Book Review: The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata

This is the second novel by Cynthia Kadohata that I’ve read, and I definitely like her style.  She’s got an intense way of getting into the head of teenaged and pre-teen characters that really shows the world in a believable way.  The Thing About Luck focuses on the year of bad luck that Summer, a first generation Japanese American girl, and her family face.  It shows her journey into understanding herself and her family’s situation better, and it fits a grander theme of coming of age narratives.

All through the novel, Summer is faced with various ethical dilemmas and her various cultural and personal influences thoughts and pushes on how to deal with them.  She clearly grows and matures while still having a very self consistent voice that is very appealing.  Even when the reader can tell she’s about to do something that isn’t a very good idea, they can also see why she’s doing it.  One of the things that I loved about some of these themes throughout the novel is that there often wasn’t a best choice.  However, the reader can see her making better and better choices (for the most part) as the novel progresses.

One of the other things that I love about the novel is that it has a very open, caring view on a family that clearly has some neurodivergence.  In the end, Summer and Jaz (her younger brother, whose is shown as being somehow neurodivergent) are a pair of siblings who are clearly close and go to each other with important things, even if they have their differences like most siblings.  The conflict in the novel that deals with this has more to do with people outside the family not being fair to him, but it does seem to be getting better.

Overall, I would recommend this book for late elementary school through middle school readers, and I would pair it with other coming of age narratives.  There’s definitely some interesting things about farming/rural settings that could be used as a theme for what to put this with as well.

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Book Review: Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata

I picked up Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata from the library on a whim when I saw that part of the book was set in Kazakhstan.  A quick glance told me that it would fit this project, but I didn’t take all that much time to mull over whether it would be a good fit.  (I’m a small part Kazakh, and it’s a part of my heritage and history that I want to know more about than I do.)  The book turned out to be interesting to me in all sorts of ways beyond just that.

Kadohata tackles adoption from foreign countries in all the hard ways in this novel.  She presents characters with flaws, major ones, that are still sympathetic and have the reader wanting everything to turn out alright for them.  Almost ever single character in the book is likable in some way, and I really appreciated that she managed to make some of the characters be at odds to each other and still likable.

I also loved that the novel had strong positive representations of mental health care (not as infallible but as useful), adoption (which I already mentioned, but it bears repeating), and unconventional families.  I need to see more of all of these in literature.

On top of being a good look into a hard topic, Half a World Away is beautifully written with real sounding dialogue and interesting descriptions of the world.  It’s a book that I definitely think will merit several re-reads to catch details that I missed before.  The emotional arcs of the characters were fascinating, and there was a lot going on in a small amount of space.

Reading Level:  late-elementary through middle school, could definitely be brought back in higher levels, but high schoolers might not engage with it well because the protagonist is “too young”
Pair With:  narratives about immigration and adoption

Book Review: Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres is a wonderfully personal and compelling look into the experience of a first generation kid dealing with fitting in while also still keeping her cultural roots.  The titular Stef Soto is definitely torn between the two options, and her struggle is one that will be relatable to many students no matter what their background.

This is an excellent coming of age narrative full of signs of growing maturity and the learning of lessons, big and small.  Watching Stef find her voice through her art and facing the struggles of her family business all the while navigating the challenging landscape of middle school friendship in an interesting, diverse landscape definitely held my interest.

The novel was a quick read, and the language was clear and easy to follow while still having the excellent voice of a storyteller.  This would be a great addition to units about coming of age and “finding one’s voice.”

Reading Level:  mid-elementary school through middle school
Pair With:  Coming of age and finding one’s voice narratives, first generation immigrant narratives

Book Review: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park is an excellent piece of historical fiction aimed at a middle grade to young adult reading level.  It has fascinating, complex characters, and is very informative about the setting (12th Century Korea) and what it might have been like from the perspective of an everyday person.  I love these sorts of looks at culture and historical context.

There are many beautiful messages scattered through this book about the importance of art and found family and perseverance and taking risks for your dreams (even when they seem daunting).

