Books for Ages 8-10: Two Immigrant Stories

 

As the November midterm election approaches, the President of the United States has repeatedly denigrated (bad-mouthed) immigrant communities and encouraged his followers to use violent language and outright falsehoods to stoke rage and fear about refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America. Many immigrant narratives written recently discuss the policy measures in the present and the past that have made it more difficult for families to move together to America or live here with security. These stories, like Stepping Stones by Margaret Ruurs, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, or The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, are important. In an age when, bizarrely, refugees—people fleeing conflict or famine or disaster— are targeted as villains, literature promoting empathy and understanding of the catastrophic conditions prompting people to leave home, and understanding what they face when they leave, is as vital as water is for life.

At the same time, I like the following two books, which reflect another need in literature for children about immigrants: quieter stories of confident immigrant children who have a strong positive sense of their family’s history and the place they come from, who are not primarily depicted as victims, who have a lot to share with people in their adopted country, and who are sensitive, intelligent, and funny. The characters’ unique perspective on life reflects their experiences moving from one culture to another . 

 

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House, Silas and Vaswani Neela (2011). Same Sun Here. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

ISBN: 9780763656843

297 Pages.

Meena and River live far away from one another, and don’t appear to have much in common. Meena is an artistic, observant girl whose father works far away at a restaurant in New Jersey. She lives in an illegal sublet in Chinatown, Manhattan, with her parents after moving from Mussoorie, India. Serious, River lives in Kentucky, near the coal mine his father works at, and likes biking, okra, and learning about plants with his grandma. But the two twelve-year-olds have a great deal in common—as they discover when they become pen pals. Both children have fathers who are rarely present, grandmothers with a deep connection to the natural world, and an interest in politics, human emotion, and art which brings them together as the months draw on. As River becomes interested in activism after a technology used for mining pollutes the water near his home, Meena helps her immigrant parents navigate their citizenship exam and anticipates the 2008 presidential election with her brother, a teenager deeply invested in the Obama campaign.

I like that this book presents a picture of a friendship formed through old-fashioned letters. Full of pictures, postcards, book references, and lists, this epistolary novel (a novel in the form of letters sent back and forth) maps the growing friendship between two intelligent, hardworking children in a prose style that feels true to the characters’ time and place while also introducing audiences to lots of beautiful new words and phrases (as both characters love language). Readers will learn about both coal mining communities in Kentucky and the diverse neighborhoods of Manhattan (with some asides about India) and appreciate the poems, honesty, and humorous exchanges between the two sensitive, curious protagonists. While the pace of the book is slow, it is comforting and heartwarming to follow, and invites readers to meditate about their own relationships and how they might broaden their perspective on the world. 

 

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Nye, Naomi Shihab (2014). The Turtle of Oman. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.

ISBN: 9780062019721

299 pages.

“What makes a place your own? What makes a home a home? It wasn’t something simple, like a familiar bench, or a fisherman’s yellow sweater vest with a hole in it, or the nut-man’s fat red turban. It was more mysterious, like a village with tiny stacked houses, so many windows, and doors with soft flickers shining out in to the night. You weren’t sure who lived in any of them, but you felt you could knock on any door and the people inside might know some of the same things you knew or welcome you in—just because you all belonged there.”

Aref’s parents are moving from Muscat, Oman to Ann Arbor, Michigan—and Aref does not want to go. He will miss the dunes in the desert, the stacks of apricots at the Souk, storm petrels (a kind of bird), his cat Mish-Mash, his friends, crispy fish, his grandfather, and the turtles that populate the ocean near his town. He is afraid of being backwards, moving in the wrong direction like a reader switching between reading English and Arabic. As he packs and prepares for the journey to America, Aref worries about the myriad of things that he won’t be able to do in America—and the things that people might expect of him. His family, including his grandfather, try their best to help him feel comfortable and prepare him for the change, reminding him that the world will continue turning, even when he is on the other side of it.

