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Bite-Sized Book Reviews: EL DEAFO and ONE CRAZY SUMMER for raising compassionate kids

BooksKristina PinoComment

El Deafo by Cece Bell

El Deafo is a somewhat autobiographical graphic memoir starring a cast of bunnies telling the story of a childhood dealing with deafness. Some of the events of the story come from Bell's own memories, others are more of a generalization of the sort of experiences children with hearing difficulties might have. It has its funny and sad parts, but most importantly, it tells a story at a young reader's level without talking down to them. Bell's character's thoughts: her frustrations communicating with people as well as her own delightful imagination of having super powers, are generally expressed through thought balloons. I'm including this in my...collection? Of books for raising kind and compassionate kids because it shows readers what sort of struggles come with some kinds of disabilities. Folks who read Wonder might find some similarities between Cece's equipment and experiences and Auggie's.

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Delphine serves as the sensible, big sisterly voice to the story of her and her siblings' journey to California to meet their mother and spend a summer with her. Vonetta and Fern have big, vividly expressed and unforgettable personalities, just as any mischievous pair of little sisters do off the page. The three girls travel to Oakland and are not greeted with hugs and kisses, but with stern warnings to stay out of her mother's way. With nowhere to go but the neighborhood's community center, the girls join the local Black Panthers, who teach them about activism and advocacy. I found myself wanting for more by the end of the story, which is the kind of joyful ending readers cheer for (and perhaps shed a little tear, for us sensitive types). Great for mid-4th grade and above, this novel brings an important point in history to life through three sassy, funny, happy girls. 

 

Bite-Sized Book Reviews: WONDER and FORGET ME NOT for raising compassionate kids

BooksKristina PinoComment

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

I had the pleasure of actually reading this as a read-along with my students. It's an excellent book about kindness and compassion and empathy, all great qualities we should instill in young people. In Wonder, we follow the life of August, or Auggie, who has a rare facial deformity and, up until the point the story begins had been homeschooled. He decides to start going to school and try being part of a general education classroom. There, he meets a few friends and learns a lot about both himself and about other people in general, and the way people treat those with apparent/physical differences. This heartfelt story is told in multiple perspectives and really drives home the point that everyone has their own struggles, even those who seem to have all the right things going for them, or whose broken parts are invisible. I'm also pleased to note that this is being adapted to film and will be released sometime this year. 

 

Forget Me Not by Ellie Terry

This story explores the experiences of a girl who lives with Tourette syndrome and her classmate and neighbor who also happens to be the most popular boy in school. She just wants to hide her quirks from people and not be labeled a freak or ostracized. He's clinging to his social status in school and is afraid that befriending her publicly would jeopardize that, even though he really, really wants to. There are two things I love about this book. First, it's told in multiple perspectives and styles. Calliope's chapters, where she expresses her thoughts and fears and talks about her day, are told in beautiful poetry. Jinsong's are told in prose and get deep into his moral struggle throughout the story. And second, the author herself lives with Tourette syndrome, and it shows in the thoughtful way she writes about it. The main characters are in middle school, but it's an appropriate read for upper elementary (about 4th or 5th grade and up) and another great read for raising compassionate and empathetic kids. 

Bite-Sized Book Reviews: THE MOTHERS and THE WANGS VS THE WORLD

BooksKristina PinoComment

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

In this story, expressed in multiple perspectives, but generally narrated by one of the mothers, or the group of church moms who do various tasks for their community, we learn about a girl's decision to terminate a pregnancy and everything that follows it. Bennett does an amazing job of showing readers what it's like when you're from a conservative community and you make certain decisions without really making the book about abortion or anything like that. Nadia, the protagonist, wants to just move on with her life, but unfortunately living in a small town, everyone gets in everyone's business. This is an emotional, deeply engrossing read, and I couldn't put it down. 

 

The Wangs Vs the World by Jade Chang

Charles Wang found his fortune in America with his cosmetics empire, and raised his family in luxury. But a few bad decisions led to his losing everything. In this funny, heartfelt story, readers get the perspectives of all the Wangs throughout their adventure finding a new place in the world for themselves. Charles in particular becomes obsessed with reclaiming the lands of his ancestors in China, while his children are finding their place in different ways. I enjoyed the bits of Chinese dialogue peppered in, much like Junot Díaz does with Spanish in his books. 

