Tag Archives: nonfiction

Not Just a Book, The New Jim Crow is a Call for Real Action and a Movement

newjimcrowThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander

audiobook read by Karen Chilton

It took me a long while to finish listening to this.  My heart would shrink a little when the thought surfaced that it’s time to listen to the next chapter or section.  Why would I want to torture myself knowing more aspects of how UNJUST the United States Criminal Justice System has been to our black fellow citizens — especially black men, especially black young men?  Why would I want to hear more stories that confirm how color-blindness, racial indifference, and lack of information of myself and millions of kind-hearted Americans contributed more to the creation of a lower racial “caste” in our society (convicted felons for minor or nonviolent drug offenses) than overt racists.  Why would I want to feel powerless when informed of the institutionalized sanction so our law enforcers may commit atrocious acts (seizing and keeping of properties of those who might or might not have committed a crime, for example and the incentives to use military grade weapons and tactics against unarmed individuals.)

But I kept at it.  And kept learning.  And kept finding more supporting evidences from the chatters and opinions in social media and other information sources.  And kept talking to whomever would listen.  Until the book was done.

And I promptly bought the paperback copy of the book so I can refer back to it whenever I need.

The book was published in 2010.  And in 2015, we read about president Obama’s bipartisan-sanctioned plans for Justice Reform and listen to reasons behind his granting clemency to unjustly sentenced minor drug offenders.  It will be great to see new policies that address the long-time injustice in the Criminal Justice system.

Watch Obama’s speech at the 2015 NAACP Annual Convention.

A collection of videos about this topic can be found on CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/14/politics/obama-naacp-speech-philadelphia-justice-reform/


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Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us

Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us
Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude M. Steele

Although so much of the book seems like Common Sense to me, it’s always great to be reminded of our own biases and strategies that can alleviate tension and reduce misunderstanding and thus foster a positive learning environment for our students. I felt my time worth spent on this volume.

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With A Mighty Hand: The Story in the Torah

withamightyhandadapted and retold by Amy Ehrlich
illustrated by Daniel Nevins

Ehrlich’s talent as a storyteller is evident in the book.  She picked and chose powerful details.  She then tailored them for young readers with simple and easily understandable words and sentences.  The immediacy is almost shocking.  Instead of the tales feeling distanced by archaic language or complex sentence structures as often found in the translated versions of the Bible (or Torah), a young reader can digest these stories quickly and see the pictures clearly (also with the help of the colorful paintings.)

I think that’s why I had such conflicting reactions to this gorgeously illustrated religious text.  On the one hand, I really admire Ehrlich’s storytelling and distilling skills.  On the other hand, all these immediacies bring to sharp relief the brutal and the morally questionable events and behaviors in these stories.  Being a non-believer of any religion myself, it was really hard for me to understand how anyone could “fall for” this inconsistent, arrogant, vengeful, deceptive, conspiring, and power-hungry GOD.  Some of the lessons that I got from the book are

  • Since GOD is so fickle, but so all powerful, you’d better always do as told.
  • One’s relationship with GOD is and should be completely based on Fear.
  • All human inter-actions are based on Jealousy and sometimes bad deeds are richly rewarded.
  • Women are to be neglected and are of no or little importance except in bearing sons for the chosen people.
  • The chosen ones should endeavor in eliminating the non-believers and those who believe in other Gods.

So, I am left with a huge question: Why, in the year 2013, we need such a retelling of these brutal and morally antiquated tales to children which do not contain in the text itself explanatory notes or questions that encourage discussions for the family?  Especially since this is a trade book and conceivably could be read and shared with people who are not of the Jewish faith.   (There are indeed back matters with notes and an introduction but I really would have liked to see a more philosophical approach to these tales than the current shape it is in.)

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Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

farfromthetreeby Andrew Solomon, read by the author

This book took me 40 days to listen — the audio book version is about 42 hours long.

There were days that I just couldn’t get myself back to listen to the next segment because the emotional exhaustion experienced in a previous segment prevented me from delving back into the book — mostly because some of the personal stories that Solomon reported are incredibly intense and affecting.

