Book Review: Brown Girl Dreaming

title: Brown 9780399252518Girl Dreaming

author: Jacqueline Woodson

Date: Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin; August 2014

Main Character: Jacqueline Woodson

MIddle Grade Fiction

There are rules to children’s books you know, and Jacqueline Woodson just broke one.

Brown Girl Dreaming is the author’s poetic telling of her childhood and retrospective visits to childhood are supposed to be adult books. Somewhere along when Jackie learned to embrace words and the power they contain, she became entitled to a Poetic License that let this book be produced as a children’s book. Thank goodness!

For me, a Black woman of the same generation who grew up in Ohio with a mother from Mississippi, I quite often found myself pausing and connecting to the story while I daydreamed about my own life. But, this book wasn’t written for me. Will teens relate? Will they find themselves in the spaces Woodson creates when she talks about teeth, not being as smart as, about grandpa’s love and forever friends? I think that they will not only find themselves in these nuances, but they’ll also see how they fit into the larger stories of their family, community and history itself.

In creating a fictional autobiography, Woodson leaves huge spaces that all readers can dive into and find their own meaning. Woodson looks back as adult, but tells the story through the eyes of a child. Her family is her haven whether they’re in New York or South Carolina and even when it looks like things might be going wrong, Jacqueline’s family is perfect in the young girl’s eyes. This girl has a dream to fulfill and we’re going to find out where she gets her strength!

Young Jacqueline is disenchanted with the inaccuracies of memory and the confusion between storytelling and lying.

Keep making up stories, my uncle says.

You’re lying my mother says.


Maybe the truth is somewhere between

all that I’m told

and memory.

So, Jacqueline decides to give us her own truths in this story of self empowerment.

I’m so glad Woodson broke the rule!

I reviewed an ARC and am looking forward to adding a final copy to my collection as it will also contain photos.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Jacqueline Woodson grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from college with a B.A. in English. She now writes full-time and has recently received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. Her other awards include a Newbery Honor, two Coretta Scott King awards, two National Book Award finalists, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. source

review: Money Boy

+-+362563652_140title: Money Boy

author: Paul Yee

date: Groundwood Books; 2011

main character: Wei/Ray/Steel

While coming out stories are quite common place in queer teen literature, few if any are about a Chinese immigrant to Canada.

Wei’s father does a random check into to the history files of the family’s computer and discovers that his son has been cruising gay sites. The father kicks his son out of their home. Now homeless, Wei must decide if he is indeed gay, whether he should come out and how he’s going to make a living. Going home is not an option to him because in doing so, his father would win.

Wei is called ‘Ray’ by his American friends. He’s a recent immigrant who barely speaks English and he finds himself exploring China’s societal rules as he tries to decide how he will live his life. He’s well aware of China’s homophobia, but not sure if perhaps he could fit into Canadian society. He’s aware of the street lined with ‘money boys’, those boys who sell themselves for sex, and he doesn’t think he belongs there.

Wei’s never been a good student, yet he has street smarts. He comes from a place of privilege having grown up with the latest technology and all the brand name clothes that he prefers. On the streets he realizes how fast and how far he has fallen and at that same time, he must still behave in a manner that will not bring disgrace upon his family. He cannot give Westerners any reason to laugh at immigrants.

Paul Yee is a writer and historian living in Toronto, Canada. His recent books  is The Secret Keepers.

Yee enunciates characters and situations through his use of setting and situations, often involving food and video games. While playing his favorite video game, Rebel Command, the narrator tells Wei;s alter ego Steel,

“No, Steel, you’re the coward. You fear failure. You would rather die quickly than work slowly to reduce the enemy’s power. Besides, what do you know about ordinary people? You were born into wealth.”

Some lines are so telling that they are just heart breaking. Others come after so much has been taken from Wei and begin to shed a glimmer of hope.

“I dig through all my pockets, fishing out every piece of loose change. My fingertips are stiff but they manage to count the coins. Behind me, office workers clear their throats and rustle their newspapers. At the last moment, I find just enough money.”

As more and more is taken from Wei, he finds himself on Bay Street at a Japanese restaurant. He walks us through the quality of the food, the origin of the music, the appearance of the men at the restaurant and the timbre of their voice. These men, these gay men, are Chinese. Here, Wei begins to find some of his answer. The other answers are with his family.

Review: Words with Wings

+-+725001053_70Title: Words With Wings

Author: Nikki Grimes

Date: Wordsong; 2013

Main Character: Gabriella/Gabby

I am always amazed at how books I read one after the other share similar themes, plots or characters.

On the first leg of my trip to Amarillo, TX last week, I decided it was time to dive into Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. Bachelard (1884-1962) was a European philosopher whose research was devoted to the domain of intimacy. I’ve only completed the first chapter of the book so far, but in this chapter he describes our relationship to houses both in dreams and daydreams and how the presence of a house in daydreams, literature or poetry through our intimate connection with them, provides a sense of protection. While dreams have been studied, daydreams are more difficult to capture and analyze but Gaston says still of significance.

“Poetry comes naturally from a daydream”.

