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

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“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.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

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Basketball Rule #1

In this game of life

your family is the court

and the ball is your heart.

No matter how good you are,

no matter how down you get,

always leave

your heart

on the court.

(Alexander 2014, p. 20)

I’m not usually a big fan of books written in verse, but I found myself really enjoying this book, to the point where I actually read a little bit of it out loud because I was enjoying the rhythm and flow so much. Each page is written almost like a rap song, with short bursts of text providing glimpses of the story through the main character’s head. While I’ve read similar books before (the works of Ellen Hopkins come to mind), this book felt unique in that it seemed to represent the character’s inner thoughts and feelings through the rhymes. I thought this was a really creative way to tell a story, and I loved every minute of it.

Much like Orbiting Jupiter, this is a short story that doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to tough issues. The novel focuses on a high school boy named Josh Bell. Because his dad was a famous ball player, Josh and his twin brother Jordan have grown up cultivating impressive skills on the basketball court. Though the two have always been close, things begin to change when Jordan gets a new girlfriend and starts to spend all of his time with her. Feeling left out, Josh says and does a few things he shouldn’t (including hitting his brother in the face with a basketball during a game), leading the two to have a falling out. When it becomes clear that their all-star dad is facing serious health problems, however, the two must learn to come together in order to discover what really matters in life.

Like I mentioned before, this book is the exact opposite of the type of book I usually enjoy. I’m all about sweeping fantasy novels written in prose, while this novel is a realistic story written in poetic rap verses. From the very first page, however, I was hooked; I found myself thinking that if all rap sounded like this book, I’d probably enjoy it a lot more as a musical genre than I do. Aside from being rhythmic and pleasing to the ear, the poetic style actually made the story itself more intriguing, as a lot of details must be inferred from the simple lines on the page. This isn’t the type of book to spoon-feed the plot to you; not all of the dialogue is obvious, and it’s very easy to miss details if you aren’t reading closely. That being said, I really enjoyed the suspense that built as I read further, prompting me to wonder what would happen to the father and how the brothers’ relationship would evolve or change.

The most heart-wrenching aspect of this book, in my opinion, is the bond between the brothers and their dad, and the way this bond shapes the narrative as the dad’s health begins to decline. The book is short, but I found myself immediately invested in these characters, wanting their father to be okay every bit as much as they did. As with many children’s novels, however, this novel’s aim seems to be teaching children (and young teens) how to deal with the concept of death. While we know from the beginning that Josh and Jordan’s dad is in poor health, his death at the end still comes as a shock. The novel pulls almost a twist at the end, luring the reader into a false sense of security before dropping the hammer on both the characters and the audience. This, in my opinion, was an excellent way to handle the death, as it shows the harsh reality of losing a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly. Children need to understand these lessons early on, and it’s best to teach them in a way that is safe and controlled (rather than waiting until tragedy strikes).

In the end, the ultimate lesson that I took from this book was that life is short; when tragedy strikes, you forget all of the petty little things keeping you from those you love, and you remember what’s most important. After their father’s death, the twins are able to reconcile, realizing that they will really only have one another in the end. Moving forward, I’d like to think that the two could mourn their father together, sharing in the great moments the three of them shared and carrying on their father’s legacy. As a whole, this book demonstrates the close bond between families, and how even the biggest tragedy can shed light in places where there had only been darkness before. While I came into this reading experience expecting “just another sports story,” I’m pleased to say that I found quite a lot more than I expected. I guess I really should know by now that you can never judge a book by its cover!

Reference:

Alexander, K. (2014). The crossover. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

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“Christmas is the season for miracles, you know. Sometimes they come big and loud, I guess – but I’ve never seen one of those. I think probably most miracles are a lot smaller, and sort of still, and so quiet, you could miss them. I didn’t miss this one. When my father put his hand on Joseph’s back, Joseph didn’t even flinch” (Schmidt 2015, pp. 114-115).

This book was short, but tragic and absolutely heart-breaking. I never cease to be amazed by the ability of young adult and children’s literature to profoundly move me, even though it’s meant for an audience much younger than I am. While I’m not usually a fan of books that make me cry (John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is a major exception to this rule), I found this story to be a touching look at the bonds that are formed between human beings, whether these bonds are platonic or something much deeper.

