The Leavers by Lisa Ko ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  352

Published:  May 2, 2017

Format:  Audiobook

Awards: National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction & for Debut Goodreads Author (2017), PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (2016)

 

Stunning, emotionally charged, socially critical novel about a young female Chinese woman and her American born son.  This novel tackles so much and does it well.  It takes place in China as well as in America.  The voice alternates from first person perspective of Peilan Guo and third person perspective of her son, Deming.

Peilan, fled China young and pregnant, in hopes of escaping the boy who impregnated her as well as the pregnancy, only to find she was a few weeks past 7 months and termination would be illegal.  Her son Deming is born and she falls in love with him, but finds there is no way to work with him alongside of her.   So, like so many other Chinese refugees, she sends her son home to live with her father until he is of age to go to school.  He returns at age 6 and finds himself living with his mother, her boyfriend Leon, Leon’s sister Vivian and Vivian’s son Michael.  It’s crowded and they are poor, but there is noise, friendship, sarcasm, and love aplenty.  Peilan and Deming play fun games with each other like choosing similar looking people to themselves to be their doppelgängers.  They create a whole story around this pair.  Michael and Deming are the best of friends.  Like brothers, they understand each other and look out for each other.

One day, Peilan goes to the nail salon where she works and she never returns.  This comes on the heels of an argument with Leon about her wanting to move to Florida and Leon not liking the idea.  No one knows where she has gone and it remains a mystery until the end of the novel.  Leon disappears, leaving for China, 6 months later.  Vivian is left alone with both Michael, Deming and Peilan’s enormous debt.  The money is tight, there is little food and she is very stressed.  She ends up putting Deming in foster care and then signing him over for permanent placement.

Deming is fostered and then adopted by Kay and Peter and life in Ridgeborough, NY is stale and seemingly lonely.  They change Deming’s name to Daniel, saying it will be easier for him that way.  He makes friends with Roland, a fellow musician who is Hispanic, so also seen as a “different” in this very Caucasian town.  Kay and Peter both work at the University, have no friends in town and have strong ideas about what their son should do and be as he grows up.

The novel takes off from this point, as Daniel struggles with his identity.  At the same time his mother, now Polly, has a completely new identity in China.  Daniel’s life comes to an unravelling point as he makes poor choices with gambling and alcohol, seeming to purposely self-sabatoge.  Michael emails him, and after hesitating to respond, he reconnects with Michael which leads him ultimately to his mother.  He finally learns the truth about his mother, how the salon was raided and she spent 18 months in a detention camp prior to being deported.

I felt like I connected with the characters, found the novel incredibly engaging and I enjoyed the historical aspects and learning about the immigrant experience from this perspective.  Although extremely well done overall, there were a couple of holes in the story I didn’t quite believe.  First, I wondered why no one ever went to the nail salon to learn what had happened.  Surely, someone must have known there.   I also wondered why Polly gave up on looking for Deming once she heard he had been adopted.  Yes, Leon felt that something inside Polly had broken, but she went from anguished over the loss to a new life very quickly.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How do name changes in this book affect or influence identity?
  2. Compare and contrast Deming’s relationship with his mother versus his relationship with Kay and Peter.
  3. How does the author portray international adoption in this novel?  How does she portray transracial adoption?
  4. What sorts of prejudice do Polly and Daniel experience in America?
  5. What roles do music and gambling play in Daniel’s identity?
  6. Discuss the parental expectations that Daniel experiences from Kay and Peter.  How does this compare to what he experienced with his own mother?
  7. Why do the school systems in both New York and Ridgeborough seem to have low expectations of Daniel?
  8. Discuss the friendship between Daniel and Angel.  Why do they become so close?
  9. When Polly and Leon are gambling, Polly feels that life is a game.  How is this a theme in the book?
  10. This novel brings up very real concerns regarding for profit detention centers.  Discuss the concerns addressed by this novel. Under current administration, these detention centers are increasing in number.  What effect do you imagine the current administration’s policies will have regarding these institutions?
  11. How do you explain or interpret the character Polly and her many life transitions?

 

New York Times Review by Gish Jen

Atlantic Review by Amy Weiss-Meyer

Discussion Questions by Lit Lovers

Interview with Lisa Ko in Hyphen Magazine

TTT: Top Ten Favorite Books of 2017

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday is about favorite books of 2017.   This is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.   There were so many great books I read this year.  To keep this post current and about 2017, I’ve stuck to my favorite books read this year that were published this year as well. Have you read any of these?  If so, what were your thoughts about these books?  What is your favorite book of 2017?  Please share!

