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.

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!

Turtle in Paradise

When I first saw the title of my latest read, Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm, I immediately wanted to substitute the word “Turtle” for “Cheeseburger.”  (All of the Parrotheads out there know what I mean!)  As it turns out, I wasn’t too far off the mark.  Turtle in Paradise, a nominee for the 2012-2013 South Carolina Children’s Book Award, takes place in Key West in 1935.  The Key West we see in this book, however, is not yet the popular tourist destination that it would eventually become.  Like every other place in the nation at this time, Key West has been hit hard by the Great Depression, and our main character, a girl named Turtle, has also been hit hard by some major changes in her own life…

When Turtle’s mother gets a job as a housekeeper for a woman who hates kids, Turtle is sent all the way to Key West, Florida, to live with a bunch of relatives she’s never met. Turtle, a no-nonsense eleven-year-old, is not exactly thrilled with the arrangement. It soon becomes obvious that her aunt and cousins–all boys–aren’t what one would call happy about the situation either. But they do the best they can, and Turtle soon adapts to life in the Keys.

Turtle learns a lot about the family her mother left behind. (It seems she’s related to nearly everyone around her. The road she lives on is even named after the family.) She meets cousins and a grandmother she never knew she had. She goes on outings with the rambunctious boys in the neighborhood and discovers all kinds of things–how to care for whiny babies, nicknames for nearly everyone in the community, and how to make people think there’s a ghost playing tricks on them.

Turtle teaches the boys a thing or two as well.  She even leads them to a treasure that will change their lives forever.  But just as Turtle is finding  a home and family in her own personal paradise, something–or someone–comes along that could turn her world upside down once again.  Read Turtle in Paradise to discover how one girl finds a way to hold on to the things–and people–that really matter.

Normally, I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, but I enjoyed Turtle in Paradise, partly because it didn’t really feel like I was reading historical fiction.  Yes, there were historical details that added to the story.  (I especially enjoyed the Ernest Hemingway cameo.)  At its heart, though, I thought this book was a story of how one girl dealt with the changes in her life.  She adapted to a completely new situation, and she eventually grew to love her extended family and the new setting in which she found herself.

I adored the character of Turtle.  Unlike girls in a lot of children’s books, Turtle definitely didn’t see the world through rose-colored glasses.  She was a realist–some would even say a pessimist–and she was often brutally honest with those around her…kids and adults alike.  She used her wits to get by, and she didn’t sugarcoat things.  She wasn’t a girly girl, and she got right in there with the boys when they romped around the Keys. 

I wasn’t terribly impressed with most of the adults in this story–particularly Turtle’s mom and aunt–but I think a lot of that can be attributed to what life was like in 1935.  When adults are worried about being able to pay the bills and support a bunch of kids, I guess there’s not a lot of room to be overly sympathetic and sensitive.  I would have liked more resolution, though, regarding Turtle’s father and her mom’s boyfriend.  There’s more story to tell there.

All in all, I think Turtle in Paradise is a fine book for readers in upper elementary on up.  Even adult readers will appreciate the bits of nostalgia offered in this book–The Shadow, Little Orphan Annie, etc.–and this book could lead to further reading about what life was like in different parts of America during the Great Depression.  Turtle in Paradise is yet another wonderful summer read, and I think kids of all ages will enjoy it!

If you’d like more information about Jennifer L. Holm and her amazing books (including the insanely popular Babymouse series), visit http://www.jenniferholm.com/.  Happy reading!