Tag Archives: realistic fiction

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree

Author: Lauren Tarshis
Rating:
Reading Level: 4th – 6th

Pages:
Publisher: Dial
Edition: Hardcover, 2007 (ARC)

The tone, matter-of-fact, aloof, observatory, self-aware, emotionally detailed — is very interesting — at least at the beginning. It becomes a little boring after a while. The chapters from Colleen’s viewpoint are told pretty much in this same tone, which does not quite fit her timid personality. Even though the story is seen through Emma-Jean’s eyes and thus are all exaggerated (slightly or largely,) certain events (such as the Queen Been losing her hold on the 7th-grade populace) still need the real-life logic to convince this reader.

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Captives

Author: Tom Pow
Rating:
Reading Level: 7th and up

Pages:
Publisher: Roaring Brooks
Edition: Hardcover, 2007 (ARC)

I really appreciate the layered perspectives from all parties and the courage Tom Pow exibits as an author to not put forth a more popular view point in condamning the captors. The setting is brought to life vividly and each character and their back story convincingly portrayed.

The switch from Part I to Part II is a little too fast and it took some adjusting to change gear and expectations. To have the second part as an unpolished manuscript that Martin scribbled in one night seems a bit far-fetched, though.

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The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Author: Brian Selznick
Rating:
Reading Level: 4th-6th

Pages: 533
Publisher: Scholastic
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

The superb and impeccable design gives me such pleasure that I feel like hugging this big fact block of a book every time I see it! Selznick’s cinamatic illustrations that take up most of the 533 pages, blend seamlessly with the crisp text and enigmatic storyline.

I like how Hugo’s plans do not always pan out the same ways he imagined — often they go wrong, but in a very realistic way. The adults intervene just the right amount so the situation never becomes hopeless without reducing the excitement generated by Hugo’s desparation and urgency. Of course, there are a lot of coincidences, following the Dickensian storytelling tradition.

A most wonderful offer!

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Mismatch

Author: Lensey Namioka
Rating:
Reading Level: 6th-8th grade

Pages: 217
Publisher: Delacorte
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

I agree with almost every notion Namioka presents in this book: that no singular experience (no matter one’s race or heritage) is truly shared by all and that one has to discover and rediscover one’s heritage and relationship with that heritage over and over again: a life long endeavor.

However, these “messages” are so heavy that I felt as if being sat on by a giant troll and had the air squeezed out of my lungs the entire time while reading this book. This is not an organic story, growing out of the young couple’s (Japanese and Chinese American teens) love for each other, but a plastic plant with the author’s hands manipulating the shapes of the branches and the color of the flowers and all the folds of the leaves. It seems such a shame that a potentially profound story can become so superficial and the “solutions” of the cultural and racial conflicts are unconvincingly simplistic. I cannot bring myself to believe that the grandmother (who is about my own mother’s age, with similar experience as a Chinese young girl in Japanese occupied China) would have accepted the Japanese family within a week of her discovery of this dating business. How can someone’s life-long bias against an entire orther race be altered overnight? Anyone who does not have this specific “Asian” experience should still know that racial biases do not get resolved like this. This story’s all happy endings render all the messages too lightweighted to matter at all.

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Weedflower

Author: Cynthia Kadohata
Rating:
Reading Level: 6th – 8th Grade

Pages: 260
Publisher: Atheneum (S&S)
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

Kadohata’s strength lies in her quiet tone and close-up examination of the main characters’ thoughts and feelings. Weedflower is a perfect example. The readers are intimately familiar with every strand of emotion in Sumiko’s life but the full picture of the time in history is a bit foggy. The fate and experiences of Sumiko’s uncle and grandfather (in the prison camp) is also sketchy at the best. This is in keeping with Sumiko’s young girl perspective. There is no telling if Kadohata had opted to force other pieces of the historical puzzle into the telling, the result would have been a more diluted or intensified tale.

My personal issue with this book is my indifference to Sumiko. I don’t find her particularly inspiring or even likable. Her status as a social outcast seems more self-imposed than forced upon by others and her small triumphs did not stir much admiration in me. I felt impatience and displeasure, rather than empathy, for her. Maybe because she seems way too self-absorbed – which, once again, shows the author’s skill at portraying a realistic person without false glorification. But, I need that glorification. I need to see that she opens her eyes and understands more about what is affecting her people, and not just how miserable her own life is or what’s going in within her immediate environment.