Naomi Shihab Nye always writes deep fiction rather than fast fiction, and this book is no exception. Nye’s wordplay, and Aref’s appreciation for beautiful sights, words, and moments, makes this book a wonderful book for young old souls and poets alike. It introduces the reader to a picture of Oman, a country they may have never heard of and might only get vague pictures of from the news. The way that people express affection, the sense of community, history and belonging, and the relationship that Aref has with his friends and family will prompt readers to consider the things in their own lives that they would regret leaving, and how they might adjust to big changes in the future while keeping a sense of themselves intact.  

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Books for Ages 8-10: George by Alex Gino

This is another book about transgender characters. It is important, because it is one of the first books by a transgender author for children to be published by a major press (Scholastic).

 

George by Alex Gino

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Gino, Alex (2015). George. New York, NY: Scholastic.
ISBN:978-0545812573

224 pages.

This book’s title is a little ironic, because there’s nobody in this book whose real name is George. The main character is a girl named Melissa! Melissa is in fourth grade, and even though she has a nice best friend, a loving family, and enough time to play video games most days after school, she has a big problem: for her entire life, everyone around her has believed she is a boy and treated her like one. Everyone still calls Melissa George and believes she’s a boy, because she hasn’t found a way to explain to everyone how she thinks of herself and what she wants. What she wants from her fourth grade year, specifically, is to play Charlotte the spider in the school’s production of E.B White’s story Charlotte’s Web. Melissa decides that she’ll do anything to figure out how to get the role–even if it means having some pretty difficult conversations with other people she didn’t think she was ready to talk to about how she feels. She finds that she has the power to persuade people to allow her to be who she feels she is, and her life changes course entirely.
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“She looked in the mirror and gasped. Melissa gasped back at her. For a long time, she stood there, just blinking. George smiled, and Melissa smiled too.”
The tone of this story is one of gradually building suspense mixed with funny dialogue and smart thoughtful insights from Melissa. My favorite parts are where Melissa and her best friend Kelly spend time together–both are great at telling jokes, and sound exactly like real fourth-graders.
Alex Gino is a transgender author who is one of the first trans people to publish a children’s book which features a trans girl as the protagonist. Melissa, the main character, doesn’t have the same identity as Alex Gino, who identifies as non-binary, not a girl, and uses they/them pronouns. However, Gino works hard to make sure that Melissa’s internal feelings are depicted realistically and respectfully. The book evokes a deep sense of sympathy for Melissa’s desire to express her theatrical talents in the role that suits her best, and captures what it’s like to know what you’re good at and wanting to pursue it while being unsure whether you have the strength to ask for permission. Melissa does find herself having to educate other people about what she understands about herself and what she knows about other trans people, but it makes sense in terms of the plot and overall story. The book is smart in the way it depicts the stress of trying to communicate your needs as a nine-year-old in the world, which is relatable whether or not people have ever fundamentally misunderstood something important about who you are.

Books for Ages 8-10: Transgender identity and gender presentation in picture books

This week, a story was printed in The New York Times about a memo that says the Trump administration in the United States is considering defining gender as a narrow biological condition that is based upon the body parts someone is born with. This is important, because there is a long-standing decision called Title IX which for years has been understood to protect people against discrimination based either on their body parts or the way they present as masculine, feminine, or something else. Title IX is known for protecting girls and women from gender-based discrimination, especially in school and in public. In the last few years, it has been decided that Title IX also means that transgender people (that is, people who live as a gender that is different from the one they were thought to have at birth) have rights to housing, employment, and public bathroom access. This statement  in the memo implies that the Trump administration is considering taking away civil rights for transgender and gender-nonconforming people. This decision also may mean that people in the government want to make people live in specific ways if they are born with specific body parts. That is scary for everyone–not just transgender people, but also boys and girls who wear clothes or act in ways that aren’t strictly in line with what other people see as normal for boys or girls.

 

Here are two picture books about children who defy traditional gender expectations and are received with love by the people around them. Both books are notable in that they reference magic, though one is a fantasy book and the other is set in the real world.

From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish In The Sea.

Thom, Kai Chang (auth), Kai Yun Ching (illust), and Wai-Yant Li (illust) (2017). From the Stars In The Sky To The Fish In The Sea. Vancouver, CA: Arsenal Pulp Press.

