Schmitzelson Class Reviews of The Night Gardener

The Night Gardner, by Jonathan Auxier

Published by Harry N Abrams, 2014

At this year’s Canadian Children’s Book Awards, The Night Gardener won the top prize: the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award (a $30,000 prize!!).

The Schmitzelson class has been reading this newly awarded book, and they’re going to give you their reviews in the comment section below. I look forward to hearing your thoughts grade sixes!

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Dasha’s Year Without Her Mom: A Review

A Year Without Mom

Dasha Tolstikova

Groundwood Books, 2015

The Story: Dasha is twelve years old, and lives in Moscow with her mom and her grandparents. Dasha’s mother gets into graduate school in America, which results in Dasha being left behind in Russia with her grandparents for a year. The graphic novel follows the highs and lows of Dasha’s year without her mom, in which she largely takes care of herself and must learn to live with the constant sadness of being separated from her mother.

What Wallace and I Think: This is illustrator Tolstikova’s first book, and is a memoir of a year in Tolstikova’s childhood. The graphic novel does not follow a standard narrative structure, but instead reads somewhat like Dasha’s journal detailing the significant incidents that happened the year her mother was away. There is a child-like quality to the style of Tolstikova’s illustrations, which lends to the feel that it is twelve-year-old Dasha describing this year to the reader.

I found the character of Dasha extremely appealing. She is strong in her sadness, self-reliant, and creative. Apart from her mother leaving, there are several events which are emotionally taxing for Dasha: she develops her first crush on an older boy who is already dating an impossibly sophisticated and cool girl (she wears black nail polish AND smokes in the school hallways! How is Dasha supposed to compete with that?!); she is ignored by her two best friends due to their jealousy over Dasha being placed in an advanced math class; she decides to apply to a better school, and undertakes the application process (studying for the exams, taking the exams, developing her extracurricular resume) without any help from her grandparents (indeed she doesn’t even think to tell her grandparents what she is undertaking); and she must navigate a visit from her absentee father. Dasha traverses these landmines largely all on her own, not because there is no one to help her, but because she is so self-reliant she doesn’t think to ask for help (both her strength and weakness). She is a strong character, and though there are blacked out pages with the words “Dark Days,” and sometimes Dasha only has the energy and strength to hide in her bed, she is never defeated and shows her strength in being able to continue on in the midst of sadness.

Dasha’s family is equally as engaging, and presents strong female characters. I found it inspiring to have a mother character who follows her dreams. Though Dasha is sad to be separated from her mother for a year, she does not begrudge her mom’s attempt to pursue her passions. Likewise, her mother does all she can to stay present in Dasha’s life when away, and after her year away, decides she cannot be separated from her daughter any longer and takes Dasha back to American with her. Dasha’s grandmother is another interesting character: she’s a writer who takes Dasha to writers’ retreats; she has cool journalist, writer, artist and intellectual friends that live all over the world; and she encourages Dasha’s creativity by putting her in art classes. When Dasha finally opens up to her grandmother about her impossible first-love, her grandmother does not belittle her feelings (by saying something like, oh it’s just puppy love, you’ll get over it) but takes Dasha’s experience seriously and offers comfort.

Though this book is marketed as young adult, I think the graphic novel would be enjoyed by readers in elementary school as well. The graphic novel is beautiful and offers a narrative style and story that is refreshing so that, like so many good children’s and YA books, I believe it could be read and enjoyed by a vast age range.

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Moose Justice! A Review of Moose by Max De Radiguès

Moose

Max De Radiguès

Published by Conundrum International, 2015

Disclaimer: this graphic novel depicts graphic physical and sexual violence. Please consult your guardians before reading this book.

The Story: Joe is being relentlessly bullied, both psychically and psychological, at school by Jason. It is in the natural world that Joe finds some peace and comfort, but when Jason bombards Joe’s one place of safety, a chance event leads to a shift in the boys’ power dynamics and leaves Joe with a difficult moral dilemma which will have you questioning not only the choice Joe makes, but the choice you would in his shoes.