The story focuses on two boys named Jack and Joseph. Jack is a twelve year old boy living a comfortable life on a farm with his parents. Joseph is a troubled teen who was sent to a facility known as Stone Mountain for attempting to murder a teacher. At the beginning of the story, Jack’s parents decide to take Joseph in as a foster child, making him Jack’s new foster brother. While many of Jack’s teachers and classmates are afraid of Joseph because of his troubled past, Jack immediately sees beyond the things that make him scary to other people. Jack soon learns that Joseph fell in love with a girl named Maddie, and now has a daughter (named Jupiter) that he has never been allowed to see. His inability to see his own daughter torments Joseph, as does the fact that Maddie died due to complications during the birth. As the two boys grow closer, Jack learns that there is inherent value in every person, no matter the struggles or troubles that defined them in the past.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this novel. From the very beginning, I felt a profound sympathy for Joseph, and all real teens like him who are misunderstood due to their past mistakes. Even Joseph’s teachers tend to judge him without ever making an effort to know him first, as can be seen in the scene where one of the teachers warns Jack about his new foster brother:

“‘I respect your parents. I really do. They’re trying to make a difference in the world, bringing kids like Joseph Brook into a normal family. But kids like Joseph Brook aren’t always normal, see? They act the way they do because their brains work differently. They don’t think like you and I think. So they can do things…'” (Schmidt 2015, p. 21).

Once again, this is only a fictional story, but the mere thought that a teacher could dehumanize a minor in such a way struck me to the core. The saddest part about this is knowing that there are actual adults out there (many of them responsible for children in some way) that think like this, devaluing human life simply because the child or teen doesn’t “think the same way” as everyone else. The more you learn about Joseph’s struggles throughout the novel, the more your heart breaks for him. He never intentionally did a bad thing. His only real mistake was falling in love with a girl from a higher socio-economic status, one with incredibly over-protective parents who treated him like dirt from the very beginning. As the story progresses, we also learn that his mother is gone and his father is highly abusive , giving him no real family to lean on when his life later falls apart.

Books like Orbiting Jupiter, in my opinion, help to show young teens a different perspective. There are likely many young people out there who think like some of the teachers in the book: that some kids are just “bad eggs,” and aren’t worth trying to rehabilitate or educate. Fortunately for Joseph, there are teachers (and a foster family) in his life who truly believe he can succeed, working with him to help him advance in school. As a young person who likely would have thought the same way before college opened my mind, I can see a great deal of benefit in sharing this book with a variety of audiences. Those in similar situations can relate to Joseph, while those in families like Jack’s can catch a glimpse of the struggles that many under-privileged kids and teens go through. Even as an adult, reading this book proved to be an eye-opening experience.

I’d rather not spoil the ending for those who haven’t read this book yet, but I highly recommend it. The best stories, in my opinion, are the stories that help us to empathize with others, and to see life from the eyes of someone whose struggles are completely different from our own. I think doing this really helps to put our own struggles in perspective, and allows us to develop compassion for others. Joseph’s life is heart-breaking, and it’s even more heart-breaking to realize that there are actual teens out there going through similar struggles. I consider myself humbled and grateful after reading this book, and if it doesn’t already have an award, it most definitely deserves one.

Reference:

Schmidt, G. D. (2015). Orbiting Jupiter. Boston: Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos

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“I wanted him to stop telling me who I was when I knew better. He wanted me to be something I wasn’t, and I wanted him to be something he wasn’t. We were so far apart. And yet, even though I knew he was wrong, he was my dad, and I wanted him to be right. More than anything, I wanted him to have all the answers” (Gantos 2011, p. 94).

The more I read children’s literature, the more I find myself surprised at the depth and complexity of it. While it’s true that there are many books (including many of the books I read as a child) that amount to literary junk food, there are so many children’s books that tackle issues even adult stories can’t really handle properly. Joey Pigza Loses Control is one such book. While I’m usually more of a fan of fantasy and science fiction, I really appreciate a story that handles real-world issues in a realistic, humorous manner, and this book handled a number of serious issues very efficiently.

Joey Pigza is a young boy suffering from ADHD, who has just been given medicine (in the form of a daily patch on his arm) that allows him to feel “normal.” Joey is excited because, for the first time, he will be visiting with his dad for six weeks of the summer. Despite being told that it will likely never happen, Joey can’t help but hope that this trip will mend his family, bringing his parents back together again. At first, Joey’s dad seems just like him: “wired,” optimistic, and full of enthusiasm for the future. He quickly learns, however, that all is not as rosy as it seems, and that his dad has many problems of his own that need to be worked out before he’s ready to parent anyone.

The quote that struck me the most from this book can be found about halfway through the story, when Joey is pretending to be a mannequin in a shopping mall. As he’s having his fun, a nice, motherly woman catches him in the act, giving him a strange look when she finds out what he’s doing:

“She gave me a strange look when I said ‘normal,’ like the last thing in the world I was was ‘normal.’ Oh well, I thought, maybe it’s not a good idea to be too normal. It didn’t sound like much fun if it only made you afraid to do the stuff you really wanted to do” (Gantos 2011, p. 110).

Though this is only a work of fiction, I found myself really connecting to Joey’s desire to be “normal.” I’ve suffered from anxiety for most of my life, and even as an adult I find myself wishing that I was “normal,” and that “normal” things (like driving and dating) didn’t cause me to shut down with panic and fear. Like Joey, I also fear what might happen if I were to stop taking the medication that helps me feel more normal, and that I’ll quickly slip back into the “old me” if I’m not careful, too afraid to leave the house and get things done. If a 24 year old woman can connect to this fictional boy, I can’t imagine how his struggles relate to actual children who might be reading this book.

One thing I’ve never dealt with is divorce, though many children out there have had to go through the changes that accompany parents who have chosen to separate. I felt for Joey as he struggled to connect with his dad, wanting him to be proud of him and form a bond that they’d never shared before. This becomes even harder when Joey’s dad turns to alcohol, becoming a different person entirely when he’s intoxicated. These are very serious issues, but issues that children in the real world often have to face. Joey’s story shows children that, while you can’t always fix the messes in your life, there is always hope for a brighter future. Joey has a mother who loves him deeply, medication that helps him feel better, and a dog (Pablo) who serves as his best friend. Even without his dad, Joey lives a good life, and when things don’t quite work out the way we planned, his story shows children that there are always blessings to be had in life.

This book also shows, like the above quote implies, that adults don’t always have the answers. Sometimes, they’re every bit as lost as children, and this is important for children to understand. At the end of the day, we’re all human, and we all have flaws and lapses in judgment that lead to sticky situations; I think it helps children to see that nobody is perfect, not even those we look up to most.

It has always been my belief that children’s stories shouldn’t shy away from tough issues, as they allow children going through these experiences to feel as if they have a friend (fictional or otherwise) coping with the same struggles. For children who aren’t facing the same issues, stories like this introduce them to some of the world’s injustice in a safe, controlled manner, one that allows them to wonder about these experiences and ask questions.

This is easily the type of book that could spark a classroom discussion about divorce, alcoholism, and ADHD, all tough topics that many children are having to deal with in reality. I’ve heard criticism that it treats these topics too lightly, but I think humor is sometimes the best medicine when it comes to the topics that are the most heart-breaking. Sometimes, it just helps to laugh about the dark parts of life, even when we don’t always feel like it. I also think that the addition of humor allows children to feel comfortable reading until the end; if it was dark and depressing all the way through, it wouldn’t give anyone much incentive to keep reading. The humor shows children that it’s okay to be happy and enjoy yourself sometimes, even when the things you’re going through don’t seem at all funny. Life isn’t just light or dark; it’s a messy combination of both, and I think this book captures both sides of the coin in a meaningful way.

When I have time, I’d love to read the rest of the series; I think Joey is a wonderful character, and his story is filled with a lot of heart and realism. This book proves that the right story can really warm me up to genres that I haven’t explored much previously!

Reference:

Gantos, J. (2011). Joey Pigza loses control. New York: Square Fish.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

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“Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform” (DiCamillo 2006, p. 25).

“Would you like to hear, reader, how it all unfolded? The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But stories that are not pretty have a certain value too, I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot always be sweetness and light” (DiCamillo 2006, p. 183).

This book was incredibly sweet! As with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I remember seeing the movie for this book a long time ago. Unlike the C.S Lewis work, however, I did not remember anything about this story, making the book a fresh and exciting experience.

The Tale of Despereaux, as you might expect, follows the story of Despereaux, a tiny mouse with big ears and even bigger dreams. Shunned by his fellow mice for being different (and for talking to humans), Despereaux is thrown into the dungeon to be eaten by rats, but not before meeting and falling in love with the beautiful princess Pea. Spurred forward by his love for the princess and his desire to be an adventurous knight, Despereaux is able to survive the dungeon and save princess Pea from a vengeful rat named Chiaroscuro and a simple, misguided servant girl named Miggery Sow. The Tale of Despereaux is a modern fairy tale at its finest, with suspense, adventure, intrigue, and a whole lot of heart.