  1.  The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker (Published January 2017) – This is a wonderful roller coaster ride of a book, a complete delight.  It is about the power of art to transform and redeem, to heal and reconcile the past.  My review.
  2. The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Published February 2017) – An incredible collection of short stories about the experience of Vietnamese refugees in America.  The writing is excellent and the stories are emotionally intense. My review.
  3. Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez (Published February 2017) – This is a collection of short horror stories, all based in Argentina.  Through these works there is plenty of social commentary.  Additionally, the tumultuous horrific history of Argentina’s Dirty War keeps creeping into present day.  My review.
  4. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Published March 2017) – An excellent mediation on immigration.  In this well written novel, Mohsin describes the relationship between a young couple and how it evolves as their country becomes embroiled in a civil war.  They flee and become refugees in other lands.  Their roles, personalities and relationship are all in flux as a result.  My review.
  5. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti (Published March 2017) – A beautiful novel which at it’s heart is about a father-daughter relationship. The daughter is coming of age and discovering more of the history surrounding her father.  Despite her father’s shady past, he is also a hero, surviving 12 bullets, appearing to be a Hercules of sorts.  A mystery unfolds, and love and understanding deepens, as his past is revealed.  My review.
  6. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Published April 2017) – This collection of short stories each focus on characters that grew up in Amgash, Illinois where Lucy Barton did from Strout’s earlier novel, My Name is Lucy Barton.  Elizabeth Strout is a magnificent storyteller and with each story, the reader gets a better view of the town, the social millieu and an understanding of the darkness surrounding Lucy Barton and her family at the time.  My review.
  7. The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Published May 2017) – This novel is an epic tale told in alternating perspectives from a mother and in a third person voice about her son.  This book is about Chinese immigration, the experience of illegal immigrants, adoption, and feelings of identity crisis once adopted.  
  8. The Changeling by Victor LaValle (Published in June 2017) – In this novel, a modern day fairy tale turns into a horror story.  A young couple is living in New York City with a baby.  The father is overjoyed, takes lots of pictures, is very involved.. until the baby is killed by the mother and he is left chained to the radiator.  Now enter a world of witches, trolls, and changelings.  Victor LaValle is masterful storyteller who also weaves in plenty of social commentary regarding race and everyday horrors that have nothing to do with supernatural beings.  My review.
  9. We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy  (Published July 2017) – This novel occurs over a span of several days on a Maine island inhabited by two families who typically avoid each other.  During this period their pasts and presents collide in this wonderfully written novel that is somewhat historical in it’s incorporation of McCarthyism, but is also a coming of age novel and a mystery.  My review.
  10. The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (Published in September 2017) – This is a thriller about missing children and a woman who spends her life looking for them.  She herself was a victim and she seems to understand the captors and victims well.  The author, herself, writes from tremendous experience both in her personal and professional life.  This is a thriller that feels honest and real, representing all sides justly.  My review.

 

TTT: Top 10 Bookish Settings I’d Love to Visit

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday is about bookish settings I would like to visit.   This is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. The following are 10 bookish settings that are on my list of places I would love to visit or vacation in.  Maps are from Lonely Planet.  What places would you like to visit based on bookish inspiration?

 

One.  Mallorca, Spain.  In The Vacationers, the dysfunctional family vacations in Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain.

 

Two.  Spain – Of course I would also love to visit mainland Spain, so The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway serves as a lovely inspiration for this future visit as the main characters visit Pamploma, San Sebastian and Madrid.

 

Three.  Guernsey (UK) – Reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society made this island an intriguing vacation destination for me.  Located in the English Channel, this island is rich in history and beauty.

 

Four.  Australia – There are many books taking place on this continent I would love to visit.  The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman is one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five.  ColombiaLove in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez takes place in this beautiful country that I have long wished to visit.

Six.  EgyptThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho takes place in this country with so much beauty and history to explore.

 

Seven.  Greece – Like Egypt, Greece is so rich in history and beauty.  Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres takes place here.

 

Eight.  India – In The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, Joan visits India in the second half of the book to resurrect herself through Indian culture.

 

Nine.  Brazil – In Ways to Disappear by Idra Novel, the protagonist takes off to Brazil for a hilarious wonderful journey.

 

Ten.  KenyaOut of Africa by Isak Dinesen takes place in Kenya, a place I would love to visit.  I would love to explore this area on a safari.

 

 

 

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  422

Published:  March 12, 2013

Format:  E-book

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee (2013), Sunburst Award for Adult (2014), Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction (2013), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2013), The Kitschies for Red Tentacle (Novel) (2013), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2013), Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Adult Fiction (2013)

This is a beautiful novel that drew me in immediately.  A barnacle encrusted bag washes up on the shores of a quiet island off the coast of British Columbia to be found by Ruth.   Ruth is a character loosely based on the author herself.  Ruth and her husband have lived on the island for decades and never had children.  Her life’s work has been writing, and she is currently working on her autobiography, but she is also suffering memory lapses.  Inside the plastic bag is a diary of a 14 year old Japanese girl written in purple ink on the  pages of what on the outside one would expect to be  Proust’s  A la Recherché du Temps Perdu.  Also in the bag are a second diary written in French, and a watch.   Ruth’s husband, Oliver, immediately questions whether this could be jetsam or flotsam, part of the trash washed into the ocean after the giant tsunami struck Japan years earlier.

Nao, the author of the mysterious diary, states she is writing in these “last days of her life” to tell the story of her grandmother, Jiko.  She never gets to the actual biography of Jiko, but instead details the extreme bullying she has endured, her contemplations of suicide and the spiritual journey she undergoes with her grandmother to develop her own superpower.  Nao spent her younger growing up years in California, but when her father loses his high powered corporate job in Silicon Valley, the family moves back to Japan.  Nao had been living a middle class life, attending school with close friends and enjoying an active social life in California.  Suddenly, she is thrust back to a country whose culture and social norms she is unfamiliar and living with her parents, in a tiny one bedroom apartment.  Her mother initially spends her days staring at jellyfish in the aquarium.  Her father, a seemingly depressed caricature of his former self, is unsuccessful at finding a job and also at suicide.  He actually is arrested for failed suicide.   Nao, although Japanese, is seen as quite different for having grown up in California.  She is mercilessly bullied, both physically and  emotionally, by the students and teachers.