What Wallace and I Think: Moose was originally written in French and appeared as mini-comics that were eventually published as a collection. De Radiguès translated Moose into English, and the English version was very recently published by the Canadian publisher, Conundrum.

De Radiguès’s comic is drawn simply with black and white images. It feels like a quiet story, as there is little text, and often there are full pages with no text at all. The scenes in which Joe is bullied by Jason are filled with the verbal and psychological abuse that Jason spews. But when Joe is alone, often immediately following these bullying scenes, the reader instead is shown how Joe is coping visually. Indeed, we rarely read any dialogue that is spoken by Joe, and when he does, often the speech bubbles and text are drawn “wobbly” to indicate the difficulty Joe has speaking for himself (and by extent standing up for himself, for this has dangerous consequences).

Though the comic is drawn simply with clean lines, De Radiguès details the bullying Joe faces in a way that, at least for me, brings a complex emotional rise out of the reader. The injustice, unfairness, and out-right cruelty of Jason to Joe is the focal point for much of the story, making the reader side completely with Joe, as there isn’t any sympathetic explanation for why Jason acts the way he does. Making Joe so sympathetic, and Jason so completely unsympathetic, indeed a hateful character, is part of the complexity of the graphic novel, for it makes the moral dilemma in the latter half of the book all the more complicated. Making Joe such a victim and Jason such a villain is a trap! And I fell right in! For me, without giving anything away, the novel’s climax and end led me to interrogate the hatred I felt towards Jason (that had me wishing he could experience some of his own medicine), and whether Jason’s fate is justified by his treatment of Joe (for I was wishing something horrible would happen to Jason through most of the book), and of course led me to wonder what decision I would make in Joe’s position, and the moral implications of what my decision would be.

Moose is a fast read (took me about half an hour) but it made me reflect long after I had finished reading it. I felt uncomfortable with what I discovered about myself during these reflections. As someone who tries to live by the creed of “Do No Harm,” and bell hook’s call to choose love, because doing so is a revolution, I was shocked at the vehemence of hateful and violent thoughts I had towards Jason. But I think this is exactly what the graphic novel is designed to do. It is the graphic novel’s ability to haunt you after reading that makes this something young adults and adults should read. If you are in school, and dealing with situations similar to Joe’s, it may open up an interesting space to interrogate your own feelings and position. This graphic novel is powerful not only due to the story it tells, but in its implicating gaze outwards towards the reader.

And there’s a Moose. So, read it peeps!

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Keep Dreaming, Brown Girl

Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson

The Story: Winner of the Newbery Honor, National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Young Adult Fiction, Woodson’s novel has already made quite the splash. Written completely in verse, this novel is an autobiographical account of the author’s childhood growing up between South Carolina and Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s. Focus is placed on Jacqueline’s early childhood, from her birth to her first few grades in elementary school when she discovers her passion for writing, stories, and making a difference in her world.

What Wallace and I Think: Wow. This novel is amazing! It’s marketed as a young adult book, which I hate to say, is almost too bad. I know there are many “adults” that turn their noses up to YA lit, and would be missing out in the case of Woodson’s novel. So, if you usually do shy away from anything with a YA label, muster the courage and read this book!

Woodson’s novel deals artfully with issues of racism, family, divorce, education, and finding and following your passion. I will admit I was a little hesitant to read this book knowing it was all written in verse. I assumed it would take some “work” to get through the book, as I find it difficult to read poetry for extended periods of time. However, the verse in Brown Girl Dreaming is extremely easy to read, and although is somewhat disjointed, does provide us with a linear story-line that makes it extremely readable. I’m going to share some sections with you, just to prove it.

Being written in verse made this novel perhaps one of the most beautiful narratives I have lately read. There were sections that touched my heart so deeply that I found myself rereading the section over a few times before moving on. For example, this small section keeps haunting me days after reading:

I do not know if these hands will become / Malcolm’s–raised and fisted / Or Martin’s–open and asking / or James’s–curled around a pen. / I do not know if these hands will be / Rosa’s / or Ruby’s / gently gloved / and fiercely folded / calmy in a lap, / on a desk, / around a book, / ready / to change the world . . . Woodson 5

This gave me chills, friends! Several tears were shed on my part, as well as some wide smiles and silent laughs. I also loved her descriptions of places. She conveys South Carolina in an almost mythical and nostalgic tone, while also being able to communicate the dangers of being black in the south during the 1960s and 70s.

