Bridge to Terabitha

img_0492Date Read: May 28 to June 1, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Bridge to Terabithia is one of those classic children’s novels that I somehow never read when I was a kid. Even as an adult reading it, I was quickly drawn in to the story. Jess is a boy that feels himself on the fringes of society. He does not quite fit in with his family, and does not quite fit in with the kids at school either. What seems to start off rocky with a new girl at school develops into the most meaningful friendship of his life. Jess finds a refuge in his friendship with Leslie, and their made up world of Terabithia.

While I was able to avoid direct spoilers for this one, I had been forewarned that it was sad and dealt with loss. Even knowing that, this one hit me harder than I was expecting. This is not merely a sad story, it is the kind of sad that I want to tell everyone I know that they need to read this book—but I also do not want to pass this profound sadness on to others. I usually try to avoid major spoilers when writing, but I do not know how I can give this book justice without them. Stop here if you do not want to know. Leslie dies, unexpectedly and tragically. Jess is away, having a “perfect day,” when this happens. The later chapters, as Jess begins to process and accept what has happened, are full of so many things that are difficult but so important.

Stepping away from the book for a moment, I need to talk about Samantha. Samantha was one of my closest friends in high school. She was fun, she was sweet, and she was one of those people that you knew you could always count on to be on your side when you needed her. We created cartoon characters to draw in each other’s notebooks, and talked about all of the things that we would do after high school. I was a few years older, and we started to see less of each other after I graduated. Despite ending up at the same college a few years later, we only saw each other occasionally. Although we were no longer every day friends, each time we saw each other, it was as if no time had passed. She was still my friend that would always be there—until she wasn’t. Samantha died unexpectedly at 22.

I don’t know if it’s fair to generalize the loss of a friend as a young adult to the loss of a friend as a child—but I do know that many of the actions, thoughts, and feelings of Jess after losing Leslie reflected my own experience. Paterson perfectly captures the essence of a great loss, and Jess’s reaction to his loss is so genuine that I grieved for him as well as Leslie. Every new piece hit home for me, starting from the initial shock and unreality, the sorrow of the loss itself, and then adding on secondary pain caused by the reactions of others, or even your own thoughts.

In the end, Jess does begin to see hope in a future without Leslie—while he misses her terribly, he recognizes the impact that she made on him, and uses that to move forward. I still think about Samantha often. I cannot say what path our friendship would have taken if she were still here, but I can say with certainty that I am fortunate to have known her. There are bits of her in many of the things that I do and think every day. I remember a gift she gave me for my birthday one year—a necklace and a pair of flashy earrings that I had admired at the store, but decided not to buy. She told me she knew I thought they were impractical, but that I needed them: it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks if I like them, and there’s never a good excuse not to wear hot pink. What an attitude to have.

Boris’s thoughts: “I think I would have liked her. 4 paws.”

Not Quite Narwhal

img_0255This is a silly, but fun story about friendship and belonging. Kelp lives at the bottom of the sea, but feels that he does not quite fit in with the other narwhals. One day he finds himself further away from home than expected, and sees something unusual on the distant land—a land narwhal! Kelp ventures onto land and realizes that he, too, is a land narwhal: a unicorn. He learns a bit about what that means, but inevitably becomes homesick and returns to the sea. When he gets back to his home under the sea, he is afraid to tell his narwhal friends about what he learned. Naturally, they knew this all along, and still loved him just the same. Kelp is sad that he would have to choose between two lives: in the sea with the narwhals, or on land with the other unicorns. The solution? A narwhal-unicorn beach party, of course!

I am a bit of a sucker for books that can be silly, but still give a good message for kids. You don’t have to give up you who are to fit in, and there are ways to have the best of both worlds if you think creatively! Who better to teach a lesson of acceptance than a unicorn? The illustrations are cute, and just “sparkly” enough to grab attention but not overdo it. I like this book as a read aloud. The story is fairly short and straightforward, and there are plenty of good places to pause for questions or predictions.

Unicorns seem to be particularly trendy right now, which I suppose works in favor for this book. I do get a personal giggle when it comes to unicorns, and this book hit that a little extra for me. A friend has admitted that she was an adult before she learned that unicorns were not real—“I didn’t think they were magic or anything, I just thought they were an animal that lives in another part of the world. There are other animals that have one horn, rhinos and those whales, why couldn’t there be unicorns?” Thanks for being a Unicorn Believer!

Boris’s thoughts: “Are we invited to the beach party? Do you think they have snacks? 3 paws.”

Dragons Love Tacos

img_0228-1Did you know that dragons love tacos? This was a new edition to our school library this year, and the librarian suggested that I should bring it home for Boris to read before it went out into circulation.

This book is light on plot, but high in silliness. The first part of the book provides some various evidence about how much dragons love tacos. We get a bit of a story going in the second part of the book, when we are introduced to the one thing that dragons love more than tacos: taco parties. BUT, of course, dragons cannot have hot sauce on their tacos. It makes them too fiery. When the boy in the story plans the best taco party ever, there is a mix-up with his totally mild salsa, and chaos ensues. Don’t worry though, even though it was an accident to burn down the whole house, the dragons will help rebuild. Because dragons have building skills, and they are nice, in addition to loving tacos.

It was a pretty easy read, and pages are dominated by illustrations rather than text. It would be a non-intimidating book for early readers, although there are some more difficult words. I can see this as a good read aloud. It’s silly enough to keep most kids interested, even without a big draw to find out what happens in the end.

Boris thoughts: “I am a dragon. I never knew. 4 paws.”

