Midyear Catchup Reviews

Riss Design

Grad school has certainly cut into my reading, but I knew going into my degree program that something would need to give. I am still doing a ton of reading, but it’s mostly scholarly articles and research. I did manage to read a few things I haven’t had a chance to review on my blog, though.

My husband and I listened to Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, read by Dion Graham, who was an excellent narrator. The novel is the story of Washington Black, who is enslaved on a sugar plantation in Barbados when he meets Christopher “Titch” Wilde, a scientist and inventor who changes Washington’s life. The two men embark on an adventure in a balloon that takes them all the way to the North Pole.

I really liked this one. It’s part historical fiction and part fantasy and part road trip. Some reviewers I’ve read mention the book drags a bit in the second half, and I would agree with that assessment, but nothing put me off wanting to finish it. If you haven’t read it, definitely pick it up, and I can’t recommend Dion Graham’s narration highly enough. Rating: ★★★★★

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans is a children’s book that came across my radar at an English teacher conference I usually attend each year. This book is an incredibly illustrated series of vignettes in African-American history as told by a grandmotherly narrator. Kadir Nelson both writes an illustrates the story. I plan to use it as a mentor text in my Social Justice class next school year. This is one of those books I wish I had as a kid. I loved reading about science and history, and I believe this one would have fascinated me. What I loved most about it is that anyone of any age can enjoy it. It’s perfect to share with children, but it’s one of those books I think the adults would enjoy as much as the kids, and it would be perfect for storytime. An instant classic! Rating: ★★★★★

Kwame Alexander collaborated with Kadir Nelson on The UndefeatedThis is another book I bought as a mentor text for my students. The Undefeated is a poem by Kwame Alexandar that celebrates the strength and resilience of African Americans. Once again, this is a children’s book that will appeal to all ages. Adults will enjoy the references to historical figures, and children will enjoy the wordplay and images—actually, adults will enjoy those, too. Kadir Nelson’s artwork is brilliant, yet again, and reading these two books made me want to search out everything he writes and/or illustrates. You can check out a video trailer for the book below. Rating: ★★★★★

 

 

Review: The Crossover, Kwame Alexander

Our middle school’s summer reading selection this year was Kwame Alexander’s verse novel The Crossover. It’s a book that has been on my radar since an English teacher’s conference I attended last November, but I hadn’t set aside time to read it until this weekend. It’s a very fast read, and I think the students will have enjoyed it. I know I did.

The novel is told from the perspective of middle-school basketball phenom Josh Bell, nicknamed Filthy McNasty by his father, a legendary former basketball player named Chuck Bell. Josh has an equally impressive basketball-playing twin named Jordan, and the two boys attend school where their mother is principal. Things get complicated for Josh when his brother starts dating a girl and his father’s health problems take a serious turn.

When one of my students read this book last year as an independent read, he said it was the best book he had ever read. I’m not going to go that far, but I understand why he said it. This student is not a big reader, and he plays hockey. Finally, he must have thought, here is a book about a boy like me, who loves the game with everything he’s got. I think it also opened up his notion of what poetry could be and do. I always say Kobe Bryant did us English teachers a solid by retiring with a poem. I think what happens too often is that our kids don’t see themselves in the books we select for them, and the boys who passed this book around my classroom last year saw themselves in this book. They also don’t see poetry as something that can be cool or that can speak to them. That’s something to thank Kwame Alexander for.

Some of the poems seem to mimic basketball on the page.

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Other poems are constructed in interesting ways. I am a big fan of poems in two voices. One of my students wrote an excellent one for a multigenre writing project she did on Robin Williams. In one voice, she wrote a monologue he had delivered as part of a comedy routine. In the other voice, she wrote what Williams was thinking as he spoke. When she presented to the class, she asked me to read Williams’s interior monologue while she read the comedy routine. It was an amazing poem, and I think we all felt its power, particularly when read aloud in two voices. Alexander includes a similar kind of poem in this book. It can be read three ways: 1) as one poem, going back and forth; 2) as a second poem on the left, reading vertically; 3) as a third poem on the right, reading vertically. It works each way.

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I can see why this book received so much praise from teachers and librarians as well as winning the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award. Highly recommended to anyone who likes basketball, who likes to dip into children’s books on occasion, or who loves poetry.

Rating: ★★★★★