Interestingly, we learn Nao’s story as Ruth is reading it and interacting with it, seemingly affecting changes to the story by actions in her dreams.  In this way the two characters are very much linked in some seemingly real but magical way.  It almost seems like they become one character as the story is being read, two parts of a whole.  This effect is concurrent with the theme of time and Nao being a “time-being.”  Nao, which is pronounced “now,” likes to think of herself as existing in this moment.  The concept and fluency of time within this novel is a key theme.  The connectedness of beings across generations and continents is important.  This is part of the Buddhist philosophy that plays an integral role in the spiritual journey Nao undergoes as the diary unfolds in Ruth’s hands.

Nao’s life is certainly at a pivotal point as she contemplates suicide while sitting in a French cafe trying to avoid “dates” (being pimped out to customers).   However, Ruth also undergoes this spiritual journey alongside Nao.  She had cared for her mother who has recently died and feels like her life is slipping away.  She is contemplating leaving the sparsely populated island and moving to the city.  Reading Nao’s diary has Ruth pondering Buddhist philosophy and engaging in the connectedness of all things.

Nao tells of how she is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother Jiko.  She begins a soul searching journey as she gets to know her grandmother.  She practices zazen meditation, bath rituals, and tries to develop her superpower, because everyone needs a superpower.  She also begins recognizing the superpower in others, even eventually her father whom she viewed as a “freeter.”   Her father becomes an even greater hero, when he finds a new life’s purpose in developing a “mu mu” which will hide one’s past and present on the computer.

I loved the timelessness of this book and the Buddhist philosophy that is life changing for so many of the characters within this novel.  There is real darkness and depths of despair for the characters Nao and Haruki #2 that are overcome through a spiritual journey, where they learn appreciation of ancestors and each other.  They begin to appreciate the duality of all things.  I found it fascinating that the author wrote herself into this book as Ruth, connecting herself with these characters as well.  There are many layers and depths and truths contained within the lovely novel. I highly recommend it to everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the Japanese culture of bullying.  Compare and contrast this with bullying in the United States.  How does cyberbullying take bullying to a whole different level?
  2. Why do you think that Nao participates in bullying Daisuke?  Why do you think the teacher participates?
  3. Compare and contrast American and Japanese cultures in the areas of intensity of schooling, therapy, self improvement and bullying.
  4. Compare and contrast Haruki #1 and Nao.  Consider how they were bullied, their writing, and suicidal ideations.
  5. Haruki #2 wanted to know what defined conscience.  Discuss the reasons that led to the loss of his job.  In what ways are Haruki #1 and #2 similar?
  6. Explain what a “freeter”  is and who in this novel might be perceived as a “freeter?”
  7. How would you say time is defined in this novel?  What does it mean to be a time-being?
  8. What Buddhist philosophies did you agree with or appreciate?
  9. Jiko teaches Nao and guides her on a spiritual journey by teaching her daily practices and rituals.  How do you think these affect Nao?  Do you think Nao would have done better with some other form of therapy?
  10. What does the presence of the jungle crow represent to Ruth and Oliver?  What does it represent to you, the reader?
  11. There is a theme of global connectedness in this novel.  Discuss the ways in which countries and beings across continents are connected.  How does the internet affect this connectedness?
  12. There is also a theme about social and environmental connectedness on a global level.  Discuss the ways in which this was touched on within the novel.

 

 

New York Times Review by Leslie Downer

Ruth Ozeki’s website

Reader’s Guide  by Penguin Random House

 

TTT: Top Ten Books on My Winter TBR List

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday is about the winter’s most anticipated reads.  This is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. The following are 10 books I hope to read this winter for various reasons.  Some are book club picks, some fulfill requirements of Bookriots 2017 Read Harder Challenge, some are books I will enjoy reading with with my children, some are netgalley requests, and a couple are ones I’ve been meaning to get to.  Next to each book, I will include an excerpt from Goodreads as well as explain why I chose that particular book.  What is on your winter TBR list?  Have you read any of these?  Or are any of these on your list as well?

  1.  The Leavers by Lisa Ko“One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.  With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.”  – Goodreads    Why?  This was a book club choice that I’ve started and am very much enjoying.  It is definitely a great book choice for book clubs.
  2. A Gentleman in the Streets by Alisha Rai“Since the moment the sexy, sultry socialite sidled up to him years ago, there hasn’t been a time when Jacob didn’t crave Akira. But as guardian to his younger siblings, responsibility has controlled his life. Confining his darkest desires to secret, stolen moments maintains his carefully disciplined world…but a cold bed is the price he pays.  A single touch is all it takes for their simmering need to explode. As secrets and fears are stripped away one by one, shame becomes a thing of the past. They find themselves becoming addicted to each other, in bed and out—a frightening prospect for a man just learning to live…and a woman who thinks she doesn’t know how to love.”  – Goodreads  Why? This will satisfy the requirement to read a LGBTQ+ romance novel on the 2017 BookRiot Read Harder Challenge.  I’m not normally into romance or erotica, but this book seemed to get great reviews and it’s nice to break out of the typical mode.
  3. Soonish:  Ten Emerging Technologies that will Improve and/or Ruin Everything by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith “In this smart and funny book, celebrated cartoonist Zach Weinersmith and noted researcher Dr. Kelly Weinersmith give us a snapshot of what’s coming next — from robot swarms to nuclear fusion powered-toasters. By weaving their own research, interviews with the scientists who are making these advances happen, and Zach’s trademark comics, the Weinersmiths investigate why these technologies are needed, how they would work, and what is standing in their way.” – Goodreads       Why?  This book will satisfy the BookRiot Read Harder Challenge requirement to read a nonfiction book about technology.
  4. Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate – “Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.” – Goodreads   Why?  This is a book club choice.
  5. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin“It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.  Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.” – Goodreads   Why?  I’ve been hearing great things about this book, so I requested it from netgalley.  That request was granted.
  6. All the Names They Used For God by Anjali Sachdeva “Anjali Sachdeva’s debut collection spans centuries, continents, and a diverse set of characters but is united by each character’s epic struggle with fate: A workman in Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills is irrevocably changed by the brutal power of the furnaces; a fisherman sets sail into overfished waters and finds a secret obsession from which he can’t return; an online date ends with a frightening, inexplicable dissapearance. Her story “Pleiades” was called “a masterpiece” by Dave Eggers. Sachdeva has a talent for creating moving and poignant scenes, following her highly imaginative plots to their logical ends, and depicting how one small miracle can affect everyone in its wake.” – Goodreads   Why?  I had read a couple of wonderful reviews of this collection of short stories, so I requested it from netgalley.
  7. Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder“On the island, everything is perfect. The sun rises in a sky filled with dancing shapes; the wind, water, and trees shelter and protect those who live there; when the nine children go to sleep in their cabins, it is with full stomachs and joy in their hearts. And only one thing ever changes: on that day, each year, when a boat appears from the mist upon the ocean carrying one young child to join them—and taking the eldest one away, never to be seen again.” – Goodreads   Why?  This is a book my oldest child picked out for our family to read together.
  8. Wonder by R. J. Palacio – “August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?  R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.” – Goodreads    Why?  I am desperately hoping to read this book with my children in time to see the movie in the theater afterwards.
  9. Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh“The police say it was suicide.  Anna says it was murder.  They’re both wrong.  One year ago, Caroline Johnson chose to end her life brutally: a shocking suicide planned to match that of her husband just months before. Their daughter, Anna, has struggled to come to terms with their loss ever since.  Now with a young baby of her own, Anna misses her mother more than ever and starts to question her parents’ deaths. But by digging up their past, she’ll put her future in danger. Sometimes it’s safer to let things lie…” – Goodreads  Why?  Having loved I Let You Go by this author, I look forward to reading her newest thriller.  I find these are excellent books for listening to in the car.
  10. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas“Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.  Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.”  – Goodreads    Why?   I’m not sure why I seem to be the last one to read this book, but I think it’s about time I did!

The Ten Final Round Nominees for Best Children’s Picture Book in the Goodreads Choice Awards

