Friday, July 22, 2016

Save Me A Seat

Save Me A Seat 

by Sarah Weeks & Gita Varadarajan

Joe Sylvester and Ravi Suryanarayanan. Two kids starting fifth grade at Albert Einstein Elementary. Two kids from completely different backgrounds, cultures, corners of the world. Two kids who just want to fit in. Two kids who are unlikely to become friends.

Written alternately from Joe's and Ravi's perspectives, by two authors, the book unfolds the first week of school where Ravi is a brand new kid, not just to this school, but to America. His family has just moved to New Jersey from Bangalore, India. His paternal grandparents came along as well. His mom is a homemaker while Ravi's dad works full time.

While Joe has been in this school since KG, he has always felt an outsider thanks to his APD (Auditory Processing Disorder) which makes every single noise in his environment equally stimulating and distracting and so is unable to focus as needed while tuning out the unwanted sounds. His mom takes any work she can to supplement the family's income, while his dad is on the road a lot with his trucking job.

Dillon Samreen is a typical spoilt, rich ABCD - American-Born Confused Desi* - another name for U.S.-born kids of Indian immigrants, who craves attention and seems quite popular, thanks to his clothing and antics. [*Desi = Indian]

It's a regular school story, centered around the lunch time in cafeteria. Each section of the book is named the day of the week staring from Monday and ending in Friday. And that's not all, each day of the week is further qualified by the cafeteria lunch served in Albert Einstein Elementary. "Monday: Chicken Fingers." "Tuesday: Hamburgers." and so on. And, sure enough, Dillon is the villain-of-sorts with his bullying and insensitivity and selfishness.

Rather than elaborating on every moment of each day of school life through the week, the book focuses on hand-picked incidents that strike an emotional cord, tailored specifically to elicit poignant responses in the readers, young and older. The clever device of picking up the same incident from Joe's perspective where Ravi left off the narration previously (and vice versa) is done seamlessly and brilliantly. So that, without exchanging much dialog with each other, somehow Ravi and Joe are easily connected, destined to end up together as friends.

Bridging the cultural diversity, the book offers fairly authentic perspectives into Ravi's and Joe's lives without espousing a favored position. Touching upon subtle disability (ADP), we see a bright kid, Joe, from a working-class family, struggling to make friends and share what he can offer. Being from a very different culture, we see Ravi's food and demeanor as authentic to his upbringing so far, with a sense of eagerness to please and to excel even while limited by a hard-to-follow accent.

With two authors bringing their own unique perspectives to the characters, the book is innovative and brilliant. Veteran Sarah Weeks tugs at our heartstrings with effortless ease, while Gita Varadarajan brings rich sensory information about Indian culture through credible characterization of Ravi's family and their interactions.

Being an American of south Indian origin, there were quite a few aspects that resonated with me and, of course, quite a few that grated my nerves. Which is not a bad thing for a book like this, for an adult reader like myself.

One thing that irked me was that Ravi's grandmother says, "Be proud of who you are and remember where you come from. If you are not careful, you'll turn into one of them. Your grandfather didn't slave in the tea plantations so that his only grandson would become some rude, overweight, beef-eating cowboy." 

While I do not advocate ever forgetting one's roots wherever that may be, the words, "don't turn into one of them" rather rubbed me the wrong way. As if Americans are all uncouth and unworthy somehow, at least according to grandma, by being overweight cowboys. I can understand the spirit in which it is written, of course.

On the other hand, Joe's dad says, "Immigrants. They're visitors in this country; who do they think they are, pushing us around?" when referring to Dillon, an American kid of Indian origin. But, Joe points out that Dillon was born in America and that Dillon's dad is a reputable doctor.

There's nothing wrong with blending in and absorbing the host culture without losing one's own beliefs and identity, picking the best of both worlds. At the same time, are guests wrong to expect the host culture to be open-minded in welcoming them? And then again, is it truly a host-guest situation or a host-parasite relationship that creates this fear and mistrust? Rather than always trying to find fault and be derisive about cultural practices and affiliations different from one's own, is it possible for us to accept and appreciate aspects of various cultures without trying to prove why one is somehow inherently better than the other?

Also, towards the end when grandpa helps Ravi gather a few leeches for his Personal Reflection project, I cringed initially thinking why would grandpa equate Indians to leeches - blood-sucking parasites that drain the hosts and move on?  But then, grandpa states, "These leeches are a reminder of who we are, and where we've come from, Ravi, and of all the hardships we've endured to get here."

Rising from a humble tea plantation guard who protected the workers from these nasty leeches, grandpa is proud that his son worked hard to gain recognition for his intellectual abilities and was sent to U.S to contribute his knowledge and expertise for a better world, so that his grandson can live the American Dream, such as it may be. But, their fairly upper middle-class background was not convincing enough to justify this speech. However, when I realized that it is drawn from author's own personal experience, it settled in quite all right.