My reaction toward the book changed several times through this long journey: at first, I was just in awe and was glad that I got to learn something about situations that I don’t have personal experiences with — that I learned about Deaf Culture and the polarized opinions on whether deafness should be cured; about families with Little People and the historical and medical aspects of Dwarfism — and the perils and blisses of “cures” such as limp lengthening procedures; about children and adults with Down Syndroms, their defeat and success and what researchers are still finding and what life is like for so many of them…

Then, my relationship with the book changed slightly, listening to the chapters on DS, Autism, Schizophrenia, and Disability.  Even though the conditions described differ from chapter to chapter, some recurring themes emerge. Mainly we are shown (and told) by Solomon repeatedly that just because two people or two families have the same “problem” does not mean that they have the same views and reactions on the situation.  Indeed, it’s proven over and over and over (yes, there are a lot of repeating patterns in the book, both in the reporting and the reflecting from the author, although there were always new expressions to say the same thing) that each and every situation is inherently complex: there are the matters of the illness (condition,) the matters of the economics, the matters of the societal views, and definitely matters of the heart: the heart of the parents and the children.  I complained a bit then about how each chapter seems to repeat itself… and was reminded that perhaps very few readers of this tome would have gone through the book the same manner I did.  The way Solomon put together the book allows for essential information and themes to not be lost even if a reader only reads one or two chapters.

I settled down then and became more open minded to the worlds of Prodigies, Rape victims and their children, Criminals and their parents, and Transgender people.  I don’t know whether these chapters were better put together or whether my mind was more willing to appreciate them. Nonetheless, I found myself constantly finding revelations and new information worth learning in these final segments.  They let me consider situations and hardships and joys that I NEVER contemplated.  Yes, I felt like I was made a slightly “better” person by sharing the author’s empathetic and compassionate views and by being more educated about situations that I didn’t really understand before.

The final chapter of Solomon’s personal story of fatherhood (3 families, 5 children, fathered by himself and his partner for others and for themselves) serves as a wonderful and hopeful conclusion to a heavy — in all senses — book.

Since the reports are so thorough and the stories so well told, there might be an illusion that after reading this book, one could feel quite an expert in the ins and outs of these various conditions and their ramifications.  I cautioned myself to not “just take Solomon’s words for it” since even though I found myself agreeing with him a LOT, I don’t really know enough about anything presented here (socio-economic, historical, societal, medical, ethical, etc.) to judge the book’s validity in its entirety.  Did I learn a WHOLE lot about all these conditions?  I sure did.  But to me, there is an even more important added value: Solomon’s book is a great reminder for me to pay attention to wide angles on many issues and to consider the multitude of outcomes that changing of one or few small factors could cause.

I am so glad that I got to experience this book this summer.  I hope some others do too!

There is a full website with rich content that one can explore, too: Here – http://www.farfromthetree.com/

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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

malcolmxby Manning Marable
audio book: read by G. Valmont Thomas

I listened to this historically detailed and intimate personal portrait of Malcolm X over a month: while washing dishes and walking to and from subway stations.  I never read the autobiography which has been the prescribed text on school curriculum about Malcolm X, and only encountered him as a historical figure in other nonfiction books, mostly for children, about the Civil Rights Movement.  So it is that this is how I got to know the man and his many phases on the road to becoming the internationally influential personality.  I learned much about the Nation of Islam (NOI,) and much about the inter-plays between him and other leaders of the civil rights movement — especially Bayard Rustin, whose story has just begun to surface as another major thread of the Movement.

The book is full of painstakingly gathered details of Malcolm’s life — from his parents’ struggles before he was born, the family’s roles as Garveyites, Malcolm’s youthhood filled with brushes against the law and his inevitable imprisonment, his extreme attachment and final rebellion against the Nation of Islam and its doctrines, his many international trips to observe first hand the Orthodox Islam’s practices, and to his final days when he adopted Pan-Africanism and evolved into a much more open-minded commentator on social struggles: that the color of one’s skin does not necessarily dictate one’s political or social views and status.

I cannot but wonder, just as the biographer historian did in the epilogue, how more influential Malcolm would have been to the Movement if he had been given the chance to live beyond his 40th birthday…. (he was murdered just 3 months short of it.)  It’s with a heavy heart that I stopped the audio player…

Marable’s words brought Malcolm to life and actor Thomas’ skillful reading of the narrative did the text justice, or perhaps even enhanced it.  I really appreciated both for their art.

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What is Reading? To a 4th grader?

This past Tuesday, I surveyed what my 4th graders are currently reading as I do about once a month in Library Class, just to have a sense on some favorite titles and whether they are all engaging in the act of reading.  One boy looked mighty uncomfortable and almost embarrassed when it was his turn.  He squeaked a reply, almost inaudible, “I’m not reading anything.”  I said, “That’s all right.  Let’s find you something to read today.” He replied, “But I am spending a lot of time reading this National Geographics book on the greatest journeys of the world.”  I quickly assured him and the entire class that, “Reading a nonfiction IS READING,” and to never feel bad if you are not the kind of reader who reads only made-up STORIES.