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora

img_9277Date Read: February 24 to March 3, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This book was the 2019 selection for “One Book, One City” in Grand Rapids. (For more information about One Book One City, please see my post about last year’s book, One Crazy Summer, which also includes a description of the program.)

There are so many topics covered here, that it is hard to know where to begin– family, culture, food, community, first love, and how hard it can be to deal with all of those things as an adolescent. I definitely understand why this was chosen as a book for this project. Cartaya nailed it here with the voice of Arturo: he comes off as genuine and sincere in his telling of his story, but all the awkwardness of being a thirteen year old boy searching for himself shines through. I love how Arturo is willing to listen to the stories from his family to guide him, to help him decide what is the right thing to do. The use of Spanish throughout is fitting and interesting, although a little confusing at times. Most often there is enough context to get the idea, but I feel like knowing more Spanish would have added to the experience of the book as a whole.

Another theme that I did not directly mention above, but many of the students I work with recognized, was the impact gentrification. In the story, Arturo is fighting for the survival of his family’s restaurant, against a real estate developer whose interest obviously lies in his own profit rather than the betterment of the community. While it comes off as a fairly clear good vs. evil here, many of our students were able to point to parallels within our own community, and in the real world it is not quite so cut and dry. Where is the line between “gentrification” with its often negative connotation, and general improvements to a community that is in need of help? Although we have not had to deal with established and successful businesses being pushed out (as is dealt with in this book), there are definite and noticeable changes happening within the community where our school resides. Many of these are seen as positive, but there have also been some repercussions for families (such as higher rent). This is a bit of a bigger topic than I am prepared to deal with here, but it was definitely a good conversation starter for our kids, and an opportunity to evaluate and form their own opinions.

Penguin and the Cupcake

img_9324At the risk of seeming unfairly biased toward books about penguins, I present to you this lovely new discovery of mine. Penguin has grown tired of his regular penguin diet. He has heard stories of a wonderful food that he must investigate for himself– cupcakes. Penguin sets off on a search for a cupcake. There are none at the South Pole where he lives, so he heads north. Perhaps a bit too far north.

In addition to a cute story, there are quite a few “extras” woven into the book that I very much enjoyed. Most of these start as informational asides, but also include a little laugh for adults reading along. For example, Penguin meets a walrus who is on a strict kelp diet. However, it’s noted that walruses do not generally eat kelp. This walrus has some body image issues, and is trying to meet an unrealistic physical ideal.

I see this particular book as a fun read aloud, or perhaps a good book for adults to read with children. It seems it might be more enjoyable as a joint reading, as opposed to something kids may read on their own. The side notes that I enjoyed do include some more difficult words that kids would likely struggle with independently, and there may be some explanations needed.

Boris’s thoughts: “I hope that penguin is willing to share the cupcakes. What do you mean there aren’t any real cupcakes? 1 paw!”

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

img_9312You may have heard of it before, but in case you missed it… March is Reading Month! While I personally celebrate reading year round, I think it’s appropriate that we give some special recognition to one of the most famous authors of all time during his birthday month. To kick of the month, I decided to share one of my favorites from Dr. Seuss: One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

Dr. Seuss is known for clever rhymes for beginning readers, and adding in a bit of weird silliness. I love weird silliness. While many of his books are built around simplicity (did you know the Cat in the Hat uses only 220 different words?), this is not one of those books. It holds true to the verse and rhyme characteristic of Seuss, and is extra heavy on the silliness, including a huge variety of nonsense words. There is a loose plot through the book (description of all the things that the narrator is seeing), but the focus is more on the rhyme and some fun play in the verses. There are opposites with illustrations, rhymes, tongue twisters, and some other structurally interesting verses tied in. One of my favorites is a page spread that has a poem on opposing pages, told in reverse order with accompanying upside down illustrations.

I see this is the perfect book to read aloud with early readers, and to encourage them to take a turn in the reading. The rhymes are silly and fun, and most of the book is decodable (i.e., you can sound it out). The rhyming makes it somewhat predictable, but there is still a variety in the structure of the verses that keeps it interesting. I especially like the nonsense words– one of the strategies we often teach kids is to look at the sounds, and think about the words that they know. While this can be a good strategy, it doesn’t always work. It relies on a strong vocabulary. I love the opportunity for kids to practice a skill, but to learn that sometimes things that sound silly or wrong, might actually be right. Oh, and what a perfect ending for a bedtime story– on the very last page of the story, it is time to go to sleep!

Boris’s thoughts: “I think you’re over-analyzing this, but I can get behind these rhymes. 4 paws.”

I am Pusheen the Cat

img_8907I spotted this book at my school’s book fair this fall, and simply could not pass it up. Prior to finding this book, I had seen a plethora of Pusheen merchandise, but had never seen any of the comics. This is a collection of many of the online comics, with a few bonus comics thrown in. Pusheen is a friendly cat, who loves food and various other cat things. Through the comics she shares some funny and valuable knowledge from the life of a cat: how to make cookies, where cats belong, and some other creative imaginings from the mind of a cat.

I have to admit, that there is a bit of a draw for the online comics. Although the animation is simple, it does add a bit of pizzazz that is lacking in the book. However, I still thought this was a fun book, and do not regret adding it to my shelves. I expect that it will be a great one to look at with my niece when she is a bit older. I imagine that we will have a bit of fun comparing Pusheen to Boris, my own fat gray cat who loves food. The book is primarily based in pictures, with fairly simple text throughout. It could make a good book for young readers who want to read longer chapter books, but may not be quite ready for them yet.

Boris’s thoughts: “Hhhhrrmmmph. I am NOT fat. I am just BIG. She is pretty cute though. But not as cute as ME. 2 paws.”