 

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ISBN: 978-1551527093
40 pages.
When Miu Lan is born in a little blue house at the top of the hill, the moon and the sun are in the sky at the same time. Likewise, the new baby is a lot of things at once. Little Miu Lan  looks like a cat, a rabbit, a tree, a star, and many other things as well. As Miu Lan grows, it becomes apparent that they can change into any imaginable shape.They fly with birds (while sporting a deer’s antlers), transform into a dog to play with puppies, and explore the oceans in aquatic form. Through all of this, their mother assures them that whatever shape they take on, she loves Miu Lan and finds them perfect.
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Transformations that might be treated as scary problems in other picture books are addressed in this one as a matter of joyful, funny, exciting difference and possibility; children that bully Miu Lan admit that they are jealous of the central character’s tiger stripes and peacock tail. While the story and its resolution aren’t that dramatic or intense, this book talks about difference and diversity in a way that doesn’t make difference into a problem or a burden–which is right. The illustrations, with plenty of rich watercolor and under-sea movement, at times remind me of The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, but the message is different–the story has nothing but reverence and respect toward the remarkable star.
Julián Is A Mermaid
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Love, Jessica (2018). Julián Is a Mermaid. New York, NY: Candlewick Press.
ISBN: 978-0763690458
40 Pages.
Julián is travelling with his abuela one day on the F train when he notices a group of beautiful mermaids taking up the middle of the car, their shiny tails gleaming and their gorgeous outfits sparkling.
He can’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the ride home, and as soon as he can, he takes things from around his grandmother’s house to try and create his own vivid, perfect outfit. His abuela sees what he needs, and takes him back out and down to Coney Island, where they join other mermaids in the Mermaid Parade.
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This book is great for very young readers, but its beautiful illustrations and introduction to the Mermaid Parade, celebrations of beauty and connection, and happy example of a family’s acceptance and love are great to read when you’re older, too. Jessica Love, who is both writer and illustrator, captures the light and color of an afternoon near the water in Coney Island, and paints vivid imagery of dresses, shoes, costumes, and glitter that can inspire us all to be festive, magical and inspired in the way we dress and present to the world. Best yet, it helps everyone imagine a future for ourselves and our families where we aren’t afraid to talk about what we want or what we think is beautiful.
Something very distinctive in this book is the large number of visual references to the Caribbean-American Black community in Brooklyn. One discussion that might be useful to have, especially if you read this book with both adults and children or in a classroom setting, is how Jessica Love, who is white and not Caribbean, researched or thought about depicting the main character and his grandmother or the other Caribbean/Afro-Latinx/Black characters who participate in the book’s lushly painted parade of mermaids. While Jessica Love does engage with her characters as people, and the book has received a lot of praise, what might be potential problems for white authors trying to write books about black families? What might people get wrong or make mistakes about? What should white authors do to try and make sure they get things right?

Thinking about ALSC awards and diversity/racism

Reading Shelley Diaz’s 2014 piece “The Givers: what it takes to serve on the Newbery, Caldecott committees” this week for my Children and Adolescent Reading Motivation Techniques class, I thought a lot about the ways that book awards like those the ALSC runs are not only a way to give quality literature larger audiences and adequate recognition, but also a way to cement librarians and book professionals as expert tastemakers.

My friend Kyle Lukoff  is a children’s librarian at Corlears School and Manhattan and is also a picture book author. Every year, he does a unit on awards for children’s books for the elementary school students he teaches. Over several weeks, he reads old and new Caldecott, Newbery, Coretta Scott King, and Stonewall award-winners (among others) to his students, and they discuss what they notice about the winning books–what they have in common, and what differs between old and new book titles. I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on some of these sessions, listening to Kyle read from newer Caldecott winners like Javaka Steptoe’s Radiant Child to rapt audiences of third graders. Children admired the pictures and discussed the time and research that had gone into the non-fiction biography of Black artist Basquiat.

