Bayou Magic

As I continue making my way through the nominees for the 2017-18 South Carolina Children’s Book Award, I have to commend the SCCBA committee on this list. I’ve read sixteen of the twenty titles so far, and there’s not a stinker in the bunch. Even the book with the dog on the cover–something that I usually avoid–is good. Many of my young readers will have a tough time choosing their favorite nominee when we vote in February. (Click here if you’d like to see a promo video for the SCCBA titles.)

I tell you all of that to introduce my latest read, another SCCBA nominee, Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes. This book is a spell-binding, compelling read that takes place in the Louisiana bayou in the summer of 2010, right around the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The story revolves around Maddy, a young girl learning about her heritage, what it means to be a friend, and the magic that lives within her.

Like her older sisters before her, Maddy is spending the summer with her grandmother in Bayou Bon Temps. There will be no phones, no Internet, no television, no air conditioning. Just Maddy, her grandmère, and a rather simple life on the bayou. Maddy soon learns, however, that her summer here will be anything but simple.

Grandmère sees something in Maddy that her sisters didn’t possess. Maddy has a love for the bayou, its mysteries, and its people. She’s in touch with the magic of her ancestors, those who traveled from Africa in the most horrible of circumstances.

Grandmère teaches Maddy to read the signs around her, and soon Maddy can call fireflies, sense when danger is coming, and perhaps even communicate with an ancient mermaid. Maddy is the only one who can see this strange being, known as Mami Wata, so can she possibly be real? Both Grandmère and Maddy’s new best friend, Bear, seem to think so. Sometimes a person just needs to have a bit of faith.

As Maddy becomes more sure of her newfound abilities, she realizes that something bad is headed for the bayou. She can’t stop the event–a catastrophic oil spill–from happening, but maybe she can do something about the impact of the spill on the bayou.

Calling on her mermaid friend, Mami Wata, Maddy uses her magical heritage and everything Grandmère has taught her to protect Bayou Bon Temps and all who call it home. Will it be enough? Will this disaster touch this place and its people in some other way? Whatever happens, can Maddy be a true friend and hero in both good times and bad?


Bayou Magic is an enthralling book that showcases the beauty of a simple life, exploring nature with friends, finding solace in silence, and getting to know the people and environment around you. (I must admit that I’m okay with the silence part, but I’m usually not one for getting to know nature or other people. Also, I’d probably go crazy without WiFi.) It also emphasizes spending time with elders, learning from them, and respecting one’s cultural traditions.

If I have one issue with this book, it’s that the ending feels a little rushed. Maddy’s journey back home from her bayou summer is rather abrupt. I’d like to know more about what happens between the book’s major culminating event and Maddy’s trip back to New Orleans. All in all, though, that’s a rather minor complaint for what is otherwise an excellent book.

Bayou Magic is a wonderful work of magical realism, but this story is also about courage, friendship, family, faith, protecting the environment, and honoring one’s culture. All of these things combine to make a truly magical book. I hope my students agree.

Bayou Magic is a great fit for upper elementary and middle grade readers. It’s accessible and easy-to-read, and it features a dynamic African-American protagonist, something we need much more of in children’s literature.

If you’d like more information on Bayou Magic or other works by Jewell Parker Rhodes, please visit her website, Facebook, or Twitter. You may also want to check out the awesome book trailer for Bayou Magic below. Enjoy!

Stella by Starlight

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally finished reading all of the nominees for the 2016-17 South Carolina Book Award, and it seems that I saved one of the most powerful books on the list for last. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given that the book, Stella by Starlight, was written by Sharon Draper.

Stella by Starlight is not a comfortable read, and I think that’s what makes it so important. This book, which takes place in the segregated South during the Great Depression, doesn’t shy away from the racism, hatred, and fear that was so prevalent at the time. (Anyone who is paying attention would agree that these things are still prevalent.) But this book also emphasizes the power of family, community, faith, and courage in the face of adversity.

The book begins with Stella and her brother, JoJo, witnessing something disturbing in the woods next to their home late one night. They see men and horses in white robes. They see a burning cross. This sight can only mean one thing–the Ku Klux Klan. Stella and JoJo race home to tell their parents what they’ve seen, and the people in the community immediately come together to discuss what it might mean.

With the threat of the Klan looming over everything, the people in Stella’s community wonder what they can do to combat such a seemingly powerful force. They’ve always dealt with racism, but this feels much more sinister. When several men, including Stella’s father, decide to stand up for themselves in the voting booth, the threat becomes even greater.

Through all of this turmoil, Stella examines her own feelings through writing. Stella admits she’s not the best writer, but she practices late at night in the hopes of getting better. She has so many thoughts about what’s going on around her, and she wants to get them down on paper. She writes about her family, school, and community. She writes about the prejudice she experiences and sees around her. She writes about the people, both black and white, who come together and take a stand when times are hard. She writes about her hopes for the future.


I don’t know what more I can say about Stella by Starlight. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction, and I hope that many teachers and students will use it to supplement their understanding of racism, both in the segregated South and in the present day.

I also see this book being used to help students with their writing…or whatever else they may be having trouble with. Stella freely admits that she is not a great writer and needs practice. Students need to see that it’s okay to make mistakes. What’s important is to keep trying and working to get better.

Librarians, teachers, and parents who want to explore themes like bravery, integrity, empathy, tolerance, and respect with their students should definitely take a look at Stella by Starlight. It’s an extremely powerful book that will stay with all readers long after they’ve finished it.

For more information on Stella by Starlight and other books by Sharon Draper, visit the author’s website. You can also connect with Ms. Draper on Facebook and Twitter.

Buddy

In April, I read a moving novel centered around one twelve-year-old boy’s experiences during Hurricane Katrina. That book was Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick. Last night, I finished another book that takes a look at how this monstrous storm impacted a young boy. The book is Buddy, a 14-15 South Carolina Book Award nominee by M.H. Herlong. Both books are told from the perspective of twelve-year-old boys, and the boys in both stories have a strong connection with their pets. Those similarities aside, these two books are very different. While Zane and the Hurricane presented a harrowing tale of what it was like to remain in New Orleans during Katrina, Buddy gives a glimpse of what life may have been like for those who left–those who evacuated their homes, often leaving possessions, friends, and even beloved pets behind.

Tyrone “Li’l T” Roberts has wanted a dog forever, but he never quite expected to get one the way he did.

On the way to church one Sunday morning, Li’l T’s dad hits a scraggly, old dog with the car. Even though the family doesn’t have the money to take care of this injured dog, Li’l T is convinced that this dog, who he names Buddy, is meant to be his. With the help of some folks at church, Buddy gets the help he needs, and even though the dog loses a leg, he gains a home with Li’l T.

Li’l T sacrifices a lot to make Buddy a part of his family. He sells his GameBoy so that he has money to buy food for Buddy. He starts mowing lawns so that he can keep caring for his dog. He spends hours talking to Buddy and trying to convince this dog to make the most of his second chance at life. Buddy may only have three legs, but Li’l T knows his dog can do just as much as any four-legged dog around.

Li’l T and Buddy are the best of friends, but something is about to happen that could tear them apart forever. A hurricane named Katrina is bearing down on New Orleans, and the family has to leave everything behind…including Buddy. There’s just no room for him in the family car. Li’l T wants to stay behind with Buddy, but his parents won’t hear of it, so they leave Buddy in an upstairs bathroom with enough food and water for the next couple of days. Surely the storm won’t keep them away more than two days, right?

No one is prepared for Katrina’s path of destruction. This monster of a storm even hits the family’s refuge in Mississippi, and Li’l T soon learns that there isn’t much left of his home in New Orleans. Flood waters have destroyed much of the city, and there may not even be a home to return to.

Immediately, Li’l T thinks of Buddy. Is his dog still locked up in the bathroom? Is he wondering why Li’l T hasn’t come back for him? Has Buddy been rescued, or did Katrina claim one more victim? Li’l T isn’t sure what’s going on, but he’s determined to find out what happened to the dog that became his best friend.

It’s not always easy to keep moving when so much has been taken away from you. Li’l T and his family have lost so much because of Katrina, but they’ve still got each other, and Li’l T has the hope that he will be reunited with Buddy one day. But will their reunion be everything that Li’l T expects, or will he realize that sometimes the only thing you can do is move on?

Read Buddy by M.H. Herlong to see how tragedy brought two friends together, tore them apart, and taught one young boy what true courage and sacrifice really mean.

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I freely admit that I didn’t look forward to reading this book. (It was billed as being like Old Yeller. What did you expect?) I did, however, find myself engrossed the more I read. Seeing Li’l T’s journey throughout this book was gratifying, and I think all readers will appreciate how much this character grew and matured throughout the course of this story.

I think Buddy is a great addition to any libraries that serve upper elementary and middle grade readers. There is some mention of gangs, violence, and drug use, but these things were true to the story and what was happening in the aftermath of Katrina.

While Buddy is a good book–and one that I will recommend to my students–I think Zane and the Hurricane is a much better book for those interested in Hurricane Katrina. It just seemed much more authentic to me. (Maybe I’m alone in that. I don’t know.) Hopefully, some of my students will read both books, and we can have some discussions on how each book addressed the storm that changed the lives of so many.

For more information on Buddy and author M.H. Herlong, check out the author’s website.

Sugar

I am woefully behind on reading the 2014-15 South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees, so, for the next several weeks, I’m going to do my best to read as many of these as possible. I’ll mix it up a little with some ARCs and YA books, but I have to get the SCCBA nominees read before school starts back, so get ready for some children’s literature!

This morning, I finished reading Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes. This SCCBA nominee centers on Sugar, a ten-year-old girl who works on a sugarcane plantation during Reconstruction. This book is a hugely welcome addition to library and classroom collections where, quite frankly, fiction (and nonfiction) books about this time period are sorely lacking.

The year is 1870, and Sugar has been free for several years, but her life is still a hard one. Her father was sold before the end of slavery, and, though he promised to make his way back to Sugar and her mother, he hasn’t returned to the River Road Plantation. Two years ago, Sugar’s mother became ill and passed away, so Sugar is an orphan, looked after by the community of workers on the sugarcane plantation. Sugar–who hates her name and what it represents–lives alone in a windowless shack and is expected to work from sunup to sundown, and even through the night during harvest season. It doesn’t matter that she’s a child.

Sugar tries not to let her troubles get the best of her, though. She finds fun wherever she can…and that fun sometimes gets her into trouble! She climbs trees looking for eagles’ nests, enjoys the stories told by Mister Beale, and plays with Billy, the plantation owner’s son, even though everyone tells her she shouldn’t. Sugar doesn’t see what the harm is. They’re the only kids around, and they like each other. Does it really matter that they have different color skin? It seems the end of the war changed a lot of things, but they didn’t change that much.

Now that so many freed slaves have moved north, Mister Wills, the plantation owner, needs more workers, and these new workers, men from China, are going to change everything on the plantation once again. Sugar is warned to stay away from the newcomers, but she wants to know more about them. She’s curious about their food, language, dress, how and why they journeyed to America, and, most importantly, the interesting stories they have to tell.

Sugar knows that she can learn much from her new Chinese friends, but can she convince everyone else? Can she show them that, just like her friendship with Billy, things are better when everyone is friendly and works together?

Join Sugar on her journey to find family, friendship, and a brighter future when you read Sugar, a beautiful tale of courage, optimism, and determination by Jewel Parker Rhodes!

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Sugar is a quick, easy read that is ideal for upper elementary and middle school library and classroom collections. In my opinion, it meets a great need for stories about what life may have been like during Reconstruction. I was especially interested in how the Chinese workers’ stories combined with those of former slaves and how the two groups viewed each other. I don’t think this is something addressed in most social studies classes, so Sugar might become a class novel that supplements studies of Reconstruction and what it looked like in the Deep South.

This book may also lead to some interesting discussions on child labor. I imagine that when a group of ten-year-old students read this book, they will be appalled that Sugar was expected to do so much. This could lead to questions about child labor in the past and around the world today. For these discussions, I would pair Sugar with City of Orphans by Avi, a powerful book about a young boy who sells newspapers in 1893 New York City. Both books are told from differing perspectives, but readers will, I predict, be amazed by how young people were a big part of the workforce in America’s past. My hope is that readers will do further research on how child labor still has a huge–and lamentable–impact on the global economy.

If you’d like more information on Sugar or other works by Jewell Parker Rhodes, please visit her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

 

Zane and the Hurricane

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been almost nine years since Hurricane Katrina hit. I can remember the feelings of horror when everyone learned of the devastation on the Gulf Coast, particularly in New Orleans. I recall watching the news reports, donating to food and supply drives, and seeing new people–those who had lost their homes in the storm–move into the apartment complex I was living in at the time.  In many ways, Katrina opened everyone’s eyes to the damage that Mother Nature was capable of…and how the best and worst in people could be revealed from such a tragedy.  Even now, we wonder when the next big storm will hit and if the lessons learned from Katrina prepared people–especially the powers-that-be–for the worst.

After Katrina, many books, both fiction and nonfiction, were written talking about people who made it through the storm. Until yesterday, I had only read one of those books, Hurricane Song by Paul Volponi.  That book showed YA readers what it may have been like for someone who had to take refuge in the Superdome. The language was a bit rough in that book, but I felt it did adequately reflect everything about that situation.

My latest read, though, comes at things from a different perspective.  Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick, looks at Katrina from a twelve-year-old boy’s perspective. This book, suitable for upper elementary and middle grade readers, doesn’t have any coarse language, but it paints a very realistic picture of the peak of the storm and it’s tragic aftermath. I think it’s accessible to young readers–many of whom have no memory of this bleak point in American history–without being too graphic. At the same time, Zane and the Hurricane doesn’t sugarcoat anything.  It shows readers that this was a time of fear, pain, prejudice, and even hope.

Zane Dupree, a twelve-year-old kid from New Hampshire, is not exactly thrilled about spending a week in New Orleans. He’s never been there, he’s never met the great-grandmother he’ll be staying with, and he doesn’t really know what to expect from his visit. At least he gets to take his dog, Bandy, with him.

At first, things aren’t as bad as he thought they would be. His great-grandmother, Miss Trissy, might be an older lady who walks with two canes, but she sings like an angel, and she’s got a story or a song for everything. But stories and songs won’t prepare anyone for the storm about to hit the city. Hurricane Katrina is on her way, and Zane, Bandy, and Miss Trissy need to get out of New Orleans fast.

It should have been a simple evacuation, but Zane’s frightened dog leads him right back into the city that is soon to be destroyed. As Zane and Bandy hole up in Miss Trissy’s house, the storm hits. Winds scream through the long night, and, as morning dawns, Zane watches as water overtakes much of New Orleans. Their only hope is to make it to the sweltering attic and hope that help will come soon.

Help comes in the form of a canoe, a musician named Tru, and Malvina, a young girl with a joke for even the most somber of occasions. As Zane, Bandy, Tru, and Malvina navigate the waters that have flooded the city, they are confronted with death, destruction, and both the best and worst in humanity. Some people are willing to give aid to others even when they don’t have much themselves. Others either look to exploit the situation or only worry about themselves or saving things as inconsequential as Oriental rugs.

There seems to be no real rescue coming from any source, so it’s up to this foursome to save themselves. Zane and company have to stick together, even when it would be easier to leave someone behind, if they’re to have any hope of making it out with their sanity–and their humanity–in tact.

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Zane and the Hurricane is a story that pieces together very real stories from the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina. It addresses the lawlessness that plagued New Orleans, the absence or apathy of law enforcement, lack of medical care, the fear and prejudice against poor African-Americans who were just trying to survive, and the horrible conditions both outside and in the Superdome, also known as the “shelter of last resort.” It also highlights that there were people who behaved like true heroes. People who rescued others from flooding homes, people who gave freely of what little water and food they had, and people who stood up for those who were doing everything possible just to make it one more day in grim circumstances.

This book, I think, shows readers young and old, a small glimpse of what this storm did to New Orleans and other cities impacted by Katrina. Local and federal governments failed their people. Prejudice made a nasty appearance when the largely African-American Ninth Ward was submerged and survivors sought help. No one was prepared for this massive storm, despite warnings that something like this was possible. If anything positive came from Katrina, I think it opened eyes and made this city and others like it really examine how it should respond to disasters, both natural and man-made. (And even though Katrina was a natural disaster, the actions–and inaction–of man, in my opinion, made it so much worse.)

Like I mentioned previously, I think Zane and the Hurricane is a good read for upper elementary and middle grade readers. I plan to add this book to my own school library. It is a very realistic portrayal of a dark time in our recent history, and I think it could lead to some deep conversations about the impact of catastrophic events and how humans respond to them.

For more information on this book and others by Rodman Philbrick, check out his website, Twitter, and Goodreads.

The Mighty Miss Malone

It’s time to celebrate! I’ve finally finished reading this year’s nominees for the South Carolina Children’s Book Award! All in all, I’m pretty happy with the list. Even the books I put off reading were great. My last of the nominees, The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis, was an excellent book that I hope my students and teachers will love. This is another historical fiction novel (which explains why I put it off to the end), but the themes in this book are timeless, and I think many young readers will relate to Deza Malone, a character introduced in Curtis’ Bud, Not Buddy.

As frequent followers of this blog know, I don’t read much historical fiction unless I have to–or unless there are elements of science fiction and fantasy thrown in. The Mighty Miss Malone is a book that I had to read…and I’m glad I did. At first, I was reluctant to get started, but it didn’t take long for me to love the main character. A passage I read on page 31 only cemented that.

“I’m different from most people and one of the main reasons is, I think I might have two brains. Whenever I get nervous or mad or scared or very upset, I have thoughts that are so different from my normal thoughts that there isn’t any way they could be coming from just one brain.
My first brain decides it doesn’t want to know about what is happening and stops working. Then my second brain takes over.
And that brain is always looking to start trouble, to hurt someone or break something.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this totally relatable, and I knew from this one glimpse into the mind of young Deza Malone that I would enjoy my time with her.

Twelve-year-old Deza Malone is probably the smartest girl in Gary, Indiana. Everyone–including Deza–knows she’s destined for great things, but the journey from here to greatness is going to be a long, tough road.

The year is 1936, and the Great Depression is in full swing. It’s tough for folks to find work, especially black folks. Deza’s father is no exception. The Malone family is struggling, and things are going to get much worse before they get better. At least they have each other, right?

After tragedy strikes their community in Gary, Deza’s father leaves to find work in Flint, Michigan. He’s promised to send word when things are well, but, when the Malones hear nothing from their beloved father, Deza, her mom, and her big brother Jimmie–who has problems of his own–set off to find Mr. Malone.

Their journey is peppered with disappointment, adjustments to new and often frightening situations, and simply trying to survive in a world that is by no means kind to those who are poor. Through it all, Deza tries to keep her spirits up and her eyes focused on a brighter future. It’s not always easy…especially when her father–and eventually her brother–seem to be slipping farther away. It’s also difficult for Deza to accept that some people (like her new teachers in Flint) can’t see past the color of her skin.

Deza does what she must to be strong for her family. Will that strength see her through the tough times and into a future filled with possibilities? What will Deza learn about herself and the world around her during this journey? Will the Mighty Miss Malone win in the end? Find out when you read The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis!

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This book is yet another of the SCCBA nominees in which the voice of the main character is one of the novel’s main strengths. It really shines through, and, in a book that is filled with its fair share of depressing and desolate situations, Deza brings a bit of humor to make things just a little brighter.

The Mighty Miss Malone is also a book that I hope will generate discussions about the Great Depression, how it impacted children in poverty, and how society still treats the poor. This book may be a work of historical fiction, but I doubt anyone can read this book without making connections to how those in poverty are treated in today’s world. It’s tragic, disturbing, and–I hope–eye-opening.

For more information about this book and others by Newbery Medal winner Christopher Paul Curtis, visit http://www.nobodybutcurtis.com/. Happy reading!

Flygirl

In Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl, readers are introduced to the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a group of female pilots that served during World War II.  Ida Mae Jones is determined to become one of these pilots.  Only when she’s in the air does she feel truly free.  There’s one major problem, though.  WASP doesn’t accept African American pilots.  Ida Mae is determined that this will not stop her, and she decides to “pass” as a white woman in her quest to become a pilot.

Ida Mae, or Jonesy as her new friends call her, does just what she set out to do.  She becomes a pilot in the service of the U.S. Army.  She feels like she’s really doing something to help the war effort, but she is torn because she must hide her true self in order to do what she loves.  She can never tell anyone that she’s just pretending to be white.  If anyone finds out, her entire future is over, and her very life could be in jeopardy.  Will she ever get to really be herself, or will she spend the rest of her life hiding?  Can she ever be free outside of an airplane?  Read Flygirl to find out.

I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed Flygirl.  I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction, but this book captivated me from the very beginning.  (I am a feminist, so that might help to explain it.)  I didn’t know much about the female pilots during WWII, so this story enlightened me a bit.  While reading, I was mad at the injustices that Ida Mae endured, both as a woman and as an African American, just so she could do what she was born to do.  I can almost understand pretending to be someone you’re not so that you can do what you love.  Almost.  I honestly don’t know if I could give up my family or my identity for anything, but I’ve never been put in that situation, so I don’t really know what I would do.

I think Flygirl would be excellent supplemental reading for social studies classes studying World War II.  This would be an excellent resource to introduce students to the role of women in the war effort.  Most people have heard of Rosie the Riveter, but this book may give them another glimpse of how women sacrificed and made military contributions during World War II.