Mini Review: Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas

PoliTitle: Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas
Author: Jay Neugeboren
Genres:  Historical
Pages: 123
Publisher: Texas Tech University Press
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: In 1839, José Policarpo Rodriguez came north with his father from Zaragosa, Mexico, to the Republic of Texas. Poli was ten years old when he arrived in Texas, and he and his father settled in the Hill Country near San Antonio. Poli grew up with Comanches, surveyed territory for the Republic of Texas and the United States Army, fought against warring Indians, and mapped settlements for nineteenth-century German settlers in Texas. He was the first non-Indian to discover the Big Bend Country and Cascades Caverns, and during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, he was Captain of the San Antonio Home Guard. Caught between the three main elements that made up early Texas—Mexicans, Indians, and Anglos—he struggled to decide where his true loyalties lay, and his decisions showed a kind of courage that was rare in those days. . .and is still rare today.

Review: In celebration of it’s 25 anniversary, Texas Tech University Press has decided to re-release Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, and I happen to agree that this was a good move for the publisher. This historical novel is a quick and entertaining read that touches on a brief period of history that shows the tensions between the Comanche Nation, Mexicans, and the early Texans. The story follows young Jose Policarpo Rodriguez, and is based on the real Poli’s memoirs. The novel begins when Poli is 10 years old and just arriving in Texas from Zaragosa. Poli and his father have left Mexico for a better life after the death of his mother and other family members. Poli’s father then sends him to spend a week with the Comanche nation and there Poli forms a friendship with the Chief’s son, Eagle Blood. It is through his relationship with Eagle Blood that Poli is able to see and understand all three sides of the land use issue that is the cause of the tension between the Native Americans, Mexicans, and the Texans. Because of his relationship, Poli is also able to work as a surveyor and as a translator during negotiations that ultimately fail. The fact that Poli is so trusted by adults shows how during this period of time, adolescents were treated as adults and give adult responsibilities. Poli had to mature fast because of the harshness of life on the plain.

Not knowing much about Texas history, except what is briefly given in school textbooks, I found the focus on the lives of those effected in San Antonio fascinating as it took a larger conflict and allowed the reader to see how it effect the daily lives of the people who lived during that time period. I found it very easy to relate to Poli as through his travels he missed his father, and his friendship with Eagle Blood felt true and real. I feel that Neugeboren did his research in getting the historical details correct, especially when sharing the lifestyles and beliefs of the Comanche people. Neugeboren was able to handle the tension between the Comanche, the Mexicans, and the Texans in such a manner that the reader fully understood and empathized with the different factions (okay, maybe not so much with the early Texans as a whole, but the individuals whose lives were thrown in to chaos because of the fighting, yes).  While the novel is written for middle grade, Neugeboren writes in such a way that Poli would be enjoyable for readers of all ages. I feel this would be an excellent supplemental novel in a social studies class, as well as a good read of the youngster who enjoys historical fiction.

Recommendation: Get It Soon

To celebrate the release of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, we have two copies to give away! Raffle ends March 17th. Enter Now!

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Book Review: My Heart & Other Black Holes

22328549Title: My Heart & Other Black Holes
Author: Jasmine Warga
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic
Pages: 302
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is obsessed with plotting her own death. With a mother who can barely look at her without wincing, classmates who whisper behind her back, and a father whose violent crime rocked her small town, Aysel is ready to turn her potential energy into nothingness.

There’s only one problem: she’s not sure she has the courage to do it alone. But once she discovers a website with a section called Suicide Partners, Aysel’s convinced she’s found her solution–Roman, a teenage boy who’s haunted by a family tragedy, is looking for a partner. Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill in each other’s broken lives. But as their suicide pact becomes more concrete, Aysel begins to question whether she really wants to go through with it. Ultimately, she must choose between wanting to die or trying to convince Roman to live so they can discover the potential of their energy together. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: It is interesting that two of last week’s new releases dealt with the subject of suicide, as it is a subject that is sensitive to many and one that a lot of people don’t want to talk about, which is a shame because many folks experience depression and/or have thoughts of suicide. Teens especially need to be able to have someone to reach out for help, and sometimes, handing a young adult book that speaks to the heart of what they are going through can save a life. I honestly feel that My Heart & Other Black Holes could be a potential life saver for many young adults.