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While I was visiting the school last week for observation, Kyle also showed students a copy of  Baboushka and the Three Kings, illustrated by Nicolas Sidjakov, the 1961 Caldecott winner. Many of the students marveled at the fact that compared to newer books, the pictures in this one….just weren’t that compelling or beautiful to them. The lines were flat, the colors were simple, and the expressions of the characters weren’t clear. Additionally, the story didn’t grab them. Kyle and his students discussed as a class why that book had been chosen as the most distinguished illustrated book for children that year. Students suggested that perhaps there weren’t any other good ones, or that the people on the committee had different ideas of beauty.

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Who participates in committees matters enormously, as does the criteria, secret or otherwise, that they use to determine the winners of Caldecott and Newbery awards. As Laurie Hertzel noted in an article in Feb 2018, recent winners of the Newbery and Caldecott medals have been notably more diverse than in the past–and committees, too, have become more diverse in terms of the ethnic backgrounds of participants. But, as Hertzel also points out, this hardly compensates for decades in which panels of white librarians and book professionals handed awards to overwhelmingly white authors–or where the occasional author of color who was recognized was tokenized and then forgotten. It’s important for us as librarians to note that the patterns in children’s publishing, literary fame, and racism within the world of literature is not natural, but the product of forces like awards committees that elevate some voices while consistently marginalizing others. By demystifying awards processes and noting the human and professional motivations of Newbery award participants, we can better critique these processes and commit to decolonizing our professional field (which is overwhelmingly historically white).

A 2017 article  for the Atlantic by Pooja Makhijani which I read recently reminded me of how much the composition of awards committees impacts the direction of literature. As Makhijani notes, the first author of color to win a Newbery award was Dhan Gopal Mukerji, who published a children’s book (illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff) about a carrier pigeon who accompanies his Indian owner to WWI.

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Makhijani notes that this could have, in a better universe, been part of a trend in the U.S of recognizing authors of color. Because of U.S immigration policies which briefly allowed Asian immigrants to become citizens at the turn of the twentieth century, Mukerji was part of a wave of South Asian immigrants to make a home in America. Educated at Stanford, but with ties to the nascent independence movement, Mukerji significant artistic contributions to make which bucked earlier trends in children’s literature and told stories which had not previously been available to American audiences. Initially, they were successful. While he cannily relied on American fascination with jungles and tigers, he also introduced readers of his book Gay Neck to the tragedies Indian soldiers faced in a war which never benefited them.

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illustration from Gay Neck. Pictures by Boris Artzybasheff

However, in the years after his Newbery award, Mukerji struggled with intense depression. While Makhijani notes that part of this could have been because Mukerji worked himself extremely hard, travelling on cross-country lectures for most of the year, it was also probably exacerbated by the increasingly perilous position of Indian immigrants in America in the years after the case of Baghat Singh Thind vs. The United States, where it was ruled that South Asians could not only not be naturalized going forward but could also have their citizenship revoked on account of their race. Additionally, Mukerji, who was friends with Nehru, was aware of the increasingly violent treatment of Indian independence advocates by the British occupation in his homeland. He committed suicide in 1936–after which his works fell into near complete obscurity, despite his Newbery Award book Gay Neck remaining in print.

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illustration from Gay Neck. Picture by Boris Artzybasheff

The next Newbery Award to be handed to an author of color went to Paula Fox, whose mother was Cuban, for The Slave Dancer in 1974. No other South Asian authors have ever won a Newbery medal, and the three Asian-American authors who have won the Newbery (Lynda Sue Park, Cynthia Kadohata, and Erin Entrada Kelly) received their awards only after the turn of the 21st century. This is absolutely the fault of the selection committees, who again and again had the opportunity to prioritize marginalized voices and chose instead to elevate white authors and white narratives at the expense of children’s literature–which could be so much richer and more complex. While part of the blame rests with the publishing industry, which until the 1960s rarely devoted promotional money toward any works by black authors (with rare exceptions), librarians had a responsibility that they ignored. This is part of the legacy of our profession. Too many white librarians have operated under the assumption that the books we happen to come across are the best representatives of literature, when in fact the systems that put books into the world already put many authors of color in America and internationally at a disadvantage. Future committees need not only to be diverse but to be culturally aware and critical during every step of the process. While things right now seem to tilt the scale toward more diverse books, we have to understand how and why this trend is happening, so it isn’t reversed in the future.