Report from the field: Several people (of Japanese and general Asian descent are troubled by the cover. Their first reaction has been consistent: “No one at a Japanese-American Internment Camp would have worn a kimono! That is entirely inaccurate!” And besides, Sumiko never once wore a kimono throughout the entire story.

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Lily Reads: Betsy-Tacy

Author: Maud Hart Lovelace
Rating:
Reading Level: 2nd to 4th Grade

fairrosa: So.. you gave this book 5 stars. Is it that great?
Lily: Yes. Because I felt that it made you very emotional and so you had a connection with the book.

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Lily Reads: All-of-a-Kind Family and More All-of-a-Kind Family

Author: Sidney Taylor
Rating:
Reading Level: 1st to 3rd

fairrosa: Why do you like All-of-a-Kind Family?
Lily: I liked this book because it’s about five girls and they have adventures and it’s very exciting.
fairrosa: Do you have something to say about the second book?
Lily: Yes. It has a lot of tension.
fairrosa: How? What happened?
Lily: There was a disease going around and they didn’t want to catch it.

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Samurai Shortstop

Author: Alan Gratz
Rating:
Reading Level: 6th – 8th

Pages: 280
Publisher: Dial (Penguin Putnam)
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

Every scene is necessary in this tightly written and thoroughly researched historical novel. The events unfold as the momentum gains and as Toyo’s self-understanding grows – subtly but with such forces that I could not put the book down. The opening scene of detailed Seppuku (suicide by cutting open one’s own stomach) ritual and some of the High School hazing methods are definitely not for the faint of heart. Yet this is not a book about violence, but about honor, loyalty, teamwork, inner strength, and physical strength, as well. All the necessary components of a successful baseball team.

To link the spirit of Bushido (Way of the Warriors) and baseball presents such a fresh look on the American’s National Pasttime that will inspire many young readers to think about the sport they love more deeply and meaningfully. This is an amazing and perfect book!

Note on Cultural Inaccuracies: My suspicion was confirmed by a Japanese friend that since Gratz is not Japanese, nor is he an expert in the Japanese language, some cultural inaccuracies occur in the book. The most glaring problem for me is the use of first names of anyone elder. It simply is not done — not then, and not even now in the 21st century. A son will never call his own father by the first name – no matter HOW much he detest his own father. When calling an upper classman, one will always use honorifics: -san and -sempai attached to either the first or last names; and when the younger students are addressed, the older ones might use -kun. These can be easily researched — even a simple google search or any entry level Japanese language text book can reveal the correct usage of these honorifics. Since it IS still an integral part of the Japanese culture, the ignoring of such practice shows a certain mentality from the author and the publisher. What a shame!

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Nothing but the Truth (and a Few White Lies)

Author: Justina Chen Headley
Rating:
Reading Level: 7th-9th

Pages: 256
Publisher: Little, Brown
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

I had to try twice to finish this book. During the first attempt, I got SO annoyed by the piled-on, not-always-so-clever, made-me-cringe similies and metaphors (dried shitake mushroom of a heart?) that I simply had to put it down. I couldn’t believe that the author was getting away with such a case of over-writing syndrome.

However, since I had to read it for the Asian Pacific American Award of Literature, I braced myself to continue reading. Gradually, I accepted that this habit of overusing figures of speech belongs not to the author but to the narrator, who is both an over-achiever and someone who does not recognize her own strengths. Lots of humor and cultural references (although they can be somewhat stereotypical) – both realistic and with quite a bit of exaggeration make the book eventually an entertaining read, albeit a bit of a mess in plot twists and tangents. But, hey, a half-half Taiwanese-White American girl whose father went absentee when she was just a tot, whose mother is pushy and demanding, whose brother just got into Harvard, and whose first love turns out to bit quite a jerk, is nothing short of a messy situation.

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Wait for Me

Author: An Na
Rating:
Reading Level: Junior High

Pages: 172
Publisher: Putnam (Penguin)
Edition: Hardcover (Galley), 2006

Mina’s story is told with such quiet power by An Na that it’s almost unbearable to read. So much stuff is laid on the shoulders of this one child: her mother’s expectations, family secrets, lies, her sister’s wellbeing… It is almost unrealistic. But it does feel real — her relationships with all people in her life, from the former childhood friend to the new boyfriend, from her helpless sister to her dominating mother, all ring true. Suna’s story is not as fleshed out, although she is given her own chapters — they are all quite dream-like, which I believe is An Na’s intention, and yet, I’m left with a sense of dissatisfaction at the incompleteness of her story, especially toward the end.