While Aysel’s depression is triggered over her father’s crime, Warga makes note to show how Aysel showed signs when she was growing up, so the novel doesn’t feel like one of those, “she’s depressed over something and now she’s all better, happy every after” novels. No, when we meet Aysel she is in the thick of her depression, has made the decision to commit suicide and is actively seeking help by having a suicide partner. And this is where I think Warga’s novel really shines. Reading the thought process of someone committed to taking their own life is very tough, but it is a thought process that is very real, hence making Aysel a fully-fleshed out character. It makes the reader empathize with Aysel, as we understand that when someone is at the point Aysel is, when they are in their darkest moments, it can be extremely hard to change their thinking. A person who is depressed to the point of committing suicide will not “just get over it”.  Aysel is actively looking forward to her death. As a teacher of teenagers, this was hard to read because I kept thinking about a student who came close to this point a few years ago, but reached out and got the help she needed. As the novel is told in first person, Aysel, unfortunately does not believe that she can find help or even capable of help. It was also those moments that the heart of Warga’s story really impacted me.

It was also Aysel’s thoughts, her self-awareness about her depression that really made her a character to root for. She even personifies her depression, calling it a black slug, and it became a “villain” in a way. She has to actively fight against the black slug and sometimes she wins, sometimes she looses. I feel that having Aysel name her depression was a stroke of genius by Warga. It turned an illness that can be very abstract into something concrete. It allowed for readers who might not fully grasp how depression works into seeing the disease as a real obstacle in a person’s path. If people get anything out of this book, it will be that depression it is not just an imaginary illness in a person’s head, but a real tangible presence that they fight daily against.

And, I think, that is the beauty of Warga’s novel. The reader really connects with Aysel, with her wry humor, her love for her little brother, and how much she struggles with the slug that she fights daily. The reader knows that Aysel is a beautiful soul and really wants her to recognize her worth so she won’t continue to think about suicide, but is still willing to go on the journey that Warga lays out as Aysel begins to question her decision with Roman. The novel takes place over a span of 26 days, with each chapter counting down, and we are not privy to Aysel’s decision to live or die until almost the very end. And when she does, well…you just have to read the novel to find out.

Jasmine Warga’s debut novel is a beautiful and touching story about depression, family, friendship and love. It’s about answering the tough questions we have about ourselves, our place in our family and our world, but mostly it is about discovering and owning our own self worth. The messages and themes that My Heart & Other Black Holes explores is one that people of all ages can learn from and relate to.

Recommendation: If you are in the mood for a story with heart, run to the store and buy My Heart & Other Black Holes now!

Day of Diversity: A Recap

Ever have one of those experiences where you’re surrounded by people whose work your admire, important publishing folks, and wonder what in the world you are doing in the same room with them? Well, that was me at the Day of Diversity program created by Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) at the ALA Midwinter meeting in Chicago. Do not get me wrong, I was (and still am) so honored to be invited to the conference and have the opportunity to represent Rich In Color, as well as being a voice for teachers. A week and half later, everything I learned, shared and discussed with so many people still has me thinking deeply and reflecting on the experience. There are random moments during the day when some memory, some interaction with a fellow like minded person, makes me smile and reminds me of the passion for change expressed at the conference. I returned from the conference full of new ideas for my classroom, my school and my community.

