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Book Review: Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh

Every Body Looking

Publisher’s description

“Candice Iloh’s beautifully crafted narrative about family, belonging, sexuality, and telling our deepest truths in order to be whole is at once immensely readable and ultimately healing.”—Jacqueline Woodson, New York TimesBestselling Author of Brown Girl Dreaming

“An essential—and emotionally gripping and masterfully written and compulsively readable—addition to the coming-of-age canon.”—Nic Stone, New York Times Bestselling Author of Dear Martin

“This is a story about the sometimes toxic and heavy expectations set onthe backs of first-generation children, the pressures woven into the familydynamic, culturally and socially. About childhood secrets with sharp teeth. And ultimately, about a liberation that taunts every young person.” —Jason Reynolds, New York Times Bestselling Author of Long Way Down

Candice Iloh weaves the key moments of Ada’s young life—her mother’s descent into addiction, her father’s attempts to create a home for his American daughter more like the one he knew in Nigeria, her first year at a historically black college—into a luminous and inspiring verse novel.

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s a thing that I say probably way too many times on this blog: I’m a character-driven reader who doesn’t need much more plot beyond “a person tries to figure out how to be a person in the world.” To me, there is no bigger, deeper, more compelling plot than that. And this book is such a wonderful exploration of how to be yourself. I read it in one sitting, which is a statement that probably makes authors die a little, given how long it takes to write a book.

While the current timeline of the story is during Ada’s first few weeks at a HBCU, we also see important moments from her life as a young child and again in middle school. Ada has always felt different and alone. Readers learn about her estrangement from her addict mother, her strict and religious Nigerian father, and the pressures Ada has always felt. College will finally allow her some freedom to find out who she really is, away from her family, but of course the idea of “finding yourself” sounds easier than it actually is.

Iloh writes, “when you start growing/further away from/what used to be home/you go looking for somewhere/that lets you be/what’s inside your head.”

I’m not sure I’ve read any better lines in any book this year. There is nothing Ada wants more than to be the person inside her head. She’s always been drawn to dance, but her practical father never saw the point in pursuing it. A chance encounter with Kendra, another dancer, provides connection and the encouragement to follow her desire.

It is both painful and joyful to watch Ada change, grow, learn, and become. At college, she has the freedom to explore her own mind, to find something that is hers, and to be seen. Ada discovers the power of seeing herself reflected, she learns what she wants and will tolerate in relationships, and she seeks to make her own path, uncertain how to do that and making mistakes along the way.

A hopeful, beautifully written, deeply affecting story of what we endure and overcome in the journey to become ourselves.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525556206
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/22/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Punching the Air

Publisher’s description

From award-winning, bestselling author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five comes a powerful YA novel in verse about a boy who is wrongfully incarcerated. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Walter Dean Myers, and Elizabeth Acevedo. 

The story that I thought

was my life

didn’t start on the day

I was born 

Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white. 

The story that I think

will be my life 

starts today

Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal’s bright future is upended: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. This never should have been his story. But can he change it? 

With spellbinding lyricism, award-winning author Ibi Zoboi and prison reform activist Yusef Salaam tell a moving and deeply profound story about how one boy is able to maintain his humanity and fight for the truth, in a system designed to strip him of both.

Amanda’s thoughts

This incredible novel in verse is definitely one of my top reads of 2020. The reality is that books about racism, the criminal justice system, and the prison industrial complex will always be both timely and timeless. But, I do think that at this particular time in history, maybe more people than ever will be drawn to this story and open to really sitting with what they learn from what happens to Amal and how it affects him.

As Amal goes through a trial and then is sent to a juvenile detention center, readers see the many ways racism and racist systems and institutions have tried to break Amal his entire life. Amal is fully aware of the fact that he has rarely even been seen as just a kid, that his every move can be misconstrued as threatening, angry, guilty. He’s not seen as a boy but a man, a criminal, a stereotype. Hardly anyone sees the real him—not the teachers at his arts high school, not the judge, not the corrections officers. Charged with aggravated assault and battery (Amal admits to being in the fight, to throwing the first punch, but not the last, the one that landed a white boy in a coma), Amal has too much time to ruminate over the many ways life has already been a prison for him. As he moves through the system and eventually falls into the routine of his life in prison, he constantly thinks of slave ships, of shackles, of auction blocks, of no freedom. Amal shows readers how he’s been boxed in his whole life.

Perhaps no page is more moving, more devastating, than the one where, on the day of his conviction, Amal memorizes his inmate number, his crime, and his time, and forgets his school ID number, his top colleges, and his class schedule. Stripped of his humanity, Amal becomes just another number in the school-to-prison pipeline. We see people fail Amal again and again, but also, surprisingly, we see people really see him for who he is and push him to retain his identity (an artist, a poet) while in prison. These people include other inmates who appreciate his talents, a corrections officer who understands his need to create art, and a teacher who visits and tells Amal she’s a prison abolitionist.

A deeply moving, profound, and infuriating look at how we fail Black boys, at the miscarriage of justice, at racist systems, and so much more. An essential purchase.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062996480
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/01/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Novels in Verse for National Poetry Month, Week 4 By Lisa Krok

This year’s National Poetry Month has certainly been different than usual, but poetry is still here for you, even while quarantined! Writing poetry can also be very cathartic. I have been posting a verse novel on Twitter @readonthebeach each day, along with a corresponding poetry activity. Click here for my previous post about using my book, Novels in Verse for Teens to reach marginalized and reluctant/striving readers, and here for the round-up from week one ,  week two, and week three. On to the final post for National Poetry Month, week four.

Day 22: House Arrest by K.A. Holt

Summary:

Tim never thought he would be on house arrest for the next year. He thought probation was something that happened to other kids, not to him. As he checks in weekly with both a therapist and a probation officer, he keeps a journal. After his father leaves, Tim takes it upon himself to assist his mom financially and help with his sickly baby brother, while chronicling his thoughts in the journal.

Poetry journal activity:

Writing in a journal can be a way of releasing stress on the page. Tim attends therapy as part of his probation, and keeps track in a journal. “A journal is a place to express yourself, to record your thoughts, feelings and observations, and to cultivate your poetic style. The cool thing about your journal is that it’s yours. You can keep it secret or share it with your friends and family. You might even read some of your poetry out loud at a talent show or poetry jam. Whatever you decide to do with it, a daily poetry journal will keep you writing. And the more you write, the better writer you become!”, (Nesbitt, 2019). See Kenn Nesbitt’s suggestions for writing in poetry journals : https://www.poetry4kids.com/lessons/how-to-start-a-poetry-journal/

Day 23: Up From the Sea by Leza Lowitz

Summary:

On a disastrous day in March 2011, Kai loses almost everyone and everything he cares about when a tsunami devastates his Japanese village. Ten years later, he is offered a trip to New York City to meet kids who lives were affected by 9/11, and he realizes he has the chance to find his estranged American father while there. On the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, Kai visits Ground Zero and decides the way to make something good come out of something bad is to return home and help rebuild his own town.

Although a work of fiction, the author was in Tokyo, Japan when the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami hit on March 11, 2011. Fortunately, from her relatively close but “safe” home, her family was all okay. Her idea of a boy who loves soccer was inspired by a boy she met in the disaster zone.

Haiku activity:

Japanese Haiku pairs well with this book.

https://powerpoetry.org/actions/how-write-haiku-poem

Day 24: For Every One by Jason Reynolds

Summary:

Jason Reynolds is a self-professed dreamer. He has been working to make his own dreams come true, but they take time…not just for Jason, but For Every One. Kids who may be scared to dream, or don’t even try because they have never seen one of their dreams come true: Jason wants you to know that just having the dream is the spark you need, and to take a leap of faith from there.

Dream poetry activity:

Poet Langston Hughes was also a dreamer. First, share his poem Dreams, (1926). https://poets.org/poem/dreams

Encourage teens to explain what they think the poem means. Next, share Hughes’ poem Harlem, (1951).

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem

Foster discussions debating the differences between these two poems, and the messages and moods they convey.

