Moving Forward: A Review of I Don’t Want To Be Crazy

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I Don’t Want To Be Crazy 
by Samantha Schultz
Scholastic Inc.
March 29, 2019
Grades 9 and up

In the memoir I Don’t Want To Be Crazy, Samantha Schultz describes her journey with anxiety disorder. The memoir is written in verse and split into five sections. In the book, Schultz begins with her senior year in high school and continues one year beyond college. She describes her relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. During this period of transition, she begins to identify that she is having panic attacks and to understand what her anxiety disorder entails. At the end of the book, Schultz includes an Author’s Note explaining why she wrote the memoir, noting that she was motivated to “provide comfort for others” by sharing her story and that others have opened up to her about their experiences with mental illness after reading the book. She also includes backup resources on how to talk to one’s family about mental illness and offers steps that readers can take to address mental illness. With clear and believable descriptions, Schultz provides the reader with insight into what her panic attacks feel like and how she manages her anxiety. Furthermore, she also involves family members’ reactions to her mental illness, which include questioning her about it. She writes, “My mother must think I’m blaming them, / but that’s not what I tried to say…./ We have given you everything/ you ever needed, ever wanted…./ What could possibly be so wrong with your life?” (62-63). She internalizes this questioning and feels guilty about her anxiety. Because Schultz speaks directly about mental health in this book, she provides a valuable perspective, letting the readers know that it’s okay to be mentally ill. While she is talking about her personal experience with mental illness, she also provides her readers with a way of moving forward.

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.

Chicken Killer: A Review of Bone Hollow

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Kim Ventrella
Scholastic, January 2019
Grades: 5-8

Did you ever think you’d die trying to save a chicken? Yeah, well, neither did sixth-grader Gabe, in Kim Ventrella’s forthcoming Bone Hollow. Except Gabe is only half dead–and he discovers this when he shows up at the town candlelight service for him. Gabe is on the run from the town, when he meets Wynne, the embodiment of Death. Wynne helps people pass into the light, and she wants Gabe to take over this job. Over the course of the novel, she and Gabe become friends, and, under Wynne’s mentorship, Gabe eventually accepts the responsibility of helping people cross over. Gabe is a lonely and humorous kid, and his voice is authentic, for a sixth grader which makes his processing of dying and death compelling to the reader. The narrator describes Gabe’s new perspective on Death: “Sad, sure, but also happy and kind and vast, like the ocean he and Gramps used to imagine. A deep, endless ocean, with rushing waves and a surface that reflected back each and every star” (222). Ultimately, this book might help adolescent readers recognize that death is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be painful. Like Gabe, the readers might understand that Death is more of a transition than an ending.   

 

The Wild City: A Review of Animal City

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Animal City
Joan Negrescolor
Chronicle Books,
November 2018

Animal City depicts a place overrun by unrestrained animals and plants, which Nina explores. Each day she returns to tell the animals their favorite stories. Some animals love to hear tales about myths and monsters or traveling to outer space while others prefer poems about sailors. The story shows Nina traveling through the forgotten city, emphasizing themes of curiosity and exploration of nature. Negrescolor’s text is simple, yet conveys a powerful message that stories have the ability to enthrall and capture the attention of anyone or anything. The digitally-created illustrations use vibrant and bold shades of red, blue, yellow, black, and green to create their jungle. By using digital art in this medium, Negrescolor depicts a chaotic wilderness, reflecting the mood of the story. The book simulates our curiosity because it is not clear what happened to humanity. The narrative allows for imagination to fill in the missing pieces here. Since there is not a lot of writing, this gives an opportunity for the pictures to tell the story and fully represent this ruined city.

Back to School with Historical Fiction: A Review of Finding Langston

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Finding Langston
Lesa Cline-Ransome
Holiday House, August 2018

Langston doesn’t like much about his new life in Chicago – not the small apartment he shares with his father, or the noisy streets and sidewalks, and definitely not his new school, where classmates call him “country boy” and make fun of how he speaks. Langston misses Alabama, where his mother died and where his Grandma still lives, though his father sends her part of his paycheck each week in the hopes of helping her move up north with them. It’s only when Langston discovers George Cleveland Hall Library, open to all Chicago residents, that he starts to feel at home.

