Project LIT Book Club Edition
If you read my post last Wednesday, you know I’m in the middle of previewing books for our maiden season with Project LIT book clubs. I’m also madly reading because summer book orders are due soon. Here are several titles I’ve read in the past week.
Come Juneteenth by Ann Rinaldi
This story, new to me, of how the slaves in Texas waited an additional two years before learning of their freedom. The author invites us into a family for a decidedly gentle look at the slave experience. Sis Goose, although technically owned and a slave, has been raised since infancy as a member of the family. She is genuinely loved by her adopted parents and siblings, each in their own way, yet not one of them reveals to her that she is legally free.
The characters feel real, although the slavery feels whitewashed. Still I found it compelling enough to read in a single sitting. Because of a romantic relationship and pregnancy as well as passing allusions to “men visiting the quarters” this may be best for middle school readers, though a few of our 5th graders could handle it.
Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes
When I opened the pages of this book I realized I’d read it before. This mostly gentle story of one Brooklyn girl uncovering what happened on September 11th had left a warm impression with me. Through the first half of the novel I found myself nodding at the messages of acceptance (of others and ourselves), friendship and community, of home being more about our families than our surroundings, and about schools being places to gently probe challenging issues. In it readers can be exposed to poverty, mental illness (likely PTSD), racial or religious intolerance, and one event that has shaped all our modern lives in ways that leave them feeling as though it is possible to survive, even thrive under the weight of them if one has family and friends.
I think many of our readers could read this if they chose to. There is one scene where the 5th grade friends look up a video of the towers falling. Some may be concerned that the mention of it could give readers the idea of searching out video themselves. After thinking about it, I don’t think they will. The characters are so moved by viewing the video, the author conveys the heaviness with which it presses on them. One wishes she could unsee it. I think the effect is that readers will understand the gravity of the event and can witness it at arms length without actually watching people jump from the towers.
Best of all, while the challenges aren’t magically removed in the end, the author does leave readers with a sense of hope. She leaves us with the idea that knowing the truth, while hard, can make room for us to heal.
Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Senzai
This author of Shooting Kabul has once again written a compelling story that, through the experiences of one young Syrian girl, introduced us to the many people and groups who are part of the tangled conflict in her homeland. I must admit that although I’ve known, in a distant sort of way, about the tragedies unfolding in Syria, nothing in the news made it feel as real or as personal as this book.
A young girl is separated from her family during an attack as helicopters drop barrel bombs on her home. The story, which spans about three days, traces her journey to be reunited with them. In the process she meets other children affected by the years of war, encounters rebels, Christians, government forces and a gang in the dangerous streets of the city that has always been her home.
More than anything this story puts a human face to the suffering. I would be comfortable shelving it in my book room for 4th and 5th grade readers, though I would undoubtedly get some pushback for the scariness of the bombings. In some ways it is no more brutally honest than the opening pages of Charlotte’s Web or the travels of Edward Tulane.
Like Vanessa by Tami Charles
This book is most appropriate for readers a little older than mine. At first I didn’t know if I could find a way into the story of a girl from the projects who wanted more than anything to win a beauty pageant. But just under the surface was the truer motivation–she wanted to believe she was worthy of being loved. Abandoned by a mother she could barely remember, invisible to her gruff and constantly working father, Vanessa feels unlovable. It takes her alcoholic grandfather, devoted cousin who’s hiding his own secret, and a new music teacher to show her she is lovable, worthy, talented, and beautiful.
Vanessa’s cousin hides that he is gay because he lives in a community that is intolerant of who he is. Race is an overt issue in the novel. And a local drug-running gang leader is killed (offstage) in a drive by shooting. All of these mature issues make the story real, but best for readers who have already encountered challenging books-or life stories.
Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Although I am an outsider to both basketball and rap, I devoured this story of brothers, of perfect partnership and the forces that pull us apart, of seemingly perfect families with hidden fractures. And of finding our way back to each other.
This will definitely find a home in our section of sports fiction, though I’ll add it to a text set on family relationships when my 4th graders begin their social issues unit. I’ll book talk it to readers who think they can only read books with the fewest pages. The white space around the edges of the page will make it non-threatening and the verse will pull them in. I’ll book talk it to readers who don’t think they like sports books to show them that sometimes the basketball on the cover is just a way of getting at life’s other conflicts–sibling rivalry, jealousy, poor judgment in a moment and regret that lingers. And I will play a recording of Kwame Alexander reading…because who could resist?
You Go First by Erin Entrada Kelly
This novel of feeling alone and out of place, then finding one’s people and oneself is about as middle grade as they come. Two tweens, each facing a life-shifting crisis, forge an unconventional friendship through an online Scrabble game. Her father, as old as her friends’ grandparents, is in the hospital after a sudden heart attack. His parents suddenly announced they’re divorcing. Neither saw it coming. Both are left with big feelings and nowhere to turn. Turns out once they discover they have each other, they each find others closer to home.
I loved the message that it’s OK to be who you are, even if you’re considered a little quirky by others. And while you’re busy trying to avoid judgment…maybe don’t jump to judging others. Friendships change as we grow. It happens, but it isn’t the end. My realistic fiction section is saving a place for this one.
There are two more books waiting on the seat of my car, then it’s time to stock up with another batch. Some of the Project LIT titles weren’t available in my local library so I’ll need to track them down. I’m still looking to read:
- Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (grades 5+)
- Sunny and Patina by Jason Reynolds (gr 5-6)
- The First Rule of Punk by Celia C Perez (grades 3-6)
- Rebound by Kwame Alexander (grades 5-7)
- The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore (grades 5-6)
- The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson (grades 3-7)
I’d already read and loved Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed (grades 5-6), Wishtree by Katherine Applegate, and Amina’s Voice by (grades 3-7). Those will find homes in our book collection also.
Do you have recommendations of other titles that address issues in a way that honors young readers’ ability to think and their age? I’d love to hear from you.