Reynolds narrates the audio version of this book himself. Play that for the group to listen to while they are writing their own dream poems. Since dreams are personal and very open ended, teens select their form of choice for this activity. This can also evolve into spoken word poetry for those who are inclined.

Day 25: American Ace by Marilyn Nelson

Summary:

After Connor’s grandmother dies, a letter is found with a confession that shakes up their close Italian American family. Connor’s grandpa, the man who raised his father, is not his birth father. When the only clues to the identity of this man are a pair of pilot’s wings and a class ring, Connor decides to investigate himself. What he discovers will change the understanding of identity and race within their entire family:

his biological grandpa was actually a Tuskegee Airman.

Identity poetry activity:

Nelson’s poem Beyond Skinon page 117 in American Ace takes on identity and what it means to each of us. What does it mean to be a descendant of a Tuskegee Airman? What is Nelson trying to say in “Beyond Skin”? Identity can encompass a variety of designations for a single person. I may see myself as librarian, author, daughter, sister, friend, White, short, blonde, smart, Irish, and Hungarian. Someone else may see my identity a different way, depending on whose point of view it is, or in what context they know me (or don’t know me). Encourage teens to think about what they know about their own identities. Do pieces from your past affect who you are today?  Teens write poems in free verse about their own identities. This could be the identity they feel themselves, or how they think others perceive them.

Day 26: What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee

Summary:

After his father commits suicide, Will begins walking…and walking…and walking. But walking doesn’t take away his urge to recreate his dad’s famous cornbread recipe, which he just can’t seem to get right. When he learns his friend Playa has been raped at a party, he decides to do some good in the world to avoid his own sadness. He begins leaving small gifts for people in his life, from the homeless guy “Superman”, to neighborhood kid “Little Butterfly Dude”, to his dear friend, Playa. By helping others, he begins to move past his own trauma. This novel in verse is told in 100 poems of 100 words each.

Penny poetry activity:

Alison McGhee’s poems are brief but mighty in this book. Adding one deliberate word at a time, she doles them out like pennies until she gets to 100 on each page. The number 100 has significance in multiple ways in this story: there are exactly 100 poems of exactly 100 words each, one dollar (100 pennies) is the cost of each item that Will buys to give others. This activity is open ended in that it is free verse, but specific in that penny poems must be 100 words each. Advise students to choose wisely, and to use a thesaurus to substitute words or phrases as needed so they reach exactly 100. Ninety-nine won’t do it. No change given, so don’t go over one dollar! 

Day 27: Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes

Summary:

Wesley Boone sparks an interest in reading poetry aloud when he goes first at school. The weekly poetry sessions soon evolve as an outlet of sorts for the group, as they reveal their inner thoughts about each other and themselves. In doing so, they uncover what lives behind the eyes, beneath the skin, and beyond the masquerade.

Cypher poetry activity:

Mr. Ward’s school assignment evolves into poetry via open mic, and Wesley’s classmates bring their own topics and concerns  to the mic. The emotions presented in open mic poetry sometimes progress into poetry slams.

A cypher is a group of poets who take turns picking up and adding on to the poetry from the person before them. Or, in a poetry slam, a circle of poets who take turns reciting poems, which can expand into a hip-hop freestyle battle. Cypher poetry is very open ended and can be written or spoken. The key is to keep going and not break the circle. Pass the paper or pass the mic. Try it on paper first to become comfortable and create a rhythm of sorts, then advance into an open mic version.

See this example of a cypher: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFyBURoUSE4

Day 28: They Call Me Guero by David Bowles

Summary:

Guero is a pale skinned boy living on the border with his loving Mexican American family. He is wise beyond his years, wondering things like if he is Catholic and his friends are Mormon and Christian, how can everyone be right? After the death of his dog, his sister’s Quinceanera provides the family with a bright ray of sunshine. Guero’s teacher buoys his writing, telling him, “Poetry is the clearest lens for viewing the world.”. Together with his Bookworm Squad friends, Los Bobbys, he manages a bottle rocket fiasco and attempts to get the girl he is crushing on hard.  When he encounters the school bully, help comes from an unexpected place.