In the safety of the library, Langston also discovers his namesake, a poet who seems to have inspired a few of the love letters written by young Langston’s mother to his father. Reading the poetry of Hughes helps Langston work through his grief at losing his mother, but it’s a new friend who recognizes that reading poetry “is a way of putting all the things you feel inside on the outside” (p 99).

Cline-Ransome mixes poetry and history in this slim fiction novel for elementary and middle school children. The post World War II era of the Great Migration is explored through the story of one family, and Langston (the character) also learns a great deal about Langston Hughes and other African American poets and writers of the time. Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood and Chicago Public Library’s Hall Branch are both highlighted and given extra detail in an Author’s Note at the end of the book. Told with heart and thoughtfulness, Finding Langston belongs in personal libraries and on classroom shelves alike.

Commonalities, Not Competition: Newbery 2014

It gets to be this time of the year in the children’s publishing world and my anxiety starts to bubble to the surface of my being. Blogs are buzzing with reviews of novels, analysis of illustrations, and comparison of genres. Librarians ask each other, “What are your favorites this year?” Patrons ask, “So who do you think is going to win?” And while I love love love the ALSC awards, I want to take a step back and reflect upon what a few of these buzzing books have in common, rather than the spirit of competition that my air bubble is currently filled with. This perfectly fits with The Butler Center’s mission to encourage imagination and wonder through literature.

I generated the following list of books randomly from several sources. This is simply for observation’s sake, so if a book isn’t included, there is no intention or reason behind it (and I have had a chance to READ THESE!) Let’s check out some of the books:

  • Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
  • One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
  • The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata
  • Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo
  • The Center of Everything by Linda Urban
  •  A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
  • Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

Okay, so let’s the get obvious ones out of the way– most of these authors are women and they are all fiction choices. But this says more about me as a reader than about the Newbery contenders this year.

But let’s look at what’s underneath. When I take a close look, this is what I see:

1) They all ask important questions. Why are we here? How do I discover my own voice? What is the best way to make decisions? Where do I fit in? Can I change my own destiny, or is it just up to luck? Whether it is Georgie who is trying to navigate her own world amidst feelings of loss and coming-of-age discoveries or Flora going on adventures with a magic squirrel, these characters search, seek, and only sometimes find the answer. In other words, they make us think.

2) They are filled with important relationships. I think we know that humans instinctually want to connect with others, but each of these books explores friendship and family relationships with distinguished and dynamic depth. Cady searches for her long-lost parent. Willow loses everything she has and then finds family in a patchwork quilt of interesting human beings. The ghost of Jacob Grimm protects young Jacob Johnson Johnson, forming a kind of intimate bond between male characters. This level of authenticity is, in my opinion, rare in middle grade/YA novels.

3) They leave us with more questions, rather than answers. These books don’t tell us the way to live. There is no black and white, right or wrong. They explore questions along the way, but they leave the answers up to the reader. And isn’t that what great books are all about? Some of the best books I’ve read, I’ve finished the last page and thought, “Hmmm,” or “….huh….?” But then I think. I talk to other readers. I wait for it to sink in. And all of these books have sunk in because they don’t “fix” or “solve” anything. They explore, ignite, and wonder.

What Newbery buzz books are you excited about this year? What do they have in common with each other? How do the books inform each other when you compare them in the aggregate rather than in direct competition with each other?

Girls gone wild

I lived with my sister, now a science education specialist, while she was completing her master’s degree. Her thesis considered students’ perceptions and assumptions of scientists: their work, appearance, and setting. We had a ball examining the teenaged participants’ drawings, through which an overwhelmingly popular archetype emerged: Einsteinian hair, glasses, bow ties, lab coats, Erlenmeyer flasks, boiling liquids, explosive gases. When asked “What does a scientist look like?”, students’ answer is almost unanimously male and inside a laboratory.