The conference consisted of a mix of speakers, panels, and small group breakout sessions to bring folks from a variety of publishing disciplines to discuss solutions and brainstorm action plans.  Since the conference was hosted by ALSC, there was a focus on what librarians could do help promote diversity in children’s & young adult literature, and because I’m a teacher, some of the topics were foreign to me, however I learned much about the book business from a librarian’s standpoint. As library consumer, I found speaking to librarians about what they do and how they promote literacy fascinating. The breakout sessions, especially, were inspiring to me to return to my school and community and work on the relationship with my school and our local library. I realized I could do more, while also actively creating fellowship with my students, their parents, and the larger community in which they live by exposing them to library programs, as well as helping many of my students understand and use the resources the library provides. I also realized that by creating a relationship with my school’s local library, I can help them create a diverse reading list for the community. I was also able to share with librarians the teacher’s perspective on literacy and gave suggestions to how librarians can help teachers out with this reading lists as well. The communion of ideas the conference allowed through the breakout sessions resulted in win-win scenarios all around.

When discussing the issue of diversity on such a large scale, there is always emotion involved and I found myself near to tears many times throughout the day. During our lunch, authors Sara Farizan, Ellen Oh, and Cynthia Letich Smith, as well as Penguin editor Namrata Tripathi gave lightening talks, which were about 10 min talks on a particular subject. All four speakers bared their hearts with their words, shared profound thoughts, and touched us all. I usually like to take notes during talks, but I found myself so enthralled and moved that I just let their words of beauty, words of pain wash over me and settle in my heart. In her talk about being a “multi-cultural editor’” and being a person of color in publishing, Namrata’s statement, “When we introduce ourselves, our personhood is communicated,” really impacted me. I fully understand how being proud of one’s name, when it reflects one’s cultural background (For reference, the K is my first initial and Imani is my middle name. My first name is Arabic.) can be an issue for others when one is pursing a career, or rather traversing this American culture. It made me think of the trials I’d gone through to accepting my name, and I thought of many of my students who face similar issues. It also reinforced the notion that children of all races need to be exposed to a variety of cultures (and names) so when I introduce myself, or anyone with a name that reflects his/her culture, the response won’t be negative.

During my last breakout session, the conversation ended with us reflecting on what we can do once we return home. What we can do in a month, in three months, six months and a year from now; because that is how change happens, one step at a time. It was a wonderful discussion and I ended up creating a “to-do” list for myself for the rest of the school year, as well as set some new writing goals. Then, back in the general session retired ALA Literacy & Outreach director Satia Orange gave us a passionate speech calling us, no demanding us, to decide what we were going to do the very next day to bring about change. Again, I was moved to tears, but also ready to take action.

And so I did! The very next day I purchased books from a small publisher, an Asian-American author, for both my niece and nephew. Since I’ve returned from the conference, with a renewed spirit to continue to push for diverse books for children/teens, I’ve focused my efforts on my students and my school, talking with my principal about putting in a Little Free Library, contacting the Scholastic Book Fair about their need for more diverse books, as well as encouraging my young writers so they can be the next generation of published authors. I do have more planned, but one step at a time. Because that is how change happens.

One of my fun highlights was sitting around chatting with the We Need Diverse Books team at the after conference reception, and just meeting a bunch of authors that I’ve admired for years. Check out the happy in the photos below.

I got to meet Sharon Draper!

I got to meet Sharon Draper!

With the fabulous Ellen Oh!

With the fabulous Ellen Oh!

New Releases

Only one new book this week, but one that we are excited about and even Audrey loved. Check out her review: Review: This Side of Home

sideofhomeThis Side of Home by Renee Watson
Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books

A captivating and poignant coming-of-age urban YA debut about sisters, friends, and what it means to embrace change.

Identical twins Nikki and Maya have been on the same page for everything—friends, school, boys and starting off their adult lives at a historically African-American college. But as their neighborhood goes from rough-and-tumble to up-and-coming, suddenly filled with pretty coffee shops and boutiques, Nikki is thrilled while Maya feels like their home is slipping away. Suddenly, the sisters who had always shared everything must confront their dissenting feelings on the importance of their ethnic and cultural identities and, in the process, learn to separate themselves from the long shadow of their identity as twins.