Couplet poetry activity:

Guero uses couplets to describe his days in the poem “Sundays” on page thirty-eight.

A couplet is two lines of verse together that are linked by both rhythm and rhyme.

The quick pacing and concise language of couplets are used by poets to make their poems grab the reader’s attention. A couplet is considered closed when the two lines form a bound unit of grammar, like a sentence. Have teens choose a day of the week to write about. First, they brainstorm a list of rhyming pairs that come to mind about their day of choice. Next, they sequence the pairs and write couplets. Some may be closed, while others may continue to the next stanza of lines. Remind students to use a thesaurus for help finding synonyms and antonyms to fit their rhymes.

Day 29: Saving Red by Sonya Sones

Summary:

As part of her community service requirement for school, Molly Rosenberg volunteers to participate in the annual homeless count in Santa Monica. When she meets Red, Molly is determined to reunite the spirited homeless girl with her family in time for Christmas. This is easier said than done, as Red is tight lipped about her past, while Molly has her own things from the past she won’t discuss. When she realizes Red is exhibiting signs of being mentally ill, she desperately tries to keep her safe until she can figure out how to get Red back to her family.

Homelessness poetry activity:

Homelessness in the U.S. is on the rise and this complex issue impacts people from of all ages and backgrounds. Read below to learn more about homelessness and how you can respond to it with your words—and your actions.

https://powerpoetry.org/actions/write-poem-help-homeless

Remember that teens have the right to privacy and may not want to share their poems, but use it for their own self-awareness and catharsis. This activity is meant to look within or to dig deep to think about ways to advocate for others, not out anyone or make them uncomfortable in any way. Since homelessness and mental health can be very personal subjects, free verse is a recommended option for this activity.

Day 30: Finding Baba Yaga by Jane Yolen

Summary:

You may THINK you know the story of Baba Yaga…but you do not. When Natasha gathers her strength to leave her harsh, controlling father, she comes upon the magical house in the woods…the legendary one that walks on chicken feet with a fairy tale witch inside. The theme of a young woman discovering the power to take control of her fate and speak up is both timely and timeless.

Imagery poetry activity:

Imagery is the process of using vivid, descriptive words to give the reader a detailed picture of what is going on in your writing so that they can easily picture, or visualize, it in their own mind. Page 417 introduces what happens after a knock, knock at the door:

“I see the bony hand first,

knuckles broken on the wall of time.

Dirt under long fingernails,

It signals me in.”

Use the first line as a writing prompt to create creepy poems using imagery and personification.

-Lisa Krok

Find these activities and much more in Novels in Verse for Teens, available now.

Buy from Barnes & Noble

Buy from Amazon

Add it on Goodreads

Request it at your Indies.

Lisa Krok, MLIS, MEd, is the adult and teen services manager at Morley Library and a former teacher in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. She is the author of Novels in Verse for Teens: A Guidebook with Activities for Teachers and Librarians, available now from ABC-CLIO. Lisa’s passion is reaching marginalized teens and reluctant readers through young adult literature. She was appointed to the 2019-2020 YALSA Presidential Advisory Task Force, served two years on the Quick Picks for Reluctant Reader’s team, and is serving on the Best Fiction for Young Adults (BFYA 2021) committee. Lisa can be found being bookish and political on Twitter @readonthebeach.

Book Review: 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario

Publisher’s description

500 words or lessA high school senior attempts to salvage her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates by writing their college admissions essays and in the process learns big truths about herself in this mesmerizing debut novel-in-verse, perfect for fans of Gayle Forman and Sonya Sones.

Nic Chen refuses to spend her senior year branded as the girl who cheated on her charismatic and lovable boyfriend. To redefine her reputation among her Ivy League–obsessed classmates, Nic begins writing their college admissions essays.

But the more essays Nic writes for other people, the less sure she becomes of herself, the kind of person she is, and whether her moral compass even points north anymore.

Provocative, brilliant, and achingly honest, 500 Words or Less explores the heartbreak and hope that marks the search for your truest self.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

There is something so satisfying about a novel in verse that is done well. To be honest, they don’t often work for me. I find that my eyes want to skim the lines and I finish in record time, which I like, but feel like I don’t retain a whole lot of what I read. Or, I feel like the story isn’t served well by the structure—like I want more, but can’t get it in this format. Thankfully, neither was necessarily (more on that later) true with this title.

 

The summary up there does a fairly tidy job of giving you the plot. The plot is a lot more of an internal journey than anything, which is fine by me (for the millionth time I’ll say it—go ahead and close people into a room to talk or put me inside someone’s head while they just think and I’m perfectly happy to keep reading). Biracial Nic Chen is at the top of her class. She’s smart, involved, and has applied early decision to Princeton, but she feels like she’s still not perfect enough for her dad and stepmom. She’s also constantly whispered about at school, her locker defaced with the word “whore” on it, feeling totally lost without her lifelong friendships with Jordan and Ben—friendships that fell apart when Jordan and Nic, who was dating Ben, slept together. But Jordan doesn’t seem to be suffering the same fallout as Nic—he’s still adored, no one is writing slurs on his locker, and he is still best friends with Ben, who no longer has anything to do with Nic. It’s all fairly lonely for Nic, who doesn’t appear to have many friends. It’s only because she starts writing college application essays for her classmates that she starts to interact more and realize some things not just about her peers but about herself. By writing about their lives, trying to see the world through their eyes and experiences, she also reveals parts of herself. She begins to realize that there are so many versions of herself that she shows and hides. Though she always felt held at an emotional distance by Ben, even when they were dating, she starts to see that she, too, held not just Ben but everyone at a distance. There are some pretty compelling reasons for this, including her mom’s disappearance from her life, but prior to this, Nic hasn’t thought too hard about them. Though Nic started writing the essays as a way to keep her from ruminating on her own life too much, she finds that this is a time in her life to be particularly reflective, especially once Ben reappears and things grow even more complicated with her feelings for him and for Jordan. 

 

The one part that I felt didn’t work for me was a thing that happens about 4/5 of the way through the book, a tragedy that I will avoid talking about here because of spoilers. I will say that it felt like a bit of a tidy/easy way to help both Nic and Jordan come to some realizations about their lives and their futures. It didn’t make me dislike the book, but it felt contrived and kind of like a cop-out. I also wish that we actually got to know the larger cast of characters better—the peers whose letters Nic writes, her friends Kitty and Ashok, and maybe even Nic herself, who holds the reader at a bit of the same emotional distance she grapples with in her life. The interesting plot of writing letters for others, of seeing through their eyes, thus highlighting and revealing Nic’s own loneliness, is an appealing one. A strong if imperfect look at guilt, regret, and forgiveness. 

 

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781534410442
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 09/25/2018

Book Review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Publisher’s description

blood water paintHer mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.

I will show you
what a woman can do.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

17-year-old Artemisia understands the way the world works: women are a beauty for consumption by men. There are many expectations for women and few freedoms. She understands that girls are prey, that they are seen as things and possessions. Artemisia, ostensibly an apprentice to her painter father, though clearly far more skilled than he, begins to paint biblical women she knows intimately from her mother’s stories, knowing a man could never capture the truth of the story the way a woman could. Her mother’s stories made clear the heavy burden of the inescapable male gaze, but they also made clear Artemisia’s (and all women’s) right to be outraged, to act, to push back, to speak up. These woman from her mother’s stories, Judith and Susanna, come to be her strength and solace when Artemisia is raped by Agostina Tassi, her painting tutor. Artemisia tells her father of the rape and they take Tino to trial. But, of course, it is not Tino on trial, but Artemisia’s virtue. 

Both the stories from Artemisia’s mother and Artemisia’s own story ask the readers to bear witness, to see the truth, to hear the voices, to understand the strength in the stories. The stories are the weapons, the armor, the refuge, and the map. This intensely passionate and powerful exploration of women’s lives, stories, truths, and power is a masterpiece. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780735232112
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 03/06/2018