I think as young librarians like myself move forward in an increasingly politically polarized world, as we join committees and reach consensus on our favorite books and consider hundreds of nominations, we should consider our responsibility to work to make those committees representative of as wide a range of experiences and backgrounds as possible, and to work as much as possible to pay attention to narratives which come from authors of color, trans authors, disabled authors, and migrant authors.

 

Diaz, Shelley. (2014) The Givers: what it takes to serve on the Newbery, Caldecott committees. School Library Journal, 60(1), p26-29.

Hertzel, Laurie (2018, Feb 16).The Newbery and Caldecott – as well as the other ALA awards – are bringing recognition to diverse books. The Star Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.startribune.com/bookmark-the-newbery-and-caldecott-as-well-as-the-other-ala-awards-are-bringing-recognition-to-diverse-books/474223993/.

Makhijani, Pooja (2017, Oct 3). What a Forgotten Kids’ Book Reveals about U.S Publishing. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/10/what-a-forgotten-kids-book-reveals-about-us-publishing/539709/

Books for Ages 8-10: Middle Grade Books about Girls and Music

 

Music opens us up to brand-new emotions and depth of feeling, and has the strongest effect on us when we’re young. These two middle-grade novels take on the heavy topic of starting middle school and navigating independence, responsibility, and friends while also diving passionately into new musical interests. Both books are profoundly hopeful. The protagonists of both of these books are relatable and face realistic stakes; these books are perfect for students just starting middle school or for whom junior high still looms a couple years ahead. 

The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez

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Perez, Celia (2017). The First Rule of Punk. New York, NY: Viking. 

ISBN: 978-0425290408

336 pages. 

12-year-old Malu is moving with her mom to Chicago—and leaving behind everything she knows and loves about Gainesville, Florida. Goodbye to her dad’s record store, Spanish moss, her favorite pizza place, and everything she feels confident in about punk culture. Hello to a city she doesn’t yet know anything about—and to two years with her mother, who Malu thinks is way too uptight. Malu calls her mom “SuperMexican” to tease her; in contrast to her laid-back dad, her mother is always trying to talk to her about Mexican history and art and culture, and while she supports Malu’s artistic inclinations and her zine projects, she is suspicious of skateboards, weird hairstyles, or pants with holes in them. When Malu starts her school year, though, her mom’s concerns about dress code pale in comparison to the drama she encounters at school. On her first day, when she comes in wearing punk dark eyeliner, two other Mexican girls in her class tease her and tell her to act more normal. As Malu learns more about Chicago and the Mexican-American punk scene and real bands that preceded her, she starts a band—but things don’t immediately get easier. Offensive school fiestas, a ban on punk music in the school talent show, and more make Malu uncertain of how to reconcile different parts of her identity in public. 

Malu isn’t a perfect protagonist, quick to jump to conclusions and equally quick to idolize her dad over her hardworking, hyper-smart and hyper-caring mom. But her struggles at the start of middle school, her artistic ambition and abundant interests and passions, pull the reader along on a narrative ride that’s fun every step of the way. The integration of Malu’s zines into the text of the book, plus a hefty dose of information both about Mexican-American art and history and local punk scenes in Chicago, make this a great novel for young people developing their own tastes and interests in music and seeking out ways to express their identity in public. While the stakes never get impossibly high and Malu is surrounded by caring adults and ultimately finds like-minded friends, the fear she feels of alienation is profoundly real, and makes the reassuring triumphs she achieves all the sweeter. 

All Summer Long by Hope Larson

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Larson, Hope (2018). All Summer Long. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

ISBN: 978-0374304850

176 pages. 

