A Burning Sky of Pain–A Review of The Weight of our Sky

the weight of our sky

The Weight of Our Sky
By Hanna Alkaf
Simon & Schuster
February 5, 2019
Grades:  9 and up

Melati Ahmad is a sixteen-year-old Malaysian girl of Malay descent who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)—however, Melati believes that her OCD is actually the work of a djinn. Since the death of her father, Melati’s greatest fear has been the death of her mother. She counts by threes—her compulsive behavior—to appease the djinn and save her mother, along with everyone else she loves, from dying. On May 13, 1969, Melati is thrown into a world of chaos when the race riots between the Chinese and Malays begin. While at the movies with her best friend Saf, men with weapons break into the theater. Although Melati is saved by a Chinese-Malaysian stranger, she is forced to leave Saf behind if she wants to survive. Overcome with guilt, Mel teams up with Auntie Bee’s son Vince to try and find her mother who see she has not seen since the beginning of the riots. Melati is forced to confront her djinn and find her inner strength in order to stand up for what she believes in, find her mother, and protect the people she loves.

Alkaf is unafraid to make a book that is completely and utterly of her homeland. Alkaf’s note at the beginning of the book is spot on, letting readers know of the many possible triggers within the book and lets readers know that it is okay if they are not ready to read the book at this time. This is a powerful and brutally honest book that provides a very real look at what OCD looks like in a high-stress situation, which help builds the tension within the book.  It is thoughtfully and beautifully written, vividly capturing a time of terror from the eyes of a teenaged girl who just wants her mother.

Sharks Find Their Way Home: A Review of The Line Tender

the line tenderThe Line Tender
By Kate Allen, Illustrated by Xingye Jin
Penguin
April 2019
Grades: 5 and up

 Lucy and Fred are lifelong friends, and as they work on their animal field guide over the summer, it looks like they may become something more. When local fisherman and family friend Sookie catches a great white shark, Fred and Lucy set out to learn more about great white sharks by reading an old research proposal written by Lucy’s mother—an accomplished shark biologist before her untimely death when Lucy was 7 years old. Tragedy strikes when, after sharing her first kiss with Fred, he drowns in a quarry accident. Lucy is then left trying to find meaning in her friendship to Fred and wondering what could have been, while still struggling with the grief of her mother’s passing. By dedicating herself to her mother’s shark research and Fred’s field guide, and with the help of her Father, Sookie, and neighbor Mr. Patterson, Lucy is eventually able to come to terms with the deaths of her mother and Fred.
The Line Tender by Kate Allen is an emotional coming-of-age story that follows Lucy Everhart as she grapples with the loss of her mother and her best friend Fred. Allen thoughtfully ties Lucy’s attempts to find meaning in her friendship with Fred to her attempts to better understand the sharks her mother and Fred loved so much. The Line Tender is beautifully written and is both heartfelt and heartbreaking in the ways that it deals with community, friendship, and tragedy. Xingye Jin’s shark illustrations for each chapter title are stunning, adding yet another layer to the book as it shows Lucy slowly learning how to draw sharks as she learns more about them.

“Made in Illinois”: Connecting Readers with Creators in YOUR Classrooms and Libraries

Sarah Aronson

The Butler Children’s Literature Center was pleased to host local author Sarah Aronson last week Thursday, September 20th, for her “Made in Illinois” presentation. Aronson, who has written several books for children and teens, including the Wish List series for middle grade readers and an upcoming Rube Goldberg picture book biography, is originally from Pennsylvania, but now calls Evanston home. She shared with our audience various ways teachers and librarians can incorporate local authors and illustrators into their programming, from brief but impactful Skype conversations, to writing or illustrating workshops, or as enhancements to various STEAM curricula. Aronson also suggested collaborating with authors and illustrators to introduce more difficult conversations. “Books are a safe place to have a bigger discussion,” she said, whether that be about “bullying, the loss of a loved one, or talks about community and empathy.”

However educators want to work with authors and illustrators, the important thing, Aronson reminded everyone, was that the kids and their interests and imaginations be at the forefront, and that it be a collaborative effort between all parties: “When kids meet authors and illustrators, something happens. The book comes alive.” All it takes to make this magic happen is reaching out. Many authors have contact information on their websites, and there is an online resource launching this fall that will help connect local creators with local educators (look for announcements here and on our social media!).

Thanks again to Sarah, and happy collaborating to all!

Women and Wealth Redistribution: A Review of The Forest Queen

The Forest Queen by Betsy CornwellThe Forest Queen
Betsy Cornwell
HMH/Clarion Books, August 2018

“Steal from the rich, give to the poor” gets a fresh take in this gender-swapped retelling of the classic Robin Hood tale. Sylvie, sixteen and lady of Loughsley Abbey, begins to question her family’s treatment of the people of Loughsley – especially now that her brother, John, is the unforgiving sheriff. With her childhood friend, Bird, she runs away and lives in hiding in the nearby woods. Slowly, others from Loughsley join them in their new community, including a young woman named Little Jane, the midwife Mae Tuck, and others who feared otherwise being jailed for their inability to pay egregious taxes. Sylvie must eventually confront her brother, along with her own complicity in the evils done by her family, and she comes to realize that the changes required for economic justice mean she must take “radical action” and put herself in potential danger for the greater good.
Sylvie and her mission to redistribute wealth among the people of Loughsley are easy to root for, but the additional focus on gender roles, womanhood, and the idea of community as family are what set this retelling apart. Strong secondary characters help to challenge Sylvie and force her to take a strong stand against a system that she would otherwise benefit from, and parallels can be drawn from the injustices in the story to those of today’s world. As Little Jane, who becomes a dear friend to Sylvie says, “If someone doesn’t care whether you live or die, then living itself is rebellion” (p 241). This thoughtful narrative of what can happen when the privileged few horde wealth while the majority struggles to make do with less and less shows the power in a united band of concerned citizens.

Valuable Reminders: A Review of The Dollar Kids

dollar kids

The Dollar Kids
Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Illustrations by Ryan Andrews
Candlewick (August, 2018)
Ages 10-14

When his family wins the chance to buy a house for just $1, twelve-year-old Lowen sees it as a chance to hit the reset button — Mum can open her own restaurant, Dad can follow his dream of working in a clinic in an underserved community, his brother Clem can finally be the star athlete, and his sister Anneth — well, she’ll need convincing. And sensitive, artistic Lowen can work through his grief over the death of a friend and guilt over believing he caused it. But moving to a small town isn’t easy on any of them, leading everyone to question whether the Dollar House program was such a good idea after all. Dubbed the “Dollar Kids” by hostile new neighbors skeptical of the program and “whether it’s a help or drain on the town” (p. 328), Lowen and the other new kids in town struggle to make a place for themselves, rehab houses, and rebuild community.

The idea of home, be it a building, a community, a family, or a feeling creates a strong backbone for this plot, helping to pull the reader through the slightly slow start to the one year the book covers. By mid-book, the pace picks up in both action and time (the progress noted with each new chapter). While slightly awkward, the change of pacing mirrors the changes Lowen experiences as he processes his grief and settles into life in Millville. Scenes from Lowen’s comic book drawing layer in additional elements of his grieving process, questions of faith, and ultimately his healing.

Diversity (of age, gender, and cultures) among the characters in this story provide a varied range of coping mechanisms for dealing with uncertainty, insecurity, and change by both the new families settling in and Millville residents dealing with the decline of their small, but proud town. The inclusion of parents and other community members as active players in the story is a refreshing change from books that often leave you wondering “What happened to all the adults?” and provides a subtle reminder that communities need all types of diversity to thrive.

Small & Mighty: A Review of Front Desk by Kelly Yang

front deskFront Desk by Kelly Yang
Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books
May, 2018

Mia and her parents, recent immigrants from China, are managing a California motel in the early 1990s. It’s a family affair, as ten-year-old Mia finds herself responsible for checking in motel guests while her parents tend to the rooms and motel maintenance – though it sometimes feels like it’s Mia against the world. After a rough start including washing machine mishaps, bad grades, and arguments with her mother (who wants Mia to stick to math, something she considers Mia to be a “native” in), Mia hits her stride when she realizes the power of using her ever-improving English to help others, especially the motel guests she considers family.

Adventurous subplots and dynamic secondary characters add to the appeal of this compelling middle grade novel. Mia believes in herself and wants what is best for her friends and family, and though her quick thinking sometimes gets her in trouble, at the end of the day she is a force for good in her community. This book is fun, yet thoughtful, and shows that there’s no age requirement for taking action against injustice.

Finding Their Way Home: A Review of Refugee by Alan Gratz

Told in three separate yet connected stories, Refugee is a novel of perseverance and commitment to who you are in the face of persecution.

refugeeJosef is fleeing from 1930s Nazi Germany and the threat of concentration camps with his parents and sister. Isabel, her parents, and her neighbors use a makeshift raft to escape Cuba in 1994, during the unrest of Castro’s regime. Mahmoud, along with his parents and younger siblings, leave the violence of war in Syria in 2015, traveling through Europe as they search for a safer place to live. Though the details of their stories are unique, Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud share more similarities than just their situations.

The attention given to creating characters with heart and conviction is engaging, while the conflicts each protagonist faces ensure none of their individual stories get stuck in the emotion of the book as a whole. Refugee tells an important story, and does so without preaching or sensationalizing the experiences of refugees past and present. Maps and an author’s note highlight the reality of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud’s stories and show the readers how they can help with relief efforts.