New Fiction Friday: It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel

9780544612310_p0_v2_s192x300Starting at a new school can be really hard when you’re a kid. I did that in high school – and it was actually the first day of high school that Kelly and I met. We were both kind of new, having not gone to the same middle school as most of our classmates. Being the new kid is scary, and on that first day of high school I was terrified.  This is the heart of Firoozeh Dumas’s story, It Ain’t So Awful Falafel. Zomorod and her parents have moved to California from Iran. It’s much more than just moving from one school to another.  She honestly couldn’t be more different than her classmates.

Her father is an engineer and had accepted a job in southern California. It’s the late 70s, and unluckily, they are in the U.S. during the Iranian hostage crisis. Her family is stuck in the U.S., and even if they wanted to return home to Iran, the country that they once loved and called home is gone. They become further alienated from the neighborhood and those around them, and Zomorod (who decides to go by Cindy) is struggling more than ever.

Cindy starts junior high with no friends, and not the right kind of clothes.  It’s hard to fit in in Newport Beach (that hasn’t changed much!), especially when you’re from Iran. Her dad speaks English well, but her mother refuses to learn. This keeps her cooped up at home, and whenever they venture out together – or someone comes to the door – Cindy acts as her interpreter. This is a role she does not enjoy. Her mother misses home terribly, and in addition to her not learning English, she basically refuses to leave the house, and makes no friends while they are in the U.S. Cindy is trying to fit in desperately, and her mother is doing the opposite.

I was really surprised by this story. Pleasantly surprised. I feel like I’ve been in Cindy’s shoes – but I haven’t. I’m thankful for that. Although it’s not a memoir, and is just a work of fiction, the author herself is Iranian, and I have to think that part of her own experiences have shaped this story. I know there are so many kids like Cindy – and adults too. She can’t fit in, even though she tries, living in in a new, strange place, she remains an outsider. Her family faces discrimination, even though kids at school and neighbors in thei community have done almost nothing to get to know them.

She eventually finds a best friend.  Part of this story seems so timely.  Reminding readers to accept and appreciate others’ differences.


1,000 Books Before Kindergarten

1000-books-logoWe love living in Virginia Beach.  Though it’s not a huge city, the city itself offers so many great resources.  One thing I love most about the city is the library.  We go at least once week, and having been going that often since my daughter was born.  She is now 5, just started kindergarten.  I started when she was a baby checking out a stack of board books, and now we have worked our way up to short chapter books.  A couple of years ago the Virginia Beach Public Library launched a program to get more kids reading, 1000 Books Before kindergarten.

Reading is so important to me, and is such a huge part of my life.  So is the library, and I would love to pass this passion down to my daughter.  Getting her involved was easy, and we were already reading books.  To participate in the program:

  • Register – Register at the library, pick up a reading folder and first reading log.
  • Track Your Reading – Every book you read to you child, enter on the list
  • Show us Your Reading Logs – Each list has enough space for 100 books.  When you finish a sheet, bring it in, get a special sticker, get a new list.
  • Read More Books – Keep reading until you reach 1,000 books!!
  • Celebrate! – When your child has finished the list, they win a new backpack, and get a certificate to keep!

Reading the books was easy, she was so excited when we turned her list in a week before school started this summer that she got a new backpack.  When I was growing up, my elementary school had a rewards program for students who read 100 books a year.  My Mom made sure I did it every year.  Your library may not have this specific program, but may offer other reading rewards programs.  Check it out!

First Day of Kindergarten

61huh01wfsl-_sy495_bo1204203200_We knew this day was coming.  Nothing could have prepared us for this day.  Much like every other milestone in our daughter’s life, this one was exciting and bittersweet at the same time.  She’s not our little baby girl anymore. Kindergarten is such a big step, and we are all excited.  This summer I’ve tried to make sure we were enjoying our last days together.  She’s going to stay at the school where she went to preschool, so the transition won’t be too hard.  However, we’ve been reading quite a few books this summer in preparation of this big step!  These are some of our favorites:

The Night Before Kindergarten – Natasha Wing, Julie Durrell

Countdown to Kindergarten – Harry Bliss  This one is her favorite on the list.  Over the 51tqciytkrl-_sx386_bo1204203200_summer we read it so many times, each time I assured her it was ok if she didn’t know how to tie her shoes when the first day of school came around.

Kindergarten, Here I Come!D.J. Steinberg, Mark Chambers

The Twelve Days of Kindergarten – Deborah Lee Rose

Planet Kindergarten – Sue Ganz-Schmitt, Shane Prigmore

Kindergarten Diary – Antoinette Portis

Monkey: Not Ready for Kindergarten51zpt5rmggl-_sy451_bo1204203200_Marc Brown

The Berenstain Bears Go To School – Stan and Jan Berenstain

These books helped ease the transition from pre-school to kindergarten.  She was actually more concerned about who was going to be in her class than anything else.  Because she’s going to the same school that she went to last year, she’s just moving across the hall, and there are a few familiar faces in this new class.  She made it through the first day, and I made it too without any tears.  If you have a little one starting kindergarten this year, or even next year, these books are perfect!

A Long Walk to Water

41ZnAfT8rKL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Do you ever think about how lucky you are to have running water in your home? I realize that this is not everyone, but an overwhelming majority of Americans have fresh, clean water to drink in their homes. This is not something I think about often, but I probably should.  After reading A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park, I was reminded just how lucky I am. This story follows a young girl in Sudan, whose job it is to walk every day to the nearest source of water. Hours there and back, sometimes twice a day. It consumes her life. She thinks only of the time of the year where her family will relocate, and live closer to water so that she won’t be making these long, daily trips.  And for her sister to get a little older, so then the job will be passed down to her.

The story goes back and forth between this young girl named Nya, and a young boy named Salva. Although they live in different times, they both are from Sudan.  Sudan has historically been a unstable, and that becomes a major disrupter in Salva’s life.  He is able to escape conflict after his school, home, and family are destroyed, but then is alone.  He becomes one of the lost boys of Sudan. He walks and walks for days – weeks even, to get to a safe place.

The story was written by Linda Sue Park, a past Newberry Medalist winner. After reading this, I was wondering why she hadn’t won again for this book. This is such an important story, especially one for a young audience. Salva and Nya are about the same age as Park’s  target audience, making it easy for readers to relate to the characters. To put myself (or any reader) in those shoes is unimaginable.

Salva’s journey is hearbreaking, one that no one should have to make – regardless of age.   There is saving, there is healing in this story though. What eventually happened to the Lost Boys was not enough to make up for the loss of the many many lives that were ruined or lost.  He eventually makes his way to the states, to New York, where he is fostered by a family. He meets Linda Sue Park, who retells his life story in this book. **Spoiler Alert**, he does make his way back to Africa to see his father, after years of searching for family members. Not everyone was that lucky though, this part of his story is unique.  This is such a great story, and so inspiring to young readers.  Salva experienced the unthinkable, and yet at the end of the story, he returns to Africa a survivor, and was determined to make changes.  He now works with Water for Sudan, which is committed to providing fresh water to people in rural Sudan.

Bedtime Math

51SXV06OGNL._SX408_BO1,204,203,200_Math was never my best subject.  Which is probably why I teach history.  I don’t hate math, I just wish I were better at it.  My daughter is now 5, and we are preparing for kindergarten next year.  I have been reading to her practically since birth.  Mostly because I hope she will love books as much as I do.  She loves books, loves to be read to, I have no doubt she’ll succeed in school.  She’s developing reasoning and reading comprehension skills, but how can I help her develop math skills?

I first heard of Bedtime Math when the book’s author, Laura Overdeck, was interviewed on NPR.  She talked of her love for math, and her habit of reading to her sons at night before tucking them in.  She started the habit of telling short stories, with math word problems at the end, and that was what inspired the blog.  The blog inspired the books (there are now 3!).

The best part about this book (and the blog) is the introduction to word problems.  To so many kids (and adults), word problems are the toughest math problems.  In the book there are short stories, with short word problems that follow and correlate with the story.  There are three word problems with each short story – one for Wee Ones, one for Little Kids, and one for Big Kids.  There are also Bonus questions, which are sometimes a little harder to answer than the one for Big Kids.  This is an easy way to make math fun, and to hopefully prevent the fear so many math learners have for word problems.

After reading through all three books, doing the “Wee ones”, and occasionally the Little Kids problems, I can already see an understanding of addition and subtraction developing in my daughter.  I think Ms Overdeck is amazing.  I don’t know if my daughter will love math – or even be good at it.  I just hope, that with this early introduction to math and word problems, it’ll at the very least, be less intimidating.  You can read through the books, or follow the blog, which delivers daily stories and word problems to your inbox!

The Polar Express: 30th Anniversary

9780544580145_p0_v4_s192x300The Polar Express is one of my favorite Christmas books.  My daughter and I love reading it so much – that our reading it isn’t limited to just December.  It’s back on bookshelf again just for the holidays, and though we haven’t watched the movie yet this year, I know w e will soon.

Written by Chris Van Allsburg, the setting is meant to be a version of his own hometown, Grand Rapids, Michigan.  It’s such a sweet story about kids and adults who believe – and even those who don’t.   The Polar Express is an epic train ride, and the journey that this special little boy goes on, will make him a believer forever, even if he wasn’t one in the beginning of the story.  This year makes the 30th Anniversary since the book’s original release.  Since it’s first release in 1985, it has been enjoyed by millions of children and parents alike.

A magical train, headed for the North Pole, picks up a young boy right after bedtime on Christmas Eve.  The train ride is amazing, magical, and unforgettable.  The 30th Anniversary edition includes an audio book (don’t ask how many times we’ve already listened to it), with the story read by Liam Neeson.  It’s the perfect book for the season – our favorite!

Any other fans out there?  What’s your favorite Christmas story?

Counting by 7s

9780142422861_p0_v2_s260x420I remember the days before my daughter was born, I loved a trip to the bookstore.  A latte in hand, browsing the latest best-sellers.  Now, in life A.K. (after kids), a trip to the bookstore means heading straight to the kids section and hoping to catch a title of one or two of the books on display before reading Olivia books for an hour straight.  In several of my recent trips to the bookstore, I saw Counting by 7s.  It had been on my TBR list for too long, and I’m happy to say that I have finally read it – and I loved it!  Written by Holly Goldberg Sloan, this is one of the best YA books I’ve ever read.

There’s no dystopian society, no vampires, the main character has no love interest, and apparently the target audience for the book is 10 yrs old.  Don’t let that dissuade you, Willow Chance is only 12, but she  is brilliant and wise beyond her years.  She also has nothing in common with any other 12 year old.  She’s naturally curious, a gifted gardnerer, and seems to be concerned about the health and well-being of those around here – specifically, diagnosing their problems.  One thing that also makes her stand out – she is Vietnamese, and was adopted by an American couple and brought to this country when she was an infant.  She was actually orphaned twice – once by her birth parents in Vietnam, and again when her adoptive parents die in a car accident while she is at school one day.

The majority of the story follows what happens next.  Her parents had no family or close friends to take her in.  Instead, she ends up with the family of a fellow Vietnamese student that she met at the school counselor’s office.  She barely knows the other girl, and after going home with her that first night, realizes that she and her brother live with their mother inside a converted garage behind the nail salon where she works.  Their school counselor, Dell Duke, becomes closely involved in their lives and making sure that Willow is properly cared for by this family.  Her world is obviously changed after the loss of her parents.  What’s unexpected is the change she brings to these individuals.  This will be one of the darkest times in her life, but she still brings light to those around her.

Beyond her grief, beyond her incredible mind and memory (what originally brought her to Mr. Duke’s office was a perfect score on a standardized test – sparking accusations of cheating), is her ability to see the best in everyone.  And that’s what I love most about this book.  Mr. Duke himself is kind of a loser, living in Bakersfield, California, is a middle school counselor, bored and uninterested in his job.  He lacks the motivation to even dream of a better life.  Willow will change that, and it’s something unexpected for both of them.

I loved this book – and you might too!  This girl is lost after her parents’ death, and I have felt lost before too.  Willow shows incredible courage and resolve in their absence.  She grieves, and eventually finds the strength to go on.