Once again, I found this tale to be both simple and cute, inviting children into a world where anything is possible, and where even a mouse can be a hero. In my opinion, the overall messages of this story are that love and hope are wonderful, and those who are different are usually the ones who have the best adventures (as the above quote implies). From his birth, Despereaux is seen as an oddity, a mouse with big ears who doesn’t act like a mouse. Despite this, his optimism, bravery, and love for the princess are what make him successful, delivering a subtle but wonderful message to the reader.

Similarly, the themes of redemption and forgiveness are explored in a way children can understand, without ever pandering to or talking down to the audience. For example, Roscuro turns to revenge after seeing the princess’s hatred for accidentally killing her mother, but realizes the error of his ways when she forgives him. Forgiveness also makes Despereaux feel better when he chooses to forgive his father, letting go of any anger or resentment he might have held. This, too, is a very deep and crucial message, delivered in a way that makes it easier for children to understand.

Grief, too, is explored in the way the kind bans soup after the death of his wife. As the book says:

“This is the danger of loving: No matter how powerful you are, no matter how many kingdoms you rule, you cannot stop those you love from dying. Making soup illegal, outlawing rats, these things soothed the poor king’s heart. And so we must forgive him” (p. 119).

This is a very simple, yet powerful, way to explain love and loss. As the narrator points out, the king’s actions may have seemed extreme, but they were done in an act of grief, something that we all experience and handle differently. While a younger reader might not immediately pick up on this theme due to the subtlety in which it is presented, older children (and adults like me) can look back on stories like Despereaux and appreciate these very complex themes presented in simple ways.

Despite the simplicity of the story, The Tale of Despereaux also features quite a bit of darkness, much like the original versions of the Grimm fairy tales. I was shocked at the abuse poor Miggery Sow had to endure, being beaten so badly that she became both “simple-minded” and nearly deaf. That is a concerning level of violence for a children’s book, though I agree that sometimes a little violence is necessary to convey a realistic story (even if the setting and characters behave in a way that’s fantastic). My problem, however, is that the violence is almost played for laughs rather than serious issues. Miggery is a sympathetic character, but also constantly mocked for being “dumb” and played as the comic relief.

The book’s treatment of Mig, to me, is the only real mixed message the book sends, and the positive messages outweigh it enough that I don’t see it being a huge problem. That being said, I would hope it doesn’t encourage kids that it’s okay to bully and make fun of those who are different, especially if they have disabilities or aren’t as smart as other children. Of course, Despereaux himself is different, and played as the hero, so perhaps this isn’t the message the author intended to convey at all.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story, yet another that I missed out on during my own childhood. I remember readingBecause of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising as a child, but this is a Kate DiCamillo story that unfortunately slipped by me when I was younger. After reading it, however, I can honestly say that I’m very glad I gave it a try!

Reference:

DiCamillo, K., & Ering, T. B. (2006). The tale of Despereaux: Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press.

Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

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“I look at the dark closing in, sky getting more and more purple, and I’m thinking how nothing is as simply as you guess – not right or wrong, not Judd Travers, not even me or this dog I got here. But the good part is I saved Shiloh and opened my eyes some. Now that ain’t bad for eleven” (Naylor, 1991, p. 144).

This was such an incredibly sweet little story! Like Holes, Shiloh is a story I had heard of, but had never bothered to read as a child. Looking back on it, I’m curious as to why I never came across this book, as I’ve always loved animals and feel-good stories about stopping animal cruelty (one of my favorite childhood books is Hoot by Carl Hiaasen). This book would’ve been right up my alley when I was younger. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that I chose to read it now, as Shiloh is a heart-warming story about a boy and his love for a dog.

The story focuses on eleven-year-old Marty Preston, a young boy with a big heart. While walking in the woods one day, he comes across what appears to be a timid and maltreated beagle. Instantly smitten, Marty lets the dog follow him home, where his parents insist that the dog must belong to someone nearby. It doesn’t take long for the family to speculate that the dog belongs to their neighbor Judd Travers, a thirty year old hunter known for mistreating his hunting dogs. Sure enough, the dog turns out to be Judd’s newest hunting dog, who he has beaten and starved for constantly running away from hunts. Angered and worried about his new-found friend, Marty decides to hide the dog away on his family’s property when he escapes once again. What follows is a story about love, friendship, honesty, and how doing the right thing isn’t always as simple as one might think.