I love the use of folklore motifs throughout the novel, and I love the way that it looks through a historical and cultural window into a different time.  This would be an excellent complement in the classroom to the more common European geared look at historical fiction, and I could easily see putting it next to the young adult historical fiction novels of E. L. Konisburg or other similar writers.

Reading Level:  mid-elementary through middle, could also be examined in college in the context of historical lit perspectives
Pair With: E. L. Konisburg, young adult historical fiction from around the world

Book Review: Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai

After reading Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhà Lai, I was so impressed that I went ahead an checked out Listen, Slowly from the library as well.  This novel is both completely different and also tied by a similar beauty of language and compelling emotional style to Inside Out & Back Again.

In Listen, Slowly, first-generation, twelve-year-old Mai gets sent back to Vietnam for the summer to connect with her roots and help her grandmother resolve a family mystery.  The story is simple enough in its plot, but it captures the thoughts and feelings of a girl her age, living in two worlds at once.  I love the progression of Mai’s character through the novel, and I love listening to her voice develop.

In some ways, Listen, Slowly tells a part of the story of Inside Out & Back Again backwards.  Obviously the two are in very very different settings:  separated by time and regions of the US and regions of Vietnam.  The use of language and how it is peppered through the story is an amazing look at how a home language of childhood lingers on in the mind, and how it is understandable and yet incomprehensible at times.

The narrative of friendship in the book is also beautifully compelling.  I really want to hand this book to students, but I also want to hand it to a lot of adults.  I think that it does both an excellent job of explaining the experience of someone with Mai’s background, and also of explaining kids on the brink of being teenagers.

(Also, I think that I’ve found a new author to add to my list of favorites.)

Reading Level:  Mid-elementary through middle school.  I think that a lot of high school students wouldn’t get as much out of this book as they possibly could because they would see it as “childish.”  I could definitely see giving it to college students though, especially studied along with Inside Out & Back Again or along with other narratives of children of immigrants.

There are useful guides and comments on the book on her website:  http://www.thanhhalai.com/listen-slowly/

Book Review: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhà Lai

Inside Out & Back Again is a collection of poetry by Thanhhà Lai that tells the story of Hà, a Vietnamese girl who flees Saigon to the US with her family at the end of the war.  Through journal like poetic entries, Lai shows the progression of emotions and events that effect Hà and her family.  The story is emotionally compelling and understandable without giving a lot of the historical details, instead enriching them with an understanding of experience.

The volume is divided into sections, and each caries its own flavor and tone that creates a beautiful whole capturing Hà’s experience.

“Part I – Saigon”

The first section of the collection begins the year 1975 and stretches through the end of April of that year.  I shows in vignettes and snippets of childish viewpoint the growing tensions and fear of the Vietnam War interspersed with lighthearted, relatable childishness.  Hà’s family is easy to like and easy to feel an affinity for, and it is important to see the normal seeming life that is occasionally broken up by the details of living in a war.

 

“Part II – At Sea”

The second section carries through the realities of the escape from Vietnam at the ending of the war.  It picks up where “Saigon” left off and continues to early August of that year.  It is in some ways the most desperate part of the story, and parts are hard to read, but even then, there is a certain childlike joy that creeps through, and there is a sense of hope and family and caring that caries through.

 

“Part III – Alabama”

The third section of the volume picks up from the end of “At Sea” and details the family’s life and trials settling in in Alabama.  This section stretches through to nearly the end of the year, late December, and it is a glaring look at racism in America while still being uplifting and showing the human ability to connect with others no matter what.  The trials of learning English are wonderfully depicted in this section, and Hà remains a compelling, fascinating narrator.  Watching her grow and learn throughout the poems was definitely fascinating.

 

“Part IV – From Now On”

The final part is the shortest, going from where “Alabama” left off and carrying through to  Tết (the Vietnamese Lunar New Year) again, bringing the book through a full cycle of the year.  This part returns to hopeful looking to the future, and echoes in many beautiful ways the opening of the book.

 

I love most of all how the book encompasses the message of the dedication:

“To the millions of refugees in the world,
may you each find a home.”

This book would be such a valuable read to help students understand the feelings of those displaced and coming to a new country.  There is so much that  is relatable and understandable in this story, and that is important.   I definitely recommend reading this book, and I think that it could make a really valuable addition to a curriculum about narratives of those affected by wars.

Reading Level:  Mid elementary school through middle school.  I’d probably be most inclined to give this book to sixth or seventh graders.  It can definitely be appreciated by older students and adult readers, but I think that it would present the best learning moment for students in that age range.

Note:  I have been gone from this project for a long time because real life intervened.  I hope that I can slowly start posting more often.  I’ve at last gotten myself situated with library time in my schedule again, which should help.  I also have a few stacks of unread books that were slated for this project.

Book Review: Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros

Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros is a collection of short stories.  Ranging in length from vignettes to novellas, they all focus on characters studies and the relationships between people.  The collection of short stories is divided into three sections.  Each section has a different theme, but put together they try to model many different elements of life.

I.  “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn”

The first section of the collection is about childhood.  The short stories, all vignettes, in this section are written from the voice of a child.  In the first story, she is very young, and she gets older as the stories progress.  These stories are all tinged with nostalgia and memory of early childhood perceptions of things.  Two of the stories in particular caught my attention:  “Eleven” and “Salvador Late or Early.”

“Eleven” is about the concept of growing up and what that means.  The skillful crafting of the language is very much something that brings me back to Cisneros’s writing, and the opening of this short story is one of my favorite pieces of writing by her.

“What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.  And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t.  You open your eyes and everything’s just the same, only it’s today.  And you don’t feel eleven at all.  You feel like you’re still ten.  And you are–underneath the year that makes you eleven.” — Sandra Cisneros (“Eleven”, Woman Hollering Creek)

“Salvador Late or Early” is a very brief character sketch, but it paints a very vivid image of the life of a character in only a few pages.

II.  “One Holy Night”

This section focuses on teenagers and the cusp of life between childhood and adulthood.  There are only two stories in this section:  “One Holy Night” and “My Tocaya.”  Neither of these stories struck me nearly as strongly as the stories in the childhood section.  They are interesting though and add to the collection as a whole.

III.  “There Was A Man, There Was A Woman”

The third and final section, also by far the longest, focuses on adulthood and relationships.  Many of the stories are vignettes, conversations, or just brief snapshots of life.  Some of them are beautiful or heart wrenching.  All of them manage to capture a moment in vibrant detail.  A few of these stories managed to catch my attention far more strongly than the others though.

“Woman Hollering Creek,” the titular story of the collection, is the first story in this section.  It focuses on a woman from Mexico who was married very young to a Mexican man living in Texas.  It is a story of feelings of helplessness, domestic abuse, and the escape from that and reclaiming of the self.  It is a powerful story with powerful imagery, and it opens well into the rest of the section.

“Eyes of Zapata” was one of my favorite stories in the entire collection.  Imbued with a heavy dose of magical realism, the narrative focuses on memories and is told non-linearly to create a narrative of a country torn by revolution and political upheaval through the eyes of a “witch” about her relationship and her children.  The imagery throughout this story is incredible, and if I had to pick just one story from the collection, this would probably be it.

“Little Miracles, Kept Promises” is written as a series of letters to saints, expressing wishes or thanking the saint for a wish fulfilled.  The final letter of the string of letters is far and away the most powerful.  It deals with a woman facing her heritage and how she comes to terms with it while also claiming herself as her own person with her own needs and desires.  The writing is evocative, and her letter reminds me of so many of the other stories throughout the collection.

The last two stories in the collection are tied to each other.  “Tin Tan Tan” is a short acrostic prose poem to a woman named Lupita by her former lover.  It is full of vulnerability and seems very genuine, but it is able to be seen in a much more satirical light when viewed through the lens of the story that follows it.  “Bien Pretty” is the story of the relationship and how it ended through the eyes of Lupe, the woman that the poem is about.  It focuses on her personal journey and growth and how she comes out of it with a new appreciation and connection to herself.  Love in this story, like in many of the stories in the collection, is not a kind experience, but it does help Lupe grow and change.  These two stories together could make for an interesting discussion of unreliable narrators.

Reading Level:  Ranges from late elementary up for some stories, to late high school up for others.