Category Archives: Multicultural

Book Review: Breaking Stalin’s Nose

I must admit that while reading I had a hard time envisioning today’s youth actually wanting to read and able to relate to this middle grade book.  The story is set in 1950’s Moscow where a young, and very naive boy named Sasha, is set to become a young pioneer.  The quick pace keeps the reader involved in this brief story that spans only a few days.  While the story depicts aspects of what life must have been like, it is also heavily punctuated by absurd, cartoon-like events, such as a conversation with a talking, smoking, Stalin’s nose.  The author is an artist and his black and white illustrations really help bring the characters to life.  In addition, the most interesting part of the book is knowing far more than young Sasha who thinks that only if Stalin knew what was happening, then he would surely help those being wrongly accused.  I hope that young people prove me wrong and enjoy this book as much as the adults who have deemed it worthy of both a 2012 Newbery Honor book award and Horn Book’s Best Books for 2011.

Title:  Breaking Stalin’s nose

Author/Illustrator:  Eugene Yelchin

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company

ISBN:  978-0-8050-9216-5


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Book Review: Between Shades of Gray

I stayed up late last night finishing this incredibly sad book and all I can say is, “What a disappointment!”  I was not at all pleased with how the author chose to end this book.  My mom and I have often discussed the ending to a good romantic comedy movie.  The basic plot line is often similar:  boy and girl meet, fall in love, something happens to tear them apart, boy and girl get back together and live happily ever after.  The difference between a not-so-great and great ending is that a great one will show boy and girl’s wonderfully heartfelt reunion and you are left feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.  In the not-so-great ending they allude to the reunion but you don’t get to see or feel any of the warm and fuzzy stuff.  I bet you can guess what happens in the bad endings… boy and girl don’t get back together.  So without giving anything away, this book did not have the great ending I was looking for.  After trudging through such a heart breaking story I was really waiting for the great payoff in the end and, sigh, it wasn’t there.

Currently nominated for several awards, this historical fiction novel tells the tale of a young, budding, Lithuanian artist named Lina.  The year is 1941 and the soviet secret police are deporting her family along with thousands of others.  Lina, her brother Jonas and her mother embark on a horrifying journey over thousands of miles and over the span of several years.  Lina secretly documents the injustices through her writing and art to share with the world what is happening and in hopes that her messages will somehow make their way to her father who has been sentenced to death in a prison camp.  Along the way Lina will learn about love and forgiveness and the strength needed for survival.

This novel was written by the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee and includes a note which provides more information about the plight of the people in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia during the Soviet/German war.  While I may have disliked the ending, it would be hard not to truly appreciate this book for the insight it brings to those unfamiliar with this piece of history, as well as the messages of love and forgiveness that are embodied by Lina’s mother.

Title:  Between shades of gray:  A novel

Author:  Ruta Sepetys

Publisher:  Philomel Books

ISBN:  978-0-399-25412-3


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Book Review: Drawing From Memory

This graphic novel is Allen Say’s own autobiography that follows his journey from a young child who loved to draw and read comic books to a young artist during WWII who became an apprentice under Noro Shinpei, Japan’s leading cartoonist.  Allen was shunned by his father at an early age who didn’t understand or value his artistic talent.  When his parents separated, Allen was furnished with his own apartment at the age of 12 as a quiet place to study (and create art!)  Both the historical context and the relationships Allen forms on his quest to developing and embracing his love for art make this an intriguing book to read.  The author’s note at the end of the book includes real photographs and some follow-up notes as to what happens to Allen later in life.

Today, Allen Say lives right here in Portland, Oregon.  He is a well-loved and respected artist who has won the Caldecott Medal for “Grandfather’s Journey” as well as a Caldecott Honor and the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for ” the Boy of the Three-Year Nap”.

Title:  Drawing from memory

Author/Illustrator:  Allen Say

Publisher:  Scholastic Press

ISBN:  978-0-545-17686-6


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Book Review: Nini

This beautifully moving story follows the journey of one special baby from an orphanage in China who longs for the love she knew within the womb.  Her journey will unite her with a loving couple in Canada who long for the love of a child.  Pages are filled with soft paintings layered with stamps, maps and photo-like close-ups of the baby girl.  Both the writing and the striking illustrations create a beautiful story.

