One Good Thing About America by Ruth Freeman

One Good Thing About AmericaHoliday House, 2017.

When Anaïs comes to America, things are very different from her life back home in Congo. Her family is split up, people don’t speak in French, and the food is very strange. But Anaïs’s grandmother asked her to write letters in English and to include in each letter one good thing about America, and Anaïs is determined to keep her promise.

Starting on the first day of fourth grade, Anaïs writes often to Oma. At first, writing in English is hard, and finding good things to say about America is even harder. Sometimes worries about her Papa, her brother Olivier, and Oma overshadow the good things that are beginning to happen for Anaïs. But over time, Anaïs begins to make friends, build a community, and find many good things about America.

Told in compelling letters from Anaïs to her grandmother, One Good Thing About America is an important book for children to read today. Though Ruth Freeman is not herself an immigrant, her work as a teacher of English Language Learners in Maine has helped her to put her finger on the pulse of child immigrants in America today, and her compassion has allowed her to show the complexity of immigrating to a country in which the language, the customs, and the expectations are all completely unknown. The story includes not only Anaïs’s experiences, but also some insight into immigrants from Iraq, Somalia, and Libya. In my opinion, Freeman soft pedals the frictions and misunderstandings that are likely to occur between children in school, perhaps equally in service to other elements of the story and in order to keep the focus on the many other challenges immigrants must face. For me, this decision works and makes One Good Thing About America a hopeful and heartwarming read.

I’d recommend this novel as a classroom or bedtime read-aloud or for students to read on their own. This debut novel will provoke great discussions between parents and children, teachers and students, and (dare I hope?) politicians and constituents.

I received an advance reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial by Rabia Chaudry

St. Martin’s Press, 2016.adnans-story

During his senior year in high school, Adnan Syed, an honors magnet program student and EMT with hopes to become a doctor was arrested for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Evidence was circumstantial at best and terribly thin. Nevertheless, Adnan was found guilty and sentenced to life plus thirty years. This compelling account, written by family friend Rabia Chaudry, fills in many of the gaps left by popular podcasts about the case, namely Serial and Undisclosed.

Though this book is marketed to adult audiences, I’m including it here because many students are exposed to Serial in the classroom. I imagine that, like me, many of the students who listened to Serial would crave even more details. So many of the people involved as witnesses were simply ordinary teenagers in suburban Baltimore, and events centered around typical teenage activities and the high school that Adnan and Hae attended.

I came to this book after listening to both Serial and Undisclosed, so I feel like I must qualify this review. I loved the narrative here, Chaudry’s descriptions of the Muslim community in Baltimore, her inside scoop not only on Adnan, but also his family. I did know a lot about the case before reading this, so I might have missed holes in this narrative–certainly there are far too many details to this story to include in one book.

I spent a week eagerly reading this in my spare time. It’s a compelling story, a satisfying read, and a sobering account of our justice systems and prisons. This would be a great addition to a classroom or school library for students who are captivated by the story and want to learn more. I recommend it highly.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

When twins Josh and JB are nearly thirteen they rule their school’s basketball court. They are the best of friends and caught up in the game. After school and on weekends they practice with their dad, an ex-pro ball player. Dad regales them with stories of his past and lives by his ten basketball rules.

Basketball Rule #1

In this game of life
family is the court
and the ball is your heart.
No matter how good you are,
no matter how down you get,
always leave
your heart
on the court.

Josh will need all ten of his dad’s rules to navigate this challenging year because high school is looming and suddenly the people he depends on — and sometimes takes for granted —  are changing.

This novel in verse rings with the joy and energy of competition. It hums with the love of a close-knit family and boils and sobs with the pot of emotions as life bubbles on and over and through the characters. The story is beautifully told and will appeal to basketball lovers and word nerds alike, especially those who, like Josh, find themselves unexpectedly in a world where relationships are changing and emotions and hormones blaze uncontrollably.

Read The Crossover expecting to be drawn in: drawn in to the language Josh delights in, drawn in to the play-by-play of his games, drawn in to the love and frustrations of a family, drawn in to the anger that comes when life suddenly changes and you do not understand nor have the skills to manage it.

 

 

Pointe by Brandy Colbert

PointePenguin Books, 2014.

Seventh grade was a really rough year. Theo’s secret boyfriend left, just ditched her without saying goodbye, and two weeks later her best friend Donovan vanished. In the following few months Theo fell apart and got sent to this hippie farm where there was loads of therapy but absolutely no dancing allowed. Four years later Theo’s got her life together again and both she and her ballet teacher think she might even have the stuff to become a professional dancer. But when Donovan comes home alive everything about Theo’s carefully reconstructed world threatens to crumble again. Everything has changed and now Theo’s got one huge decision to make.

Brandy Colbert has the adolescent brain nailed. I’m in awe of her voice. Theo brought back to me the gelatinous feeling of the myriad uncertainties of every day and every decision in high school as well as the desperate cravings for things I couldn’t — or believed I shouldn’t –have. She also managed the unmovable mistaken beliefs and naïveté of a young woman. I was with Theo completely as she desperately fought for control in all the wrong ways.

Colbert not only managed to present an engrossing story, but she managed to give me the impression that I was reading about Theo’s entire life with all its myriad complications. And yet, at no point did I find the story confusing. The threads of Theo’s life were so convincingly tied that I felt I was in her head.

This is a smart and fascinating read. It’s much less of a ballet book than it would seem. It contains many “issues” – anorexia, abduction, statutory rape –but it’s not what I’d call an issues book either. It’s the story of Theo and how she navigates an extraordinary junior year. One tip: don’t start this book late in the day; if you’re anything like me you’ll be up far too late reading.