What struck me most about Shiloh is that, despite its simplicity, it is able to convey a very important message in only 144 pages. The overall message to this story (at least from what I gathered) is that its not always easy to decide what the right course of action is, even if we truly believe we’re doing the right thing. From the very beginning, Marty struggles to decide which is worse: knowingly allowing a dog to be mistreated, or lying to the dog’s legal owner while hiding him in the woods. While most children learn fairly early on that stealing is wrong, they also learn that it’s important to treat animals with respect and kindness. Frequently, it seems as if simple truths such as these can become muddied, making it hard to tell the difference between wrong and right. While most would argue that Marty’s heart is in the right place, his actions lead him to weave a tangled web of lies for those around him, as one lie leads right into the next. Throughout the book, Marty is constantly reassuring himself that what he is doing is okay because he’s doing it to save an innocent animal, a conclusion that many of us would come to if we’d been put in the same position.

As this book proves, however, the answers are not always black and white. Judd Travers may not be the nicest human on earth, but we learn throughout the story that he was neglected and abused himself as a child, partially causing him to lash out at animals and other people as he grew older. In the end, though Judd toys with the idea of going back on the bargain he’s struck with Marty, he allows the boy to keep the dog he’s worked so hard for, showing that even the nastiest humans can have some redeeming qualities. What I took most out of this story, though, was how the love between a person and his or her pet can really shape his or her identity. I was always told, growing up, that getting a pet was a huge responsibility, and that taking care of an animal was a big commitment. Marty demonstrates this by going hungry on many occasions in order to bring leftover food to Shiloh, as well as working twenty hours doing hard labor for Judd in order to keep him. This book, without preaching to children, demonstrates that even without these sacrifices, taking care of an animal is no small task.

I believe this book has the potential to teach children how to be compassionate towards animals, and to recognize that some rules are meant to be broken if it’s being done for the right reasons. In the end, Marty’s sacrifices lead to a happy ending for both him and his dog, but the book warns that his decisions might have consequences for others (such as when he agrees to keep Judd’s illegal hunting a secret in order to keep Shiloh). This book is a short, easy read with a wonderful message, and I would highly recommend it to children who are animal lovers or reluctant readers; the plot and language are simple and easy to follow along, and the story can be used to prompt a discussion about compassion for animals and the difference between right and wrong (which is not always as clear as we would like it to be). This book is proof that not every Newbery Award winner has to be profound; sometimes the best stories are the most simple and easy to understand.

Reference:

Naylor, P. R. (1991). Shiloh. New York, NY: Atheneum.

Holes by Louis Sachar

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“A lot of people don’t believe in curses. A lot of people don’t believe in yellow-spotted lizards either, but if one bites you, it doesn’t make a difference whether you believe in it or not” (Sachar, 1998, p. 41).

You’ll probably be shocked to learn this, but I’d actually never read Holes before picking it up this week. I remember seeing (and loving) the movie adaptation when it came out, but I’d never bothered to sit down and read the book… Until now. Generally, I prefer to read a book before I see the movie (so as not to taint my reading experience), but when this movie came out, I hadn’t established that rule for myself just yet. After reading the book, however, I’m very glad I did, as the movie adaptation is a rare example of a film that follows the source material almost exactly. That being said, the book is absolutely wonderful, and completely deserving of its Newbery Medal.

By now, I’m sure everyone knows the premise of this particular book, but I’ll share it here in case you either need a refresher or have waited to read it like me. Holes follows the story of a boy named Stanley Yelnats, whose family has been plagued for decades by extremely bad luck. Supposedly, his great-great grandfather was cursed by a one-legged gypsy after stealing one of her pigs, leaving his descendants with never-ending misfortune. Because of this, Stanley isn’t surprised when he is wrongfully accused of stealing a pair of sneakers (which, according to him, fell out of the sky and into his hands). Given the choice between jail time and a camp known as Camp Green Lake, Stanley chooses camp… Only to discover that the “camp” is  fate much worse than imprisonment. Once there, Stanley learns that his only purpose is to dig one hole (five feet deep and five feet across in every direction) every single day. While the Warden and counselors insist this is only to “build character,” Stanley and his new-found friends soon discover a mystery of buried treasure that is a century old.