  1. Triangle by Mac Barnett, Illustrations by Jon Klassen (ages 2-4) – This is a mostly black and white book about a triangle that plays a sneaky trick on his friend, square.  It is a simple story with silly humor meant for very young children.
  2. A Greyhound,  A Groundhog by Emily Jenkins, Illustrated by Chris Appelhans (ages 2-6) – A beautifully illustrated book that reads like a long poem with dreamy whimsical illustrations.   The words repeat, rhyme, and transform into new meanings with very slight variations.   A joyful reading experience for meant for young children, but a book adults will enjoy reading again and again as well.
  3.  Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin (ages 3-7) – This is a fantastic magical wordless picture  book for youngsters.  The only words in this story appear on the chalkboard, school or a box.  The story, told in picture boxes in shades of blue and white only, are of a young girl bringing her favorite stuffed animal, a fox, for show and tell.  After school, she stops at the playground to swing and places her backpack on the ground.  A colorful orange fox in a yellow sweater sneakily steals the stuffed fox away.  The little girl and her friend set out through this blue and white shaded background in search of her beloved stuffed animal and slowly come upon more colorful creatures and trees until at last they arrive at this very colorful animal city which its own stores, restaurants and homes.  At last they find the home of the young fox who took her blue stuffed fox.  He is reluctant to return it and  offers a purple unicorn instead.  That night the little girl is asleep with this wonderfully colored purple unicorn from the fox’s brilliant world and the fox is tucking in his blue fox from her world.  Imaginative, lovely and highly recommended!
  4. Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner with art by Christopher Silas Neal (ages 4-8) A gorgeously illustrated and beautifully written book about the animals over and under the pond upon which a mother and son canoe.  There is much action of the animals observed by the pair that creates a quiet excitement for what they might see next.  The pond ecosystem is explored in its entirety within this fun children’s book.  At the end, a picture of each animal mentioned or illustrated is set next to a longer description of the animal.  My children had a great time reading these informational pieces and then searching back through the book to find where each were illustrated.  This is a highly recommended book for nature lovers to explore the pond ecosystem.  It is a beautiful and informational read!
  5. She Persisted:  13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton, Illustrated by Alexandra Boigner (ages 4-8) – This book is about 13 women, important to American history, who persisted despite obstacles in doing something important to improving lives and humanity.  Each pages tells the story of a different woman.  It moves through history from the time of slavery with Harriet Tubman to more recent times with Sonia Sotomayor.  Upon each page is also a quote from the woman being described that serves to inspire young people.  This book has a great message to young girls to follow their dreams, even if told they are impossible.  This book is highly recommended for young girls determined to change the world!
  6. The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt, Illustrated by Adam Rex (ages 4-10). The dramatic effect of this book with legends, battles, and duels creates great excitement and  enthusiasm in children reading this or listening to this book.  Everyone knows how to play rock, paper scissors, but did they know the legend behind it?  This book is sure to be a favorite of youngsters everywhere and will lead to many more games of rock paper scissors shoot as a result.
  7. The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken (ages 4-12)   This is an artistic book where continued mistakes in the artwork lead to changes and elaborations of the beautiful fun artwork that is developing.  The message of this book is to not let mistakes frustrate you or set you back.  Mistakes could lead to discovering beautiful unique ideas or expressions.  Learn from and explore your mistakes!  This is a beautifully illustrated book sure to inspire young artists everywhere!
  8. We’re All Wonders by R. J. Palacio (ages 5-8) This is the abbreviated children’s picture book version of R.J. Palacio’s much acclaimed Wonder.  It is about a boy with facial deformities who is felt to be a wonder by his immediate family, but he knows that other people look at him differently.  He hears the unkind things they say behind his back and his feelings are hurt as a result.  He escapes into an imaginary world on Pluto with strange space creatures.   He realizes from this far away vantage point that the world is big enough for all kinds of people.  He can’t change the way he looks… but maybe people can change the way they view others. This book has wonderful message about kindness.  It is a message to everyone to look for the beauty, the wonder, the good in other people.  Highly recommended!
  9. Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai, Illustrated by Kerascoet (ages 5-8)- This picture book details Malala’s childhood in Pakistan.  It describes the poverty, the reasons some children might not go to school – needing to help make money for food or perhaps parental beliefs that only boys go to school as girls should stay home and cook and clean.  The “men with guns” come into their city and make it unlawful for girls to go to school.  Despite this, Malala continues her education and writes and speaks out about her belief that everyone deserves education.  The Taliban try to silence her but they fail.  There are many parts of this book that parents are able to go into more detail with their children or simply leave it at that if they feel the truth may scare their children.  This is a wonderful book about an amazing young woman and an excellent story for young children to be familiar with.  This book can be a great jumping off point for much further discussion and conversation about certain issues.  This is a book that should be in classrooms everywhere!
  10. The Youngest Marcher:  The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton (ages 7-10) – This inspirational biography is about the courage of 9 year old Audrey Faye Hendricks and her role in the Civil Rights Movement. Audrey grew up in Birmingham, Alabama at a time when black people could not be served food in the same room at restaurants together. The year is 1963 and black children went to different schools and had hand-me-down textbooks from the white students. Audrey did not feel this was fair and when Dr. Martin Luther King visited their church, she wanted to be part of the solution. His call to “fill the jails” was heeded by children, as part of the Children’s March (May 1963). Audrey was arrested and spent a week in juvenile hall. Two months later Birmingham rescinded its segregation ordinances. This book does an excellent job of portraying the childhood figure of Audrey, her home life, and her tremendous courage and heroism at such a young age fighting for what she believed in. This is an amazing book that reminds us how recent in history these events occurred. This book brought up great questions and discussion from my kids. Highly informative, incredibly interesting, and most highly recommended!

My family had a great time exploring these books as well as the full list of children’s books that were listed in the beginning round.  The book I was most sad to see not move forward into the final round was A Different Pond by Bao Phi.  It’s an amazing book, one that I will probably devote a full post to reviewing.  Trying to choose a favorite of these ten books is very difficult because each book is so unique and speaks to children of varying ages and interests..  My 5 year old daughter was captivated with The Youngest Marcher and Malala’s Magic Pencil.  We read each of these  books countless times.  Despite her fascination with the stories of these two young women who courageously stood up for what they believed in, she was entirely bored with Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted.  In Clinton’s book, a new woman is presented upon each page and this proved to be less engaging and harder to relate to, as many of the women’s accomplishments were in adulthood rather than childhood.  All of my children as well as my husband were thoroughly entertained by The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors.  It is an incredibly well told exciting story that is fun to read.   My overall favorite and the one I voted for was The Youngest Marcher.  It is a great story about a young heroine whose story I did not know previously.  The reader gets to know this young girl, her family, and her values.  The reader can empathize with her feelings about inequality and marvel at her bravery.

Did you read these books?  If so, which was your favorite?  The winning book will be announced in two days.  Which do you think will win?

TTT: Top Ten Middle Grade Books I’m Excited to Read with my Children

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  Each week there is a suggested topic from which bloggers build their  posts.  Today’s post is about books we look forward to our children reading.  Here are the ten books I am most excited to read with them in the next few years.  I’ve included only books published in the last 5 years that I have not yet read.  Many of these have intrigued me for a while.. but I’ve been holding out to enjoy them with my children.   The quoted blurbs about each book are taken from Goodreads.  I welcome any further suggestions or commentary on the books I’ve chosen!

