sold away from her parents, ripping the family apart.  She eventually gives birth to George.  George becomes a skilled laborer, and is somewhat of an entrepreneur.  He and his wife Matilda have several children, all of whom gain their freedom.  Haley was first able to trace his roots to George’s youngest daughter Cynthia, who is Mr Haley’s grandmother.  Through multiple generations this family remained centered along the Atlantic coast – in between Virginia and Maryland, and even Haley’s military career brings him back to Annapolis, Maryland.

However flawed the history and research may be, this book is important in that it marked a beginning in African American history.  Through this story, families began to be more interesting in understanding their connection to Africa, their relationship with each other.  It was a story and a past to be proud of, and certainly Haley highlighted the importance of celebrating and remembering this past.

Black History Month

9780679763888_p0_v1_s260x420This week we’d like to take a slightly more serious turn and focus on African-American history month, before February slips away from us.  Because we’re all about books, we’d like to share some of the books we think are important and notable in black history.  In the few years that I’ve been teaching American history, I’ve used some of these books in the classroom.  Others I read while I was still in school.  Don’t be daunted by heavy subject matter, or indifferent to the history.  These books represent so much in black history and culture – each for different reasons.

9781595581037_p0_v1_s260x420The Warmth of Other Sons, Isabel Wilkerson – Focusing on a few individuals and their own experiences, she tells the tale of the Great Migration, which involved millions of African Americans moving out of the rural south.  In order to escape the segregated south, they endured so much – violence, discrimination, poverty.  This story is beautifully, painfully told through these voices.

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander – Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University, takes on the controversial topic of mass incarceration.  Comparing this experience to a new 9781591020066_p0_v2_s260x420wave of segregation, in which African American men have lost their constitutional rights en masse.  This is a provocative subject, and not all will agree with her argument, but it is backed up by an immense amount of research, making it hard to disagree.

My Bondage and my  Freedom, Frederick Douglass – A leader in the abolitionist movement, Douglas is one of just a few freed slaves who were able to write about their own experience.  First published in 1855, it details his own experience in becoming a free man.  A few years earlier, he had written Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and here had described his 9780307278449_p0_v1_s260x420desire to become a free man.

The Bluest EyeToni Morrison – Morrison, who has become a unique voice in African-American literature, won a Pulitzer Prize for this book in 1993.  Telling the story of Pecola Breedlove a young black girl who longs to be someone else, the title of the book becomes a metaphor for a better life.

9780345514400_p0_v1_s114x166I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou – Another important voice in African American literature, she first published this book in 1969.  Long known as a talented poet and writer, this book is autobiographical, following her departure from the south.  Leaving Arkansas for St Louis, where she is sexually assaulted at a young age.  She eventually makes her way out west, to San Francisco.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X – Written with the help of Alex Haley (who wrote Roots), Malcolm X tell his story of escaping poverty, serving time in prison, converting to Islam, and 9780345350688_p0_v1_s260x420becoming a leader in the somewhat militant Black Revolution.  He was a revolutionary, and his assassination in  1965 was a dark time in the era of the Civil Rights movement.

Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington – Born a slave in Virginia a few years before the start of the Civil War, Washington was an important leader in the early Civil Rights movement.  Martin Luther King Jr would later be compared to him, as they both had a non-violent, non-confrontational approach to their leadership in the movement.  Not only was he able to overcome his past and lack of early opportunity, he was able to educate himself, and help many 9781475167733_p0_v2_s260x420others achieve that same dream.

They are worth the read, worth the time, and deserve recognition.  This is no way a definitive list, these are just some of our favorites.  Black history and culture should be celebrated every day, all year round.  The month of February is a special time of reflection and remembrance.  Through these voices, the tale of African American history is told – through slavery, segregation, discrimination, and violence.

New Fiction Friday: The Kowalski Family

9780373776788_p0_v1_s260x420This week’s NFF comes from a surprising find!  We really enjoyed this romance series, and the newest in the series is being released in just a couple of weeks!

I came across the first book in this series by Shannon Stacey in the top free list on iBooks the description looked good, so I downloaded it.  Yep, Exclusively Yours was a great book.  Keri Daniels works for an entertainment magazine, her editor finds out that once upon a time she used to date no recluse author Joe Kowalski and wants her to get an exclusive.  The last thing Keri wants to do is try to get an interview with her ex, the man she left behind, but she also does not want to lose her job so she makes the call.