Bite-Sized Book Reviews: STAR WARS: AHSOKA

BooksKristina PinoComment

I'm always up for a good Star Wars adventure, and Ahsoka didn't disappoint. It takes a little bit to wind up to the action, but once Ahsoka starts making some decisions about where she wants to take her life and the kind of person she wants to be, things pick up quickly. For some reference: Ahsoka has survived the Jedi Purge and is hiding out in the Outer Rim as Ashla. She is a mechanic for hire and is trying to avoid attachments. Soon enough, she finds herself drawn back to a life of do-gooding, but this time, it's on her own terms. This story had me cheering at the end of it and wanting for more. Great for any kind of Star Wars fan, but especially those who enjoyed Clone Wars and Rebels.

Bite-Sized Book Reviews: PS I STILL LOVE YOU, WRITTEN IN THE STARS, and THE FORBIDDEN WISH

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P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han

I picked up this book without knowing it's a sequel until it was "too late" (the first book is called To All The Boys I've Loved Before). Even so, I had no trouble getting into the story and Han does a good job of dropping hints and exposition here and there so everyone's on the same page. This is a sweet romance-type story, but it also covers a lot of ground when it comes to modern teen life in general. The consequences of posting mean things online, gender politics and how circumstances affect different people, and an examination of love and heartbreak are all touched upon here through Lara Jean's perspective. I liked being in her head through all of this and seeing how she reacts to and learns from these experiences.

Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

This is one of those hard to read, gut-wrenching type stories. Naila's super conservative parents don't allow her to date, or even speak with any boys, and it's their tradition to choose her future husband for her. She gets caught dating Saif, and they whisk her away to Pakistan where she thought she was just going on vacation to visit family, but later finds out her parents have chosen a husband for her and planned for her to wed and stay behind. Eventually, as a reader, you start seeing that things are just going to get worse and worse, and you read with sort of a sense of dread for Naila, but there's hope: Saif is looking for her and trying to get her out of her horrible situation. I found myself rooting for Naila the entire time, facing all these things happening to her and choosing to survive.

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The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury

You might know the story of Aladdin, but you won't recognize this version. Aladdin is the son of rebels, expected to rise up with the people, but chooses a life of thievery instead. Jinni has been stuck in her lamp for eons, punished for befriending her last master, sitting in the ruins of her dear friend's old kingdom. When Aladdin finds the lamp and whisks her away, the king of all the jinn charges her with a mission in exchange for the tantalizing reward of freedom. The problem is, using her new master to her ends is at odds with the simple fact that she's falling in love with him. As far as love stories go, this one is ridiculously satisfying, and the whole thing is written as if it were a long, long letter to her dear, old friend. Fresh format, and excellent spin to the story of Aladdin and the lamp.

Bite-Sized Book Reviews: GULP and PICNIC IN PROVENCE

BooksKristina PinoComment

Gulp by Mary Roach

Gulp is an exploration of the journey foods make, starting with sniffing and tasting and on through eventual dumpage. Some of it is pretty gross! But it's all very fascinating and Roach approaches all these topics with her usual wit and impressive thoroughness. Of course, she also goes into cultural taboos: how they affect scientific research and even the way we eat. I don't recommend snacking while reading this book, but I do recommend snatching it up if you're in the mood for some real science-based investigations, warts and all. If you've never read any Roach previously, though, I highly recommend getting started with Packing For Mars, which is all about space exploration and astronauts.

Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard

In this memoir, Bard talks about her life in France with her husband, their decision to move to the countryside, her pregnancy (and the subsequent birth of their son), and all their other experiences leading up to their eventual decision to open an ice cream shop. Her descriptions of the village life, the way the French rear children and approach food, and how she reconciled her American, Jewish identity with her life in France through traditions old and new are all major themes in this memoir. She also includes excellent recipes in between chapters, many of which I intend to make for myself or for family and friends. I enjoyed the way she approached her stories with humor, and now I'm looking forward to reading her other book, Lunch in Paris, which was published four years before Picnic.