  1.  Wonder by R. J. Palacio (ages 8-12) – August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?”  – Published 2012
  2. Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder (ages 8-12) – “On the island, everything is perfect. The sun rises in a sky filled with dancing shapes; the wind, water, and trees shelter and protect those who live there; when the nine children go to sleep in their cabins, it is with full stomachs and joy in their hearts. And only one thing ever changes: on that day, each year, when a boat appears from the mist upon the ocean carrying one young child to join them—and taking the eldest one away, never to be seen again.”  Published 2017
  3. The Wild Robot by Peter Brown (ages 8-12) –When robot Roz opens her eyes for the first time, she discovers that she is alone on a remote, wild island. Why is she there? Where did she come from? And, most important, how will she survive in her harsh surroundings? Roz’s only hope is to learn from the island’s hostile animal inhabitants. When she tries to care for an orphaned gosling, the other animals finally decide to help, and the island starts to feel like home. Until one day, the robot’s mysterious past comes back to haunt her….”  Published 2016
  4. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (ages 8-12) –
     “Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.  Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.”  Published 2012
  5. Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk (ages 9-13) – “Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.”  Published 2016
  6. Pax by Sara Pennypacker, Jon Klassen (ages 9-13) – Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favorite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.”  Published 2016
  7. Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan (ages 9-14) – “Lost and alone in a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.  Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo.”  Published 2015
  8. Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo (ages 9-14) – Raymie Clarke has come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depends on her. And she has a plan. If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie’s picture in the paper and (maybe) come home. To win, not only does Raymie have to do good deeds and learn how to twirl a baton; she also has to contend with the wispy, frequently fainting Louisiana Elefante, who has a show-business background, and the fiery, stubborn Beverly Tapinski, who’s determined to sabotage the contest. But as the competition approaches, loneliness, loss, and unanswerable questions draw the three girls into an unlikely friendship — and challenge each of them to come to the rescue in unexpected ways.”  Published 2016
  9. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (ages 10-14) – “Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the forest, Xan, is kind and gentle. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, Fyrian. Xan rescues the abandoned children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey.  One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this enmagicked girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. To keep young Luna safe from her own unwieldy power, Xan locks her magic deep inside her. When Luna approaches her thirteenth birthday, her magic begins to emerge on schedule — but Xan is far away. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Soon, it is up to Luna to protect those who have protected her — even if it means the end of the loving, safe world she’s always known.”  Published 2016
  10. Ghost by Jason Reynolds (ages 10-14) – “Running. That’s all that Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But never for a track team. Nope, his game has always been ball. But when Ghost impulsively challenges an elite sprinter to a race — and wins — the Olympic medalist track coach sees he has something: crazy natural talent. Thing is, Ghost has something else: a lot of anger, and a past that he is trying to outrun. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed and meld with the team, or will his past finally catch up to him?”  Published 2016

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  256

Published:  September 5, 2017

Format:  Audiobook

 

 

 

 

This is hands down one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read. Rene Denfeld is a child of a difficult upbringing who has worked as a private investor helping sex trafficking victims and innocents in prisons. Denfeld talks about her childhood and family life eloquently in The Other Side of Loss. She, like the main character Naomi, has lived a life trying to help others that have suffered like herself. With this background and incredible talent, she is able to create such complete characters that make sense to the reader. So much of the time when I read thrillers, I don’t fully believe in the characters. Here, the author, invests energy into explaining why the “bad guys” became this way, so there is a degree of empathy the reader feels as they begin to understand why characters might be behaving the way they do. She also invests energy into explaining various actions that may seem incongruous on the part of the victims.

In this thriller of kidnapping and missing children, there are multiple mysteries to be solved. “The Child Finder, ” Naomi Cuttle, works as a private investigator finding missing children, dead or alive. It is her life’s work and passion, even though she has not yet faced the mystery of her own childhood kidnapping. Naomi Cuttle is raised by a foster mother from the age of 9 along with her foster brother, Jerome. She has few friends, devotes her life to her work and wakes up in the middle of the night with nightmares from her forgotten past. The novel is sometimes from Naomi’s point of view and sometimes from the perspective of Madison Culver, a missing child taken at the age of 5 three years ago. Naomi is investigating this case alongside of another one. Madison’s family had travelled to get a Christmas tree deep into the Skookim National Forest and Madison had gone missing, presumed dead by the local police. She had in fact been taken prisoner on the brink of death by cold exposure by a man who had been taken prisoner himself many years before, the cycle of abuse continuing. Madison is able to protect herself by hiding her identity inside a fairy tale, creating a story for herself to feel love and make peace with her situation. She becomes “Snowgirl,” a character from a favorite Russian fairy tale of a girl brought to life by the man who creates her.

There is a secondary mystery that Naomi is trying to solve, one that brings up many issues of the justice system and of inequality. The second case demonstrates the unfortunate culmination of many of these missing children cases.

