Category Archives: Books

New/Old Asian Superhero: The Shadow Hero

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen YangThis is fun: Gene Luen Yang is releasing a new retelling of a classic Asian superhero, the Green Turtle.

It’s an exploration of the immigrant experience through the superhero genre, which is essentially all about immigrants and living in two cultures at once. As Gene says:

Superheroes are also about immigrants.  Take at look at Superman, the granddaddy of them all.  His parents sent him to America in search of a better life.  He had two names, one American (Clark Kent) and the other foreign (Kal-El).  He wears two sets of clothes and lives in between two cultures.  He loves his new home, but a part of him longs for his old one.

The character originated in the 1940s and had a short run, but Gene is reviving this forgotten superhero with a new story.

It’s being released as a complete graphic novel this summer, The Shadow Hero, or you can grab digital releases as they come out (#4 of 6 comes out this week).

I discovered Gene Luen Yang earlier this spring thanks to the Festival of Faith and Writing. If his past work is any indication (especially Boxers & Saints and American Born Chinese), this one is going to be worth checking out.

How to Steal a Dog Shows the Reality of Homelessness

How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O'ConnorHow to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor is a quick and powerful story that realistically portrays the reality of homelessness.

Georgina finds herself homeless when her father runs out, their family gets evicted and Georgina, her mom and her brother end up living in their car. But she sees a lost dog poster on a telephone pole and gets an idea—she’ll steal a dog and then claim the reward. An extreme situation prompts extreme action and Georgina makes some hard choices.

It’s not a happy-go-lucky story like the cover might make you think. The kid is homeless. She’s living in her car. She’s contemplating stealing someone’s dog and holding it hostage.

In short: It’s depressing.

Now the book isn’t a total downer (it is for children). It ends on a positive note. But it is rough, because being homeless is rough. Georgina faces it all, from struggling in school to losing friends to being ashamed of her dirty clothes and appearance. How to Steal a Dog shows how quickly things can fall apart and how homelessness is a reality for “regular” people.

Criss Cross is the Intersection of Lives and Nothing More

Criss Cross by Lynee Rae PerkinsThe book jacket description of Criss Cross by Lynn Rae Perkins doesn’t really tell you anything. There’s a reason for that. This book isn’t about anything.

“She wished something would happen,” it says right on the cover, and that’s about right.

The story follows several teenage characters with intersecting lives and it just hums along through ordinary days. You get slice of life stuff. Hector wants to learn how to play guitar. Debbie and her friend Patty change clothes after leaving the house but before getting to school. Lenny teaches Debbie how to drive stick. Debbie helps an elderly neighbor. Hector wants to ask a girl in his guitar class out, but she’s only got eyes for the football player.

It’s well-written and engaging, so I stuck with it, but there’s really no rising or falling plot. That can be interesting for what it is, but I like to have good writing actually go somewhere.

Jacob Wonderbar and the Random Capers Kids Love

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow by Nathan BransfordJacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow by Nathan Bransford is a boy-friendly space adventure story with plenty of wacky capers. Jacob is a troublemaker at school and he teams up with his best friends Dexter and Sarah for some non-stop fun, initiated when a man in a silver suit trades a spaceship for a corn dog.

Yep, that’s the kind of randomness you can expect from Jacob Wonderbar.

I thought it felt a little too directionless, but I read it aloud to Milo and he loved it. It’s turned into a series and I’m sure I’ll be reading the others to Milo.

Tonight at dinner for some reason he was talking about having children and Abby asked him what he would name his kids.

His answer? Jacob, Dexter and Sarah.

Sarah’s Key Explores the Vel’ d’Hiv Holocaust

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de RosnaySarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay explores the Vel’ d’Hiv’ tragedy during World War II when French Jews were rounded up and ultimately sent to the death camps. It was by order of the German occupation, but carried out by French authorities.

The story is told from the perspective of a young girl rounded up with her family and also a middle age woman in 2003 researching the story as a journalist when she uncovers a personal family connection.

It’s a compelling story and engaging as the mystery unfolds, but I wasn’t completely engaged or rooting for the characters. Part of it is the intense nature of the Holocaust, but something about the disconnected French characters and the way the girl’s story eventually fell out of the narrative left me wanting something more.

But it is an educational moment, exploring the French complicity (and later guilt) and an element of the Holocaust I’d never heard about before.

Hattie Big Sky: Anti-German Fury on a Montana Homestead

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby LarsonThe cover of Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson looks like something my mom would read, but it’s Little House on the Prairie with a plot and girl power. 16-year-old Hattie is an orphan who inherits her uncle’s homestead in 1917 Montana and works to prove the claim on her own. The timeframe puts the story in the middle of World War I and anti-German sentiment is brewing on the prairie.

It’s a simple story that weaves together several complex threads to make a satisfying whole that focuses on faith, country and the power of what you can do when you have the strength of friendship.

The anti-German fury is disappointing, but the historical reality is that we have a long track record of demonizing our enemy by persecuting our neighbors. It’s maddening and you’d think a country of immigrants would learn. But we don’t.

The homestead details are very reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder, except of course it takes place nearly 50 years later, which gives an interesting insight into the Montana homestead experience. It also features a strong and young woman striking out on her own, which was based on a true story.

It’s a solid story that gives a full impression of a place and time, not leaving out the cold, hard realities.

Coaltown Jesus Hits Hope Instead of Hokey

Coaltown Jesus by Ron KoertgeIn Coaltown Jesus by Ron Koertge, a teen struggling with his older brother’s death prays for God’s help and Jesus shows up in the sort-of flesh. Only Walker can see Jesus and he gets advice and insight like a guardian angel, only it’s on the odd matters like what girl likes him and how to score a pair of new sneakers. Or so it seems.

While Coaltown Jesus has the potential to be incredibly hokey, the offbeat, poetic style works. It should be kind of cheeseball and completely insulting. Instead it’s funny and light, while still managing to probe deep, painful questions and offer hope.

It’s also short and sweet, something you can read in one sitting.

Never Fall Down: The Cambodian Genocide

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormickNever Fall Down by Patricia McCormick is a sparse and somber account of the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s told from the perspective of a teenage boy, Arn Chorn-Pond.

It’s an immediate and straight-forward account told in his broken English, sometimes detailed and sometimes bare, like you’d expect from a child.

Citizens are rounded up and killed or forced into camps and Arn is forced into music and realizes it’s a way to survive. He’s eventually forced into service as a child soldier and later escapes to a refugee camp in Thailand. It’s brutal and the tactics seems non-sensical, which is about all I can make out after reading about the aims of the Khmer Rouge: Set up an agrarian-based society, keep out anything foreign, kill anyone with any form of education, knowledge or skill.

Their agricultural reform led to widespread famine.

Nevermind the genocide that killed anywhere from 1 to 3 million people, many found in more than 20,000 mass graves.

As brutal as the first half of the book is, it becomes a story of survival for Arn Chorn-Pond as he goes from camp prisoner to musician to child soldier to refugee to American adoptee. He had little or no help as he transitioned to American culture, something that’s hard enough for teenage adoptees today with all the counseling and preparation available, and without the horrors of genocide and guilt of being forced to kill as a child solider.

But it’s not all horror. Arn Chorn-Pond has gone on to become a humanitarian, founding multiple organizations and helping to preserve traditional Cambodian music and promote forgiveness and reconciliation.

All the Right Stuff Except for the Plot

All the Right Stuff by Walter Dean MyersAll the Right Stuff by Walter Dean Myers is a Socratic dialogue about the social contract, the unwritten rules that determine our behavior, wrapped around the barest of plots.

I’m not a big fan of philosophy and I love a good plot, so this one didn’t do it for me.

In the aftermath of the death of his estranged father, Paul begins a summer job working in a soup kitchen. Elijah, the proprietor, quickly begins to teach Paul about more than chopping onions. They get into deep discussions about the social contract, the roles we play and why we do what we do. The debate becomes real as Paul mentors a young teenage mother who sees basketball as her only hope and is being recruited by a local gangster who doesn’t abide by the social contract.

In some ways it reminds me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, with the philosophic conversation broken up by manual labor (in this case, preparing soup).

In the end it’s just a conversation. It’s all discussion and little action.

But I want a story that actually tells a story.

Project Mulberry Wades Into Race & Culture Without Drowning

Project Mulberry by Linda Sue ParkWhen Julia and her friend Patrick team up on a state fair project, Julia is disappointed that the silkworm project is too Korean. She wants to do something more American.

Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park (author of A Long Walk to Water) is a simple story that touches on race and identity, but doesn’t drown in them. It’s an internal debate for Julia, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. It’s actually refreshing to see her struggle with difficult questions, ask some awkward questions, and move on. It’s not one of these depressing novels about the horrors of institutional racism. It’s about everyday struggles, everyday problems.

That makes it a lot more relatable.

What’s weird about Project Mulberry is the between-chapter dialogues between Julia and Linda Sue Park, the author. The character and the author actually have a conversation. They talk about how the story is going, what Julia likes and doesn’t like, etc.

It’s a fun concept and an interesting way to teach kids about the writing process. But I’m not sure if it works. I felt kind of ambivalent about it, and it seems if something like that is going to work it really needs to be a positive addition to the book.