And the air is what I’ll remember. / Even once we move to New York. / It always smelled like like, my mothers says. / Wet grass and pine. / Like memory. Woodson 95-6

Likewise, if South Carolina is based in nature, Brooklyn is felt to be gritty and concret, yet offering more opportuities.

Here there is only gray rock, cold / and treeless as a bad dream. Who could love / this place– where no pine trees grow, / no porch swings moves / with the weight of / your grandmother. Woodson 143

Although I have argued that this novel should not be read by only children and young adults, it is such an important work that offers a diverse narrative within a still very white-washed literary canon, that it is especially important for children and youth to read. Walter Dean Myers in his essay “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” published in The New York Times, describes that in the books he read while growing up:

I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the ‘black’ representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me. Myers 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming is a step forward in developing children’s and YA literature into more of a mosaic by having more voices tell new and different stories. Myers argues books that offer more than one type of narrative humanizes those to fall outside the Eurocentric norm, and that for himself, they gave him “the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map” (Myers 2014). That is the potential power reading Brown Girl Dreaming can have on younger readers: it can validate experience and tell them their lives and stories matter and are important; it can encourage children to enter into the dialogue themselves and become active participants in their own lives. This is no small accomplishment.

Work Cited

Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. Print.

What Pet Should They Get??

What Pet Should I Get?

By Dr. Seuss, 2015

The Story: A brother and sister go to the pet store to choose a pet. Dad says they can only get one. And mom says to be home by noon. So they have to make a decision, and make it quick. But it’s hard to choose between a dog and puppy, kitten and cat, fish, turtle, bird and even fantastical creatures. So which pet should they get?

What Wallace and I Think: Hooray for new Dr. Seuss! The story goes that the late Dr. Seuss’s wife and assistant found the completed manuscript of What Pet Should I Get? while going through some old boxes. There are several theories why he never published it. Apparently Seuss usually worked on more than one project at a time, and seeing as the siblings from this book are the same from One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish there is speculation that this book inspired One Fish Two Fish and his attention went to creating that book. Or perhaps he was simply working on too many projects, and he forgot about What Pet. Whatever the reason, thanks to his wife and assistant we now have a NEW Dr. Seuss book over twenty years after his death, and it may be in the running for my favorite Dr. Seuss book.

The whole story is about making difficult choices within guidelines. Making a decision with so many wonderful options can seem next to impossible. Each time the brother and sister think they have settled on what pet they will get, something new catches their eyes, giving more possibilities for them to weigh. The struggle reminded me of my brother, who when he was little, would always take a lot of time to make decisions. Whether it was what movie we would rent, what chocolate bar to get, what toy to buy, he would silently pace the isles for what seemed like hours until someone (usually me) made him make a decision so we could move on with our day. I was teasing him about this when we were much older, and my brother told me that he always took so long because he knew he could only choose one thing, and wanted to make sure he made the right choice, not one he would regret later. Sooooo, if this book was out when my brother and I were little, it would have been his “theme” book.

The wonderful wordplay you expect from Seuss is present, and the fantastical artwork is also what you would expect. I love how it moves from the children considering real animals, to imaginary ones, showing how out of control the choice process has become. What I LOVE most about this book is that the pet the siblings choose is a mystery! They walk out of the pet store with a box, some eyes peeking out, but it is left up to the readers to decide and imagine which pet they picked. This could make for some fun writing activities in the classroom, or generally fun theoretical imagining with your little ones. I for one think they chose the dog, because it’s the first pet the brother saw and I firmly believe in going with your initial gut instinct. And dogs are the best. Obviously. Though, considering how many pets the siblings have in One Fish, Two Fish, maybe they didn’t follow their father’s rule at all!

What pet do you think they chose?

This book lives up to the Dr. Seuss legacy and should to be added to anyone’s Dr. Seuss collection.