Dean Schneider

When the school bell rings and students race for the doors, where do they go? What do they do? In each of the 10 short stories that compose Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, the reader follows a different student to see what they get up to on their way home. 

In “The Low Cuts Strike Again,” Bit, Francy, John John and Trista are the kids whom teachers talk about in the teachers’ lounge—“at-risk” kids who swipe loose change wherever they might find it. The Low Cuts, as the four call themselves, have something in common: their almost-bald heads, a haircut chosen in solidarity with each other and with their parents, all cancer survivors. And it’s what they do with all that loose change that shows another side of the label of “at-risk.” 

In the lead story, “Water, Booger, Bears,” Jasmine and TJ challenge those who think “boys and girls can’t just be friends.” Other stories portray protagonists dealing with bullying, falling in love and struggling with anxiety. 

Jason Reynolds affords loving attention to each of the characters in his large cast. Despite simple-seeming prose, his language sparkles. He writes of the Low Cuts, “Even though they were tight on time, they were loose on talk” and, “Bit put a pothole in the middle of memory lane.” Along with his previous novels, written in prose, verse and dual voices, these short stories demonstrate Reynolds’ range of superb storytelling.

When the school bell rings and students race for the doors, where do they go? What do they do? In each of the 10 short stories that compose Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, the reader follows a different student to see what they get up to on their way home.  In […]

“It’s an ordinary summer day, the day that Jimmy Killen dies and comes to life again.” So begins Almond’s tale of young Davie’s journey through the streets of Tyneside town and up the hill on the other side.

It’s not a long walk, yet it feels like an epic pilgrimage for all of the people he meets along the way—a priest who questions the existence of God, little girls drawing fairies and monsters and angels in chalk on the pavement, a one-legged man with a hawthorn crutch, friends, footballers, a bonny lass, a handsome murderer, and the dead man come to life again.

Death is in the air, as it often is in Almond’s novels, where the line between the dead and the living is blurred. Often, too, the loveliness of the world is celebrated: “Ah, the mountains, Davie, and the sun and the rain, the greenness of the grass beneath me feet, the yellow in the hedges, the blueness of the sky above me head, those distant jagged islands in the blue, blue sea,” Paddy Kelly says to Davie.

Not many writers for young readers take on so much in a short novel—death and life and what’s the point of it all, anyway. If this novel covers similar ground as previous novels, just as Davie covers the same ground of Tyneside town he has walked many times, Almond views these elemental themes from a new and exciting perspective.

“It’s an ordinary summer day, the day that Jimmy Killen dies and comes to life again.” So begins Almond’s tale of young Davie’s journey through the streets of Tyneside town and up the hill on the other side.

Kip Wilson’s debut young adult novel, White Rose, was the first book acquired by Kwame Alexander’s new imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which aims to offer a greater diversity of voices in books for young people. Fittingly, White Rose is all about voices.

Based on a true story, this novel-in-verse gives voice to German teen Sophie Scholl and her fellow members of the White Rose movement. The group spoke out against Hitler and the rise of the Nazis by distributing leaflets that encouraged Germans to rise up and join their resistance. But Sophie and her brother, Hans, were not successful in their mission, and after they were caught passing out leaflets at Munich University, they were arrested, interrogated and imprisoned.

In Wilson’s fictionalized account, Sophie is the narrator, and the story is largely hers, with an occasional letter from Hans and voices of a few other characters—like Robert Mohr, the Gestapo interrogator; Jakob Schmid, the janitor at the university who caught the Scholls and turned them in; Else Gebel, another prisoner; and Roland Freisler, the judge. The innovative narrative structure begins at “The End” in 1943, with Sophie at the Gestapo headquarters, and then the story shifts back to 1935, when Sophie was 14. The intervening years trace Sophie’s life and gradual political awakening. By writing in verse and exploring several secondary characters, Wilson offers a compelling work that will be perfect for the reader’s theater exercises in English or history classrooms, and it pairs nicely with Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth and Russell Freedman’s We Will Not Be Silent.

Based on a true story, Kip Wilson's novel-in-verse gives voice to German teen Sophie Scholl and her fellow members of the White Rose movement.

Can wildlife in the circumscribed existence of cities still be considered wild? In Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City—a collection of illustrated stories and poems that serves as a companion to 2009’s Tales from Outer Suburbia—gorgeous surrealist art and equally lovely prose portray a “concrete blight” of a city where crocodiles live on the 87th floor of a skyscraper, pigeons preside over the financial district, frogs take over a corporate boardroom and moonfish take to the skies.

In these stories, humans don’t seem to see nature as anything other than menacing. They kill the ancient monster shark, the iridescent moonfish and the last rhino. And when bears hire lawyers to put humans on trial—Bear Law taking precedence over Human Law in Tan’s cosmic hierarchy—human lawyers shout, “You have nothing to show us!” In response, the Bears show the humans the beauty present in all the places they never bother to look: “On the tailfins of freshwater trout, under the bark of trees, in the creased silt of riverbeds, on the wing-scale of moths and butterflies, in the cursive coastlines of entire continents.”

Is there hope for nature? Perhaps the answer is in the story of the pigeons who take the longer view, awaiting the demise of humans and a time when a “radiant green world” will bloom again. Readers may well find this one of the most amazing books they have ever read.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Can wildlife in the circumscribed existence of cities still be considered wild? In Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City—a collection of illustrated stories and poems that serves as a companion to 2009’s Tales from Outer Suburbia—gorgeous surrealist art and equally lovely prose portray a “concrete blight” of a city where crocodiles live on the 87th floor of a skyscraper, pigeons preside over the financial district, frogs take over a corporate boardroom and moonfish take to the skies.

“It was the summer of 1988, / When basketball gave me wings / and I had to learn / how to rebound,” says 12-year-old Charlie Bell. Though he dreams of heroics on the court, truth is, he’s not that good and avoids playing. His father just died, and he’s become closed off and consumed by grief. Frustrated, Charlie’s mother sends him off to his grandparents’ home for the summer. Charlie doesn’t want to go, feeling that “soaring above / the sorrow and grief / seemed impossible.” But because he’s only 12 years old, Charlie doesn’t understand that he’s not the only one suffering a loss. Charlie lost a father, but his mother lost a husband, and his grandparents lost a son.

This novel-in-verse, the prequel to the Newbery Medal-winning The Crossover (2014), includes comic-style illustrations by Dawud Anyabwile that portray Charlie’s hoop dreams, Granddaddy’s pithy reflections on life and plenty of homespun philosophy drawn from basketball. As Charlie begins to open up to the world and his place in it, he rebounds with the love and support of his family and friends. Charlie finds many things over the course of the summer—a restored sense of joy, a new sense of normal and his game.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

“It was the summer of 1988, / When basketball gave me wings / and I had to learn / how to rebound,” says 12-year-old Charlie Bell. Though he dreams of heroics on the court, truth is, he’s not that good and avoids playing. His father just died, and he’s become closed off and consumed by grief.

Nikki Giovanni and Ashley Bryan first collaborated in 1996 with The Sun Is So Quiet, and now they join creative forces once again to bring a new gift to readers. Anyone who knows Bryan knows his big, openhearted embrace of life, and Giovanni’s spare and eloquent poems embody his loving spirit, as in “Leaves,” which Giovanni has called a “love poem, from me to Ashley.” She writes, “When I’m sitting / In a tree / Looking for a friend / I hope you’ll be the one / Standing at the root / Holding out your arms / To gently catch / My fall.”

That spirit suffuses this volume, from “Because,” a gentle poem addressed to sons and daughters, to reflections on the strengths of ancestors in “I Am a Mirror.” But there’s also resoluteness behind these poems, a willingness to hint at big themes—age, death, loss, independence, heaven, the auction block and the middle passage, and an encouragement to take a stand. As in all good literature for the young, adult readers might see more in the words and images. “Wild Flowers” will resonate with anyone who has experienced recent loss: “Autumn will come . . . anyway . . . Let us continue . . . our dance . . . beneath the sun.”

Complementing Giovanni’s luminous poetry, Bryan’s ever-gorgeous tempera-and-watercolor art is a jeweled treasure—a stained glass and patchwork-quilt vision of love.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Nikki Giovanni and Ashley Bryan first collaborated in 1996 with The Sun Is So Quiet, and now they join creative forces once again to bring a new gift to readers.

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