Joe has never gotten over Keri and sees this as an opportunity to spend time with her, maybe even get her back.  He tells her that if she wants her interview she will have to accompany him on the annual family camping trip.  For each day that she participates in every activity he will answer one question.

The chemistry is still there and so is the animosity that Joe’s sister Terry holds 9780764209758_p0_v2_s260x420for her former best friend Keri.  This family is so much fun.  I would love to go on one of their camping trips.  When I finished Joe and Keri’s story I went back to iBooks and found several more books, all cost money and while I love to read with the number of books I read in a year I don’t buy them.  So off to the library website I went to put the books on hold.

Undeniably Yours is the story of youngest brother Kevin.  A nasty divorce has left Kevin a changed man, and after reading why he split with his wife I totally understand.  Kevin owns a bar and one day he spies a woman, Beth,  being hit on unwelcomly, he comes to the rescue only to find out the man doing the hitting was the woman’s boss and he fires her.  This does not bode well for Kevin who finds himself quite attracted to her.  At big brother Joe’s wedding he once again runs into Beth and in one of those oh so typical one thing leads to another scene they end up in his hotel room.  A few weeks later, you guessed it OOPS.  Beth wants nothing to do with Kevin and 9780373776863_p0_v1_s260x420nothing from him, he on the other hand wants to be a part of his child’s life and a part of Beth’s.

Book three in the Kowalski family series moves us on to the cousins from Maine. In Yours to Keep, Sean Kowalski is out of the army and looking for a place to settle down.  He wants nothing to do with the family lodge in Maine so he decides to visit the Massachusetts branch of the family taking up residence in the apartment above Kevin’s bar, until Emma Shaw comes along that is.  Emma is a friend of Kevin’s sister-in-law Lisa. (Yeah it takes a while to keep all the Kowalskis straight, especially when you count in the kids).  Emma is in need of a fiancee and fast.  She has told her grandmother that she is engaged because her grandmother is worried about her and thinking of moving home from Florida.  The problem: Emma said she was engaged to Sean who was in the army and totally safe, but now he’s home and Emma’s grandma is coming for a visit.  Somehow she talks Sean into faking the 9780373777556_p0_v1_s260x420relationship but spending all that time together has them each wondering if it could be real.  Then Grandma and Sean’s Aunt Mary start conspiring, uh oh.

The next set of Kowalski books, the “All” set take us up to Sean’s brothers in Maine.  Josh has fallen while trying to trim a tree and broken his leg.  Mitch the oldest is home to try and help him get the lodge ready for the next season.  Mitch owns his own business and lives out of a suitcase the vast majority of the time.  He has no desire to settle down with a woman all he wants is a good time.  Paige settled in town just a few years ago she’s sworn off men.  So what happens when these two decide to just play for a while?  All He Ever Needed is their story.

Ryan Kowalski is home for his turn to help clean up the lodge, though it means taking time away from his construction business.  Being home is not all bad though, especially when he reunites with Lauren Carpenter the ex-9780373777587_p0_v2_s260x420wife of his former best friend.  Though the circumstances of their reunion are not good.  Ryan caught Lauren’s son breaking windows at the lodge.  They can’t seem to resist one another and again one thing leads to another but Lauren lives in Maine and Ryan lives and works in New Hampshire, they’re not sure they can make things work.

Josh Kowalski has finally told his family how he feels about being left behind to run the lodge.  They all got to go off and have lives of their own never stopping to think that they’ve left him holding the bag.  Now his brothers and sister have agreed to help him get free at the same time he discovers that his long-time best friend Katie is a woman after all.  So what really is All He Ever Dreamed?

The newest book in the series is finally out, Liz is moving home to Whitford.  On her way back into town she runs her car off the road and into a tree.  She’s 9780373002283_p0_v2_s260x420filled with a sense of worry and anticipation as this means the imminent arrival of Chief Drew Miller.  Drew, her big brother Mitch’s best friend and also the man she slipped away from said brother’s wedding to have a quickie with, not the person she wants to see first thing in town.  I just finished this one and it was great!  This half of the Kowalski clan goes on the annual camping trip (of Doom LOL) with the other half.  You get to see all the characters again and it is just plain fun.