The Tapir ScientistI am so pleased to see books for the young adult reader challenging the stereotype. Houghton Mifflin’s excellent Scientists in the Field series solidifies an altogether different image. Take The Tapir Scientist, by children’s nonfiction juggernauts Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop. While the cover photograph shows the captivating and rarely seen face of a tapir – trunk-like snout, curious eye and nearly smiling mouth – the first title page’s photograph reveals the book’s namesake and star: a woman wearing dirty cargo pants, t-shirt and baseball cap wades through ankle-deep wetlands, holding an instrument in the air and peering towards the horizon. Her name is Patricia Medici, a Brazilian scientist whose work may more closely resemble extreme camping than the conventional image of “doing science.” For days, she and her team (which includes Sy and Nic) make trips around the vast Pantanal Wetlands of Brazil attempting to collar and track the elusive tapirs, whose behavior is largely a mystery. She has to beware pumas, venomous snakes, and the relentless bite of ticks, but the more troublesome battles are that with faulty equipment or inconsistent results. Although the subject of The Tapir Scientist and other books within this series is an animal, the text’s content is all process from the scientist’s point of view. Montgomery and Bishop record Patricia’s frustrations and triumphs as they happen and present their work as a narrative full of suspense, empathy and joy. Yes, the reader learns the traditional creature facts – anatomy, behavior, ecosystem – but all that report fodder is discovered only through the journey the reader makes with the scientist.

PrimatesSimilarly, Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks’ graphic novel Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas places its readers right in the boots (or bare feet) of the title’s three scientists. Through brilliantly distinct and sometimes overlapping narration, we grow to understand the individuals: Jane’s endless curiosity, Dian’s brusque fierceness, Biruté’s patient hunger. But all are united by their commitment to primate study, more so, to study primates in the wild. Each is recruited by famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, whose targeting of women feels ambiguously both progressive and sexist: he seems to respect these women for their observational intelligence, but Primates also references his womanizing with the young researchers he employs. Nevertheless, for these three women, chimps, gorillas and orangutans are the subject of all attention. The reader, too, is given a front seat to the observations; Wicks devotes pages of panels, with minimal text, just to the sequential movements and expressions of the primates: the chimps’ mysterious rain dance, gorillas’ unique noses “like big fingerprints,” an orangutan’s leisurely journey through the trees. Wicks’ style is not naturalistic; on the contrary, her brightly painted drawings are stylistically playful and simply rendered. Coupled with the type sets used for the texts, which mirror the style of each scientist’s documentation – handwritten script or typed Courier – the reader can imagine these illustrations appearing in these women’s scientific logs, a patient and enthusiastic recording of what they see in the field.

Into That ForestLastly, Louis Nowra’s fictional novel Into That Forest portrays not a willing scientist per se, but a child lost in the woods. Incredibly, young Hannah and her friend Becky survive a storm in the Tasmanian wild, only to be rescued and adopted by two Tasmanian tigers. Initially they are terrified, but as the creatures prove themselves trustworthy guardians – bringing them caught fish, leading them to their den – the girls adapt to their bizarre new family structure. Over four years in the wild, they slowly lose the things that define them as human – their manners, clothes, and eventually, language – but they gain just as much in their careful observations of their new companions. Theiri senses sharpen, words are replaced by growls and eye expressions, and affection for their new foster parents grows:

The tigers stopped being animals to me. They were Corinna and Dave… Corinna showed she liked us by licking us and curling up with us whenever we slept. Though I have to say, if she didn’t like something you did, she’d nip you to let you know.

Nowra’s story, as dense and rich as the Tasmanian forests, not only stands as an imaginative memorial to the thylacine, officially declared extinct in 1936, but as a testament to Piaget’s classic theory of development: that the child is a scientist, learning and constructing her world of knowledge through constant observation and application without any extrinsic motivation, like candy bribes or A+ grades. It is that childlike passion and curiosity that should identify grownup scientists more than the lab coats. Indeed, the women so masterfully presented in these varied stories all possess that drive for understanding the world that seems to exist outside of and above the status quo of our everyday work culture. And perhaps outside is the key: it is hard not to feel awed, inspired and motivated when you’re surrounded by the wonder of the wild.