He describes daydreams as creative and full of life. One who is bored to tears has no daydreams! “And the poetic daydream, which creates symbols, confers upon our intimate moments an activity that is polysymbolic”.

And, on the next flight, I happened to pick up Words With Wings by Nikki Grimes.

Words With Wings is the story of Gabriella (Gabby) who is adjusting not so much to her parent’s separation and to a new school as to her ability to constantly daydream. Gabby admits her mother cursed her from the beginning in naming her after a winged creature, the Angel Gabriel. How then could words not manage to have wings for her?

The first daydream Gabby shares takes he from her breaking dishes to hide from the noise of her parent’s arguing to the safe corner of her grandmother’s house. She goes back to the house of her childhood before feeling enough security to take us through more of her daydreams, all of which are ignited by a single word. Like most children, Gabriella doesn’t quite realize the power in her gifts but readers recognize the beauty of her daydreams and the comfort then provide her.

Nikki Grimes is a writer whose words have wings. She’s one of the few who write in open verse that actually manages to say more with fewer words.

Mine: Pretend.

Mom’s: Practical.

All we have in common

is the letter P.

In her new school, Gabby has this new teacher, Mr. Spicer (based on the real life Ed Spicer) who understands children and nurtures creativity. He’s that elementary teacher we’d want all our children to have.

I enjoyed how Grimes honored daydreaming, something that most people other than Bacheland, take very much for granted. I’d love to have a poster of the cover of this book to remind me to take my 15 minutes a day to sort through my daydreams.

Nikki Grimes also wrote Bronx Masquerade, Jazmin’s Notebook, The Road to Paris and other over 40 other books. She’s won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Works and the Coretta Scott King Award. Words With Wings is a 2014 ALA/ALSC Notable Children’s Book; Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book and a Junior Library Guild selection. The book made the Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2013 list; Pennsylvania Keystone to Reading Elementary Book Award Finalist list and the Nerdy Book Club finalist list.


themes: writing; daydreams; school; friendship


Bachelard, Gaston, and M Jolas. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994. Print.

book review: Black Mamba Boy

title: Black Mamba Boy (long listed for the Orange Prize for fiction 2010)

author: Nadifa Mohamed

publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux; August, 2010

Main character: Jama

To me, the Middle East is a true crossroad of the world and this really comes to light in Black Mamba Boy. In the book, it seems Jama’s quest takes him throughout the entire region where he is exposed to so many languages, foods, colors and vistas that they can’t help but enrich and educate him. His survival depends upon him learning to know when to trust people and situations because he thinks he has no one but himself to rely upon.

It’s hard to remember how young Jama actually is when he loses his parents because he spends so much of his life hustling to stay alive. Jama shifts from place to place, first to find his father, then I think because he’s just unable to stay in one place because he never has. He wonders throughout lands in Africa and in the Middle East learning what it’s like to be a foreigner in his own land because he has no family and because the British and the Italians are claiming and redefining the territory.  His wondering is not aimless, he does have purpose in his adventure.

There is a mystical nature to the book reference in the title. Also, Jama’s parents appear to him in visions to provide guidance and comfort. In fact, there’s a lot to this book. It is steeped with the history of the beginnings of WWII, colored with the geography and spiced with food and language.  There are a few clunky passages but it is a well told story. This is one of the few books recently that I didn’t try to skim through passages and finish quickly. I actually let myself savor each word so that I could create a movie in my head while reading.

Jama looked up. Some of the houses had wooden shutters and intricately carved balconies, and one had a mammoth, onion-shaped dome sitting squat on its roof. Ancient mosques, their walls uneven with repeated whitewashing, stood separate from the homes, like dignified grandparents sitting on the street watching the world go by. The silver cross of the Orthodox Church shone a supernatural white on the skyline, behind the star and crescent of a mosque. Jama let out a happy sigh at the covered market bedecked with bright awnings over the stalls, goods neatly laid out on tables like booty recovered from Aladdin’s cave. Despite its antiquity, Massawa was tidy and well kept, with pockets of incredible wealth hidden like teeth in an infant’s gums.  Servants piled in and out of the grand homes of Armenian, Arab, Jewish and European merchants. Everywhere there was the sound of quiet and profitable industry. And yet, nearby lay shantytowns where sparsely filled cooking pans burned easily and Italians in shiny boots idled about in cheap bars, nursing glasses of beer.

I could have used a map and a glossary to help with comprehension, but terms that I needed to know could be figured out in context. Situations feel real because they are based upon the life of the author’s father. This may be more of an adult book that YA but an interested teen could enjoy this book. It would be good to suggest to someone who has read and enjoyed The Kite Runner, Three Cups of Tea or Purple Hibiscus.

author interview

I received a review copy from the publisher.

book review: Does my head look big in this?

book review: Does my head look big in this?
author: Randa Abdel-Fattah
publisher: Scholastic, 2008
Main character: Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim

Amal is a high school student in Australia. Things are going fairly well for her as she is doing good in school, has close friends, has a crush on a boy who is friendly towards her and her parents are no worse than anyone else’s. Over a particular break, Amal is deciding to begin to wear a hijab. This physical statement of her faith is not one she can take easily, not in post 9/11 Australia. She can already hear the taunts from her classmates, and she’s ready for those. I think it’s the unknown people and situations that concern her the most: applying for college or for jobs, riding the bus or shopping at the mall. Once Amal makes this decision, she wants to stick with it.

