Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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I do not know if these hands will become

Malcolm’s – raised and fisted

or Martin’s – open and asking

or James’s – curled around a pen.

I do not know if these hands will be

Rosa’s

or Ruby’s

gently gloved

and fiercely folder

calmly in a lap,

on a desk,

around a book,

ready

to change the world…” (Woodson 2014, p. 5).

I absolutely adored the flow of Woodson’s poetry, which left me feeling inspired and ready to conquer my own world. Much like Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, this book is written in free verse poetry, playing with words in a way that makes the story being told come to life. The difference with Brown Girl Dreaming, however, is the fact that this book is a memoir rather than a work of fiction, detailing Woodson’s childhood growing up in both North Carolina and Brooklyn. I loved getting a glimpse into the mind of a talented writer; her personal poetry was a creative and unique way for her audience to see what growing up during the Civil Rights Movement was like, and her stories will leave every reader relating to her very human struggles.

In this personal, poetic account, Woodson begins by describing the moment of her birth, the details of which have been lost to memory over time. She then goes on to talk about what it was like to grow up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, learning about peaceful protests, sit-ins, Malcom X, the Black Panthers, Rosa Parks, and the Freedom Riders. Though we all know this part of history existed, it becomes all the more real when someone writes what it was like to live through it in her own words, making this memoir an incredibly unique look at both history and the early life of an individual who was once searching for her place in life.

What struck me most about this book was just how relatable Woodson’s stories are. Not all of us have lived through the Civil Rights Movement, of course, but many of us have dealt with things like drifting friendships, the death of a grandparent, and having to move to a new, unfamiliar city. Many children, and even adults, can relate to these scenarios, as they are incredibly human experiences that resonate with readers of every age. Woodson’s words were inspiring, especially when you realize she lived in her sister’s shadow for most of her young life, feeling inadequate while harboring her own desire to write and tell stories. This memoir proves that you do not have to be at the top of your class to do great things, and that following your passion is important. Woodson wanted to be a writer more than anything else, so that is what she pursued, ignoring those who told her it was impractical. This was a small portion of the book, but crucial nonetheless, as kids need to see positive role models in their literature. Woodson’s poetry inspires children to follow their dreams, whatever those dreams may be, and reminds them that no dream is unattainable with enough faith and hard work.

As I mentioned above, this book also impressed me because of the way it plays with poetry. Woodson often quotes Langston Hughes in the work, introducing children to a famous poet while also sharing poetry of her own, poetry oozing with personality and character. I’ve come to realize that, while I appreciate traditional poetry, free verse leaves a lot more room for the author to play with language. I wouldn’t know the first thing about writing it, but Woodson’s free verse poetry was a joy to read from start to finish. When I started the book, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to follow Woodson’s story due to the poetry (as I sometimes have a hard time following poetry), but she made it abundantly clear (at least in my opinion) what was going on in each section. To me, this was an incredibly unique way to write an autobiographical work, as it mixes a simple story about the author’s past with her actual poetry, adding heart and substance to what would have otherwise been very straightforward. It was almost like reading the personal diary of a friend, getting a glimpse into the very heart and soul of another person; Woodson does not hold back her thoughts and feelings, even if those thoughts aren’t so nice. This made for an incredibly raw and real experience, and one that I think children will appreciate.

Many children find it hard to understand “classic” poetry, so I think introducing them to a book like Brown Girl Dreaming or The Crossover would be an excellent way to warm a reluctant reader up to the genre. Jumping headfirst into Robert Frost or Walt Whitman might be too difficult for someone who isn’t used to poetry, but showing them a narrative (fictional or otherwise) written in a modern style makes poetry much more accessible and far less scary. It might not teach proper poetic style (as both books are written in free verse), but it could show a child that poetry doesn’t have to be hard to understand. Poetry, much like prose, is very diverse, and telling a story in prose can show children that they don’t necessarily have to follow strict rules when writing from their heart; the most important thing is writing what you feel as it comes, making the words authentic. Woodson’s poetry comes from a very intimate place, and flows organically without being forced. A teacher could easily have a child read this book and then write his or her own free verse poem about a specific event or emotion, helping them to really connect with her words in a way that regular prose might not.

Though this book is simple, I think it has the power to resonate with a large audience, as it is accessible, short, and full of moments that many children (and adults) can relate to. The story blends a little bit of historical context with Woodson’s personal trials, making for a highly entertaining and thought-provoking read that will make you want to quickly binge the rest of Woodson’s work. I highly recommend it to any fan of either poetry or autobiographical works, as it’s a rare treat that is more than deserving of its National Book Award.

Reference:

Woodson, J. (2014). Brown girl dreaming. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books.

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The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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“I knew Susan wasn’t real. Or, if she was a tiny bit real, sometimes, at the very best she was only temporary. She’d be done with us once the war was over, or whenever Mam changed her mind” (Bradley 2015, p. 202).

“She was lying. She was lying, and I couldn’t bear it. I heard Mam’s voice shrieking in my head. ‘You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you, with that ugly foot!’ My hands started to shake. Rubbish. Filth. Trash. I could wear Maggie’s discards, or plain clothes from the shops, but not this, not this beautiful dress. I could listen to Susan say she never wanted children all day long. I couldn’t bear to hear her call me beautiful” (Bradley 2015, p. 214).

I’ve read many books in my day, but none have made me angrier than this one. I wasn’t angry with the book itself, of course; the book was beautifully written and full of wonderful, engaging characters. From the very first page, however, I developed an unrelenting hatred for “Mam,” wishing the novel would take pity on its readers and end her in a brutal way. I know; these are strong words for a fictional character in a children’s novel. I just absolutely cannot stand to see child abuse in any form, even if I know it’s only fiction. Sadly, there are many children out there who have faced (and are currently facing) the abuse Ada and Jamie must face in this book, a thought that made the abuse in this novel all the more real and infuriating. Mam simply serves as an easy target for the rage I have towards anyone who would harm a child. That being said, I absolutely loved this book, and found it to be another incredibly moving work of historical fiction.

The War That Saved My Life is set in London, England, during the very beginning of World War II. The story follows a little girl named Ada, who has been locked away her entire life due to her clubfoot, which her abusive mother finds shameful and humiliating. Ada’s “Mam” frequently beats her, locks her away, refuses to feed her properly, and forces her to spend the night in roach-infested cupboards for minor offenses. Though her “normal” brother Jamie receives slightly better treatment, the two are highly abused and living in complete filth and squalor. This changes when an order is sent out, requiring all of London’s children to be sent to the countryside for safe-keeping during the war. Though Ada’s mom refuses to let her go, Ada decides she’s finally had enough of her horrible circumstances and runs away with Jamie in tow. The two feel unwanted at first, but eventually end up in the home of a lady named Susan Smith, who treats them with the kindness and compassion they’ve never had from their mother. Though reluctant at first, Susan soon grows to love the children as her own, showing Ada that she might be worthy of love after all. The War That Saved My Life is a beautifully told story of love, courage, and how it’s always possible to find freedom and peace… even in the middle of a war.

Ada was such an easy character to root for. My heart broke for her, just as it has for many of the protagonists in the books I’ve read this semester. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could be so cruel to her own child, denying her necessary treatments and hiding her away like some sort of “freak.” Part of me wondered how a child like Wonder‘s Auggie would have fared in such conditions, without a supportive and loving family willing to help him through his medical conditions. This, of course, was even more heart-breaking, as I know there are parents out there who would abandon any child who wasn’t “perfect” from birth. What Mam does to Ada is, arguably, much worse than abandonment. She locks Ada in cupboards for trying to get food, beats her relentlessly even for looking out the window, and constantly belittles her because of her clubfoot, calling her a “freak” and a “lousy cripple.” There were times, while reading this book, that I got so angry I had to put it down. I honestly wouldn’t have minded if a bomb had dropped on Mam while the children were away, leaving them free to live with Susan forever. It was a horrible thought, of course, but would’ve been a fitting end for such a cruel, nasty character.

I also loved the theme of freedom throughout this novel, and the irony of a character gaining peace and freedom during one of the world’s most tumultuous times. Though World War II was raging around her, Ada could only focus on her own personal war, the war being waged against her by her own abusive mother. The title of this novel is extremely appropriate, as Ada is only able to see what a real, loving family looks like after fleeing bombs in London. Susan is eccentric and brash, but caring, teaching Ada to read, write, and sew. While in the country, Ada also learns how to ride a horse, making her feel alive and free as she never has on her own two feet. The novel incorporates elements of the real life war into the plot effortlessly, adding moments that make Ada reflect upon her own life with new eyes. For example, in one scene, Susan makes Ada a brand new dress, and Ada feels so guilty wearing it (still feeling like she’s nothing) that she has a complete breakdown on Christmas Eve. The next day, air force pilots from a nearby air base come to visit and play with her and her brother, pilots who later end up dead as the war intensifies. When Ada realizes this, she comes to a stunning realization:

“I understood why I’d been upset on Christmas. I’d felt overwhelmed; I really couldn’t help myself. But now, thinking back, it seemed a little silly to be unhappy about a dress when the pilots were dead. If I had it to do over, I would at least have learned their names” (p. 285).

Though Ada has suffered a number of cruelties in her own life, she holds a great deal of compassion for those fighting in the war. It gets to the point where she has to step out of the theater during the newsreels before the movie, unable to stomach the horrific images of men losing their lives to the war. At one point, Ada volunteers to help bring water to refugee soldiers, and can hardly believe her eyes when one man asks her to write a letter one minute and is dead the next. Though many people know the terrible tragedies of the Holocaust during this time, few stop to think about the horrors taking place in other countries. As the novel progresses, the war becomes worse and worse, the death toll rises, bombs are dropped nightly, and food must be rationed off to citizens. What had once been a distant concept for Ada becomes very real, leading her to fear for her safety and the safety of those around her. This novel does an excellent job of focusing on an individual’s story while relaying the horrors of the time period, including details and specific historical events (such as the Battle of Dunkirk) to add to the realism of the story.

Though it might seem terrible for a child to witness the horrors of war, this was sadly the reality of the time period. This novel does not shy away from the fact that WWII was a nasty, bloody war, but it chooses to focus on a very different kind of injustice, one that might’ve taken place anywhere and during any time period. Framing the story of an abused girl with a clubfoot with the events of World War II add historical detail to an incredibly human story, helping the reader to see this time period in an entirely new light. For Ada, the war might be horrifying, but it is also a blessing, as it allows her to escape her own personal nightmare in order to find a better life. In the end, she’s able to see her own worth and value, and realizes the beauty and warmth of having friends and family, people who support and love you. Though many parts of this novel (especially the abuse) had me fuming, I was so happy to see Ada get her happy ending, and I’d love to see what happened next. I imagine the townspeople helped Susan to rebuild her house, Ada got her foot surgically repaired, and her and her brother were officially adopted. This is certainly a book I wouldn’t mind reading a sequel to, however.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or if you simply enjoy stories of bravery, courage, and hope, you will absolutely love this book. It shows the events of World War II from the incredibly unique perspective of a crippled little girl in England, a perspective I’ve certainly never seen before in literature, much less children’s literature. It has moments that will make you laugh, cry, and rage at the book, and will ultimately take you on a miraculous journey through the life of one very special little girl.

Reference:

Bradley, K. B. (2015). The war that saved my life. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

George by Alex Gino

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“As the principal spoke, George’s eyes scanned the wall behind her… A sign in the far corner showed a large rainbow flag flying on a black background. Below the flag, the sign said SUPPORT SAFE SPACES FOR GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER YOUTH. Reading the word transgender sent a shiver down George’s spine. She wondered where she could find a safe space like that, and if there would be other girls like her there. Maybe they could talk about makeup together. Maybe they could even try some on” (Gino 2015, p. 125).

I had no idea this book existed before I found it on my reading list for my children’s literature class, but I’m so glad that I was able to read it. This book was surprisingly hard to find at my local public library. Whether that’s because of the sensitive subject matter within or the fact that it’s so new, however, I’ll never know. Regardless, I was able to snag a copy from the university library I work in, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to talk about it here on my blog.

George, as the title implies, follows the story of a young boy named George. Though she was born a boy, George knows in her heart that she’s a girl, but is terrified to tell anyone around her for fear of being teased or called a “freak.” At the beginning of the story, George’s class has just finished reading Charlotte’s Web, and will be putting on a play for the rest of the school. George wants nothing more than to play the role of Charlotte, the wise spider with whom she most identifies. George’s teacher, however, refuses to let a boy play Charlotte when there are so many girls eager for the part. Throughout the story, George struggles with the fact that she is secretly a girl, even afraid to share the information with her own mother and brother. George is ultimately the story of a little boy who knows she’s a girl, and must find the courage to show the rest of the world who she really is.

Surprisingly, this is one of the few stories (this and If You Could Be Mine) to feature transgender issues. Though books with gay and lesbian characters have existed for a while, transgender issues have only recently come to light in the world of literature. When I learned that this book would be about a little boy struggling with the possibility of being transgender and transitioning, I was ecstatic; it’s wonderful to see diversity in children’s literature, as children often need to see characters like them. Though I’ve seen young adult books deal with transgender issues in the past, I have yet to see a children’s book tackle them. George, though a simple story, is ground-breaking in that it shows a young child struggling with her self identity and dealing with problems (such as bullying and self-doubt) that plague many real children who might benefit from reading this book.

Though it might not always be realistic, it was nice to see George’s family support her once they found out that she wanted to transition. There are so many parents out there who would kick their child out of the house for even thinking about being gay or transgender, so I think showing a child with a supportive (though worried) mom and brother was very positive representation. George’s mom seems upset at first, but we later learn that it’s because she’s worried about what the rest of society will do to him. She does her best to be supportive at the end of the novel, however, simply asking George to take things “one step at a time” as she adjusts to the new information. It was also wonderful to see that George had an incredibly supportive best friend, one who was willing to let him play the part of Charlotte and defend him against the school bullies.

Speaking of bullies, I was surprisingly okay with the one-note bullies in this story. Usually, I’d take issue with characters who exist solely to be awful, but I think this story needed them in order to convey the severity of George’s decision to transition. While many of his classmates are supportive when he plays Charlotte, the bullies (Jeff and Rick) torment him simply for crying over the spider’s death in the book. Though I obviously cannot climb into the author’s head, I feel that these characters were added to foreshadow how some members of society will treat George later on in his life. The sad reality for many LGBT children is that they are often bullied to extremes, pushed until they see suicide as the only way out. Just as I’m glad Gino gave George supportive friends and family members, I’m glad he chose to show a glimpse of the cruelty of others, as this is important for children to realize. The author was able to convey a sense of hope for children in similar situations (one of George’s teachers even promises to be there for her), while also warning them that not everyone will be so accepting.

Along with providing a “safe book” for children struggling with their sexuality or identity, George also has the power to evoke sympathy in those who have traditionally held anti-LGBT beliefs. Though George is a fictional character, she is impossible to dislike. I can’t think of a single person who would read her story and not feel sympathy for what she’s going through, and this sympathy could help them to see the LGBT community in a new light. Sadly, not everyone who holds anti-LGBT sentiments will give a book with such “controversial” subject material the time of day, but I believe it has the power to change the minds of those willing to give it a chance.

Though George is by no means high art (it’s written very simply and is incredibly short), it’s a wonderful little story that helps to shed light on a marginalized community that could really use more exposure and awareness right now. For that, I applaud Gino. As I mentioned above, all children need to recognize themselves in literature, especially children from marginalized groups. Seeing a character like George presented in such a respectful way could go a long way in helping a child who is struggling with the same problems feel less alone, so I think this book is immensely important. If it helps just one child to feel that he or she is normal and accepted, I think it’s more than worth any expenses required to put the book in that child’s hands.

Reference:

Gino, A. (2015). George. New York: Scholastic Press.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

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“‘The fact remains, Esperanza, that you, for instance, have a better education than most people’s children in this country. But no one is likely to recognize that or take the time to learn it. Americans see us as one big, brown group who are good for only manual labor'” (Ryan 2000, p. 187).

“Something seemed very wrong about sending people away from their own ‘free country’ because they had spoken their minds” (Ryan 2000, p. 208).

As I mentioned in my Goodreads review of this book, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as some of the others I’ve read for this blog. Don’t get me wrong; I really love historical fiction, and I see this as an important part of America’s history to reflect on. This particular story, however, did not pack nearly as much of an emotional punch as some of the other historical fiction I’ve read. That being said, I really enjoyed the historical elements that were present, as well as the themes of family and perseverance that permeated the novel. It’s a decent read, but certainly not one of my favorites so far.

Esperanza Rising follows the story of twelve-year-old Esperanza, a young girl living an almost fairy-tale life on her ranch in Aguascalientes, Mexico. At the beginning of the story, Esperanza lives a charmed life, with a house full of servants who wait on her hand and foot. Most important in her life are her father, mother, and Abuelita, who dote on her and fulfill every request she might possibly have. The night before her thirteenth birthday, Esperanza’s father is murdered by bandits, leaving her and her family at the mercy of her two powerful and money-hungry uncles. When her mother refuses to marry one of them for money, the uncles arrange to have the ranch burned to the ground, leaving Esperanza and her mother to flee the country in search of work in America. Now living as penniless laborers, Esperanza and her mother must build an entirely new life in America while they wait to be reunited with Abuelita, who remains in Mexico due to failing health. Esperanza Rising is the story of courage, perseverance, and the importance of family in times of hardship and uncertainty.

Though I remember reading Esperanza Rising in school as a child, I remembered nothing about the plot before choosing to re-read it as an adult. After experiencing it for a second time, however, I realize this is simply because the book was not memorable enough for me  to really have any recollection of it. While it was a nice read, it holds none of the weight that books like Bridge to Terabithia and The Giver do, books I read for class that I will never forget. Part of this might be due to the main character (I found her intolerable for the first half of the book), but I also think it’s because it lacks the overwhelming depth and historical detail of some of the other historical fiction I’ve read.

While it might be unfair to criticize Esperanza (she is, after all, a product of her privileged upbringing), she says and does some incredibly rude things at the beginning of the book that make it heard to root for her later on. For example, even though she and her mother are penniless and in the same circumstances as many other peasants, Esperanza turns her nose up at them on the train, going as far as pulling away from a little girl and refusing to let her “dirty hands” touch her doll. She changes completely by the end of the book, of course, but it was hard to like her at first. In Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, I immediately rooted for Isabel, as she was an instantly likable character. Esperanza’s arrogance at the beginning of this novel might have been purposeful (she eventually learns her lesson and begins to understand that nobody should be placed above anyone else), but I still didn’t appreciate her attitude towards those she deemed to be “lesser” than her. It makes it all the more ironic later on in the novel, as she’s complaining about how others look down on her because of her race. While this obviously isn’t right, it would’ve been nice to see Esperanza reflect for a moment on how she once treated others exactly the same way she hated being treated later on. To me, this would have made that message come across even more clearly, and provided a powerful moment of self-realization that the novel seemed to lack.

I also wish there had been more detail regarding the labor camps and strikes. While Chains gives us a heavily researched, in-depth look at America during the Revolutionary War, Esperanza Rising feels more like fiction than something that might have actually happened. As I mentioned above, this story reads a lot more like a reverse Cinderella story (riches to rags) than it does historical fiction. While we get an idea of the injustices facing laborers and strikers during this time period (we learn that they were forcefully deported even though many of them were U.S. citizens, which was entirely unjust and wrong), these plot threads sometimes take a backseat to Esperanza’s personal story. While I understand that this story is ultimately about her, not the events taking place around her, it would’ve been nice to see more of the “history” behind this novel’s historical fiction categorization.

Despite my nitpicks, however, I did enjoy the theme of family in this book, and thought it was touching to see Esperanza make a personal change in order to help her mother. I might not have liked her much at first, but she grew to be an incredibly strong, level-headed character, one I was able to forgive for her arrogance at the beginning of the novel. I was also impressed with the way Ryan is able to write incredibly three-dimensional characters, characters I wasn’t sure how to feel about at times. For example, Marta starts off as a stereotypical jerk, but we later grow to feel sympathy towards her when we realize that she’s also just trying her best to provide for her family. Like Esperanza, she grew on me throughout the novel, and I found it hard to hate her despite her abrasiveness.

In fact, I felt conflicted about the strikers in general throughout the story, which tells me that this plot thread was done incredibly well. Part of me understood why they were doing what they were doing (after all, America was built on the idea of protesting peacefully against things you fee to be unfair or problematic), but I found myself worrying about Esperanza and her friends. I kept saying to myself, “Why would they sabotage their fellow immigrants? They all want the same thing.” It then dawned on me that this is one of many examples of how two groups can want the same thing, but disagree about how best to achieve that goal. The strikers felt it in their rights to demand better living conditions and pay, and I found myself agreeing with them from time to time (especially after learning about the new Oklahoma camp near the end of the novel). As can be seen when Esperanza helps Marta hide from the U.S. officials, the immigrants were more than happy to come together and help each other out when it counted, likely making them much stronger in the long run.

While this book wasn’t one of my favorites, I’m glad I gave it another shot as an adult. I appreciated seeing a small glimpse of a lesser known part of American history (I had no idea immigrant labor camps existed, but it makes complete sense now that I think about it), and I really was invested in Esperanza’s story. I would have liked to see more of the history, but I respect that this novel was meant to focus on the story of a fictionalized young girl instead of the history. If I was judging solely on the story itself, I’d give this book five stars. Because it is labeled as historical fiction, however, I had to bump it down a bit, as I’ve read much more engaging historical fiction in the last year alone.

If you love historical fiction, The Book Thief and Chains would probably be better choices, but Esperanza Rising is still well worth a shot if you have the time. I wish I’d enjoyed it more than I did, but I suppose it’s impossible for us to love every single book that we read. This book, for me, simply fell a little short. The things it does well (such as the elements of family and gray moral areas) are done incredibly well, but the lack of historical detail made it fall flat. If you’re still curious, however, definitely give this book a shot; these are only my opinions, after all, and you might find yourself enjoying it much more than I did. It’s still an entertaining and easy read, and one that reminds us of the importance of family in times of crisis. Though simple, I think that’s an incredibly important and powerful lesson, and one that can help us through even our darkest struggles.

Reference:

Ryan, P. M. (2000). Esperanza rising. New York: Scholastic Press.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

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“‘…But what I want you, my students, to take away from your middle-school experience,’ he continued, ‘is the sure knowledge that, in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God'” (Palacio 2014, p. 301).

This book, in my opinion, is a true gem, dealing with a number of real-world issues in a way that is both entertaining and profound. I’d heard wonderful things about this book when it first came out, and it was always a hit at the bookstore where I used to work. Despite this, I never had a chance to read it, and now that I have I can’t believe I waited so long to give it a try. I knew it dealt with themes of friendship and bullying, of course, but I didn’t understand quite how well it handled these subjects until I read it for myself. Wonder has come to be one of absolute my favorite children’s books, simply because it speaks to the humanity in all of us, reminding us that it’s important to be kind and compassionate to others no matter their circumstances.

Wonder follows the story of ten-year-old August Pullman, a young boy with a big heart and a loving family. Lovingly nicknamed “Auggie” by those closest to him, August is anything but your average kid. Born with a rare genetic condition known as “Treacher Collins syndrome,” Auggie has been plagued with health issues his entire life. Even after a number of surgeries and medical treatments, Auggie still looks different from other children his age, something that has led him to a life of stares and ridicule. Auggie’s many health concerns have also kept him from attending public school… at least until now. At the beginning of his fifth grade year, Auggie’s parents convince him to attend Beecher Prep Middle School, a prestigious school for gifted children. Though he is apprehensive at first (he doesn’t want to be seen as the “freak” at his school), Auggie decides to give school a try, knowing that he will likely face a number of new challenges when mingling with children his own age. What follows is a heart-warming story about friendship, perseverance, and having the courage to be who you are in a sometimes scary and unsympathetic world.

As is often the case when I’ve just read a particularly profound book, I find it hard to process my thoughts when it comes to Wonder. I’d expected Auggie’s story to be touching, but I had no idea just how much the other characters in the story would affect me. There are so many wonderful characters in this book, characters whose thoughts and feelings we get to experience right alongside Auggie’s. I loved getting the different perspectives, as it helped to see how each character was feeling about particular moments in the novel. For example, Jack Will (Auggie’s best friend in school) upsets Auggie at one point in the book by saying some incredibly nasty and hurtful things. We later learn, however, that he comes from a relatively poor family, and is desperately trying to fit in with the “popular crowd” when he says these things, completely unaware that his friend can hear them. The story is never quite what we think it’s going to be initially; characters that at first seem selfish or uncaring turn out to be battling their own very real demons, adding an element of humanity to these characters that many children’s stories seem to lack.

Admittedly, there were parts of this book that had me tearing up, such as the scene in which Daisy (the family dog) dies. As an animal lover, witnessing the death of a beloved pet, even a fictional one, really got to me. Even worse was the following quote: “And I wondered how it would feel to be in heaven someday and not have my face matter anymore. Just like it never, ever mattered to Daisy” (p. 227). I couldn’t help it; I lost it when I read this quote. One of the major themes in this book is the importance of looking past someone’s appearance in  order to see the true heart within. As anyone who has a pet will understand, animals have already mastered this. Their love is unconditional, so it doesn’t matter to them what you look like. It broke my heart to see Auggie lose his pet, especially when she was one of the few comforts he had in life. To me, her death made the story all the more real, adding an element of loss to an already moving novel.

There were many times throughout the book that I found my heart breaking for Auggie, however, and I was reminded that life can be extremely cruel to the most vulnerable of us sometimes. As Justin says near the end of the novel, life is a lot like a lottery, where some of us are dealt better numbers than others. While Auggie was dealt a rough hand, however, Justin also notices that he has been granted many blessings in life:

“…If it really was random, the universe would abandon us completely. And the universe doesn’t. It takes care of its most fragile creations in ways we can’t see. Like with parents who adore you blindly. And a big sister who feels guilty for being human over you. And a little gravelly-voiced kid whose friends have left him over you. And even a pink-haired girl who carries your picture in her wallet. Maybe it is a lottery, but the universe makes it all even out in the end. The universe takes care of all its birds” (p. 204).

Even though Auggie faces many challenges that other children don’t, the novel shows us that his life can still be wonderful at times. This, to me, is there the humanity of this story shines through the most: in profound yet quiet realizations like the one above. This book, while written for children, has lessons that are useful to each of us, reminding us that the universe can be both a cruel and beautiful place at times.

Perhaps my favorite lesson in this story, however, was the lesson that not everything is black and white. There are no truly “evil” characters: even Julian, the designated “bully” of the novel, is more a product of his sheltered upper-class upbringing than a truly awful character. The characters are also real; Via, Auggie’s sister, is loving, patient, and understanding, but even she has moments where she wishes she could be the center of her parents’ affection. This book, to me, depicts real people rather than caricatures, showing us that nobody is perfect; everyone says things at times that they don’t mean, everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has flaws. Even Auggie, the hero of the story, loses patience and lashes out at his parents at times. Children need to see themselves reflected in literature, and even if they don’t suffer from the same health issues as Auggie, children can easily relate to the struggles of trying to navigate a new school.

For many students, middle school is the worst transition, as everyone is trying to grow up too quickly. While Auggie’s unique situation makes it difficult for him to adapt, the novel proves that nobody is above dealing with the hardships of transitioning to a new school or growing up. Though Auggie’s appearance plays a large role in the book, many other characters face challenges as well. For example, Via must deal with a friend drifting away from her, and Via’s friend Miranda has to deal with her parents’ nasty divorce. As I said before, many of the characters who seem cold or rude at first are actually just dealing with their own private struggles, struggles that are revealed as the novel progresses. The novel is much like the proverbial “onion” in the movie Shrek; there are many layers to be dissected. Wonder is about bullying, but it’s also about family, friendship, healing after death, divorce, and a number of other heavy topics. We see more than one character face his or her demons, and each one has a unique perspective on life that adds depth to the story.

I also appreciated how many different types of families are showcased throughout the novel. Auggie’s family is more traditional, with two loving parents, a supportive sister, and a dog. As we see throughout the story, however, many children are dealing with unsupportive parents (such as Justin), absent parents (such as Miranda), or even overbearing parents (Julian). Auggie may have unique struggles, but he is lucky compared to some of his classmates, as he was blessed with a highly supportive and loving family. This novel flips the idea of “privilege” on its head, reminding us that the grass always seems greener on the other side. Auggie longs to look normal, while kids like Miranda and Justin long to have a family like his. Along with teaching us the importance of kindness and friendship, this book reminds us to count our blessings every day, as we may have something that others would give anything for.

Overall, I absolutely adored this book, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a touching story with incredibly real characters. Auggie’s is the type of story that will stick with me forever, reminding me to be compassionate, patient, and kind to everyone I meet. After all, we never know what demons someone is battling; sometimes one has to walk the footsteps of another to discover the humanity that each of us shares.

Reference:

Palacio, R. J. (2014). Wonder. Random House USA.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

chains-seeds-of-america

“Madam looked down without seeing me; she looked at my face, my kerchief, my shift neatly tucked into my shirt, looked at my shoes pinching my feet, looked at my hands that were stronger than hers. She did not look into my eyes, did not see the lion inside. She did not see the me of me, the Isabel” (Anderson 2008, p. 134)

“I prayed that Colonel Regan was there. I prayed he would fall ill and die a terrible death for lying to me and betraying me and letting them break my body. Whenever I heard the words ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom,’ I wanted to spit in the dust” (Anderson 2008, p. 158).

