Breaking it Down

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi joined my “must read” list after seeing the author speak during a panel discussion at Day of Dialogue in NYC (Spring 2018).  This is a love story, a story of racial tension, and … break dancing.

Main character Shirin is of Iranian descent and wears hijab.  The story’s post September 11 setting creates a lot of racial cruelty toward Shirin.  She endures people’s ignorant, cruel comments on a regular basis, and even incidents of physical aggression.  This treatment has hardened her to creating relationships, which isn’t helped by her parents constant moves to achieve a better neighborhood/life for Shirin and her older brother Navid.

Shirin is partnered with Ocean; a boy who seems genuinely interested in getting to know her.  This creates a lot of inner turmoil for Shirin.  She needs to decide if “dating” the school’s basketball star will be worth the trouble it may cause for both of them.  For me, the story reads like a teenage girl’s diary.  You feel the excitement and nerves associated with a first major crush.  You also feel the outrage at the comments made by kids and adults.

A fun twist to the story is that Shirin and her brother have been obsessed with learning to break dance ever since watching the movie Breakin’ (Remember it well! Loved it!).   Her  brother starts a break dancing club at school.  Hanging out with her older brother and his friends becomes her outlet and her way to make a mark on her school (talent show).  Break dancing events show her that there are places/events where people of all races can be together with a common passion without judgement.  She is able to let her defenses down.

Unfortunately, Shirin’s treatment isn’t just part of a story set during a sensitive time.  My daughter told me (days after I finished this book) that a new student at her school wearing hijab was rudely asked by an older student, “What’s that on your head??”  Stories like Shirin’s are necessary for erasing these behaviors by building cultural awareness and empathy.

Rocky Ride

I read Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt in one day.  This book pulled me in with its simple, straightforward narration.  The writing was simple, but told a great story with so many touches that I really appreciated (to name a couple- the farm setting, Jack’s mental tally of Joseph’s smiles).

Jack is a sixth grader whose parents make the decision to foster eighth grader Joseph.  Joseph is a very toughened individual who has been through a lot. He is still going through some tough situations adapting to the bullies at his new school.  Jack and his parents are the heroes of this story to me.  They are willing to take a chance and to stand up for this lost, angry boy.  They earn Joseph’s trust and love which is why he decides to disclose his background to them.

Joseph’s dad is abusive.  He met a girl (Maddie) who became the love of his life, but her parents were never aware of the relationship.  Her parents are very wealthy and never around when Joseph would visit.  She became pregnant which is when her parents took notice (obviously!) and completely shut Joseph out.

SPOILERS AHEAD!  Maddie dies during childbirth and their daughter, Jupiter, will be put up for adoption.  Joseph’s driving mission is to find his daughter.  Joseph does eventually locate and maintain communication with Jupiter’s adoptive parents through letters.  Meanwhile, his dad is causing quite a bit of trouble trying to get Joseph back.  I’d like to say this book ended on a happy note after this, but it didn’t.  In fact, the ending made me so angry!

This book is controversial because of Joseph’s age as a father.  For me, it is tough to read about a kid going through life events that he should not need to worry about at this age.  This book will bring out a variety of emotions and reactions in its readers.  I know it did for me.

Flipping the Switch

OCDaniel by Wesley King is about Daniel, an eighth grader with obsessive compulsive disorder.  Daniel doesn’t realize that his actions are part of a disorder until a friend (Sara) helps him.  He is able to (mostly) hide his “zaps” among his friends and family; although, there are definitely signs to everyone that he is different.

There are many story lines, with the most important being Daniel’s behavior.  He struggles in math because of his inability to write certain numbers.  He also gets by on very little sleep because of his nighttime routine, which can sometimes take hours.  Sara is the first person to give a name to what he is going through.

Next is the sports conflict.  Daniel is the alternate kicker on the school’s football team, despite his preference to arrange Gatorade cups on the sidelines rather than play.  His best friend Max is one of the team’s star players and he does his best to include Daniel.  Daniel needs to step in as kicker during the playoffs and final championship game which creates a high amount of anxiety for him.

Third is Daniel’s relationships with two girls.  One is his longtime crush Raya, who seems to like him back.  The other is his newfound relationship with “Psycho Sara.”  She has never spoken to anyone at school, except for when she suddenly begins talking to Daniel.  Sara suspects her mother’s boyfriend of killing her dad and wants Daniel’s help to discover evidence to prove her theory.

Throughout the story, Daniel is writing his own novella, which provides some therapy for him.  The book in some ways mirrors his feelings, with the exception that his and Sara’s characters are in a world in which everyone else has disappeared.  They need to conquer the monsters to bring everyone back.

While reading, I couldn’t help but question how his parents never caught on to his behaviors?  While they asked him about his moving around at night and even flicking the light switch, their questioning never went any further.  I found myself thinking about my own parenting.  Would I be able to catch these type of actions?  The author explains that he went through similar experiences and that his parents also had no idea of what he was going through.  This makes me sad for kids like Daniel and Sara.  Kids who feel alone, afraid and uncomfortable around others.  Daniel’s character is lucky in that he has a few solid friends that keep him grounded.  In this way, his novella mimics his life; he realizes that the strength of someone who understands you can help you face whatever is scary or uncertain in the world.





Together they work to find enough evidence to support her theory. Also writing his own book through the story.


I am happy to support the author of my recent read, Like Vanessa, written by Tami Charles.  Charles is a teacher turned writer, and I was fortunate to see her during an author panel at the JLG Day of Dialog in NYC.  Charles’s book is loosely based on her own feelings, experiences and various people in her life that helped her as a pageant contestant.

Vanessa is the main character in this book.  She is a tall, heavy-set, African American eighth grader who lives with her grandfather, her gay cousin and her dismissive father.  Her father has closed himself away from Vanessa since her mother disappeared when Vanessa was very young.  Vanessa’s mom was involved in pageants and Vanessa is enchanted with this life.  She is fully supported in her dream to join the pageant occurring at her middle school by her grandfather, her cousin and one of her teachers.  The story becomes a bit of a make-over tale as they all work to whip her into shape (physically, emotionally, etc) for the show.  Her dad forbids her to join which creates some family conflict, especially when he finds out she’s been involved in everything behind his back.

Through the story Vanessa encounters struggles with her best friend, and also faces mean girls who stoop very low to wreck Vanessa’s chances of participating in the pageant.

This story is about growing up, but mostly, it’s about accepting oneself .  While Vanessa feels proud that Vanessa Williams just became the first African-American Miss America, she doesn’t know if America will ever accept someone as dark skinned as she is in this role.  She struggles with her appearance through much of the story, but ends the story with love for herself.  She also reconciles with her dad and finds out what actually happened to her mom.  Vanessa overcame her personal doubts, family issues and other obstacles to fulfill her dream.  This should appeal to many teen girls.



The memoir Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka will hit home for anyone affected by a family member with an addiction.  This is Jarrett’s story of being raised by his grandparents because of his mother’s heroin addiction.  The story begins with some background into his grandparents’ lives and then his mom’s.  His mom began using when she was only thirteen.  She cleaned up while pregnant with Jarrett, but couldn’t fight her addiction once he was born and through his upbringing.  She served jail time and her relationship with him consisted of periodic visits and letters.  Jarrett didn’t meet his dad until he was graduating high school.

Jarrett’s love of art provided an outlet for him and got him through difficult times at home and school.  His grandparents had their own issues with drinking, but their love for him is apparent throughout his life.  They supported his art by sending him to classes, buying supplies for him to use at home, and helping his application process to art colleges.  I felt endeared to his grandparents (despite some not so great moments) because of his grandfather’s sense of humor and his grandmother’s crassness.   They went through a lot with their daughter as well.

This is a graphic novel with an incredible sense of detail.  Krosoczka used actual drawings that he saved from his childhood throughout the book.  He even used his grandmother’s favorite pineapple wallpaper between story sections.  This book is clearly a labor of love.  Jarrett came to terms with the mixed emotions he had for his mother and her choices and ensured that his life would be positive.  Two important points become evident in this story: the tenacity of the human spirit can push one through difficulty, and home is found where you are cared for and loved.

Souls of War

It is difficult for anyone to fully comprehend what it feels like to be in war unless they’ve been through it themselves.  To me, Alan Gratz’s book Grenade represents the turmoil, aggression, fear, survival instincts, and desperation of war quite well.  The story takes place in WWII Okinawa, where the Japanese army is hoping to slow down the advancement of the American soldiers into Japan.  The author’s afterword is worth a read to get more context too.

The plot shares perspectives between an American soldier named Ray, and Blood and Iron Student Corps soldier Hideki.  Both are young men thrust into this brutal war.  Hideki’s tale begins when his Student Corps are given two grenades; one is to kill as many Americans as possible and the other is to kill themselves.  Hideki’s grenades become a strong symbol throughout the story.  His first grenade is used (SPOILER AHEAD) and it takes Ray’s life.  He contemplates using the second at numerous points in the story, but ultimately places it down before he surrenders.  In doing so, he hopes to spare his life and his sister’s.  His sister is his only remaining living relative, and finding her was his final promise to his dad before he died.

Through the story, first Ray and then Hideki, collect pictures of fallen soldiers with their family members.  These represent the humanity lost from both sides.  The Okinawan people were very much in the middle of this battle.  They were used as sacrifices by the Japanese Army, and they became expendable to both sides fighting around them.  Hideki took note many times of the fear that makes man a killing machine.  It is kill or be killed.  The photos are an important reminder that underneath these “killers” are someone’s brother, father, and son.

Also enmeshed in the story is Okinawan culture.  Mubui is a term that to me is described as a person’s soul.  At first, Hideki has an ancestor’s mubui attached to him which makes him cowardly and afraid.  Throughout the story, Hideki conquers this cowardice by making strong choices for the survival of himself and of others.  Ray’s mubui also attaches to Hideki, and he must make amends with Ray’s death in order to free his soul.

While stories about war are not normally top picks for me, this one was so well written.  There is attention to detail and realism in the representation of both soldiers’ and civilians’ deaths.  My recent visit to the Scholastic Book Summit gave me the early copy of Grenade.  Before even receiving this book, two other people mentioned Gratz’s other book, Refugee.  This author is getting good buzz, and I will definitely be looking to read Refugee soon.


The book Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin (another 2019 Intermediate Nutmeg nominee) opens by recalling the weather.  It was a beautiful day in which nobody could have possibly foreseen the tragedy about to occur.  We sometimes talk about the weather when we are not quite sure what is the right thing to say.  It is a fitting start to the horrors of 9/11; a day we will never forget.

Baskin does a phenomenal job of weaving together four very different characters.  Their stories begin on Sept. 9th at O’Hare Airport.  Sergio is an African American teen who is returning to NYC after receiving a special math award in Chicago.  He lives with his grandmother in NYC.  Naheed is a Middle Eastern Muslim girl from Columbus, Ohio.  She is with her family waiting to pick up her visiting aunt and uncle.  Aimee is transplanting  from Chicago to California due to her mother’s new job.  Will is a boy from Shanksville, Pennsylvania who is still healing from his father’s death one year ago.  His family is just returning from a trip to Disney that was donated by their town.

The book moves everyone to their individual homes, with their own situations to work through.  Timing is critical in that a couple of these characters almost lose loved ones to the events.  Sergio’s newly met mentor is a firefighter who rushed to the scene to help.  Aimee’s mom is scheduled to have a conference in the World Trade Center that very morning.  The author captures the fear, chaos and heavy sadness of this day.

The characters come together at Ground Zero to conclude the story.  The message that we are all connected is a powerful part of the book and one that touched me in the ending quite a bit (definitely some tears).