Abdel-Fattah takes us into Amal’s world, a so typically teen world that is filled with Arabic expressions, middle eastern foods and Islamic practices. The practices are simply a part of Amal’s life, they are not presented in a way that attempts to indoctrinate readers but the author does have a gift for explaining things like basic vocabulary words with the story losing its cadence. There are times, however when deeper explanations do result in the author’s voice being apparent in the story.
The attractive cover will easily pull teen readers into the story and give them a generally light read. This book is a good way to introduce teen girls to another culture. I think they’ll finish it realizing we’re all the same, but different.
Randa Abdel-Fattah is a practicing attorney in Sidney,Australia. In addition to Does my head look big in this?, she’s also written Ten things I hate about me and the forthcoming When the streets had names which is already winning major awards.
The copy I reviewed is from my school media center.

book review: Stringz

Title: Stringz
author: Michael Wenberg
publisher: Westside Books
main character: Jace Adams

Jace changes schools every few months because his mother is unable to keep a job or a man. She loses them, and moves on, her child in tow. With so many new schools in his life, why does Wenberg choose to tell us about Jace’s stint in Seattle when in fact, Jace plans to return to California where he can hit the surf as soon as he can? Wenberg tells us about Seattle because this is the place that will matter to Jace. It’s where he actually makes friends, falls in love and finds his true gifts. It’s where he settles down. It’s also where his mother up and leaves him.
Jace Adams is bi-racial, his mom is Black and his dad is white. When moving to Seattle, Jace and his mom move in with her sister, Bernice.His dad disappeared a long time ago. Jace’s racial identity does matter as Wenberg shows the obstacles young Black men can and do face in society. But, he doesn’t linger on them. Instead, he advances his story by showing how much Jace achieved by developing his talents and networking with people who could help him, not because of pity or affirmative action but simple because Jace was an outstanding musician. Wenberg’s message is clear: be good at what you do, connect with good people and you’ll get somewhere in life.
I didn’t think I was going to like Jace because I couldn’t feel sorry for him. Things kept piling up against him and somehow, Wenberg took away my need to pity Jace. I realized I’ve been reading too many books about male characters written by females.
My favorite character in the book had to be Bernice, Jace’s aunt. Appearing tough as nails for the sake of self-preservation, she was a true and honest character. Least favorite? Elvis. Perhaps if he had been better developed some of the things he said wouldn’t have been so awkward. I had a difficult time accepting that Jace’s mom would have left her son because they seemed so close, but I suppose moving in with her no-nonsense sister gave her the opportunity to follow her heart. There’s a lot to this story and it’s well told. I finished it wishing I had cello music on hand to play the  end notes.

review: Out of My Mind

Title: Out of My Mind

author:  Sharon Draper
date: Atheneum; March 2010
main character: Melody Brooks
Melody is an 11 year old 5th grader who spends much of her day in a pink wheelchair but, as Melody says, the pink doesn’t make it cute, it’s still a wheelchair. Melody’s got a mom and a dad, both of whom work outside the home so they often leave Melody with an neighbor, Ms. V.,  that earth-mother kind of neighbor that every child should have. She is accepting, empowering and no nonsense. Melody tell us about her classmates, her teachers and her daily routine which includes the tedious task of someone having to feed her because Melody can’t feed herself. There are in fact many things Melody can’t do but as we are pulled into her head (because Melody can’t talk either) we learn of the many, many things she can do.

In giving Melody a voice, Draper lets Melody be an 11 year old girl who, like any 11 year old girl, is learning how to maneuver in the world around her. It’s much more difficult for Melody because of the many physical challenges she faces and because of the stereotypes and biases which block her. But Melody has her family and Ms. V who love her and try to allow her to develop to her full potential. Needless to say, Draper took great liberty in her representation of what Melody thinks and knows. She did not, however take so much liberty showing how technology can unlock someones potential. Nor did she take liberty in showing how callous we can be toward those who are differently abled.  Some of Melody’s classmates are able to accept her, while others are not. Isn’t that how life is? While Draper depicts real situations, she sticks to the middle grade genre by giving situations that you don’t want to spend too much time thinking through. Out of my mind is a smooth, easy read that would make a wonderful all class or all grade read.

I was more than a little surprised to find so few reviews of this book online. Given how well established Draper is, given that we’re currently in a market that is looking for books about children who are differently abled, I would expect to see more written on this book. In one recent interview Draper mentions that Out is probably the most difficult book she wrote. I wish the interviewer had followed up on that! In another interview, Draper mentions here own daughter who is differently abled. I cannot help but wonder what would be the most challenging part of writing this book? The easiest part? I guess when an author leaves us wanting more, they’ve done a pretty good job.

You’ll start reading this book and you’ll wonder how in the world she’s going to get 200 pages out of this girls head and by the time you finish, you’ll want more.

Author Interview and first chapter

Study guide

additional reviews: