Tag Archives: family

Esperanza Rising

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This is a middle-grade book that gets everything right. Historical fiction based on the life of author Pam Muñoz Ryan’s grandmother, it is authentic and heartbreaking.

Esperanza spent the first 13 years of her life in luxury on her ranch home in Aguascalientes, Mexico. But the murder of her father by bandits put an end to the beautiful dresses and servants waiting on her hand and foot. She and her mama, Ramona, flee with their former servants to the United States, leaving behind their wealth and her Abuelita.

They settle in California at a camp for Mexicans working the local farms, and for the first time in her life, Esperanza must earn her keep, and earn the respect of those she lives and works with. Facing not only hard labour but racism and more loss, Esperanza has to reinvent herself and learn what she is capable of surviving.

The characters in this novel are fabulous. Esperanza starts off as a slightly spoiled, pampered young girl, who has had a life never wanting for anything. As an only child, she is the centre of her parents’ lives, and of those of the servants that cater to her. She is a bit hot-tempered and doesn’t really think of her words and how they can affect other people. Servants are there to serve, and she loves them, but they are not her status. That is just the way it is. As life hands her hardships, she starts to change her expectations and learns to work. But it is not only her attitude towards labour that changes.

Esperanza begins to see that no one is better than another. And it is a tough lesson to learn. She goes from shunning a poor peasant girl on the train to working alongside and befriending people she would have once thought were lower than her. I love the passage where she realizes she cannot sweep the floor, and instead of ridiculing her, her friends teach her. She learns pride in her work and that friendship has no level.

Ramona is a wonderful character. After a life of privilege and losing her husband, she gives up her wealth and status to work on a farm and to stay with her daughter. And in doing so, she sets an example for the girl about what is actually important, and how all people are created equal, a lesson Esperanza had yet to learn.

Miguel, Isabel, Abuelita, Hortensia, Alfonso, Josefina and so many others make up Esperanza’s new extended family, and all contribute to her education and strength. They live with racism in every form, from Isabel losing the Queen of May crown in her third-grade classroom to a blond, blue-eyed girl, to Miguel losing his machine shop job to the unqualified white man from Oklahoma. They witness forced deportations of American-born Mexicans to a country they never lived in, and they struggle with the urge to strike for better working conditions, knowing that they could be among those sent across the border.

Muñoz Ryan’s descriptions make the story come alive. I could picture the thousands of acres of rolling hills of El Rancho de las Rosas, the plump juicy grapes waiting for harvest, the crowded and steamy train across the border, and the Depression-era dust storms and tiny accommodations of the work camp in California. She writes about events in America’s history that aren’t well known but affected the lives of thousands of people who came looking for a better life. Some may have found it, but some ended up worse off.

Read the author’s notes at the end. She talks about her grandmother and “Miguel,” and you might just jump for joy.

Esperanza Rising was published May 1st, 2002 by Scholastic Press. First published January 1st, 2000.

The War that Saved My Life

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I cannot count the number of times I ended up in tears reading this novel. Which made traveling the subway a little embarrassing, and working out on the treadmill downright dangerous.

In 1939 London, 10-year-old (maybe) Ada has lived her life in pain, due to a foot deformity and the mental and physical abuse inflicted by her mother. Neglected and mistreated, she has never been outside her Mam’s one room apartment, never seen grass or a tree, has never learned to read, doesn’t know her own age or birthday, and is ignorant of practically everything that anyone else would take for granted. Ada spends her time looking out her window onto a cheerless laneway, and looking after her little brother Jamie while her mother works in the pub below the flat.

When WWII looms, she and Jamie escape to the country with the child evacuees, hoping to leave their cruel mother behind.

This may be a middle-grade book, but absolutely nothing is unsophisticated about the writing or the emotions in this story. Author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has written an incredible story about family and hope.

Ada and Jamie and their reluctant hostess Susan are beautiful characters. And while Ada is the central figure in the story, the other two complete the circle. The depth of the children’s neglect and abuse is detailed naturally in their conversations and actions, without horrific description. Susan is not painted as the perfect substitute mother; rather she is a lonely and bitter woman, who has lost love, trusts no one, acknowledges her inability (and lack of desire) to care for children, and embraces her darkness. Her former relationship with her “dear friend” Becky is clear without being gratuitous and offers great context for her withdrawal.

All three grow and change during their life together, with the relationships deepening as the trust develops. What starts as an arms-length relationship when the world is sunny and war is far off, changes to a deep affection and attachment as the world darkens around them. Ada and Jamie learn that there can be safety and kindness and that determination and confidence can help change the world. Or at least, their small corner of it. Susan realizes that she has been holding the world at arms length, rather than the world pushing her away.

There are many types of wars; those between nations, those of ignorance, and those that are fought with oneself. Ada fights pain and ignorance and lack of self-worth, Jamie fear, and Susan loneliness. Surrounded by conflict, each fights personal battles against a backdrop of great evil and terror.

And the evil and terror are accurately depicted.  WWII England was waiting for an invasion in 1939-40, hearing about Hitler’s march through other nations, and wondering if their great country would fall.

The War that Saved My Life celebrates families of all kinds, those you are born into, and those you choose. One is not necessarily superior, but the novel also does not shy away from darkness; sometimes, blood is not a barrier against neglect and hatred. Sometimes it is a perfect cover.

It is a book about hope and kindness. It is about love and finding your place. It is about learning and accepting that you deserve goodness.

And yes, these themes are common in middle-grade fiction, and we have all read the story before. But there is nothing common about this book. Anyone can read it, and should, with a box of tissues alongside.

The War that Saved My Life was published January 8th, 2015 by Dial Books.

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

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If you need a feel-good story about love and family and forgiveness, look no further.

11-year-old Perry has an interesting and unusual life. He starts each morning just before 6:30, with a wake-up call over the P.A. system. After that task is completed, he races through the halls to find his mom, sprinting to get his morning hug. Perry has lived his whole life at the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility in Surprise, Nebraska. His mom, Jessica, lives in Cell Block C, and Perry sleeps in a small room off Warden Daugherty’s (his official guardian) office.

But the new district attorney discovers the arrangement, yanks Perry from the life he knows “for his own good,” and delays Jessica’s parole pending application. Perry has to adjust to a life “outside,” and with his best friend Zoe, vows to find the answers to questions he has been too afraid and respectful to ask up until now.

I love Perry and Zoe, love Jessica and Big Ed and Halsey and the other rezzes and the Warden, and even love Brian. I love each and every character. They are all individuals that are never extraneous to the story, but weave in and out, illustrating the relationships that build a family while moving the plot along.

The DA is a bit over-the-top-obvious-bad-guy, but his caricature is maybe needed to illustrate the divide in the story. And I like that he doesn’t have a big moment of understanding and becoming a whole new person, but does try to see the other side, even if he can’t understand it.

The author, Leslie Connor, weaves in two perspectives; the majority of the chapters come from Perry’s POV, but also the occasional one from Jessica’s. It not only reinforces their devotion to each other but also shows that while he may not understand everything that happens around him, Perry’s instinct for honesty is right on.

Perry chooses to try and understand why others see him and his life the way they do, rather than defensively fighting against events out of his control. In doing so, he comes to understand that the lives of others are not always as they appear, either. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve in his quest to see his mom and help get her out of prison, but they are realistic and inventive ideas.

The characters change and develop throughout the novel, but it is amusing to see that, as, in reality, some people stubbornly remain the same, and life goes on around them.

The view of life in prison may be a bit rose-coloured but serves as a great backdrop to illustrating how families come to be.

This is a fabulous middle-grade novel about love and family and friendship, about respecting yourself and others, about knowing when to fight and when to wait it out, and about doing your best to make the difficult right choices, even when the wrong easier ones tempt you.

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook was published March 1st, 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books.

Other Broken Things

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A book that starts with the line “I’d cut a bitch for a cigarette right now” is going to grab you and not let go. Make no mistake, this is not an easy book to read.

On the surface, 17 year old Natalie is a child of privilege. She got drunk, drove, and got in an accident. But her dad has money and paid for a lawyer, and she got away with court ordered rehab, AA, and 100 hours community service.  There is only one problem. Nat isn’t an alcoholic.  She’s not the only one that does stupid things, she’s just the one that got caught.

Her old friends see it the same way. She can still party, right?  Why not?

Her new AA acquaintances, Kathy and Joe, think otherwise.

The two become her sponsors, and her friends, and show her what the lifelong battle with addiction looks like in human form. They wait out her anger and rebellion and self-hatred and fight their own demons at the sane time. There is acceptance, but also accountability.

Natalie is rude and self-centred, but it doesn’t stop the reader from being sympathetic. She is an addict, through and through, always trying to fill a space in her soul with an all or nothing attitude. She can’t do anything halfway; struggling under the expectations of unhappy parents, she gave up her passion because of her father’s concern about “appearances,” and she cannot face her own truth.

Natalie drinks to escape her lack of purpose. She replaces one addiction with another. But as she starts to look inward and really follow the 12 Steps, not just pay lip service to them, she begins to accept herself, and the people around her, for who each truly is. It means the end of some relationships, and the re-starting  of others.

Mom Sarah is perfectly written. Stay-at-home, shunned by her rebellious daughter and social climbing husband, she decorates for Christmas and wears holiday sweaters and bakes cookies and loves her daughter unconditionally. While Natalie can’t see it, or just doesn’t want to, Sarah will do anything for her. And as Nat begins to realize she can’t control everything around her, Sarah learns the same lesson.

Natalie’s father is a different story. So concerned for his social standing, he shuns his daughter’s challenges, and pays for treatment so that he doesn’t have to hide her away.

Christa Desir writes a story about honesty and control and hope. Admitting what you can and cannot control, and who you are truly are, is perhaps one of the most difficult things for us to do. Add the burden of an addiction to make it even harder. But underneath it all, there is hope.

An incredibly tough subject that is dealt with realistically; the ending is not easy or comfortable, but then, neither is the subject. The relationship between Natalie and Joe is uncomfortable to read, but so important to the story.

There are quite a few graphic descriptions of sex; not loving relationships, but desperately grasping needy events that are shocking, and show the depth of addiction.  These scenes are not for the younger end of the YA spectrum.

Other Broken Things was published January 12th 2016 by Simon Pulse.

The Graveyard Book

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For my final Hallowe’en-esque post, I chose The Graveyard Book. As with Riordan and Oppel, Neil Gaiman can do no wrong, in my humble opinion. His writing is smart and witty and original. (Oh! Good Omens! Now there’s a Hallowe’en read! Witches, the Anti-Christ, the Four Horsemen, and a hellhound that likes to chase sticks, get his ears scratched, and sniff his own butt. What’s not to love? But I digress…)

Gaiman’s story of a young boy raised by ghosts is a fabulous Hallowe’en tale, without the terror of a horror story. There are grisly and creepy elements, including the opening scene multiple murder and the constant shadowy threat, but it is also sweet and gentle and shows the kindness of strangers. Dead ones.

After a horrible night when his entire family is murdered, a young toddler miraculously escapes the carnage and wanders into the nearby graveyard. Unsure of how to deal with the sudden young life, the ghosts of the graveyard decide to raise and educate the boy themselves, and protect him from the still-present threat. Dead 300 years, Mr and Mrs Owens take him as their own, into their crypt, and name him. Nobody Owens.

Bod is given Freedom of the Graveyard, so he can see in the dark, and communicate and see the ghosts, and also learn their ways of fading into the mists and darkness. Bod has wondrous adventures in the graveyard, learns about himself, learns how to make friends, and learns what it will be like to live away from death one day.

Silas is a great protector and teacher, his ghostly guardians, the graveyard itself are all so beautifully developed and so relevant to Bod and his story. Under their care, the young boy becomes an independent man with a good head and a loving heart, able to look after himself in a world where evil still lurks.

In the end, The Graveyard Book is about family. Family that you are born into, and family that is created. Although haunted and eerie, it paradoxically never loses the optimism and joy of a young man growing up and learning to how to live. A tribute to Kipling’s The Jungle Book, “It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will take a graveyard.”

Gaiman’s writing is poetic and visual and imaginative, humorous and mystical and riveting. Every word adds to the images, done effortlessly.

The story is appropriate for any age, but there is a murder, so may not be for everyone.

Happy Hallowe’en, everyone!!

The Graveyard Book is published by Harper Collins.

Fire Colour One

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This could possibly be a perfect story.

Iris loves fire and art and Thurston. She sees art in the moment and in the flame and in her friendship with the sometimes homeless but always brilliant boy. Almost 17 years old, she is blank, empty. Setting fires clears her mind when she is overwhelmed. But she is about to learn that some things are brighter and more powerful than the hottest fire.

Hannah and Lowell are her mother and wanna-be actor stepfather, drowning in debt and always a scam away from riches.

Ernest is dying, far away from his only child.  Iris thinks he abandoned her.  He believes that she must hate him.  But her mother’s greed and Ernest’s illness gives the two of them a final chance to be father and daughter. A short, wonderful, bittersweet chance.

I loved this book. Not at the beginning.  At first, I thought it was a bit precious and obnoxious and pretentious. Then came the realization that I was reading it cover to cover, afraid to put it down in case the story went away without me finishing it.

The characters are fabulous. Iris is, at first, a self-absorbed teen, filled with disdain and anger for everyone but her only friend. She reserves a special antipathy for her money-grubbing parents. While none of that is entirely a put-on or front, it does hide her loneliness, and is something she willingly gives up for Ernest.

Neither Hannah nor Lowell are subtle characters. Jenny Valentine intends for the reader to intensely dislike the two of them, and while her writing may be a bit obvious in their development, it worked: they were perfectly vile, and you won’t feel forced to hate them.

Ernest is lovely. Just how lovely isn’t fully revealed until after his death, but I fell hard for the lonely man who finally listened to his sister, and spent his daughter’s lifetime thinking of her, hoping for her happiness.

FC1 is a painting by artist Yves Klein, a stunningly graphic work he finished just before his death in 1962 (and looks NOTHING like the cover art of this book, in case you are wondering). Valentine uses the imagery of the painting, as well as references to other famous works of art to parallel the plot. A great story and a bit of art history, all in the same novel.

In the end, the unexpected plot twists makes it a masterpiece of manipulation and deceit and pure love.

Appropriate for any age, this story has something different in it for every reader.

Fire Colour One is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books.