Title:  Nini

Author/Illustrator:  Francois Thisdale

Publisher:  Tundra Books

ISBN:  978-1-77049-270-7


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Book Review: The Three Little Tamales

I love alternate versions of classic fairy tales and fables.  When I taught first grade I included a unit where we would read a variety of fairy tales and a myriad of versions.  Some years the kids would even write their own!  This version of “The Three Little Pigs” bakes up a delightful story about three runaway tamales who build three very different casitas (houses).  One house is built from sagebrush, one from cornstalks and one from the mighty prickly cactus.  I love the mixture of spanish phrases throughout the book and admire Kimmel’s ability to create clever rhyming dialogue for the characters:

“Senorita Tamale, por favor, I want to come in, so open the door.”

Bright, colorful illustrations by Valeria Decampo just add more charm to this very sweet story.  Do you have a favorite alternate version of a well-known fairy tale or fable?  Please share!

Title:  The three little tamales

Author:  Eric A. Kimmel

Illustrator:  Valeria Decampo

Publisher:  Marshall Cavendish Children

ISBN:  978-0-7614-5519-6



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Book Review: Inside Out and Back Again

This is actually the first book I have read that is written completely in verse.  I wasn’t sure if I would like the format, believing that there couldn’t be as much detail to draw me into the story.  I was wonderfully wrong.  This amazing story spans one year in the life of 10-year-old Ha and is drawn from the author’s own experience leaving Saigon during the Vietnam war and landing in Alabama.  Along with her mother and three brothers, Ha must flee her home and everything she knows.  They spend a long journey on a boat with little food, no bathrooms and two mats to share among the five of them.  Eventually they secure a sponsor in Alabama and Ha must learn to navigate her way in a new world.  There is so much to love about this book.  Ha is a spunky little girl who in the first two pages is angered by the cultural tradition of only allowing male feet to be the first to walk through their house after the new year so she makes sure to awaken extra early and sneaks just her big toe out of the bed she shares with her mother and presses it to the floor.  The friendship that develops between Ha and her neighbor, a retired teacher who tutors the family and welcomes them with open arms is touching while the prejudice they face from others is painful.  This is the first (hopefully not the last) book written by Thanhha Lai and the winner of the 2011 National Book award.  It is recommended for grades 4 through 8 and I think would make a wonderful read aloud due to the richness of topics and feelings to be discussed.

Title:  Inside out and back again

Author:  Thanhha Lai

Publisher:  Harper

ISBN:  978-0-06-196278-3


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Book Review: Medio Pollito: A Spanish Tale

I absolutely love Eric Kimmel’s version of this traditional Spanish folktale.  Medio Pollito was born a half-chick with one eye, one wing and one leg, but he was born with a whole heart and a mother hen who told him he could do anything he wanted, one step at a time.  Medio Pollito sets out on his journey to the city of Madrid, taking the time to stop and help others when needed.  What a wonderful book to engage young children in the discussion of our different physical abilities, our universal ability to help one another and the empowering belief in oneself to accomplish your goals and dreams.  If you are unfamiliar with this folktale like I was, you will  love the mythological twist at the end.  This beautifully illustrated book, written by our very own local (Portland, Oregon) author is a 2012 Oregon Book Award Finalist for Children’s Literature.  Follow the link to see a list of the finalists in all categories and to vote (by April 16th) for your favorite.  Winners will be announced at a ceremony on April 23, 2012 at the Gerding Theater at the Armory in Portland, Oregon.  If I were still teaching it would be fun to read all five titles in the Children’s Literature category and then help my students vote online for their favorite!  Visit the author’s website to view a video of this book, narrated by the author.

Title:  Medio pollito:  A spanish tale

Author:  Eric A. Kimmel

Illustrator:  Valeria Docampo

Publisher:  Marshall Cavendish Children

ISBN:  978-0-7614-5705-3


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