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
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
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