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Habibi

Author: Naomi Shihab Nye
Rating:
Reading Level: 5th and up

Pages: 259
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Edition: Hardcover, 1997

When I say a novel is comprised of a series of character studies, I usually mean that in a negative way. I usually mean that there is no story or there is no emotional impact. However, when I say that there are impeccable character studies abound in Habibi, I mean that Nye is so skilled at “sculpting” her characters that they all come to life, each of them in 3D glory! Their relationships — from a street vender who appears in two brief scenes, to Liyana and her family members and her new found friends — are incredibly real and moving. Yes, there is not a strong story-arc and yet you don’t feel like you’d put the book down — you want it to go on for a long long time. You want to know what happens to the budding romance between Liyana (American/Arabic) and Omer (Jewish) in the city that divides them by ethnicities (Jerusalem). You want to know how Poppy’s (Father) new found cause of making the country better and more peaceful develops. You want to watch Rafik (Liyana’s cool nerd of a younger brother) grow up and see what kind of girlfriend he’ll have.

A tender book about a violent time and place that is both important and more than well articulated. Nye’s native skill as a poet adds sparkle and dimension to her story.

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Lily Reads: Because of Winn-Dixie

Author: Kate DiCamillo
Rating:
Reading Level: 2nd? – 5th

Pages: 192
Publisher: Candlewick
Edition: Paperback, 2004 (2000)

Lily says, “The book is cute. I like how much friendship they show to each other.”

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Utterly Me, Clarice Bean

Author: Lauren Child
Rating:
Reading Level: 2nd – 4th

Pages: 160
Publisher: Orchard Books
Edition: Hardcover, 2002

Lauren Child’s child-like voice manages to be both super innocent and highly savvy. Clarice Bean is utterly a little gem and utterly charming, in an I-might-find-her-a-bit-annoying-in-real-life-for-a-friend-or-a-student-but-it-sure-is-fun-to-read-her-thoughts kind of way. I love the illustrations and the creative typesetting.

The only slight gripe I have is the “fake” story that Clarice Bean loves to read so much (Ruby Redford mysteries) within the book does not grab me, but distract me from Clarice’s story. However, Lily is reading it now and she actually likes the Ruby Redford mysteries better than the main plot. Shows how tastes dictate!

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You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah

Author: Fiona Rosenbloom
Rating:
Reading Level: 6th – 8th

Pages: 190
Publisher: Hyperion
Edition: Hardcover, 2005

It’s a fun and quick read. Stacy Friedman’s voice is lively and funny. The story, although utterly unbelievable, is actually charming at moments. However, it is highly predictable and sugar-sweet: everything works out in the end so do not worry about having to feel sorry for anyone.

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Be A Perfect Person in Just Three Days

Author: Stephen Manes
Rating:
Reading Level: 1st – 3rd

Pages: 76
Publisher: Yearling
Edition: Paperback, 1996 (1982)

Lily read it and found it mildly amusing. (I had to nudge her to finish it, though.)

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Ramona Books

Author: Beverly Clearly
Rating:
Reading Level: K-3rd

Pages:
Publisher: William Morrow / Yearling / Dell
Edition: Mixed, 1955 onward

This has been a favorite bedtime story series for the last 3 months. I read it to Lily when we were in Taiwan and David has been reading it to her every night for the last 2 months. The titles in the series are

Beezus and Ramona (1955)
Ramona the Pest (1968)
Ramona the Brave (1975)
Ramona and Her Mother (1977)
Ramona and Her Father (1979)
Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (1981)
Ramona Forver (1984)
Ramona’s World (1999)

We have finished all but the last two. I’m constantly amazed and reminded of Cleary’s uncanny talent at capturing the inner workings of a small child as I listen to David’s affective reading and watch Lily’s complete emotional involvement with the story.

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Hope Was Here

Author: Joan Bauer
Rating:
Reading Level: 5th – 8th

Pages: 186
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Edition: Hardcover, 2000

I can see that, maybe, some readers will find parts (especially toward the end, when most things turn out exactly right) of this story a bit too good to be true, or even sappy, but I definitely ate it all up! Joan Bauer has the talent to capture many different personalities as only an observant writer would: they are just your every day ordinary people, they sound real, they act not that out of the norm, and yet, each single one of them also carries a little spotlight around that makes you, the reader as audience, see the details defined much more clearly and each of them shines with a glow that makes them a bit larger than life. Reading Hope Was Here, like reading its twin, another excellent book by Bauer, Rules of the Road, inspires the reader to examine the every day life and people with a special lens that captures what’s just below the surface that makes every thing and every body that much more special. We become less lazy about what we do and how we feel. I’m surprised that no one has offered a movie deal to turn this into one of the core American Spirit (dare I say Value???), feel-good, summer family movie! It has all: quirky, interesting characters, a mystery to solve, some very witty internal monologues (and food metaphors,) lots of hope and courage, and some romance, too. It’s a bit like Sideways, only it deals with the philosophy of Diner Food, not red wine, and it’s about a 17-year-old girl, not a middle aged man, of course!

As I read this book that has been quite popular with my 5th graders, I was constantly amazed in wonderous puzzlement: why do my girl readers, who are mostly from well-to-do families, and who has lived the city life all along would find this book so irresistable that they excitedly recommend it to their best friends all the time? What do they see and feel in it that speaks to them so much? The interesting and witty main character (Hope) alone cannot carry the weight of the entire book… what else? I’ll have to remember to investigate that one when school starts in a couple of weeks.

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Ask Me No Questions

Author: Marina Budhos
Rating:
Reading Level: 5th and up

Pages: 162
Publisher: Atheneum, Ginee Seo Books
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

The subject matter is definitely an important one (post-911 mistrust and political mistreatment of Muslim males and families) and there are many moments of heart-felt and hard hitting impacts. Not that I want the Hossain family to fail in their struggle, but the few plot twists that turn the event around seem a little too easy. I wonder if the success of their appeal almost undercuts the untold stories of those who were sent back to their countries and denied more chances in the States. True, the Uncle’s story is told on the side, which is a story of someone’s spirit being broken, but it was such a small aside compared to the main tale. Maybe the narrator (who uses present tense) sounds a bit more like the writer behind these words than the 14-year-old who does not quite excel in anything except for being patient and preceptive at moments of distress — some of the poetic descriptions seem a bit out of synch with the character.

That said, I will not hesitate giving this story to many young readers who will find both the topic and the perilous situations absorbing.

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The Illustrated Mum

Author: Jaqueline Wilson
Rating:
Reading Level: 5th and up

Pages: 282
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Edition: Hardcover, U.S., 2005 (1999)

So, after a year of hearing little exclaiming squeals from the library’s young readers (4th to 6th grade girls, mostly) telling their friends how amazing this book was and how much they loved, loved it — I finally got around to read it myself. Yes, indeed, the urgency, the dire situation that the two girls, Dolphin and Star live under (with their obviously very unbalanced, irresponsible and artistic mother,) and the sense of danger and injustice all contribute to a transfixing read.

However, mid-book, suddenly, the realism gives way to incredible coincidences. Incredible here means: not credible, not believable. And the ending leaves me quite puzzled. Is there a message that says, do not ever put your trust in the males in one’s life? Even a mother who needs to go through serious psychiatric treatment is better than the fathers who can offer more stable lives? What does the story wish to celebrate? or condemn? There is a hidden message there somewhere, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it! I don’t know what I actually expected, not quite like these TV-soap-melodrama twists, for sure. (I wonder how teachers in 4th grade think about Miss Hill who seems so clueless about the situation that Dolphin is in while there are so many outward signs that anyone working with 10-year-olds with some basic training would have picked up on right away — in Real Life.)

I guess there is the literary licence, and Wilson definitely uses it quite freely. Oh, I sound as if I did not enjoy the read or won’t recommend it to young readers. Not so, not so. I quite liked the book and I now know why my students like it, too!

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A Damsel in Distress

Author: P.G. Wodehouse
Rating:
Reading Level: Adult

Duration: 9 Hours
Publisher: Blackstone Audio Books
Edition: Audio, narrator: Frederick Davidson, 2001 (1919)

I absolutely enjoyed this light-hearted drawing room comedy. This is my first Wodehouse title and maybe I’ll try some other writings by him in the future. Some of his humorous observations on human emotions can be so dead-on that I laughed out loud while listening to the competent reading by Davidson (although I didn’t quite like his high-pitched, soft-fake tone of all the female characters). There were even a couple of tender romantic scenes that touched my heart! (I know, I’m a sap!)

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