Full Cicada Moon

It’s my first Monday of summer break, and I’m continuing to make my way through the nominees for the 2017-18 South Carolina Children’s Book Award. (My job never really stops, does it?) My latest read is one that I devoured in about a day. It’s Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton, and it’s both a novel in verse and a work of historical fiction. Neither of those categories are my typical favorites, but I absolutely loved this book, and I look forward to sharing it with my students in the coming year.

This moving book takes a look at one girl’s life over the course of one year, beginning on January 1, 1969, and a big move from California to Vermont. Relocating from one coast to another is a lot to handle; when you’re a half-black, half-Japanese girl moving to a mostly white area, it’s even more difficult.

Our protagonist, Mimi, reflects on the move, the attitudes of people around her, her own dreams, and what she’s willing to do to achieve them in this wonderful novel that will hopefully inspire readers to stand up for themselves and do whatever they can to be the change they want to see in the world.


Mimi dreams of becoming an astronaut one day. She loves studying science…even when people tell her that’s nothing something girls should be interested in. Mimi doesn’t care what other people think. She’s determined to go to space someday, just like the brave astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission.

The people at her school in Vermont don’t know what to make of Mimi. For one thing, they’ve never really encountered someone with her cultural background. For another, they don’t know what to think of a girl who likes science and wants to take shop class instead of home ec. Mimi doesn’t see what the big deal is on either count. What does it matter what color her skin is? Why should that make people dislike her before they even know her? And why do girls have to learn to sew and cook? Why can’t they learn to use tools and build things? None of this makes sense to Mimi–and it sometimes gives her a sick feeling in her stomach–but she’s not going to let any of it stop her.

Eventually, Mimi makes a couple of close friends who like her just the way she is, friends who support her efforts to change things. They may not always understand Mimi or their own privilege, but they’re willing to do what they can to help their friend. Those friendships, while helping Mimi to feel like she fits in her new town, also help give her courage to stand up for her rights.

Things may not change overnight, but Mimi is determined to do what’s right. In the process, she may just change the attitudes of those around her. Maybe, once people–adults and kids–get to know Mimi and her family, they’ll realize that they’re not so different after all.


Many readers will be able to see themselves in the character of Mimi, regardless of their racial backgrounds, but biracial readers may especially relate to Mimi. Mimi celebrates both her Japanese and African-American cultural traditions, all while trying to fit into a mostly white town. Mimi handles everything thrown at her with grace, tenacity, and courage, even when it would be much easier to respond in anger. In my opinion, she inspires others–both the characters in this book and those who read it–to do the same.

Full Cicada Moon is a powerful read that celebrates the things that make us different as well as those that bring us together. I cannot recommend it highly enough for any libraries that serve upper elementary, middle grade, and even teen readers. For more information on this wonderful book, visit author Marilyn Hilton’s website. You may also want to follow the author on Twitter.

Mountain Dog

Last night, I made myself sit down and finish Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle, another of this year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award nominees. Those who regularly follow me here or on Twitter can probably figure out why I put off reading this book for so long. If the title didn’t clue you in, take a gander at the cover.

That’s right. There’s a dog on the cover. Despite my status as an elementary librarian, I tend to shy away from animal books. (Like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I blame Old Yeller.) Well, I knew I had to read Mountain Dog so that I could talk to my students about it, so I jumped into the story this weekend. I’m happy to report that I rather enjoyed it. (Yeah, it surprised me, too.)

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In Mountain Dog, readers are introduced to Tony, a boy who has grown up in a rough environment. His mother is being sent to prison for dogfighting, and Tony is going to live in the mountains with an uncle he’s never met. Tony doesn’t know what to expect, and he’s plagued by nightmares of yelling, claws, biting…and math. Can life with an unknown uncle be better than what he’s known? Tony dares to hope so.

When Tony moves to his uncle’s home in the mountains, he’s met by Gabe, a happy, lovable dog who helps Tony’s uncle on search-and-rescue missions. Gabe, along with Tony’s uncle and a few other people, help Tony to understand life in this wild new environment, how to survive in the wilderness, and everything that happens during SAR missions.

Tony gradually begins to thrive–and even feel at home–in the mountains. He’s making friends (both human and canine), he’s writing for the school paper and his own blog, and he’s becoming more comfortable with the numbers that used to worry him so much. He can’t imagine life without his uncle and Gabe…and he doesn’t want to. Tony feels truly loved for the first time in his life, and going back to the way things were with his mom is unbearable.

How will Tony handle his uncertain future? Will he find a forever home with his uncle and Gabe, or will he be forced to leave the life he’s come to love? Learn the answers to these questions and many more when you read Mountain Dog by Margarita Engle.

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Mountain Dog is told in free verse and is a quick read that will appeal to readers in elementary and middle grades (not to mention many older animal lovers). The story is presented in both Tony’s voice and Gabe’s, and it’s interesting to see how both boy and dog view what’s going on around them. Peppered with illustrations by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov, this moving book highlights the bond between man and nature. Mountain Dog shows readers that families come in many forms…and species.

If Mountain Dog seems like the book for you, you may want to connect with author Margarita Engle on her website to learn more about her other books. Also, take a peek at the short Mountain Dog book trailer below. Enjoy!

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard

Yesterday, in the span of about an hour, I read a book of poetry that really spoke to me. (People who know me realize just how unusual this is. I don’t read a ton of poetry.) October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman takes a look at a senseless tragedy in a very unique way. I think many readers will be both horrified and captivated by the story presented, and my hope is that they will use this book as a starting point in learning more about Matthew Shepard’s too-short life and what they can do to put an end to homophobia.

October Mourning shows readers just what happened to Matthew Shepard on October 6th, 1998. Readers learn how two homophobic Neanderthals lured a gay 21-year-old out of a club and into their truck. They see that Matthew was beaten to within an inch of his life, tied to a fence, and left for dead.

While some of what readers see is presented from Matthew’s perspective, they also see this event through some unique points of view. The fence to which Matthew was tied, the doe that kept him company during the long, cold night, the stars that watched over him, the biker who found Matthew, the doctor who cared for him, the protesters at his funeral, and even the perpetrators themselves.

Each of the poems in this book paint a picture of what happened to Matthew Shepard and the events that occurred after his death. No, the book is not a narrative, but I think the poems used in this book often make things clearer than they might be otherwise. They cut through a lot of stuff and get to the very heart of Matthew’s story.

While the poems in October Mourning were created from the author’s imagination, they are based on real events, and there are footnotes at the end of the book detailing much of the content in the poems as well as explanations of the various poetic forms used.

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I picked up this book because it was nominated for the 14-15 South Carolina Young Adult Book Award, but I honestly think I would have read October Mourning anyway. You see, I can remember when this tragedy occurred. I was a sophomore at Winthrop University, and I recall being absolutely horrified by what happened in Laramie, Wyoming. I remember realizing that this could happen in South Carolina. Several of my friends were openly gay, so I worried that some dumb redneck might get the idea to do something similar. (Even today, that worry hasn’t entirely gone away.)

I know a lot has changed in the nearly sixteen years since Matthew Shepard’s death, but there is still so much work to do. Look around. Homophobia still runs rampant, and political talking heads and uber-conservative blowhards continue to prey on irrational fears to prevent true equality from becoming a reality. Many churches–institutions that are supposed to be all about God’s love–preach messages of hate. Books depicting gay characters are pulled from library shelves. People’s lives are still threatened just because of who they love. Will we ever see an end to this madness? I truly hope so.

If anything positive can come of a tragedy like this, I hope that young people will read October Mourning, learn a bit more about Matthew Shepard, examine their own attitudes, and do something–no matter how seemingly small–to eradicate homophobia. I believe it can be done.

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For more information on October Mourning and what inspired author Lesléa Newman to write it, check out this Huffington Post article. There’s a video there as well, but I’ve also put it here. It tells you about this book more succinctly than I ever could.

*By the way, I applaud the SCYABA committee for choosing this book as one of next year’s nominees. It goes to show that, even in a state as conservative as ours, attitudes are changing, and South Carolinians can be champions for gay rights. Thank you!*

Splintering

I finished a book last night that was very short and extremely easy to read. (It’s a novel in verse, so I flew through it.) The subject matter, however, was kind of disturbing. The book is Splintering by Eireann Corrigan, and it explores what happens to a family after a violent attack and home invasion. (Since I was the victim of a home invasion in September, I related a bit to the characters. Thankfully, I wasn’t home when some lowlife broke into my home. I shudder at the thought.)

Splintering is told in two distinct voices:  Paulie, a fifteen year old girl who has endured way too much in her young life and is barely coping with the horror that she faced on that fateful night; and Jeremy, Paulie’s older brother, who hid in the basement while his family was being attacked by a drugged-out monster. These two teenagers reveal to readers what life was like before, during, and after the attack that would change not only their lives but also the lives of their parents and their older sister, Mimi.

Even before everything went pear-shaped, things weren’t great for Paulie and Jeremy. Paulie, in particular, dealt with being a punching bag for their mother. After the attack, Paulie suffered from horrible nightmares, and she found solace in the arms of a much older boy. Jeremy, on the other hand, retreated into himself. He grew pot in the basement, and he lived with being thought of as the coward who hid in the basement when a madman was beating on his family. Both them are dealing with strained and changing relationships with their parents and worry over how everything impacted their big sister, who is just short of catatonic.

Things are looking pretty bleak for Paulie, Jeremy, and their family, but, somehow, they hold onto a small measure of hope. Hope that things will eventually get better. Hope that they won’t have to live with this fear forever. Hope for some sense of normalcy. Will they ever recover from the attack that changed everything, or will their lives continue to splinter? Read Splintering by Eireann Corrigan to learn how a family comes back from one terrible, horrifying, life-changing event.

In my opinion, Splintering is too mature for most middle grade readers, but it might be a good fit for reluctant teen readers who want to read something that isn’t all sweetness and light. There is frank talk about violence, drug use, and sex, and, even though most adults might not want to admit it, these things are parts of some teens’ daily lives. They might be able to relate to what Paulie and Jeremy are going through (even if they haven’t experienced the exact circumstances themselves).

Inside Out & Back Again

Two reviews in one day?  Can it be?  Well, obviously it can.  After finishing Rapture earlier today, I was in the mood for something a little less anxiety-inducing, so I started reading another of the nominees for the 2012-2013 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.  I thought a book written for children would surely be a lighter read that a YA novel dealing with a possible apocalypse.  Yeah…not so much. 

The book I chose to read was Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, which tells about a year in the life of a young girl in 1975.  The girl, Hà, leaves everything she’s ever known in South Vietnam in the hopes of a better life in America.  This book, a novel in verse, was a super-fast read, but it definitely shed some light on what Vietnamese immigrants, particularly children, may have faced when they escaped a war-torn—but familiar—Vietnam for a new home that was often more frightening that what they left behind.  This story is even more real because it draws on the author’s own experiences.  Inside Out & Back Again is a powerful read that I won’t soon forget.

Ten-year-old Hà and her family know that change is coming.  War has torn their country apart and claimed one of their own.  Although they are reluctant to leave Vietnam behind, there seems to be no other choice.  Hà doesn’t want to leave her beloved papaya tree, her friends, or the hope that her father will return, but she must go with her family on a journey to a peaceful new home.  But the journey itself is anything but peaceful…

Along with so many other refugees, Hà and her family board a ship that takes them away from the bombs and bullets that plague their home in Saigon.  Food and water are scarce.  Privacy is non-existent.  There are so many people seeking asylum, and no one knows when they can expect to be rescued.  So they cross the sea in hopes that an ally will come along.  And one day, it happens.  An American ship escorts them to Guam where Hà’s family makes plans to go to America.  Eventually, they are sponsored and taken to a place completely foreign to them—Alabama.

Hà is confused by her new home.  She doesn’t understand why the English language has so many confusing rules.  She doesn’t know why her new schoolmates make fun of her.  She doesn’t understand why so many people in the town seem to hate her family on sight.  She doesn’t like the food that is so different from everything she enjoyed in Vietnam.  Hà does know that she is angry, and she longs to find some peace with her new and often frightening circumstances.  With the help of her mother, brothers, and a few neighbors and friends, Hà discovers an inner strength that helps her to adapt to the sudden changes in her life and stand up for herself when others want to push her down.

Inside Out & Back Again is a story of one girl’s journey to a new home and a better understanding of herself, her family, and what it takes to heal from the scars of the past.  This is a wonderful book that I think would be excellent supplemental reading for classes studying the Vietnam War.  A lot of times, this period in history tends to be glossed over, especially when considering the plight of Vietnamese refugees in America.  I’ve taken loads of history classes throughout my education, and I can’t remember a single instance of studying about how the Vietnamese—particularly children—were treated after the war was over.  (I studied this a little on my own when the marching band I worked with did a Miss Saigon show, but that was a bit different.)  This book fills a void in historical fiction, and I look forward to sharing it with the teachers at my school as a possible novel study with our fifth grade students.

This book is an excellent selection for any elementary, middle, or high school libraries.  Children, teens, and adults alike will find this book, a Newbery Honor Book and National Book Award winner, extremely moving, and I hope that it will make them think about their own stories and how they may intertwine with the stories of people the world over.

Identical

There are few books that have disturbed me as much as my latest read, Identical by Ellen Hopkins.  In fact, I can only think of two books that creeped me out as much as this one did:  The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott.  If you’ve read these two books or know anything about them, you know why they are so disturbing.  Hopkins’ Identical is similar to these books, but some of the subject matter is so sickening that I had to put the book down on several occasions.

Kayleigh and Raeanne are identical twins.  Their mother is running for Congress and has no time for them.  Their father escapes into whiskey bottles and uses Kayleigh as a replacement for his absent wife.  Kayleigh feels like she’s dying inside, and Raeanne uses drugs and sex to escape her miserable life at home.

As the problems at home begin to escalate, Kayleigh and Raeanne each face the turmoil in their own ways.  Kayleigh cuts herself and binges.  Raeanne is always looking for a bigger high and a newer guy.  What will become of these twins when one of them cannot harbor her secrets any longer?

As I stated previously, this is a very disturbing read.  At the same time, I cannot keep Ellen Hopkins’ books on my shelves at school.  Identical is no different.  I would caution some students that this is a very mature read, and they should proceed with caution.  Some readers simply will not be able to handle it (adults included).  It is definitely a book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

Amiri & Odette: A Love Story

I don’t typically like poetry.  I don’t really like ballet either.  So Walter Dean Myers’ Amiri & Odette:  A Love Story, which is a retelling of Swan Lake through poetry, was really not for me.

Don’t get me wrong…there were things about it that I liked.  For instance, I LOVED the artwork by Javaka Steptoe.  The illustrations were done with acrylic paint on slabs of asphalt embellished with things like jewelry, bags, and candy wrappers.  I thought these were very unique.  I also liked the setting of the story.  Myers moved the story from the realm of fantasy to the inner city.  The key ingredients to the story were still there (mom throwing a party for her son so he can find a wife, bad guy getting in the way, mistaken identity, etc.), but the setting and characters were more relevant to urban teens.

Like I said, I’m not a big fan of poetry, but I know a lot of my students are, and Amiri & Odette may be just what they’re looking for.  It’s a quick read (took me about five minutes) and has appeal for both guys and girls.