Rene Denfeld is a masterful story teller. She describes the Oregon scenery with such beauty and attention to detail. She creates characters that come alive for the reader, that feel real and true. The mysteries unravel at a steady pace, leaving the reader with hope for a good outcome in the end. Although the subject matter is heavy and gruesome, Rene Denfeld finds beauty in darkness and gives hope to some of the bleakest of situations. In this lovely novel, the human spirit triumphs over dark and evil.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think Naomi has repressed her childhood prior to living with Mrs. Cottle?
  2. What strategies do victims of kidnapping and abuse use to help them survive terror,  mentally, physically and emotionally?
  3. Discuss how abuse cycles in subsequent generations.
  4. The autistic mother of the missing daughter is charged with a crime against her daughter.  How much of a role does race play in the delay of her autism diagnosis as well as the decision to prosecute her?
  5. What factors contribute to victims’ of abuse/kidnapping/sexual assault having intimate relationships in the future?
  6. Why do you think Naomi encourages Madison’s family to move away once Madison is found?
  7. Discuss the two cases that Naomi takes on.  What outcomes do you think are more typically experienced by PIs working these types of cases?
  8. What effect does a missing child often have on the marriage of the parents of that child?  What can parents do to offset the chances of divorce?
  9. What similarities exist between Naomi’s and Madison’s captivity?
  10. Why does Mr. B become afraid of being found and discovering another world?

 

 

Rene Denfeld’s website

Rene Denfeld discusses The Child Finder on Omnivoracious

Kirkus Review of The Child Finder

The Changeling by Victor LaValle ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  448

Publication Date:  June 13, 2017

Format:  E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

This intelligent, intriguing modern day fairy tale starts out in what seems to be a normal world.   It begins with the birth of the protagonist, Apollo, a child of mixed race to Lillian Kagwa (a Ugandan immigrant) and Brian West (a white parole officer.)  His father had held him as a baby telling him he was Apollo, the God.  This becomes a mantra for Apollo later in life.  Brian West disappears by the time Apollo is four years old, but Apollo continues to have dreams, or maybe nightmares, about his father returning.  In a box of items left behind by Brian is a well-read copy of Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There.  The Changeling becomes a retelling of this award winning children’s book.  Apollo is an avid reader and at a young age becomes a buyer and seller of used books.

Even before the witches and trolls appear in this novel, there are hints of the monsters in the ordinary.   In childhood, “Apollo would find himself wondering if he actually was frightening, a monster, the kind that would drive his own father away.”  Then later, Emma’s friend, Nichelle, explains to Apollo, about the nude photo of Emma hanging in Amsterdam.  Nichelle says of Emma, “She looks like a fucking sorceress, Apollo.  It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

Race and casual racism is discussed throughout this book.  When Apollo is young and trying to sell his books in the higher end spots in Manhattan, the author writes “Every kid with excess melanin becomes a super predator, even a black boy with glasses and a backpack full of books.  He might be standing at the entrance for fifteen minutes while the clerks pretended not to notice him.”  Later in the novel, Apollo is stopped by a cop in a white section in Queens and says, “that was fast.”

This book also speaks to the new age of parenthood, of more involved dads, and of social media.  Apollo Kagwa is one of these new age dads who is very much involved in the parenting of his child.  He enjoys taking him to the playground and bragging with the other dads about new milestones.  He posts countless photographs of his son, Brian, on Facebook.  Apollo’s wife, Emma, meanwhile, begins showing signs of postpartum depression.   She tells Apollo that she has received strange texts of pictures of the baby that have disappeared shortly after receiving them, which Apollo dismisses.  “You’re what’s wrong with our family, Emma. You. Are. The. Problem. Go take another pill.”   The horror in this novel is the experience of parenthood itself, the no-win situation regarding the expectations facing parents, the feeling of needing to protect your child, and ultimately the loss of a child.

Apollo finds a signed first edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with the inscription to Truman Capote, “Here’s to the Daddy of our dreams.”  He knows that this book could have a great payday, however, it does not pay in the way he expects.  After barely surviving the wrath and rage of his wife, he realizes that perhaps his wife was right.  He ends up on a journey with many twists and turns through mystical realms of witches, trolls and even some human monsters.

This novel warns of the dangers of social media and putting your life out there for all to see, judge, and possibly take advantage of.  William tells Apollo, “Vampires can’t come into your house unless you invite them.  Posting online is like leaving your front door open and telling any creature of the night it can come right in.”  It seems that Emma Valentine and Brian Kagwa were the perfect target for trolls with the publicized birth of their son, followed by continuous Facebook posts by Brian.

This book speaks to deeper truths about the monsters within each of us.  The glamer we are able to superimpose over our own misbehaviors to make us feel better about ourselves.  It warns of trolls lurking in everyday places and people.  This book is not simply a retelling or a fairy tale, there are many layers and depths to it.  The social commentary is sharp, but easily consumed within the context of this fantastical setting.  It is about the stories we tell ourselves as well as our children and the effect these stories have on us.  There is some pretty graphic violence though, so consider yourself forewarned.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  In the words of Cal, one of the witches, “A bad fairy tale has some simple goddamn moral.  A great fairy tale tells the truth.”  According to Cal’s guidelines, is this a bad or great fairy tale, or somewhere in between?  Explain.
  2. Why did Brian Kagwa become a changeling.  Who was responsible?  Why was he chosen?
  3. How is Scottish glamer or “glamour” used in this fairy tale?
  4. Why do you think Apollo’s father read Outside Over There to Apollo when he was little?  Discuss the similarities and differences between these two books.
  5. What is the meaning of the inscription in Harper Lee’s book in the context of this book?
  6. What is this book’s message about social media?
  7. What is a changeling?  Where else in literature and film do we see changelings?
  8. Discuss the social commentary of this novel on parenthood and expectations of mothers and fathers from this novel.
  9. What genre do you think best characterizes this novel?