And both kids found Ravi to be quite sweet and easy to befriend if he was in their classroom. Being familiar with some of the foods Ravi brings to school, the kids were furious when Dillon called Ravi  "Curryhead" and told him that his food stank and that he stank. The 8 year old was horrified that Dillon would get away with such an insensitive and inappropriate comment. Or that Dillon's cronies would laugh when hearing such hurtful words.

Both kids immediately took to Joe as well, wondering why Joe does not seek an adult intervention when Dillon screams in Joe's ear on purpose. That is cruel and unacceptable. Their argument: If Joe is not confrontational, it is fine, but, he should not condone that behavior by keeping quiet about it and trying to find a subtler way to get back. How will Dillon learn that what he does will not be tolerated if he does not get any consequence from adults for such an unacceptable act of torment?

Even if it was written with Ronaldo from Brasil or Ridwaan from Somalia, instead of Ravi from India, the story would have rung true, and that's the diversity in books that children need to be exposed to. Back of the book has Joe's glossary and Ravi's glossary, plus recipes of Joe's and Ravi's favorite foods.

[image source: Scholastic]

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
by Kelly Jones
Illustrated by Katie Kath

Seattle-based author Kelly Jones' debut book is a riot!

Sophie Brown's dad has inherited great-uncle Jim's farm, out in Gravenstein, CA. Twelve year old Sophie, a city girl from L.A., is not thrilled about moving to the farm lock, stock, and barrel. However, being well-mannered and well-adjusted, she is co-operative and understanding of the situation and makes her best effort to adapt to her new life.

Her dad is currently unemployed, while her mom juggles her writing commitments to earn enough to make both ends meet. Meanwhile, Sophie is left to her devices to figure out life in the farm.

Quite by accident, Sophie comes across a flyer from Redwood Farm Supply Company catalog listing unusual chickens. Sophie takes an interest and starts corresponding.

Meanwhile, quite naturally, Sophie stumbles upon Henrietta, a chicken of exceptional abilities. From then on, the story moves forward quite intriguingly, in installments, which the readers glean from the letters Sophie writes to her abuelita, great-uncle Jim, and Agnes of the Redwood Farm Supply Company.

Yes, indeed, the story is told in the form of letters!

Not all books can carry off such a specialized form of storytelling. Not all stories lend themselves well to this format either. After reading it twice in full - once on my own, and once aloud to the younger child, and a few more times in parts to share with the older child, it is clear that the book is a fantastic work that appeals to me as much, if not more than the kids, even if it is middle grade fiction.

Among the many things that appealed to me in this book, I liked the subtle but clever reference to how brown-skinned Sophie and her Latina mom are automatically assumed to be migrant farm workers, legal or otherwise, and how they both take it in their stride even though both are US-born citizens, very much American. Her dad being white makes no difference to some people's prejudices.

Another aspect I found quite clever is that only so much can be revealed through the letters, which are mostly one-sided because Sophie's beloved abuelita and great-uncle Jim are dead and have no way of writing back. Plus, Agnes, who initially writes back, sends a bizarre note with lots of xs and extra characters clearly pointing to a faulty typewriter, or an inept typist.

Of course, another aspect is the brief but encyclopedic informational pages about the different types of chickens, the To-do Lists, and the adorable illustrations.

Slowly, but, surely, Sophie discovers over half a dozen of these unusual chickens that had belonged to great-uncle Jim, each with their own superpowers, for want of a better word.  And now they belong to her family. But, her parents don't have time for this, so it's up to Sophie to learn to take care of them, and possibly find a way to feed them without adding to the family's strained finances.

Henrietta, a Bantam White,  can move objects - telekinesis style. Chameleon can turn invisible, and Roadrunner/Black Streak can go super fast. Another one, a Buff Orpington, can produce chicks who can turn living things to stone with a blunt look. Plus three Speckled Sussex chickens who can see ghosts.

Their powers are not a secret, and all the folks in the area seem to be fine with it. Well, not all. There is one chicken thief who wants these unusual chickens all to herself, even if they are not hers. Right there is the conflict and rising action. Sophie must protect her chickens and expose the poultry thief. How she does it is quite heart-warming and believable. Along the way, Sophie finds unexpected friendship and inner strength that helps her overcome the problem.

Sophie says: "One thing my parents agree on is this: if people are doing something unfair, it’s part of our job to remind them what’s fair, even if sometimes it still doesn’t turn out the way we want it to." And that's a fair lesson every kid must learn sooner or later.

Katie Kath's pen and ink drawings are a treat,  bringing to mind Quentin Blake's masterful art for Roald Dahl's books. The pictures complement the story well and capture the goofiness of the chickens, unusual or otherwise.

Fantasy stories can invest in elaborate world-building to explain every little detail so it's all completely tied in a bow and satisfactory; or, they can leave some things open, bordering on reality, not indulging in world-building but using the realistic experiences to stretch the fantasy a little further than what kids are used to. The latter applies to this book, which makes no attempt to explain how or why there are these unusual chickens and what was a Farm Supply Company doing selling these to anybody willy-nilly.

All in all, a superbly satisfying read.

Look Inside the book at Random House

[image source: Penguin Random House]

Monday, June 27, 2016

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel
by Firoozeh Dumas

Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Clarion Books (May 3, 2016)

I first got introduced to Firoozeh Dumas's writing through her memoir-of-sorts, Funny in Farsi. Being an Iranian American who lived through the Iran Hostage Crisis as a youngster, Firoozeh is both wise and pragmatic, always ready to state what she feels is right with just the right touch of humor that takes away the edge and makes you ponder on the realities of the situation. Her writing is honest and brilliant -- she spins poignant moments into funny yarns that are moving, heart-warming, vivid, and masterly, all at the same time.

Zomorod Yousoufzadeh is looking forward to starting middle school right after this summer break. Although born in Iran, she has been in the US for a few years now because her father's job brought them to America and has kept them here. The story starts with her family moving from Compton, CA to Newport Beach, CA.

As we enter the story, Zomorod starts calling herself Cindy, after the littlest Brady Bunch kid that everyone loves. Why?

“It’s not like I’m trying to pretend that I’m not Iranian. I just want people to ask questions about me when we meet, not about where I’m from.”

Obviously, "Zomorod" is not an easy name to pronounce, and is way too weird-sounding, plus she simply wants to fit in and belong here. "Hi, I'm Cindy" shifts the focus from her nationality to herself as an individual, compared to "Hi, I'm Zomorod."

Cindy's dad, an engineer, was sent here to the US to collaborate on building oil refineries. He has studied in the US before and speaks English just fine (but for the accent) and is looking forward to doing the best he can in both his professional and personal life, and loves to talk about Iran and oil refineries with whoever is (un)lucky enough to start a conversation with him. 

Her mother on the other hand speaks barely any English (except hello and thank you) and feels isolated as a result, but still refuses to learn English and prefers having Zomorod as her translator. What's Cindy to do? Except to tell us readers that she loves her parents very much but that she'd rather keep them hidden till she feels that they are no longer embarrassing to her. Typical tween!

Cindy/Zomorod carries the book on her young shoulders with panache. She relies on her inherent sense of humor to tackle life's weird encounters when nothing else would work. With a steadfast fellow bookworm, Carolyn, for a friend, Cindy manages to balance her parent's expectations with her own need to belong, while navigating the student life at Lincoln Junior High, and discovering Girl Scouts, Halloween, and Taco Nights at Carolyn's.

Pivoting around the Iran Hostage Crisis, Firoozeh shows us the dark side of our own weaknesses and fears that prevent us from standing up for what we know is right -- how our perception gets easily clouded by collective hysteria. With her sharp insight into human nature and her firm belief that people around the world are not that much different from each other, Firoozeh, through Zomorod's dad, assures us that, "...people like that are not truly horrible; they just need a geography class, a passport, and a few foreign friends."

The little nuggets about hospitality culture and the universal language of food can easily be applied to Indians just as well as it applies to the Iranians in this story. In fact, some of the characters in the book could just as well be from India, they'd slide right into their roles just as easily. Which attests to the fact that human beings everywhere are not all that different from each other once we take away the language and the food and the geographical borders -- humans seek the same thing: a sense of community, safety, security, and to live their lives as best as they can.

This splendid story mingles family, politics, and immigrant experience, with friendship, self-identity, and coming-of-age angst while addressing paranoia, xenophobia, and intolerance with wry wit and gentle humor.

I can easily see this book becoming required reading for all fifth graders so they can peek into the cultural nuances from an immigrant child's perspective, even if the story is set in the 1970s and 80s, with no cell phones or iPods.

Speaking from personal experience, I see Zomorod's self-identity as dual, such is the nature of immigrant children -- they manage to extract the best of both worlds and come out a better version of themselves in the end, holding on to what centers them from their own heritage while being open to new experiences and putting out new roots that will anchor them in their current domicile.

[image source: HMH Books]

Friday, June 17, 2016

6 Picture Book Biographies of Extraordinary Women

The Daring Life of Betty Skelton
by Megan McCarthy

Beautifully rendered story of Betty Skelton's life, this picture book captures her spirit and her personality with humor and authenticity.

Betty was a daredevil, all right. The part that affected the kids most was when she was invited to train with the male astronauts for Mercury 7, went through the training with flying colors, only to be rejected at the crucial time simply because she was a woman and NASA wasn't ready to send a woman into space at that time.

Illustrations are slightly on the funny side and yet very adorable and relevant.

Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea
by Robert Burleigh
illustrated by Raúl Colón

One of 20th century's most important scientists, Marie Tharp was the key person involved in mapping the seafloors around the world. Her hard work validated the theory of Continental Drift which was a tenuous proposition at that time, but the only reasonable explanation for the observations.

Being the daughter of a mapmaker, it was no surprise that Marie knew what to do from her younger days. Even though she initially faced many obstacles as she was just a woman and women couldn't possibly be smart scientists in those days, her perseverance and confidence gained her respect among her peers at Lamont Geological Labs where she started her project of mapping the sea floor.

Illustrations by Raul Colon (of DRAW) complement the text well.

Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman
Olympic High-Jump Champion
by heather Lang
illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Alice Coachman was born to run and jump. Thus begins this story of a remarkable athlete who took her talents to new heights via sheer hard work and determination. Talent like hers cannot be suppressed, it is bound to be discovered sooner or later. But being black in those testing times was not helping her at all.

Going to London from the segregated Southern state, for the Olympic Games, Alice was awed that she could sit anywhere on the bus despite being black. That little nugget in the book influenced both the kids at home deeply. That, and the fact that the King George VI shook her hands when awarding her gold medal at the Olympics was something huge for Alice, something she could not expect the white people in her own community to do willingly.

Dorothea's Eyes
by Barb Rosenstock
illustrated by Gérard DuBois

Afflicted with polio at age six, Dorothea Lange never recovered from the limp; she felt different and lonely. But, she saw things like no one else did - with her eyes and her heart.

Being enterprising and tenacious, she asks to work with any photographer who would taken her on as apprentice. She learns all that she can pick up. Eventually, recognizing her talent, one photographer gives her an old camera.

In an age when photography was not taken very seriously, and women were not taken seriously, Dorothea was a natural at both, very seriously. Many of Dorothea's photographs are held in National Archives and can be accessed at

Stone Girl Bone Girl
A Story of Mary Anning of Lyme Regis
by Laurence Anholt
illustrated by Sheila Moxley

By now, most budding paleontologists have heard about Mary Anning, the girl who couldn't help finding fossils everywhere she looked, the girl who found the first Ichthyosaurus fossil that reconciled a huge gap that scientists had in understanding prehistoric creatures until then.

Being poor, and not knowing the value of her finds, Mary probably gave away most of her valuable treasures just to put food on the table. The book talks about the little speckled dog that showed up at Mary's one day and stayed with her for all her discovereis up until Ichthyosaur, and then magically disappeared. She later found Plesiosaurs and Pterosaurs in her small, unassuming town of Lyme Regis in Dorset.

The illustrations are bright, colorful, and gorgeous!

Bon Appétit!
The Delicious Life of Julia Child
by Jessie Hartland

A children's picture book about Julia Child? This I must read, I told myself when I saw it in our library.

All about Julia's life and her life's work -- Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book shows Julia's indomitable spirit and her methodical approach to perfecting each recipe so others can follow it blindly and end up with something out of this world.

Never one to sit idly, Julia was always passionate about cooking, and even got her own TV Show with live demonstrations in a day and age when such things were not easily open to women hosts.

My only nagging issue with the book is its layout and font - it is cluttered and crowded and hard to read in proper sequence. Plus the fonts are cursive which the younger child is not adept at reading - yet.


When I was Eight,
Not My Girl
by Christy Jordan-Fenton & Margaret Pokiak-Fenton
art by Gabrielle Grimard

While not a biography but more a memoir of sorts, these two books gave a peek into a life of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, that is very different from anything the kids had expected to read in a picture book.

Olemaun, an Inuit girl, knows a lot of things including how to keep the sled dogs quiet when hunting for caribou; how to bring get her team of dogs to obey; how to relish muktuk (whale blubber) and pipsi (dried fish).

But, she did not know how to read English, like the outsiders. And wanted to learn. So, she was sent to study with the nuns at the outsiders school.

The school changes her in ways she never imagined. She has forgotten her own language, lost the taste for her own native foods, and can't seem to know all the things that are important for her survival in the harsh lands.

When I was Eight is about Margaret going away to the outsider school; Not My Girl talks about her return from school and trying to get rehabilitated and learn the ways of her people so she can continue the traditional way of life and preserve her cultural heritage.

The illustrations are brilliant!

[image source:]

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Dozen Series Fiction Chapter Books For Elementary Kids

While I support librarians and authors on saying No to the age-banding issue, just for sorting-and-searching purposes, I do add age range labels here. Kids read at their own comfortable levels-- some are reluctant readers, some are avid readers, so, the age labels here are not associated with reading proficiency but is there to help sift through the ton of books.

And, rather than "review" per se, my book posts here are more of a cheer-leading effort to champion some favorites, share some titles that made an impact, and to list any surprise finds.

Anyway, over the last few months, the eight year old has been open to a handful of series books for one reason or another that I'd rather not subject to my armchair analysis. Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are some interesting reads for kiddos with widely varying reading preferences.

Ranger in Time series
by Kate Messner
illustrated by Kelley McMorris

I loved Kate Messner's picture books Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt, as well as Over and Under the Snow. We tried Marty McGuire chapter book series but it didn't resonate with the then seven year old, but I was not ready to give up. So, we tried Ranger in Time series - the first book is about the Oregon Trail, which is always a fascinating topic at home.

We've read the first three books so far, each set around a different historical event. Ranger is a sweet dog who accidentally finds a teleporting time-traveling machine in the form of a First Aid Kit. When it hums and glows, Ranger nudges it onto his neck and as soon as he wears it, he is transported to a time a place other than his own where is services are much needed: He is a trained Search-and-Rescue dog!

The kid and I liked that Ranger is not anthropomorphic-- thankfully-- so he is not a talking dog. But we get to know him better as the story is told from his perspective. His thoughts and actions, while quite human, also stays true to his canine nature and instincts.

Geronimo Stilton series
by Geronimo Stilton

What's not to love about this series? Quick and easy read, with quite an interesting mix of mice characters and settings that promise a fantastic adventure.

It did irritate the kid that words like "fabumouse" (fabulous) and "famouse" (famous) is used to add to the theme of mice living in Mouse Island, and it did initially bother him that strange fonts in various colors caught the eye to distract rather than enhance the reading experience, but, the stories and the situations were well done that he quickly got over his nagging objections.

There's a ton of books in this series, with more coming out in a steady stream, I believe. Plus, there's spin-offs with Thea Stilton books and Space Mice and Cave Mice and such.

Magic Treehouse series
Authors: Mary Pope Osborne, Natalie Pope Boyce
Illustrators: Sal Murdocca, Luiz Vilela

A long-standing staple, the series takes the brother-and-sister duo on mini adventures to various times and places.

The older child went through most of these books around kindergarten and first grade.

As always, the young resident reader's main objection has been: How come their parents don't know about it? And why aren't they telling their parents all about it and asking for permission first? Of course, magic only works a certain way, so all such details can be explained away, am sure.

According to Humphrey series

Hamster Humphrey and the kids of Room 26 seem to have great dynamics. When Ms.Mac brings Humphrey home from Pet-O-Rama, he was all set to bond with her and spend the rest of his life with her, But, Ms.Mac was only substituting in Room 26. When Mrs. Brisbane comes back to teach Room 26, Humphrey is heartbroken to see Ms.Mac go, and be stuck with Mrs.Brisbane who calls him a rodent and doesn't care for him much.

As the first book progresses, we see that Humphrey is neither saccharine nor sassy. He makes his keen observations and shares his goodness without being too cloying.

There are quite a number of books in this series. which is wonderful if kids get hooked on it. Ms.Mac is back on and off as well, and the second book, Friendship According to Humphrey, introduces a new pet - Og, the frog.

I Survived series
Author: Lauren Tarshis
Illustrator: Scott Dawson

Set around traumatic events in history, the book is fast-paced with the story moving forward ever so rapidly to let the protagonist meet the conflict head-on and overcome it successfully. Each book has its own set of characters in the time period and place, but what they all have in common is a child protagonist with pluck and grit who manages to survive a true-life incident.

39 Clues series
 by Rick Riordan, Gordon Korman, Peter Lerangis, et al

Brother-and-sister Dan and Amy Cahill are orphaned but are entrusted with guarding the most powerful thing which cannot fall into the wrong hands. I could have lived with the commercial production with multiple revenue streams, but the stories and the characters are bland and stereotypical and one-dimensional. Moral ambiguity, conflicts, growth in the young characters as they pass through the story arc is what makes books like these more enjoyable as a series. The first couple in the series were all right but soon it got tiresome to read. So, we reserved these as audiobooks for long road trips.

Hank Zipzer series
by Henry Winkler, Lin Oliver

Hank, with two good friends, undergoes the usual struggles of an underachiever who has some challenges in learning and conforming.

However, Hank is kind and resourceful, not snarky and loud-mouthed. There are quite a few books in this series.

Life in school can be a struggle for kids like Hank, but with steadfast friends who don't make a big deal of his issues, school can be exciting as well.

I must admit, I only picked this up as I was curious about what The Fonz came up with. Yep, the creator/author is Henry Winkler, the Fonz of Happy Days.

Along with Lin Oliver, Winkler provides an insight into his younger days when learning disabilities were not recognized and kids were subject to learning methods which killed the joy of discovering the world around.

Plants vs. Zombies
Plant Your Path Junior Novel
by Tracey West

Choose-your-adventure type stories can be horribly appalling or pleasantly amusing. This book seems to fall under the latter category according to the kid. It even inspired him to write his own Choose-your-path novel (by hand in a spiral notebook) with Crazy Dave and plants and zombies, with the reader as the main character choosing what happens at each stage and finding out if in the end the zombies ate their brains.

Plants vs. Zombies graphic novels
Bully For You
Garden Warfare
by Paul Tobin, Jacob Chabot, Ron Chan et al.

Each book provides a different adventure and is primarily appealing to the PvZ fans. I'd rather not overanalyze this set of books, they seem to make the resident 8 year old quite happy and that's all there is to it.

Mr. Pants series
Illustrated by R. H. Lazzell

Mr. Pants and his two feline siblings, plus his human mom make up this quick-to-read set of books that end well even if there is chaos all along the way. The cartoon silliness and the bright colors is one main attraction.

 After a recent bout of going through my Calvin and Hobbes collection at the home library, the kid seems to lean towards cartoons and comic strips a lot more these days. Of course, only about 50% of Calvin and Hobbes makes perfect sense to him, understandably.

We didn't read it in order. Starting with Trick or Feet was helpful to get into the characters and find the silliness in their high jinks.

Stick Dog series (and Stick Cat)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid-like text and cartoon illustrations is one of the appeals of this series. There's a bit of inside humor and adventure and friendship that can be appealing as well, since the main hunt is for food -- the poor dog is always hungry!

As for me, I did not particularly like this series, but, the kids did.The characters are nice enough, the story is simple enough but nothing held my attention as an adult, and it doesn't have to - the books are aimed at kids.

Sample available for reading at Harper Collins

Amulet series (graphic novel)
by Kazu Kibuishi

The first book, The Stonekeeper, starts off with a bang and continues to roll fast-paced to a satisfying end, making us reach for the second installment almost involuntarily.

It did bother me that the dad dies in the very first scene and the mom gets abducted in the very first installment of the graphic novel series, but, kids didn't seem to mind at all. They just went with the flow and kept reading till all the seven books were done, wanting more.

Our contributor, Sathish, has written some wonderful posts about this book already, so am not adding much more here.

Ariol series (graphic novel)
by Emmanuel Guibert
illustrated by Marc Boutavant

Quite the menagerie of characters here: Ariol, our hero, is a tween donkey, with a best friend pig, and a dog teacher. Originally published in French, the misadventures of Ariol are a quick and fun read. Since the character is a tween, some of the feelings he has are not easily understood by the resident 8 year old but the book has plenty of silly to keep kids giggling.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid series
by Jeff Kinney

Though not necessarily for 3rd and 4th graders, the first book or even the second book might appeal to some 3rd and 4th graders as it has plenty of silliness.

The younger child got the first book (used copy) as a prize in school (I like  that their class teacher gives out used books as prizes sometimes, rather than pencils and erasers and plastic toys.) He has read the first two books and that's where I left it. He may not get a lot of the issues that middle-schooler Greg Heffley faces but quite a bit of the humor is universal enough to keep him giggling aloud and bring it to share with me.

[image source: author or publisher websites where available and google images]

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Chloe in India

Chloe in India
by Kate Darnton
published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers (January 12, 2016)

I was so busy I didn't hear Mom come up behind me. I heard her voice before I saw her, and this is what that voice said:
"Chloe, Chloe! Oh no, Chloe!"
I froze in front of the bathroom mirror. In my left hand, I was holding a clump of blond hair away from my head. Well, hair that used to be blond. Now it was After Midnight Black.
In my right hand, I was holding an After Midnight Black permanent marker.

With an opening like that, this book hooked me in right away, as it did the resident ten year old.

Eleven year old Chloe did not want to leave her cool, tree-lined Boston home behind and get dumped in horrendously hot Delhi, but she had to go where her parents decided to transplant the family because, as her journalist mom puts it, "that's where the stories are."

It is bad enough that she is unable to fit in and adapt to this new situation, but it doesn't help one bit that her older sister, Anna, seemed to hit the road running, rolling with aplomb at these huge changes. Her perfect older sister Anna who could do no wrong.

Chloe is enrolled in an Indian school, Premium Academy, where she is the only American (besides her sister, of course), and the only blond-haired girl (besides the German girl, but she doesn't count.)

Chloe tries to make the best of fifth grade by trying to befriend the prettiest and richest girl in class, Anvi Saxena, all the while having a nagging sense that something about Anvi's attitude is off and unacceptable to her own ethics. Meanwhile, quite unwittingly, Chloe befriends Laxmi in her dark black hair and ill-fitting hand-me-down uniform, an underdog, underprivileged girl, of EWS (Economically Weaker Section), who is there to fill a quota in admissions records.

The wholesome but strained friendship blossoming between Chloe and Lakshmi is developed almost poetically. The economic divide, the class-based society, the entitlement of the rich, the squalor of the poor (things that are present in many countries in the world), and the struggles of day-to-day existence are all laid out with honest candor that mitigates the stereotyping. It is what it is, and while we all can squirm and wiggle in discomfort at the inequality, the fact remains that there are social injustices we live with and feel powerless to do anything about.

The utter poverty of Lakshmi and the decadent wealth of Anvi are all-true realities in today's India, even more so due to outsourcing and globalization that has bred a flock of nouveau riche who are not sure what to do with all the new-found wealth.

Setting that aside, I want to talk about the positives of this book, which lies in the way Ms. Darnton provides a peek into the culture as seen from Chloe's perspective. The book is semi-autobiographical, in that, Ms. Darnton who hails from Boston actually lived with her family in New Delhi for five years.

Although the story and the settings are all fictional, the bona fide (fictional) characters in the book come alive in Ms. Darnton's narration, from the fussing and efficient Nepali cook/nanny Dechen, dedicated and trustworthy driver/chauffeur Vijay, to the inimitable and wise class teacher Ms.Puri and the quintessential dance instructor Mr.Bhatnagar, not to mention the kids Dhruv, Lakshmi, Meher, Anvi and Prisha, each with their own personality and baggage.

The conflict in the story for Chloe arises from the dance performance she has to participate in on school Annual Day celebrations. As a child growing up and living those very Annual Day celebrations, I loved how Ms. Darnton, via Chloe, explains the significance to non-Indian readers. It is a big deal to put on a dance and musical show to celebrate school's "birthday" so-to-speak, and it can be very stressful for someone like Chloe who does not like to dance or perform in public. There are invited guests of honor and keynote speaker who form a big part of such a celebration, which warrants a proper show with plenty of rehearsals and pitch-perfect performance.

The nuances and idiosyncrasies that are particular to India come across as genuine yet perplexing realities that Chloe faces as she tries to adapt to her new place and culture. While typecasting is unavoidable in such a story setting, the book compensates by revealing so much heart and warmth that is the essence of India, with not much heavy-handed moralizing from high ground.

Will this book encourage a tween reader to visit India and know more about it and possibly befriend an Indian? Perhaps not. There is too much "reality" and "truth" to it that borders on the negative side and too little magic and beauty that is India that is left out of the story.

The resident ten year old got every single emotion that Chloe felt through this story, she understood where Chloe is coming from, and loved the friendship between Chloe and Lakshmi. But, having visited India and having enjoyed parts of it (definitely not the heat, but most certainly the warmth and generosity of the people she encountered), it did come across as a bit one-sided to read the book as an Indian-American.

I did enjoy the vivid descriptions and exchanges that rang so true that it is easy to forget Ms. Darnton is not a native Indian.

An exchange in class between Dhruv, the typical trouble-making class clown, and Chloe:

"Ma'am!" Dhruv yelled. "Chhole is fidgeting!"
I gritted my teeth. "I am not a chickpea," I hissed. "My name's not Cho-lay. It's Chloe. Klo-ee."
"Now she is talking!" Dhruv yelled. "How can I draw her if she is always talking?"
Mrs. Singh glanced up from her desk at the other end of the room. She put one skinny finger to her thin lips. "Shhh!" she hissed.

Back of the book has a "Questions for Readers" section that talks about a few of the situations in the book that warrant discussion and can turn into useful teaching moments.

A couple of exchanges between Lakshmi and Chloe:

"You look fine," I said. I was trying to sound reassuring, but Lakshmi scowled.
"No fancy kurta," she said. "No dupatta." She shook her head and pointed up toward the apartment. "I can no go your house."
"Are you kidding?" I said. "Look at me!" I pointed at the soy sauce stain on my Red Sox T-shirt. "Seriously," I said. "My parents do not care. Like, not at all. Actually, I know for a fact that they'd love to meet you...
Lakshmi looked unconvinced, but before she could protest further, I grabbed hold of her hand and started pulling her up the stairs.


"Outside the hospital, one didi sits there. She is -- what you say?-- phool walla?"
"She's a fool?"
"No, no." Lakshmi let out a laugh. "She not fool. She phool wallah. She sell flower, jasmine flower."

I liked the fact that both Chloe and Lakshmi are new to fifth grade at Premium Academy, and both feel they are misfits (the title of the book as released by Young Zubaan), and they are both from opposite ends of the world culturally and economically. But, why should that stop them from getting to know each other and becoming friends?

Look Inside the Book

[image source:  Penguin Randomhouse]

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Megan's Brood, Book One

Megan's Brood, Book One
by Roy Burdine
illustrated by Shawn Mcmanus

One summer, spunky 6th grader Meg moves into a new place with her parents, leaving her friends and familiar environment behind. In the attic bedroom of the new house, she discovers something magical - a cocoon pulsing with light and tiny heartbeats of unknown creatures.

Over summer, the creatures hatch, ten in all, and seem attached to Meg. She enjoys caring for them while she tries to make new friends in the new place - a skateboarding, garage-band musician of a kid called Cutter, and a soft-spoken well-mannered bookworm like herself called Casper.

Being Book One of a proposed series, we get the background and the set up established over the first two-thirds of the book. Around the last chapter or so, things gather momentum when one of Meg's brood, named Thorn for his spiky scales, reveals his true predatory and controlling nature.

When Thorn binds her dad and friend at their camping night right before start of school term, so as to barter for his siblings, things get fiery hot, literally. But, Meg manages to kick Thorn into the flames, save her dad and friend and the rest of her brood. For now.

The handful of black and white illustrations by Shawn McManus ( sprinkled throughout the book are gorgeous and complement the text well.

Epilogue sets us up for more adventure when we learn that Thorn is not destroyed by the flames after all and inside him beats an angry heart.

It would be interesting to find out how Meg handles her brood as they grow and change and whether Thorn will act on getting his revenge.

Roy Burdine has worked as animation director (Dreamwork's Puss in Boots, Ultimate Spider-Man) and can be found at

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book but the opinions expressed here are entirely mine.]

[image source: photographed from review copy]

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Bartholomew Quill

Bartholomew Quill: A Crow's Quest to Know Who's Who
by Thor Hanson, illustrated by Dana Arnim
published by Sasquatch Books

Bartholomew Quill was a crow long ago,
when all of the world was new.
When he bears and the bees
and the hares and the trees
were all learning to tell which was who.

Thus starts this book by acclaimed biologist Thor Hanson,which takes us on a lyrical journey back in time when our dear protagonist, Bartholomew Quill, the crow, wants to know who he is.

He flies around encountering various animals and compares features to see if he is one of them. At the edge of the ocean, he sees black birds like himself and asks if he is one of them. The bird answers:

I dive and I float in a waterproof coat
My diet is fish and crustacean.
We are both black and sleek, but you lack a bright beak,
so you cannot be my close relation.

And from the lovely illustrations by Dana Arnim, we know this is a puffin, not a crow.

As our Bartholomew encounters other creatures, he quickly realizes he cannot be one of them, until he sees someone very much like himself, only much bigger - the Raven.

Finally, he looks in nature's mirror - the still lake - as he flies over it and realizes he is a crow.

The ability of many species to recognize their own must have evolved somehow, but this story is set when the world was new, so, possibly Bartholomew has not yet developed self-recognition/other-recognition.

One question that cropped up with the resident 7 year old is, at each stage, without introduction or explanation, how does Bartholomew know what that creature is that is different from himself. For example, after encountering the creature that soars and catches fish all day and has sharp eyes and pale head and tail feathers, we simply read that "Bartholomew thanked the bald eagle," which the young readers deduce from the illustrations but may be puzzled as to how Bartholomew arrived at that conclusion.

Back of the book has a "Get More Out of This Book" section that has some interesting suggestions.

Biologist Thor Hanson is renowned for his adult books about nature -- The Impenetrable Forest, The Triumph of Seeds, and Feathers. He won a PNBA Award and The John Burroughs Medal for Feathers, which was also a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Hanson is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Switzer Environmental Fellow, and sought-after public speaker.

Illustrator Dana Arnim has a Certificate in Art from the Children’s Market from UW Extension and serves as Co-regional Advisor for the Western Washington SCBWI.

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book. The opinions shared here are entirely mine.]

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sona and the Wedding Game

Sona and the Wedding Game,
My Dadima Wears a Sari,
Monsoon Afternoon
by Kashmira Sheth
illustrated by Yoshiko Jaeggi
Tiger in my Soup
by Kashmira Sheth
illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler

Being a big fan of stories with strong multicultural backdrop, when I came upon a handful of picture books by Kashmira Sheth, I ended up reading them back to back to my kids. Illustrations by Yoshiko Jaeggi effortlessly capture the magic of Indian culture.

Sona and the Wedding Game was a favorite as it gave a glimpse into an Indian wedding tradition practised in certain communities, (not all over India) -- the bride's sister must steal the groom's shoe at the wedding. There are several traditions, some more solemn, some more fun, practised by different communities across India, adapted to their own local customs. Sona is unfamiliar with this tradition and doesn't know how to go about it, but what are annoying cousins for, right?

Monsoon Afternoon captures the joys of monsoon season and the intergenerational bonding in a subdued way, while not being cliched.

My Dadima Wears a Sari is quintessentially Indian in that it talks about the beautiful attire that is just 6 yards of fabric, the sari. It can become an umbrella, it can become a pouch for collecting seashells, it can bandage up an injured knee... Having grown up with sari all around me, I have a deep love for the traditional sari, which I must admit, I don't wear often. Again, an intergenerational bond is established in the book via traditional clothing - viz., Dadima's wedding sari, the one she brought with her when she came to America, and she shows her granddaughters how to wear it.

Full of imagination and lovely illustrations, Tiger in my Soup is about a boy wanting his older sister to read to him. She refuses of course, busy with her own book and earphones. But when she serves him a can of soup for lunch, the steam rises as assumes the shape of... A Tiger. Jumping out of the soup, the tiger prowls about, wild and unpredictable, so naturally the boy defends himself with kitchen utensils, while the soup sits there getting cold. The sister finally caves in and warms up the soup in the microwave, and reads the book to him. Satisfied, the boy (and the tiger) settle down for imaginary wanderings.

[image source: Yoshiko JaeggiKashmira Sheth websites]

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Loos, Poos, and Number Twos

Loos, Poos, and Number Twos    
A Disgusting Journey Through the Bowels of History
by Peter Hepplewhite

"Awfully Ancient" books by Gareth Stevens Publishing can be quite a fun read for kids interested in fascinating events from history. Full of fun trivia, accompanied by cartoon illustrations, fact boxes, and sidebars, Loos, Poos, and Number Twos takes us on a Disgusting Journey Through the Bowels of History, as the subtitle claims.\

Starting with prehistoric times, we go through ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient China, Medieval times, Tudor times, down to the Victorian loos.

Did you know that ancient Greeks had public loos in bath houses and gymnasiums but no private stalls for doing the business? Did you know the ancient Chinese even had a toilet goddess? We all let out a collective sigh of relief when we read about John Harrington's invention of the washing closet - the flushing toilet - during the reign of Elizabeth I. But without the sewerage system, what good is flushing?

Of course, when kids read the fascinating fact that on the International Space Station, the pee is recycled to drinking water and the poo is packed into capsule and fired into Earth's atmosphere where it burns up, thankfully, the gross-factor and the cool-factor compete closely to achieve a fine balance.

Glossary and More Information at the back makes this a perfectly fun book for readers of all ages who enjoy such trivia.

[image source:]

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