As the school year bleeds into summer, 13-year-old Bina is looking forward to spending her days with her best friend and next-door neighbor, Austin. Bina and Austin have spent every summer tallying points in their Summer Fun Index—rescuing cats, getting ice cream, playing basketball, and having adventures in their neighborhood. But this summer, Austin tells Bina at the last second that he’ll be gone for half the summer at soccer camp. So without warning, Bina finds herself all alone. She spends a few weeks watching TV on the couch, until one day she locks herself out of the house when she goes to get milk and, when trying to get the spare key to her house from Austin’s bedroom next door, she runs into Austin’s sister, an older teenager who had to quit her job as a lifeguard after breaking her arm skateboarding.

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Austin’s sister likes the same indie bands as Bina, and Bina starts to find new bands she likes through her record collection. As she practices guitar, she starts to think about what she could do to make music a bigger part of her life. But when Austin comes back from camp, he’s still acting different, and at the same time, his sister seems to remember suddenly that Bina is just a kid, and abruptly ignores her. Will she end summer as lonely as she began it? Will she ever find other people that like the same music? Can she ever start a band?

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Even though the story focuses on Bina’s introspection, passion and loneliness, the story is fast-paced, partly because of Bina’s incredible energy and wide range of passions. The book is full of a large cast of characters, including Bina’s extended family and Austin’s mother and friends. I really like the fact that Bina’s best friend is a boy with interests very different from hers, and that the book tackles how to handle a changing friendship in middle school. The two-tone yellow and orange art adds dimension to the simple, liquid lines Larson uses to illustrate Californian suburbia. The most vivid art is saved for the facial expressions of the characters, which are stylized and expressive. The struggles Bina has with navigating responsibility and independence, and her efforts to understand the interests and occupations of adults and older teenagers, make this a great book to help bridge the difficult transition to middle school and adolescence. In addition to being thematically very similar to The First Rule of Punk, this is a great book to pair with Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, or This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki.

Books for Ages 8-10: Medieval Historical Fiction

Not all history is about castles, kings, princely duels, or big horses. My favorite medieval historical fiction for kids is about ordinary people–doing extraordinary things. Here are two good books about children hundreds of years ago living in the world.

 

Matilda Bone by Karen Cushman 

 

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Cushman, Karen (2002). Matilda Bone. New York, NY: Dell Yearling.

ISBN: 0440418224 

167 pages.

Matilda, unlike most 13-year-old girls in medieval England, knows how to read. She was raised in a convent by a priest named Father Leufredus, who taught her about saints, demons, good, evil, and how to speak and read Latin. But when Father Leufredus is called away to London, he abandons Matilda at the home of a woman named Red Peg, who makes her living as a bonesetter (someone who mends broken bones). While Matilda wants to be useful as Peg’s assistant, she quickly becomes terrified by how bloody, physical and heretical (against the Bible) the outside world can be. Red Peg has no use for books or saints, and is frequently fed up with Matilda’s inability to tend a fire, get a good deal at the market, or make use of herbs, balms, or household tools like a broom. Even worse, plenty of people Matilda meets don’t have any faith at all that prayer to saints is the way to Heaven—and that’s if they believe in Heaven at all. But as time goes on, Matilda realizes that the practical medicine that Red Peg provides her customers with—and the humane way she treats them—might be more valuable in day-to-day life than the words of priests.

Cushman has many novels (The Midwife’s Apprentice, Catherine Called Birdy) about smart, independent girls living in what we know as the Middle Ages. Her basic idea, which is a good one, is that even in times when most women’s stories weren’t written down and they were treated by men as property, most women probably thought for themselves and made their own lives on their wits just like men did, when they could. Most history books about this time period leave out details about women and girls’ lives, and also leave out the ways people got medical care when they lived too far away or were too poor to visit famous doctors. Only recently have historians looked at cookbooks, books on medicine, and artifacts to find out more about what women did during the “dark ages.” This book, like Cushman’s other books, draws on a lot of research to paint a picture of what daily life and medicine looked like. Often, that reality was disgusting and bloody. 

The gross details of Medieval England in this book include:

-Rotten eels sold as fresh fish

-Gruel

-Streets full of poop and garbage

-Barbers who double as doctors —when someone needs to amputate a leg!

-Eye medicine from “experts” that calls for bull manure

At the same time, Cushman writes about the things people did know how to do, far better than they do today—which they drew on experience for. These include herbal medicine, practical skills like bonesetting, and midwifery (delivering babies at home). This book is more than just a history book, though. Matilda navigates loneliness, panic, and hard work before becoming an independent, admirable woman. Many women like Matilda have probably been forever erased from history. Cushman brings her back. 

 

 

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

 

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Gidwitz, Adam (2016). The Inquisitor’s Tale. New York, NY: Penguin Young Reader’s Group. 

ISBN: 9780525426165

364 pages.

In 1242, in the area that would one day be France but was at the moment sort of a collection of kingdoms only kind of under the control of a king, live three eleven-year-old children who are all in horrible danger. 

Black monk William, the son of a Spanish aristocrat and a North African woman, has been sent away from his monastery after getting into an argument with another monk and smashing a marble bench in what can only be described as a miracle. Peasant girl Jeanne, who sees visions of the future, has to flee her hometown after she witnesses the resurrection of a heroic dog that the townspeople revere as a saint, and promptly saves it from agents of the Church who have been sent to destroy it. Meanwhile, a boy named Jacob, equipped with healing powers, sets off alone to find his uncle, the Rabbi Yehuda, after the Jewish quarter of town he lives in is burned to the ground. 

Tracking all three children is an Inquisitor (someone who works for the Church and decides if people should be persecuted by it). He hears their tale from a group of strangers at an inn who have each independently had contact with one or another of the children at different points along their journey. As each new person tells a story, readers get a better picture of everything that has happened—of course, that’s assuming that any one of these people is telling the truth.

This book is fun to read and full of bloody battles, witty arguments about religion, magical dreams, evil men with very sad backstories, and a diverse, thriving, artistic, funny, dirty, bloody society. It includes murderous Crusaders, piles of dung, farting dragons, stinky cheese, fools, bandits, and weak ale. It also includes prophetic dreams, friendships across religious lines, intelligent women and girls, efforts to rescue books from burning, brave warriors, a magic dog, and a great deal of hope about what we can make the world if we work together. As an added bonus, there are beautiful “illuminations”–tiny illustrations–by artist Hatem Aly, which trace the edges of each page just like they would in an old medieval book. Great for fans of The Tale of Despereaux, Jane Yolen’s The Young Merlin trilogy, or Serafina and the Black Cloak. 

Books for Ages 8-10: Some Wizard Books.

It’s almost Halloween, and that means it’s time for what? (pause) Okay, like ghosts, or skeletons, or witches, right?

 

There are a huge range of books about witches, wizards, and magic. The books are really different from one another, too. There are books about wizards and witches that are very serious, and have lots of brooding people and battles and death–like The Dark Is Rising, I Am Morgan Le Fey, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Young Merlin trilogy, or some of the later Harry Potter books. And then there are silly books and movies about wizards and witches, like Wizards of Waverly Place, Halloweentown, Which Witch? or The Worst Witch, where magic is still powerful, but the characters are funnier, and the plot has more to do with resolving conflicts between people and preventing wacky hijinks. Even if you just limit yourself to books about child witches and wizards, there’s a lot to sort through.

 

I’m here today to talk about two books about young magicians which I really like. They have some things in common. Both books take place in alternate dimensions, and involve travelling between worlds. Both involve a hero who has a lot of magical potential and who has the chance to come into a great deal of power. And both books mix silly hijinks–like using magic to smuggle a Goddess in another world funny books about schoolchildren, or diving into a swimming pool of chocolate pudding–with more serious subjects. Both books talk about the abuse of power, the importance of empathy and understanding, and the need for justice.

 

The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones

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Jones, Diana Wynne (1988). The Lives of Christopher Chant. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.

 

ISBN: 0688163653.

 

230 pages.