Of all the books I’ve read so far this semester, this is perhaps my favorite. I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction, but this novel gripped me from the very first page and did not let me go until the very end. Even after, I found myself immediately wanting to pick up the sequel and keep going, though realistically I won’t have time to do so until after this semester is over (one of the joys of graduate school). I’ve always been a fan of Anderson’s work (I absolutely loved Fever 1793 and Speak), and this book certainly lives up to the very high standards I’ve set for her in my mind.

Chains centers around a young slave girl named Isabel living during the American Revolution. At the beginning of the story, Isabel and her younger sister Ruth have just been set free by their master, a kind woman named Mary Finch. Unfortunately for Isabel and Ruth, Miss Finch has recently passed away, leaving them at the mercy of her cruel nephew. Ignoring his aunt’s wishes, the new master sells the girls to a man by the name of Mr. Lockton, a Loyalist from New York. Once in New York, Isabel finds herself immediately swept up in the brewing conflict between Loyalists and Patriots, delivering secret messages to Curzon, a young slave boy who soon becomes her first and only friend. It is through her secret duties as a spy for the Patriots that Isabel learns a harsh lesson: “freedom” and “liberty” are ideals not always awarded equally.

As I say with many of the books I review on this blog, I’m not entirely sure where to begin with this one. From the very beginning, the novel intrigues its audience with a moving, thrilling story, one with new twists and turns on every page. Even though this story is told through the eyes of a slave girl in 1776, I found myself drawn to her, immediately invested in her plight and rooting for her to succeed. At the same time, I found myself cursing “Madam,” Isabel’s cruel new mistress throughout the novel. Anderson is a master of getting her readers to care about the characters, making them both believable and sympathetic.

While this book focuses on the plights of everyday citizens during the Revolutionary War, it never feels like reading a textbook about the time period. Sure, there are excerpts from real historic documents at the beginning of each chapter, but these serve more as added details than they do critical plot points. The story is, first and foremost, a story of a little girl fighting to earn her freedom; the Revolutionary War simply provides an exciting backdrop to the main story. What intrigued me the most about this story was Anderson’s ability to make me truly think about ideas such as “freedom” and “liberty.”

In the Declaration of Independence (cited on page 270 in the novel), it states that “all men are created equal.” As we quickly learn throughout the story, however, all men were not created equal in the eyes of slave-owners (or even still today). Many times throughout the novel, Isabel finds herself slighted, ignored, or forgotten after being promised her freedom, even though she provides invaluable assistance to the Patriots. She goes as far as risking her own life to deliver information for the taste of freedom, only to be forced to help herself in the end. Curzon, too, is given the short end of the stick, left to rot in prison after becoming a Patriot soldier and aiding in the fight.

One cannot even list on both hands the number of injustices in this book alone, providing an extremely realistic picture of what life must have been like for slaves caught in the middle of the conflict during this time period. No matter which side they chose, they were still confined to slavery at the end of the day, something that not many people think about when they consider the American Revolution. Perhaps the greatest irony of the Revolutionary War is that, while these men were fighting for their freedom from an oppressive government, they were totally content to enslave and imprison others simply for the color of their skin. To me, this makes a very powerful statement, one that I think is still relevant today.

Given today’s racially tense climate, I think it’s more important than ever that we choose not to forget the horrors of slavery, apartheid, and segregation. Our country has come a long way since the days of owning and selling our fellow human beings, but we have proven in the last year alone that we still have a very long way to go. Books like these are incredibly important, especially for children, as they remind new generations of the horrors that should never be repeated. I thought Anderson’s use of the Revolutionary War as a framing device for this issue was incredibly clever, as it reminds us that not all of us are entirely “free,” even today. It also reminds us that “freedom” and “liberty” are ideals, and they often come with a very hefty price. In Isabel’s world, freedom is not always free, especially for those who likely deserve it the most. It’s been said many times that those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it. I believe this novel is giving us that reminder in a very subtle manner, by giving us a glimpse of the past that many have already forgotten (or choose not to remember).

Regardless of whether or not this message will ever sink in, I’m grateful that this book exists, and I plan to read the rest of the series as soon as I am able. If you have even the slightest interest in historical fiction, or if you’re just interested in reading a riveting, pulse-pounding story of freedom and adventure, then you should definitely give this series a shot; I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Reference:

Anderson, L. H. (2008). Chains. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.