But why, by age 8 or 9, children already have formed this strong belief that if they are not reading Fiction, they are NOT reading?

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In Cold Blood

In Cold Bloodby Truman Capote

Finally got a chance to read this. Excellent beyond belief. No wonder it is such a famous book. Capote is not only a great sentence crafter, he is also so skilled in putting together the whole picture bit by bit with just the right amount of tension as each chapter progresses and as each section of the book falls into place. There is the “cold blood” chilling-ness permeating the book, of course, but there is also so much that is entirely human about each person’s tale. We wonder about these murderers and what went wrong in their lives and in their brains and in their hearts. I feel both a deep sorrow and a real emotional detachment – two highly opposite sensations and yet they co-exist the entire time as I read the book. I’d credit the author for giving a most unusual reading experience.

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Through the Gates and Beyond

Christo and Jeanne Claude: Through the Gates and BeyondAuthor: Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
Reading Level: 4th to 6th grade

Pages: 50
Publisher: Roaring Brook/Neal Porter
Edition: Har
dcover, 2008

I am speechless and teary-eyed, reading and having finished reading this thrilling little biography of Christo and Jeanne Claude and of their art. Greenberg and Jordan did not disappoint — as always, their words are as vivacious and artistic as the artists they chronicle. One cannot help but being completely infected by the passion from all of those involved: the artists and the biographers.

And to this one, since it is something I deeply experienced, with friends, students, and family, my emotional reaction is even stronger. Between me and my husband, we took about 500 photos — both under a bright blue sky and in the snow, with the gates winding around and the fabric flapping wildly in the wind. In fact, when it was time for my then-kindergarten daughter to do her “hundred day” project, she chose to draw a tree with branches and then glue 100 miniature pictures from our collection as leaves — a Fall Tree, as she called it, because these were orange leaves. The artwork is still hung next to my desk at work.

(Hmm… I was slightly perturbed why there have not been more pictures of the Gates in this book, especially of the Gates when they were “in action and in motion”?)

The meticulous and artistic design of the book itself also echoes the free and playful spirit of Christo and Jeanne Claude. I applaud all who worked on this book! Thank you for a precious gift.

And I simply cannot help but posting a couple of the snowy pictures (the blue sky ones are on a DVD somewhere else…) — to commemorate a fabulous time in New York City:

And of course, my friend Monica Edinger had her class document the process on a web page. Go HERE to see!

And here’s a link to many more Central Park Gates Pictures by searching google images of simple: Central Park Gates.

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Swords: An Artist’s Devotion

Swords: An Artist's DevotionAuthor: Ben Boos
Reading Level: for all readers

Pages: 96
Publisher: Candlewick
Edition: Hardcover, 2008

I couldn’t believe my eyes, flipping through page after page of beautifully rendered swords from many time periods and many cultures, how visually perfect this book is! No matter whom I showed this book to (HS students, MS kids, other adults) – the reaction was the same: an astounded delight at this Feast of the Artistry of Beautiful and Elegant Swords. I’m glad the inclusion of Asian and African swords and their histories (although would have like a more balanced proportion in treatment…)

This makes a great holiday gift for any child who enjoys this topic. The general and specific notes on various types, their usages, their histories, and those who used such and such swords are easy to read and absorb. But one definitely doesn’t need to read all the text to enjoy the book.

I am so happy of this book’s existence!

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Thoreau at Walden

Thoreau at WaldenAuthor: John Porcellino (illus.)
Reading Level: 4th and up

Pages: 112
Publisher: Hyperion
Edition: Paperback, 2008

To say the least, this book is “interesting” — presenting some of Thoreau’s writing and ideas in cartoon format — there is not much innovative panel design but the color scheme, the panel progression, the choices of images all work harmoniously together — which fit very nicely with Thoreau’s sentiments. I especially appreciate those wordless panels — the one that he and the owl looked at each other and then went back to do their “own businesses” without further disturbance. So peaceful and effectively illustrating the essence of his existence at the time.

The extensive back matter will make this deceptively simple book “useful” for an older audience (middle school? early high school?)

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Me Talk Pretty One Day

Author: David Sedaris
Reading Level: High School and Adult

Edition: Audiobook, read by the author

This one, read by Sedaris, too, was thoroughly enjoyable. Witty, at times bitter, and other times revelational, it presents the modern American life’s many quirky sides. (Of course, it’s such life viewed via a very strange mind indeed.)

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May 2005 Reads

Fast Food Nation
by Eric Schlosser (Read by Rick Adamson)

nonfiction, Adult, audio book

Whether the writing is too bland or the reader too inappropriately dramatic, I couldn’t tell. But, this very famous and popular title of the last couple of years only delivered information… long passages of it devoted to documenting the people involved in the fast food industry… without satisfying my literary “appetite.” It also has a pretty strong and unhidden agenda that feels a bit heavy handed. I am still happy that I read/listened to it and that I was “informed.” Beyond that, there is not much more to say about it.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
by David Sedaris

highly recommended
humorous, nonfiction, memoir, Adult, audio book

Another audio book that is absolutely fantastic to listen to. Read by the author/public speaker with his signature nasal voice that is both sarcastic and completely sincere — incredibly cynical and yet touchingly innocent. The short autobiographical episodes are entertaining, enlightening, and memorable. Absolutely loved it!

Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini

realistic fiction, Adult, audio book

I listened to this brutal and brutally honest and beautiful book on my iPod, folding laundry or washing dishes… on the subway or falling asleep at night… It is read by the author and his accent and pronunciation of the Afghan words made the experience rich with layers. It was an unforgettable “event,” listening to it.

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February 2005 Reads

A Stir of Bones
by  Nina Kiriki Hoffman

horror (5th and up)

This book is just creepy enough, just romantic enough, just complex and simple enough, for pre-teen and early teens. I LOVE the descriptions of the consciousness of the HOUSE and Susan’s relationships with the House, her friends, and Nathan, the ghost boy. When Susan leaves her shell (body) behind and travels in a magical new exterior, the imagery is so vivid that even a non-visual/graphic reader like me can visualize the pictures. It is also interesting that there is no real “pay off” of the sub-plot of the father situation — that Susan’s father is not quite “punished” at the end. (I would have LOVED to see that…) It makes the story more real. This was a Bram Stoker horror fiction for young reader nominee. It lost to the 5th Harry Potter… hmm…. I disagree.

Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods
by Suzanne Collins

fantasy, adventures, survival, series (4th-7th)

After a somewhat slow and not exciting beginning (um… for at least 1/3 of the book,) the book got really fast-paced and interesting. The “turn” of the events was suprising, and as the two books before in this series, no easy solutions were offered. I liked the somewhat cliff-hanging ending, too. Weaker than the first two, plot-wise, but definitely will keep me reading the last two titles.

To Be A Slave
by Julius Lester

highly recommended
nonfiction (7th and up)

This Newbery Honor, 1968 book was done superbly. Lester’s collecting, re-working, and threading of the slave narratives is careful and powerful. It kept me reading into dark nights, giving up sleep. The only troublesome selection, in my view, was the last entry — in which a former slave claims that there will NEVER be equality between the two races. No explanation or mentioning of any social progress accompanying this entry. Of course, at the time, Lester probably felt that was the case; he might still feel this way, even now, given the condition of this country and its people. It’s just that, it is such a downer ending and a child reader should have the opportunity to discuss this ending, and putting in the context of the last 30 odd years.

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Early 2004 Reads

Meet the Austins

by L’Engle, Madeleine
Realistic Fiction (4-6)

What a gentle, charming, old-fashioned fiction from the “olden days.” (1960.) The strong bond of the family is remarkable and yet very common place. This story reminds the readers to appreciate the every day life and to see the extraordinary and often humorous sparkles of ordinary events. A lovely read.

Angels and Demons

by Dan Brown
Mystery (7th, 8th, YA, adult)

I enjoyed the plot for the most part. The characters are really flat and there are a couple of holes towards the end of the story. This definitely does not qualify as an outstanding work of literature but it sure kept me reading. The ambigrams and the art history references are definitely the strength. The romance is not.

Starting with Alice

by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Realistic Fiction (3-5)

This first prequel to Naylor’s popular Alice series works. Alice is her smart but lack of confidence self — quite precocious for a beginning 3rd grader, borderlining unbelievable at points, though.

The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place

by E. L. Konigsburg
Realistic Fiction (5-8)

Konigsburg’s much-anticipated new novel is as smart, soul-touching, and quirky as many of her other titles. However, I did not fall in love with this story as much as I had hoped for — I wanted another Silent to the Bone — an excellent title with a strong appeal to young readers; instead, I got a Father’s Arcane Daughter — an excellent book that might not have a strong following of young readership. Of course, with the Summer Camp scenes, some children might find it appealing.

Pop Princess

by Rachel Cohn
Realistic Fiction, YA (6-8)

Definitely not as smart, touching, and tender as Gingerbread. It was nonetheless and entertaining read.

The Wee Free Men

by Terry Pratchett
highly recommended
Fantasy, Humorous Story (6-8)

I enjoyed Pratchett’s brand of humor in this Discworld novel. It reminds me quite a bit of Coraline by Gaiman — the whole Dream World being sketchy and not solid to withstand close scrutiny scenario and the entering into this created world to rescue a family member and also to gain self-understanding and self-reliance. It just got to be a bit tedious at the end.

Vote for Larry

by Janet Tashjian
Realistic Fiction, YA (6-9)

This sequel to Gospel According to Larry is definitely inferior to the original — very heavy-handed, message-ladened, and the Mystery part is trite. I can see young readers enjoy it, though.

Doing It!

by Melvin Burgess
Realistic Fiction, YA (9-12)

After the first shocking effects wear off, the story loses my interest quickly. The characters do not seem real to me and although there are moments of extreme humor, the moralistic overtone makes it an unsatisfying read.


by Edith Pattou
Fantasy (5-7)

This retelling of the Norse fairy story of East of the Sun, West of the Moon is so much fun to read — but did drag a little in the middle, when Rose is journeying north and crossing the sea, too many side characters who mean very little to the readers and too much description without moving the plot along. Both Rose’s World and the Troll Kingdom are well realized and the multiple voices are distinct and work nicely in presenting the whole story.

An American Plague

by Jim Murphy
Nonfiction (6-8)

I could not understand why this book received so much acclaim! It was nominated for National Book Award’s Young Readers category; it won the Sibert Award, and a Newbery Honor…. and yet, it is SO dry, SO unruly, and SO boring. Reading it, I did not sense the urgency or the horror of the plague. And I was so ready to be swept away….

Lyra’s Oxford

by Philip Pullman

Fantasy (5-8)
Of course I had to read this book — taking place 2 years after the conclusion of His Dark Materials trilogy, this short tale relates an incident about a witch in Lyra’s Oxford. I loved pouring over the inserted map and all the merchandizes advertised on the back of it. A gem.

Stravaganza: The City of Masks

by Mary Hoffman
Fantasy (4-7)

This wonderfully inventive time/space/dimensional travel fantasy/science-fiction blend delivers an intense mystery. I can’t wait to read the sequel — The City of Stars.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

by Mark Haddon
Realistic Fiction, YA, Adult (8-12)

The protagonist is definitely a unique creation. I enjoyed many of his insights, reasonings, and limitations. At moments, I found his character is a little inconsistent with what he CLAIMS he is — but, other people have convinced me that that is how an autistic person might function. A wildly popular book with both adults and young people, I see this award winning novel enjoy a long shelf life.


by Garth Nix
Fantasy, series (6-9)

The conclusion of the trilogy that started with Sabriel is powerful, exciting, but at the same time a little disappointing — too short! I’d like to read MORE about what hapstar next in the Old Kingdom and the land of the dead…

The River Between Us

by Richard Peck
Historical Fiction (6-8)

I put it down at first reading, but decided to go back and re-read it. When I read the entire story, it worked much better. The characters definitely become alive, the horror of the Civil War war front and the sorrow of the Home Front can both be “seen” and “felt” vividly, and the final revelation of the relationships between the two narrators definitely concludes the story powerfully. I think this is a book that I will go back to re-read and savor more.


by Jerry Spinelli
Highly Recommended
Historical Fiction (5-8)

The dual voices of the narrator whose identity changes several times in this story set in the Warsaw Ghetto works so incredibly well — he is both an innocent 8-year-old (we guess) and an old man in America who wisely recalls his time in great perils. Finely crafted, with a cast of genuine characters, this novel definitely speaks to me and I imagine many many young readers will find it a powerful, although definitely disturbing and devastating story.

Olive’s Ocean

by Kevin Henkes
Realistic Fiction (5-7)

Contrary to what I expected, this story is really not quite about “death” but about savoring “life” and all its colors and lights. Martha is a very sensitive and extremely thoughtful 12-year-old and her relationship with her family rings true. I like the Grandma. But, the scenes with the boy-next-door seem a bit contrived and unconvincing.


by Garth Nix
Highly Recommended
Fantasy, series (6-9)
Definitely my favorite of the trilogy! Lirael is such an amazing character, and she is a Librarian, none less. So much of the story hapstar in the coolest Library one can imagine and the Disputable Dog is an absolutely original character. I was completely blown away by this volume.

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