Bite-Sized Audiobook Reviews: MODERN ROMANCE, YEAR OF YES, and REDEFINING REALNESS

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Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

MR had me laughing from the very start and went by fast. If I have one complaint, it's that Aziz cracked jokes about listeners being lazy (for not reading for real...?) a few too many times, but otherwise, it's a delightful auditory experience. If you've watched some of his stand-up, or even his show Master of None, you know some of what's in this book because his comedy and writing usually have a lot to do with relationships and the way we communicate and meet new people. On its own, though, it's eye-opening and informative. Aziz teamed up with a sociologist and they did their research, and he even went to a few other countries to get some comparisons between the way we form romantic relationships here in the US and the way people do in, say, France. And Japan. Good narration, good info, and overall respectful dialogue with lightheartedness made this a fun read, even when the truth stung a little.

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

After her sister made a pointed comment about how she's always saying no, no, no, Shonda made a decision to have a "Year of Yes," in which she says yes, yes, yes, to literally everything. Suddenly she's making speeches and attending galas, and doing all kinds of things she never bothered with before. And along the way, she makes all kinds of discoveries about herself, and even improves her life in other areas, like at home with her children. Of course, her version of Year of Yes doesn't apply to everyone, and she definitely checks her privilege, but she does emphasize there are things we can and should be saying yes to now. Yes to being happy, yes to your body, yes to saying "no" when you need to, and weeding out the people who can't stand to see you happy. She makes some great points, and listening to this book was a lot like listening to a friend.

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

This memoir is a little bit difficult to listen to at times, but not in a bad way. Janet talks about her childhood as a male, the experiences leading up to her sex confirmation, and all of the rest. Some of it is hilarious, and some of it is heartbreaking. Depending on the topic, she drops in some up-to-date (at the time this book was published) statistics and insight about how many people struggle with coming out, with abuse, with all kinds of atrocities because they're at-risk or because they don't conform to what some people think they should. But mixed in with all that, she talks about joyful moments in her childhood, about positive friendships she's formed, beautiful Hawaii, and all the good that has come of her decision to be herself. She speaks her truth, in her own voice, and in her own words. This book is for everyone, and anyone could benefit from listening to her story.

Bite-Sized Comics Reviews: DRAMA and ROLLER GIRL

Comics and Manga, BooksKristina PinoComment

Drama by Raina Telgemeier (2012)

Drama follows middle schooler Callie and her friends in stage crew and drama putting on a production of Moon Over Mississippi. The overarching plot is how Callie's into set design and she wants the show to look Broadway-worthy, but more than anything this story is about friendships, working hard, and the trials and tribulations of middle school life. Telgemeier really shines here in her realistic portrayal of kids and young teens, and her depictions of a diverse range of characters. Great read with something to say about working hard, evaluating self worth, empathy, acceptance, and doing what makes you happy.

 

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (2015)

In Roller Girl, we see just how much it matters to surround yourself with an amazing and diverse support group (read: girl gang), especially if you're a young girl whose identity has basically revolved around one friendship. Astrid watches a roller derby bout for the first time and decides then and there she wants to go to her local team's roller derby camp. Her best friend decides to go to dance camp instead, and she's left to navigate all these new experiences alone. Astrid makes new friends, learns new skills, and most importantly, learns a lot about herself. This all-ages read is all about girl power, teamwork, resolving conflicts, and celebrating differences, and it's absolutely brilliant. Also, I definitely want to go watch some roller derby for real, now.

Comics Review: ODDLY NORMAL vol. 1 by Otis Frampton

Comics and MangaKristina PinoComment

"Meet Oddly Normal, a ten-year-old girl with pointed ears and green hair—a half-witch who will be the first to tell you that having a mother from a magical land called Fignation and a father from Earth doesn't make it easy to make friends at school! On her tenth birthday, she blows out her cake's candles and makes a disastrous wish. Now, Oddly must travel to Fignation to uncover the mystery of her parents' disappearance. Join Oddly as she navigates a strange new school, monstrous bullies, and Evil itself on an unforgettable fantasy adventure through the vibrant world of Fignation in ODDLY NORMAL."