I’m looking forward to the next two books, though they are not directly Kowalskis’ they are friends from Whitford.  Taken With You is the story of Hailey, the town librarian and then Falling for Max the story of Max about whom the rumors abound and Tori also new in town.  I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I have.

Winter’s Bone

9780316131612_p0_v1_s260x420Just a few weeks ago we shared our review of The Maid’s Version, Daniel Woodrell’s latest book.  This happened to be the first of his books that I’d read.  Often when I enjoy a particular book by a writer, I become interested in reading their earlier books.  This is the case with Mr. Woodrell.  He happens to be from my home state of Missouri, from the southern part of the state near the Ozarks.  The region is well-represented in his book, it’s a unique flavor and introduces the Ozarks to a broader audience.  It happened to serve as the setting (or one of the settings) in The Maid’s Version, and in one of his more notable books, Winter’s Bone.

In 2010 Winter’s Bone was made into a movie starting the then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence.  She plays 17-year old Ree, who is desperate to find her fugitive father and save her family’s home that had been used as collateral when her father was bailed out of jail.  Ms. 9780316205856_p0_v1_s260x420Lawrence has so far based her successful career off a few notable literary characters – of course she is best known as Katniss Everdeen, heroine of the Hunger Games trilogy.  Last year she starred as Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook, which was based off the book written by Matthew Quick.  Winter’s Bone was one of her first major film roles, one which earned her an Oscar nomination.  Ree, the strong young woman she plays from the Ozarks, is just as tough and courageous as Katniss.

Ree’s situation is incredibly dire from the beginning of the story – she hasn’t seen her father in quite a while, and had no idea that he had put their home up for collateral when he was bailed out of jail.  Her father had a long history of being on the wrong side of the law, as had many of Ree’s family.  As the head of the household, she does what she can to survive.  She has two younger brothers (though in the movie there is a brother and a sister), and the three of them live with Ree’s mother who seems to be in a permanent state of shock.  She is useless as a provider and caregiver for the family.

Who knew that the Ozarks, tucked in the southern part of the state, was a hotbed of illegal activity?  Ree’s father was arrested in a meth lab bust, something his brother had also been involved in.  This is a way of life for Ree’s family and neighbors in the area.  This makes it even more difficult for Ree to get help and locate her father, something she must do to save their home.  She shows little concern for her father’s welfare, she’s only interested in helping her siblings in mother, for whom she has become a caregiver.  Her biggest obstacle are some of the “heads” of the crime family.  Although in the book it’s not described as organized crime, or compared to the mafia, that’s the sense I got when reading the book.  One particular individual who is feared throughout the region is described similarly to a crime boss.  This is one person no one wants to cross, yet Ree knows that there’s no other way to find her father.  She fearlessly approaches him, gaining the respect of everyone involved.

I was so impressed by Ree’s character, and loved Jennifer Lawrence in the role!  The ending of the movie (and book) is quite shocking – making Ree a complete, fearless badass!  If you’re a fan of Miss Lawrence, this movie is a must-see, and the book is a must-read!

Ender’s Shadow and its sequels

9780765374714_p0_v3_s260x420More love for our fellow Ender fans out there!

This would be the set of “Ender” books I just wasn’t as in to, though I do own them all.  I’m not even sure why I didn’t enjoy these books quite as much maybe because they aren’t centered on Ender.

Ender’s Shadow is actually a companion book to Ender’s Game.  It is the story of Bean.  We start with Bean as a baby hiding in the tank of a toilet when someone comes to kill him and all of his brothers and sisters.  Bean it seems has highly developed survival senses.  These help him stay alive on the streets where he manages to work his way into a gang with some expert manipulation.  We meet Achilles, the boy who is to become not only his nemesis but also Peter Wiggin’s (Ender’s older brother.)

Bean is taken on by Sister Carlotta to be trained for the International Fleet 9780812565959_p0_v1_s260x420specifically for Battle School. It is at the point that Bean finally goes to Battle School where his story and Ender’s begin to align, there are some differences that I think we can just chalk up to the stories putting us in the mind of different characters with two very different viewpoints.

The rest of the Shadow books follow the kids of Ender’s jeesh as they make their way back on Earth, we also meet up again with Ender’s parents and brother Pete. In Shadow of the Hegemon the kids from the Battle School begin to disappear one by one until Bean is the only one left.  With no one else to turn to Bean decides to ask for help from Peter Wiggin, not his first choice of allies.

Shadow Puppets continues the story of Peter taking over the world with the help of Bean, Petra, and the rest of Ender’s friends.  Peter is sure he knows how to make things right again on Earth but he can’t do it on his own the 9780765340054_p0_v1_s260x420problem is sometimes he’s not sure who the kids are more loyal to him or Bean.

Shadow of the Giant was the original end to this set of books.  Bean has begun to grow and grow, he is going to become a giant in just a few short years and he will continue to grow until his internal organs can no longer support his body, it is expected that he will die in his 20s.  Bean and Petra want a family and they want their family safe.  This is probably the book I enjoyed most of this set until the newest one came out.

Shadows in Flight tells the story of Bean and his children who have the same genetic change that he does.  This is the only one of the Shadow books that I’ve read multiple times.  I really liked the interaction between Bean and his children and between the children themselves.  I was disappointed though that they didn’t somehow meet up with Ender which was what I expected to happen.  However all is not lost as there are rumors of a book titled Shadows Alive that will tie up the loose ends of the Ender and Bean sagas.  My fingers are totally crossed that this happens.

Just like the Ender books the Shadow books also have two graphic novels: Ender’s Shadow Battle School and Ender’s Shadow: Command School.

New Fiction Friday

9780345542885_p0_v3_s260x420So Stephanie Plum has turned 20.  Miss Plum is the main character in Janet Evanovich’s hugely popular Plum series.  She’s not really 20, and in fact she’s hardly aged at all, but the series began back in 1994.  This comedic mystery series has been a favorite for so many in those twenty years, and book twenty-one is slated for release later this year.  Written by Janet Evanovich, millions of books have been sold around the world.  There’s no question the series is very successful, and I confess I’ve read every book in the series.  Centered in the unglamorous city of Trenton, NJ, Plum starts the series unemployed, and reaches out to her cousin Vinnie for a job.  Vinnie owns a bail bonds business, and thus begins a new chapter in Stephanie’s life.

As an unlikely bounty hunter, Plum represents New Jersey’s finest.  Solving mysteries and chasing down criminals,  she’s a bit like Nancy Drew all grown up.  Only slightly clumsy, ditzy, and a bit promiscuous.  From the beginning 9780312600730_p0_v1_s260x420of the series, she has been followed by Lula, a reformed prostitute she once saved from a murdering thug.  Her gun-toting, frequent funeral-goer grandmother also tags along.  She may be my favorite character in the series, and when the first book in the series One for the Money was made into a movie, she was played by the incomparable Debbie Reynolds.  The best, and also the most frustrating, is the love triangle between Stephanie, her sometimes-boyfriend Joe Morelli (who is Trenton P.D.), and Ranger.  But, really, after 20 years she can’t decide which one to choose??

You either love the series – or hate it, Stephanie Plum isn’t exactly a great heroine.  Miss Plum and I too have a love-hate relationship.  Each time a new book in the series comes out, I wonder why I keep reading.

In this latest version of the Plum saga, Takedown Twentyshe is searching for the killer of elderly women who have shown up dead in local dumpsters.  All these women have a few things in common – their age, their marital status (they’re all either single or widows), and their mutual love of playing bingo.  All of the usual cast of characters appear, her crazy grandmother, her sidekick Lula, and both of her love interests.  Nothing overly exciting – and as always, my favorite part of the book is her relationship with Morelli and Ranger.

Throughout the course of this series Stephanie has gone through many cars, each one either stolen, caught fire, or exploded.    Needless to say, she has bad luck.  She has been shot, attacked, mugged, and practically run over.  These seem to be recurrent themes in the series, making the stories seem almost formulaic.  I mentioned that I have read each one, and at the same time wonder why I’m still reading the series?  While sometimes predictable, and yet delightfully steamy, I can honestly say I have been entertained.  I’ll even admit to kind of liking the movie.  Love her or hate her, it’s a great credit to Janet Evanovich for continuing to write best-sellers, and keep her audiences entertained and wanting more!