One of my favorite things about this book was it’s ability to portray racism and race relations in a very real and accessible way. Because this is children’s literature, and not young adult or adult literature, the topic needs to be handled more sensitively than it would be in the latter two formats. And, much like Jacqueline Woodson’s Stella By Starlight, Holes does not shy away from the topic of race. While it is not a prominent theme in the book, there is an element of historical fiction in the snippets of Kate Barlow’s past. In these flashbacks, an innocent African American man is killed simply for kissing a white woman, while there are no consequences for the white men who attempt to force themselves on her throughout the novel. This historical observation, though a small part of the book, is still very relevant in today’s society, where a white man can get away with sexual assault while a black man will spend years in jail for non-violent offenses. This book is one of many that can hopefully start a dialogue with children about racial issues in a safe and approachable way. Perhaps the best quote on this issue from the novel comes on page 84, when Stanley is reflecting on the racial dynamic of the camp: “On the lake they were all the same reddish brown color – the color of dirt” (Sachar, 1998). In this setting, all of the boys in the camp are on equal ground; no one race is elevated above another. Though the boys occasionally fight with and tease one another, in the end they are a united force of friends, simply trying to get through the same miserable situation intact. This is a simple, yet excellent message for a children’s book to convey, and I think it’s part of the reason it’s so well-loved.

This isn’t the only reason, of course. Holes is, to put it simply, just an immensely entertaining book. It has everything a reluctant reader might want: mystery, adventure, buried treasure, gypsies, curses, intrigue, friendship, cool inventions, bandits, and a band of lovable and eclectic characters to get to know. Even if this book had no deep messages about race, friendship, family, and self-esteem (which it absolutely does), I think this book would succeed simply because it’s so entertaining. It’s just a fun, easy book to read, and one that I could see both girls and boys enjoying due to the universal nature of the story. The main characters might be boys, but the lessons learned and friendships formed are relatable to any gender. It also has a movie tie-in, making it an easy book to teach and discuss in multiple formats. It’s just a delightful little book, and one that I wish I’d read when I was younger. I’m glad that I finally sat down and gave it a chance. If you like the movie, you will most definitely enjoy the book!

Reference:

Sachar, L. (1998). Holes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

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“Everyone has a story, but as I hear more I find it hard to relate. I lied when I said I was born in the wrong body. I don’t always like my body or that I have love handles. I don’t always like that as a woman I have fewer options than men, even men that aren’t as smart as I am. But I never feel like my body is a trap. If anything, I feel like my love is a trap” (Farizan, 2014, p. 143).

This was such a heartbreaking story to read, especially because it rings with so much honesty and truth. I’ve always known that the LGBT community faces unspeakable discrimination in other parts of the world, but I’d never stopped much to really think about how hard things must be for under-represented groups in other countries. I think it’s very easy to get wrapped up in our own American bubble, forgetting about the hardships that women and minorities (such as the LGBT community) face in other cultures.For all of our grievances in the United States, I do think it’s important to remember that, all things considered, we live a very privileged lifestyle when compared to other cultures. Sprinkled throughout this novel are tragic instances of discrimination, reflective of a culture that can, at times, be both beautiful and cruel.

The story focuses on seventeen year old Sahar, who is hopelessly in love with her best friend Nasrin. There are, unfortunately, many problems with this, however: Nasrin and Sahar are both girls, and they live in a society where being gay is not only seen as a sin, but is also completely illegal. For years, the two have been forced to hide their relationship from the world, but have remained relatively content keeping their love a secret. This changes when Nasrin’s parents force her into an engagement with a wealthy doctor against her will. Because adultery and homosexuality are crimes punishable by death in their country, Nasrin and Sahar know that their days together are coming to an abrupt end. When Sahar meets her cousin’s transgender friend Parveen, however, she forms an idea. While being gay is illegal and sinful in her country, being transgender is viewed as a legitimate illness that can be treated for free by the government. Sahar is then faced with an impossible choice: to give up the girl she loves forever, or to become a man and sacrifice her true self. It’s an impossible, tragic dilemma, and one that sheds light on a reality for many members of the LGBT community in Iran.

Let me begin this review with a disclaimer. I am American with German heritage, and therefore cannot claim to know the slightest thing about Iranian culture, though I have always been curious. Therefore, my views are necessarily going to be skewed due to my own personal experiences. My initial reaction to this story, as with all stories that showcase injustice, was complete and utter heartbreak. Sahar and Nasrin may be fictional characters, but their dilemma is one that many real people have faced. I’m not under any false assumption that our country is perfect when it comes to the LGBT community (or any minority community, for that matter); in fact, we have a very long way to go before normalized discrimination is a thing of the past. That being said, the fact that it is not illegal to be gay in this country is a wonderful thing, as it lets members of the LGBT community love openly without fearing for their lives. I can’t imagine facing the choices that Sahar and Nasrin must deal with in this novel, especially not at age seventeen or eighteen. I’m twenty-three now, and would have a hard time choosing between a life of safety and a life of freedom with the person I love; it’s a choice that nobody should ever have to make.

Oddly enough, however, there were parts of the Iranian culture that seemed almost more progressive than our own. In America, I feel as though being gay is accepted infinitely more than being transgender. In the culture presented in the novel, however, being transgender (or “transsexual,” as the novel refers to it) is seen as an illness that can be treated at no cost to the individual. While this is wonderful for those looking to have the reassignment surgery, I believe it is also legal and accepted for the wrong reasons. Calling transgenderism an “illness” bothers me a bit, as it implies (at least to me) that you are sick if you believe you were born in the wrong body. Of course, I don’t have a better term for it, but I did find it interesting that the Iranian culture views it with slightly more of an open mind than we do (though there are still those who do not accept transgender individuals), especially since being gay is considered a cardinal sin in Iranian society.

It was also interesting to see the characters in the book comment on this; sometimes, they admire and envy Western society, but they also pity us at times. There is a point in the novel where one of the characters laments that Americans cannot have the reassignment surgery done for free, and are thankful to be able to get it done at no cost to them. At the same time, many of the characters comment upon the “luxury of the West,” sometimes wishing they too could choose to be whatever and whoever they want to be without consequence (p. 195). There is also a moment in which Nasrin is almost arrested for showing her elbows, leading to a tense moment in which neither her nor Sahar are sure if they will make it out safely. Such things would never happen in the United States, though we do live in a world where rape victims can be blamed for what they wore or how intoxicated they were at the time. This novel presents the idea that there is no such thing as a perfect culture, and that we all tend to see the grass as being greener on the other side at times.

As I said before, I (like many others in America) feel as though I have been sheltered from the experiences of other cultures, and while I cannot attest to the accuracy of this portrayal of Iranian culture, this novel did help to open my mind to what daily life might be like in other countries. It was eye-opening to be able to step into the shoes of a young woman who is only a few years younger than myself, but who lives in a culture that is vastly different from my own. In truth, not everything in Sahar’s society was negative, as most Western media will have us believe. There were several kind, open-minded, sympathetic characters in the novel, including a police officer who helps to protect Sahar’s gay cousin Ali (throughout most of the novel, at least). Religion was actually portrayed in an extremely realistic manner, as the novel showed glimpses of characters who were both extremely devout, and characters who did not actively practice religion; not everyone is painted with the same stereotypical brush. The novel also showcases an Iranian wedding ceremony, ripe with tradition and beautiful symbolism. Unfortunately, there also appears to be a great deal of sexism and prejudice against those who are different, which I suppose exists in every culture (including our own). I applaud Farizan’s ability to highlight this unique culture without sugar-coating some of the injustices faced by those within it; she gives a very realistic portrayal of a society that not many Westerners (myself included) have taken the time to understand.

Overall, I found it to be extremely intriguing and thought-provoking to leave my world behind and step into another, if only for a short period of time. I have lived in America my entire life, and have never thought to venture out and experience other cultures; this novel allowed me to do so in a safe and attainable way. As an ally to the LGBT community, this novel also opened my eyes to the massive amount of work that still needs to be done worldwide to help normalize and decriminalize the LGBT community. It is my sincere belief that nobody should ever be punished or persecuted because of who they love, and I long to see a world in which being gay is viewed as being no different than having brown hair or blue eyes; it’s just one of many traits that can describe a human being. I believe this novel is very deserving of its Lambda award, as it reminds us all that equality is worth fighting for, if only so that our children never have to make the impossible choices that the characters in this story (and countless real people all over the world) have had to make. If you’re in the market for a new and unique experience, I invite you to step outside of your comfort zone and give this book a try; I promise you it’s worth the read!

Reference:

Farizan, S. (2014). If You Could Be Mine. New York, NY: Algonquin Young Readers.