In her inspired YA debut, Renee Watson explores the experience of young African-American women navigating the traditions and expectations of their culture. – Summary and image via Goodreads & NetGalley

 

Book Review: The Boy in the Black Suit

suitTitle: The Boy in the Black Suit
Author: Jason Reynolds
Genres:  Contemporary, Realistic
Pages: 255
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: In Bookstores now

Summary: Just when seventeen-year-old Matt thinks he can’t handle one more piece of terrible news, he meets a girl who’s dealt with a lot more—and who just might be able to clue him in on how to rise up when life keeps knocking him down—in this wry, gritty novel from the author of When I Was the Greatest.

Matt wears a black suit every day. No, not because his mom died—although she did, and it sucks. But he wears the suit for his gig at the local funeral home, which pays way better than the Cluck Bucket, and he needs the income since his dad can’t handle the bills (or anything, really) on his own. So while Dad’s snagging bottles of whiskey, Matt’s snagging fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad. But everything else? Not good. Then Matt meets Lovey. She’s got a crazy name, and she’s been through more crazy than he can imagine. Yet Lovey never cries. She’s tough. Really tough. Tough in the way Matt wishes he could be. Which is maybe why he’s drawn to her, and definitely why he can’t seem to shake her. Because there’s nothing more hopeful than finding a person who understands your loneliness—and who can maybe even help take it away.

Review: Ever love a book so much that you are momentarily struck dumb and all you can do is squee? Well, that’s how I feel about Jason Reynold’s “The Boy in the Black Suit”.  I have been trying to write this review for days but I couldn’t get much farther than, “I love this book so much and you should read it!” Obviously, I have to find the words to describe why I liked Reynold’s novel, but what my review will most likely come down to is, “I loved this book so much and you should read it!”

First off, Matt Miller’s voice. I absolutely loved it! Matt is a character whom everyone can relate to because he is a thoughtful young man dealing with a life changing experience and is trying to make sense of his world. The novel begins just weeks after his mother’s death and he is still reeling from the grief, as any son who has had a close relationship with his mother would. He finds high school to be trivial, which makes sense because he’s lost his mother and his father is not handling his own grief in a productive way. In fact, his dad is loosing himself in alcohol and eventually winds up in the hospital leaving Matt on his own.  Matt takes it upon himself to find a job and through a twist of fate, ends up working for Mr. Ray, the neighborhood mortician. And through this relationship the beauty of the novel comes through. Having survived cancer twice, Mr. Ray befriends Matt and basically becomes the father that Matt needs. Their relationship is touching and one of the strongest parts of the novel. The two are able to joke around with each other, but also share the secrets of their hearts. Matt is able to talk to Mr. Ray in a way that he doesn’t with his best friend or even his father. It’s clear that Matt respects Mr. Ray immensely and looks to him for advice and guidance. Their Thanksgiving, where they’re just watching football and talking about Matt’s date, is one of the best scenes in the novel.

Being that Matt works in a mortuary, one of the main themes in this novel is death and grief. In the hands of a lesser author, “Boy in the Black Suit” could have failed miserably, but Reynold’s novel is a touching, quiet story that handles the concept grief with deftness that pulls the reader into Matt’s story and his journey through the grieving process. To understand his grief, and make sense of his mother’s death, Matt tends to watch the funerals, watching the family members, finding solace in the grief that they share. Again, in the hands of a lesser author, the modes of Matt’s grieving process could come across as odd, but instead, the reader feels for Matt, even empathizes with him. It was in those moments, when Matt was looking for answers to his grief in the tears of the other mourners that I really felt/connected with him. At no point, however, did I ever feel sorry for Matt and that is what makes “Boy in the Black Suit” such a powerful novel.

Lastly, I enjoyed Reynold’s first novel, “When I was the Greatest”, but I loved this novel even more. The writing is much stronger and much more touching. It is a quiet novel with moments that pull at your heart strings and moments that make you laugh out loud. Matt’s story is one that is universal as we’ve all lost someone close to us and we must make sense of our grief and the loss of a loved one. It’s a novel of learning how to move forward after that person is gone and learning how to find one’s place in a family again.

Recommendation: Get it now!

New Releases

What a way to start off 2015! Four books to get us reading diversely right away.

emeralds and ashesEmeralds & Ashes (At Somerton #3) by Leila Rasheed

In the third and final book in our romantic historical YA series, heroes emerge and tragedies unfold as the servant and gentry at Somerton Court face World War I.

The murmurs of war have turned into a bloody conflict that will touch the lives of every member of the Somerton household.

Despite the pleas of his family, Lord Averley steps forward as soon as the call is made for men to fight the Western front. Mere weeks later, the news arrives: Lord Averley has been killed in the Battle of Marne. Without an obvious heir, Somerton falls into chaos. Half of the staff has already left for the war or industrial work.

Sebastian Templeton can no longer show his face in public. Ever since the publication of a now infamous photo of him and his former valet embracing, an unspeakable word has followed Sebastian everywhere–a word with the power to destroy a man’s reputation forever. Knowing charges and a trial will soon follow, Sebastian does the only thing he can think of to escape: he volunteers for a war he feels is senseless and despicable, leaving beyind the boy he loves, but knows can never have.

Meanwhile, after a whirlwind romance with the Duke of Huntly, Rose Averley finds herself trapped in Egypt when war breaks out during their honeymoon. Alexander vows to return Rose to home and safety, but with no end in sight, Rose knows she cannot sit idle as those around her suffer.

In the final installment of the At Somerton series, the war to end all wars will take an unbearable toll on the household and leave each member forever changed.[Image and summary via Goodreads]

 

suitThe Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Just when seventeen-year-old Matt thinks he can’t handle one more piece of terrible news, he meets a girl who’s dealt with a lot more—and who just might be able to clue him in on how to rise up when life keeps knocking him down—in this wry, gritty novel from the author of When I Was the Greatest.

Matt wears a black suit every day. No, not because his mom died—although she did, and it sucks. But he wears the suit for his gig at the local funeral home, which pays way better than the Cluck Bucket, and he needs the income since his dad can’t handle the bills (or anything, really) on his own. So while Dad’s snagging bottles of whiskey, Matt’s snagging fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad. But everything else? Not good. Then Matt meets Lovey. She’s got a crazy name, and she’s been through more crazy than he can imagine. Yet Lovey never cries. She’s tough. Really tough. Tough in the way Matt wishes he could be. Which is maybe why he’s drawn to her, and definitely why he can’t seem to shake her. Because there’s nothing more hopeful than finding a person who understands your loneliness—and who can maybe even help take it away. – Cover image and summary via Goodreads

(This one is sitting on my desk as I write this. Review coming soon!)

 

holdHold Tight, Don’t Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner
Amulet Books

Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go follows the vivid story of two teenage cousins, raised as sisters, who survive the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. After losing the woman who raised them in the tragedy, Magdalie and Nadine must fend for themselves in the aftermath of the quake. The girls are inseparable, making the best of their new circumstances in a refugee camp with an affectionate, lively camaraderie, until Nadine, whose father lives in Miami, sends for her but not Magdalie. As she leaves, Nadine makes a promise she cannot keep: to bring Magdalie to Miami, too. Resourceful Magdalie focuses her efforts on a reunion with Nadine until she realizes her life is in Haiti, and that she must embrace its possibilities for love, friendship, and a future. – Cover image and summary via Goodreads

 

xX by by Ilyasah Shabazz, Kekla Magoon
Candlewick Press

I am Malcolm.
I am my father’s son. But to be my father’s son means that they will always come for me.
They will always come for me, and I will always succumb.

Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that’s nothing but a pack of lies—after all, his father’s been murdered, his mother’s been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer.

But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory when what starts as some small-time hustling quickly spins out of control. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion—and that he can’t run forever.

X follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today. – Cover image and summary via Goodreads