 

This book, originally published in 1988, predated Harry Potter, and also came before other books about wizards in school, like Jane Yolen’s good book Wizard’s Hall. It centers on a young boy whose rich enchanter parents mostly ignore him. Even though magic is common in his world and his parents have magic powers, Christopher doesn’t seem to have any magical powers at all–except for in his dreams. When he goes to bed, he travels each night through a valley between the worlds, and can emerge in lands with dragons or mermaids. But then Christopher discovers that his dreams are real–and he can bring things back from the other dimensions. His uncle Ralph immediately puts him to work smuggling mysterious (sometimes smelly) packages from other dimensions in what he calls “experiments.” When one of these experiments goes wrong and Christopher ends up with a spear through his chest, he makes a truly amazing discovery–he has nine lives. As one of only two nine-lived enchanters, Christopher has the chance to become Chrestomanci–the overseer of all magic in his world and others. The only problem is, Christopher doesn’t want to be Chrestomanci at all. And even if he did–his uncle Ralph still depends on him for his own plans.

 

This isn’t a typical high fantasy story. It includes a high-spirited Goddess from another dimension who loves books about British school life, a ring of criminals who are illegaly smuggling mermaid body parts, a cat named Throgmorten who has magical powers, a hero who dies constantly without thinking anything about it, and a lot of really interesting ideas about worlds which branch off from one another at different points of history and sit side by side, connected with magic.

 

Christopher, unlike Harry Potter or other protagonists who start out morally perfect and innocent, doesn’t begin the book as a very nice person. Spoiled and neglected, he isn’t used to connecting to other people, and has a hard time understanding how to talk to adults or other children. At the same time, he loves deeply and is able to learn sympathy for others. He develops quickly as the story goes on into someone who is strong, loyal, and has a lot of capacity to act quickly to protect his friends and become a real leader. In Jones’ subsequent exciting Chrestomanci chronicles, we see Christopher as an adult magician with enormous power who helps manage magic across many dimensions and deal with new enemies.

 

Wizardmatch by Lauren Magaziner

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Magaziner, Lauren (2018). Wizardmatch. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers.

 

ISBN: 9780735227781 .

 

295 pages.

 

This new novel by Lauren Magaziner has some things in common with Eva Ibbotson’s Which Witch, J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Wizards of Waverly Place. Essentially, it’s about wizard sports, friendship and family, betrayal, abuse of power, and forgiveness. The premise: super-powerful granddad wizard Pomporrompop (or something like that) , who lives in a castle made of food, is leaving all his powers and estate to the most powerful of his many, many grandchildren.

 

Here’s a passage:

 

Sparkles of light erupted in the entranceway, and at first Lennie could only see Poppop’s outline as he stood dramatically in the shadows. But then he pirouetted into the room and posed grandly, his staff held triumphantly in the air. Lennie stared at the long piece of wood with the rubber duck on top. It was amazing to think that one day she might get to hold the staff, and that it would amplify her powers, just like it did for Poppop. (Wizardmatch, p 52).

 

The protagonist, Lennie Mercado, is a 12 year old with invisibility powers who has grown up away from magic and who is determined to become the next great wizard in her family.  She travels with her mom and brother into the wizard dimension in order to get a chance at inheriting her grandfather’s magic staff. But then her grandpa says he won’t let Lennie even compete! Lennie is pretty sure her grandpa is making this decision because she is a girl, and after overhearing her granddad talking to her mom, she thinks the fact she’s half-Filipinx might have something to do with it too.

 

Bitter and fuming, Lennie stalks into the woods to try and run away, and runs into her great-uncle, who has been harboring a similar grudge against her grandfather since he was defeated fifty years ago and lost the opportunity to gain all the magical powers he might have had. He  promises to help Lennie become more powerful,, if she sabotages the competition.

This is a goofy book with pools of pudding, graveyards of goulash, and a cat named Fluffles who has a monocle. But it’s also original. It also effectively parodies all the wizard fiction out there that is dependent on a whimsical, powerful patriarch (like Dumbledore or Gandalf) who is always proven right in the end. In this book, none of the grown ups, and least of all the men, are in the right. It might be a silly little story, but I loved it, and am so excited to read more stuff in this vein.