Monday, June 30, 2008

Cuba 15

Cuba 15
Nancy Osa

Violet Paz is a Cuban-Polish American. She quite aware of her roots, and yet because the mention of Cuba raises such issues with her father and her grandparents, she’s never learned much about the country they fled when her father was only one year old.

Violet is now 15, and her grandmother has said it is time for her quinceanero, the celebration that announces that she is now a woman. Violet is at first hesitant to have this party (she hasn’t even worn a dress since she was in grade school), but gradually she become more excited about.

Violet has also been asked (ordered?) to participate in the school’s speech team. Given the topic of Original Comedy, she creates a routine based on her parents’ domino tournament that truly turns into a farce. There is, of course, a guy on the team that she’s interested in, but he seems awfully slow in making the first move.

As the year passes, Violet makes some serious mistakes (such as going through her speech coach’s desk) and chalks up some firsts (kissing a boy, for one). She works on taking her many “half-talents” and making them into “full-talents.”

I really liked this book. It has some truly hilarious scenes, and yet Osa does an excellent job of bringing for the issue of Cuba-American relations. She does not make any judgments, but does make it clear that there are two sides to the issue.

I’m not quite sure why it took me a week to read Cuba 15. I guess I have found myself busier than expected this summer, but I’m going to try and get back focused on my reading – or else that pile of mine will never go down.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Sara Zarr

Jenna Vaughn has remade her life. When she was in elementary school she was Jennifer Harris – the girl that was tortured, called “Fattifer” and stole things and binge-ate. She was also Cameron Quick’s best friend. Now she is seventeen and is Jenna Vaughn. She goes to a different school, has a wonderful stepfather, and is thin and healthy. What nobody realizes that it’s all a sham – inside herself Jenna is just pushing Jennifer aside, and acting the way she knows will make her popular, will make her fit in. She even has her first boyfriend.

But inside herself, Jenna is still wounded. Cameron Quick is gone – Jenna has heard that he’s dead – and his disappearance from her life has left a hole in it. It is evident from the beginning of the book that Cameron’s father was abusive and that there was a traumatic event that involved Jenna, Cameron, and his father. Jenna has never told her mother what happened to her, and she has never been able to work through it.

Then on her seventeenth birthday, Jenna finds a card in her mailbox – a card addressed to Jennifer Harris. It is from Cameron and he is back and he’s enrolled in her school. Jenna’s life is thrown into turmoil. She begins to binge eat and steal candy from stores. Her boyfriend is quite naturally threatened by Cameron’s presence. Jenna doesn’t know what she wants. She doesn’t want to be Jennifer Harris, but she’s not truly happy as Jenna Vaughn. And then there is the traumatic event that is still haunting her.

Sweethearts is a sad novel – that’s obvious from the beginning. It is also beautifully written. It’s a great book for the 8th – 10th grade group who will be able to relate to Jenna’s efforts to change herself in order to survive socially. They will also be old enough to understand how much of herself Jenna has to sacrifice in order to change.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Cynthia Kadohata

“It’s not fair.” As an adult I get so very tired of hearing children (and adults) say that. So many times what’s not fair is the trivial stuff – people who don’t get things exactly the way they might want. But there are many things that aren’t fair. It isn’t fair when parents have to work two jobs in order to try and provide for their children. It isn’t fair when children are ignored because they are a different race than those around them. It isn’t fair when a child gets cancer.

It’s the 1950’s and Katie Takeshima’s family is moving from Iowa to Georgia. Katie is not eager to move but her parents’ store has failed and they’ve been promised work in some poultry processing plants. Her parents’ dream is to own a home, and they literally work night and day in order to achieve it. Katie and her sister Lynn are very close and they look after each other while their parents work. As one of the very few Oriental families in town, they suffer from the prejudice of the townspeople, but that is not a central theme of the novel. Over time a new brother is born, and then Lynn begins to feel weak. The doctors blame it on anemia but the iron she takes and the liver she eats don’t seem to help. Eventually the truth is revealed – Lynn has lymphoma.

This is a beautiful, sad book that is primarily about relationships. Obviously, the relationship between Katie and Lynn is the most important, but all of the family relationships in the book have importance. Katie’s parents’ fierce desire to provide for their children means that they to some degree sacrifice their relationship with their kids – they are either at work or exhausted from working all the time. In today’s time, we might tell them not to work so hard – that they needed to show their love by spending time with their kids – but they expressed their love by trying to ensure that their children would have their own home and the opportunity to finish school and to go to college.

Kira-Kira won a Newbery in 2004 and it is well-deserved.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fear this book

Fear this Book: Your Guide to Fright, Horror, and Things that Go Bump in the Night
Jeff Szpirglas

How many people are afraid of snakes? How about roller coasters? How many of would not want to admit to being afraid of anything? Pretty much everyone is afraid of something. But have you ever wondered what happens to your body when it gets scared? How do you let others know that you are scared (besides yelling, that is)? And where did all of these phobias come from? Fear this Book discusses everything from vampires to roaches to the fear of going to school.

I found this book to have good explanations of what causes fears and phobias. It is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but I learned a lot from it and found it to be an enjoyable read. I think that it will be especially popular among my non-fiction readers.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Keeping Corner

Keeping Corner
Kashmira Sheth

When she was two, Leela was engaged. When she was nine, she was married. Now twelve years old, Leela looks forward to her anu – the ceremony that means she will go to live with her husband’s family. But then the unthinkable happens – Leela’s husband is bitten by a snake and he dies. Set in India in 1918, Keeping Corner is the story of how Leela survives her first year as a widow.

For Leela, widowhood means that she will have to spend an entire year in her house. She can no longer wear the jewelry she loves, she must wear a widow’s sari, and she must have her head shaved. All of these things are demanded by custom, and because she lives in a small town, Leela has no other choice but to follow tradition. Fortunately for her, times are changing. Gandhi’s viewpoints are beginning to circulate and people are listening. Leela gets the opportunity to continue her education by receiving tutoring at home. Education has never been valuable to her, but now she clings to it and realizes that the only way she’ll escape her destiny is to go to a city and become a teacher or a doctor. But asking this may be asking too much of her family, a family mired in tradition and custom.

Even though I’m a history major, I must confess much ignorance to the history of India. I did find this to be a fascinating account of what to me, as an American raised in the late twentieth century, seems to be a horrifying custom. To be condemned to a life of widowhood at age twelve is completely foreign to my comprehension of how women should be treated. I’m so very grateful that in many areas of the world customs have changed and women are treated far more equally than in the past.

I truly enjoyed Keeping Corner. It follows some of the same themes as Gloria Whelan’s Homeless Bird, and I think both could be used effectively in a girls’ discussion group.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Suite Scarlett

Suite Scarlett
Maureen Johnson

Today was my first day of summer vacation. I have about 250 books set aside to read this summer. There is no chance at all that I’m going to get through all of the them – but I’m going to try my hardest.

I chose Suite Scarlett as my first summer book. I discovered Maureen Johnson after reading about a censorship challenge to on of her earlier books, The Bermudez Triangle. I frequently read her blog and Suite Scarlett was the third of her novels that I’ve enjoyed. It was a great way to start the summer.

Scarlett Martin has just turned 15. Her family owns a hotel in New York City – a hotel that is just barely surviving. On the morning of her 15th birthday, Scarlett’s parents have had to let their final employee go, so now it’s just the family to run the hotel. Scarlett had planned to get a summer job so that she could have some spending money. Now she’s expected to work at the hotel. Scarlett has an older brother, Spencer (whose one desire is to become an actor) an older sister, Lola, and a younger sister, Marlene (who is a cancer survivor and a completely spoiled brat). The idea of running the hotel without any help might seem overwhelming, but it’s not so bad when you only have a couple of guests.

Enter Mrs. Amberson – an obviously rich former actress – who announces she has come to stay at the hotel for the summer. She decides to hire Scarlett to be her personal assistant and proceeds to enmesh herself in both Scarlett’s and Spencer’s business. When the play that Spencer is in is threatened because the location is condemned, she decides to save the day, but not without a few missteps – some of which turn into disasters.
Suite Scarlett is a perfect summer read. It’s fun and light, there’s a romance, and you know everything will be ok in the end.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Penderwicks

The Penderwicks
Jeanne Birdsall
Yearling, 2005

What can I say? I loved it. It has been compared to Elizabeth Enright’s books and I totally get the comparison. The Penderwicks is the story of four sisters whose father rents a cottage for a three week vacation. The owner of the cottage, Mrs. Tifton, lives in the mansion next door and she despises the girls almost immediately. Fortunately for the girls Mrs. Tifton is not seen often and they are able (for the most part) to avoid her as they go about their adventures. Mrs. Tifton’s son, Jeffrey, becomes an important playmate and eventually the story centers around whether Jeffrey will be sent to military school instead of focusing on his true love, music.

While some of the problems addressed in The Penderwicks are serious, there is never any real doubt that things will be better in the end. I’ve been snowed under with state testing this past month, and this was the perfect book to pick up and enjoy as I wait for the last two weeks of school to pass by and summer to begin.

Where I've Been

May is testing month at my school. I help the testing coordinator with North Carolina End of Grade Tests and they pretty much consume our lives. In addition, I agreed to serve on a team for North Carolina Presbyterian Pilgrimage (a three day spiritual weekend). Pilgrimage is one of most important things I've ever done, and I always rejoice in the opportunity to share the love and grace of God with others.

Testing is almost over (we have restests today and Algebra I tests later this week) and next week is the last week of school so I can finally start reading and writing again. To be honest I've done a little bit of reading, but just haven't had time to write about it. I'm going to post a review in a few minutes and I hope to get more out over the next week or so.

I'm debating about joining Mother Reader's 48 hour reading challenge. It was through this challenge that I encountered many of the bloggers that I read daily. I do have several commitments this weekend so if I do decide to participate, it will be spotty.