Our heroine Oddly is half-witch, half-Earthian. The Earth she lives in isn't really magic-infused or anything at all, though: Oddly doesn't attend a Hogwarts-like school, and her mother is totally incognito. But her green hair and pointy ears scores her a lot of unwanted attention. Frampton doesn't hold back at all with the bullying theme in this series, and he created a main character who feels out of place everywhere: even at home. This Earth, in direct similarity to Dorothy Gale's world in The Wizard of Oz, is characterized by dull and drab color schemes (browns and greys and blues) and some gloomy weather. Everything about it is dreary.

On her birthday, she's frustrated, and says a few things she didn't mean, and suddenly her parents are gone. In the course of this book, she's transported to Fignation, which is the magical world her mother came from, and dives into a whole new set of experiences, including attending a new school, now with odd children who bully her for the opposite reason as before - she's simply not odd enough.

Once Oddly is in Fignation, things change for the reader, too. We start seeing some truly stunning background artwork filling the panels, with dreamy color schemes and funny little cameos - just as we experienced the change to vibrant color when Dorothy landed in Oz. I spotted nods to various classic horror stories, and even a twisted sort of homage to Totoro. If you know your fairy tales, you may spot a few references here and there, too, including a sign marking/labeling Yellow Brick Road and a delightful little tribute to Peter Pan. Fignation is all about what's in your imagination, and the stories we know about here on Earth.

The pacing is rather quick, and some of the characters are over the top, but I think it only adds to the experience. After all, our main character is a 10-year old whose life changes in the course of an afternoon. That isn't to say the story is rushed: we still get to meet key characters, including a few misfits who befriend Oddly at her new school in Fignation. There's a hopeful tone by the end of this book - an indication that despite being thrust into this new, unknown world that has always been kept from her, Oddly's probably going to be alright. And she'll get to explore her heritage, which is an angle I enjoy.

This book collects the first five issues of Oddly Normal, and is a full-color, 128-page paperback. It's going to be released March 11th for MSRP US$9.99. I read this digitally and in advance thanks to Diamond/Image on Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. If you do pick up this book and end up loving it, you can read Oddly's continuing adventures issue-by-issue, starting with #6 slated for release April 15th.

Bite-Sized Audiobook Reviews: KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL and THE SNOW QUEEN

BooksKristina PinoComment

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (narrated by the author):

After listening to Julie Powell's Julie & Julia, I wanted to sink my teeth into another food-related memoir, and remembered I'd been interested in Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential for a long time. His narrating is solid, though the cutting/editing in the audiobook file wasn't optimal, frequently cutting abruptly or transitioning in quality from one sentence to the next.

This book is a great collection of stories that spans decades, and there's no better person to get the humor, sarcasm, disdain, adoring, and other tones the tales evoke than the author himself, who spoke them all regardless of what he imagined would be no small amount of flak. His experiences aren't universal, but they're still a super interesting peek into the world of cooking as a career for a significant chunk of people. I wouldn't trade my life for how he described his in this book, but I got a lot out of listening.

I'm also hungry for more culinary books or other chef memoirs. I'll be checking some more out in the near future.

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen (narrated by Julia Whelan):

Of course, since watching Frozen I've been interested in seeing how different the original story is to the adaptation. I got this title for free from Audible, as Julie Whelan was Audible's 2014 narrator of the year.

As suspected, the book and the film don't resemble each other at all, except that there's a reindeer in both, and somehow the people affected by snow magic are total jerks. There are so many great characters in The Snow Queen I would have loved to see brought to life in the film! In this story, a little girl is separated from her best friend, who is taken away from her. She spends the book going after him, and gets help along the way from various animals and people. This cute little adventure is a quick read, and brilliantly narrated by Whelan. It's a nice story about growing up and being true to ourselves, though we sometimes go astray. And of course, the people who believe in us when we need them to the most.