 

Utube reading of Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There

New York Times Review by Jennifer Senior

New York Times Review by Terrence Rafferty

Interview with Victor LaValle published in the Los Angeles Times

Victor LaValle’s website

 

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  231

Published:  March 7, 2017

Format:  Audiobook read by the author

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee (2017), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2018)

 

 

“The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists. And it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations and cities pulling away from hinterlands. And it seemed that as everyone was coming together, everyone was also moving apart.”

This novel is a riveting, brilliantly written masterpiece that is about the relationship between a young couple that begins just prior to the eruption of a Civil War in their country.  I was amazed by how attuned to the nuances of relationships this author is.  He describes the falling in, the developing closeness, the emerging separateness and consequent break so eloquently and with such tenderness.

There is a cinematic quality to this novel.  As it focus on these two main characters, Saeed and Nadia, and their struggles during these uncertain times, it also flashes to other parts of the world and small moments in the lives of others.  The writing is razor sharp, profound, full of insight.  There are no wasted words.  I listened to this audiobook in my car, and the number of times I skipped backwards to listen to something again or just in case I may have missed something exceeded that of any other book I’ve listened to.  If I had been reading an ebook or physical book, I would have easily found something to highlight on every page.

The initial setting is in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where Nadia and Said meet in an evening class studying corporate identity and product branding.  Their seemingly normal lives and beginning romance are upturned rapidly as insurgents try to take over the city.  There is a sense of impending doom.  War is raging,  militants are flooding into their city, and people are dying or disappearing.  There are extreme rules in place regarding dress and social conduct with the opposite sex.  Certain religious sects are being persecuted.  People are being hung in the streets.  However, there are “doors,” which even the most reputable journalists are acknowledging the existence of.

Without knowing where these doors may lead, Sayeed and Nadia decide to flee through one of these doors and so begins their journey, first to Mikonos, then London, then Marin.  In these other lands, they are refugees who are kept separate from the nativists.  It’s an uncertain world, but eventually they are working at a camp to building a home for themselves which they accomplish together.  However, the chaos and tumult of the times in the early phase of their relationship has taken a toll.  They see each other differently as their roles change and their location changes.  The excited young lovers from the beginning of the novel have changed as their world has changed.  They have been through so much together, have been codependent by necessity.  They begin to see each other through different lenses.  The chaos of the times and world of being migrants brought their romance along more quickly, but also threatens it.

More broadly, this novel is about people, migrants, immigrants, natives.  The message is loud and clear.  We are all people and should treat each other as such.  There are always people fleeing wars, political unrest, religious persecution, and so on.  We need to be more tolerant.  In this era of Brexit and Trump’s travel bans, with countries fearing incoming people flooding into their homelands, this book offers a radical, beautiful challenge.   Mohsin Hamid has said that he used doors (the only fantastical element in this novel) as the route to other countries, because he wanted to focus on the actual immigrant experience, not the journey between countries.  In this novel, Hamid deftly explores the pain of leaving behind a grieving recently widowed father in hopes of a better life, of escaping premature death.  A quote from the book regarding this: “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”  He also explores the plight of the immigrant in a foreign land, pushed to the outskirts by natives.  He describes how these situations affect people in different ways and how migrants change through these experiences.  He ends the novel with this final quote: “We are all migrants through time.”   I highly recommend this timely book to everyone!  It is intelligent, insightful and tender altogether.

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the author used “doors” rather than actual travel between countries?
  2. What do you believe is the author’s message regarding immigration and immigration laws?
  3. In Mohsin Hamid’s essay in the Guardian, he says that the future cannot be left to politicians.  It calls on “radical politically engaged fiction” to muster up wisdom and insight into where we as individuals, families, societies, cultures… must go.  What wisdom is the author imparting in this novel?  Where is he directing us in the future?
  4. What role does technology and social media play in this novel?
  5. Define migrant.   Are we all migrants?
  6. In this book, it says that in this new world, some people felt their lives were better.  Why and how so?
  7. Saeed in this novel is fiercely attached to his family while Nadia is fiercely independent.  How do these character traits affect their relationship?
  8. In the book a passage through a door is equated to dying and being reborn.  Explain.
  9. The old woman in Palo Alto says that when she goes out now, she feels like a migrant, “a migrant through time.”  What does she mean by this?
  10. Some people have compared this book to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad for employing a virtual form of transportation.  Do you see these as a similar narrative styles?
  11. Why did Saeed pray?

 

Review and interview Mohsin Hamid with Terry Gross

Steve Inskeep’s interview with Mohsin Hamid on NPR

Michiko Kakutani’s review in The New York Times

Discussion Questions by Penguin Random House

 

 

sharing a love of books

Follow

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox:

%d bloggers like this: