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Saturday, January 14, 2017

None of the Above

None of the Above
by I.W. Gregorio

[Note: Recommended for 18+ due to physically intimate situations; also included are biological and physiological information regarding reproductive anatomy and disorders of sexual development.]

A practicing surgeon by day and a YA writer by night, Ms. Gregorio is also a founding member of We Need Diverse Books ™ dedicated to advocating changes to the publishing industry in order to help create and promote inclusive literature that honors the lives of all young people.

The book is about Kristin Lattimer, a high school senior voted homecoming queen, who finds out that she is Intersex in a rather painful and unexpected way: Krissy is a female, grows up to be a female, thinks and feels like a female, identifies as a female, is heterosexual, has external female characteristics, and yet, she has internal male reproductive organs, not the female uterus.

And, without her permission, this information is leaked to the school, which spins out of control. Her struggles in school, in life, to come to terms with this and to do what is surgically possible for "normalizing" makes up a good chunk of the book, with the associated drama and complications in relationships and friendships and heartbreaks.

Author Gregorio has done a brilliant job of explaining the medical and biological facts, while very gently yet firmly showing the emotional turmoil that people with AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) go through, and the adjustments they have to make in their lives to accommodate this constraint. At times, the kids sound pedagogical with the medical information conveyed to the reader in chunks, but, their interactions and relationships are very much in tune with what is expected from teenagers overall.

It is impossible not to root for Kristin and jump in to defend her against the insensitive bullies. What was heartbreaking for me was when she was removed from the track team because there was an issue of her gender - she cannot compete in the girls' track events as she is not 100% a girl - after training hard and being the best; and, she was put in a position where she couldn't go on using the girls' bathroom.

Through it all, she has a steadfast friend, and there is a sweet budding romance that comes from shared experience and an deeper understanding of oneself.

Why are humans obsessed with highlighting the differences and excluding fellow humans on that count? Is there any hope for a gender neutral society in our future?

[image source:]

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Sunday, January 08, 2017


by Alex Gino

Some people are born into a body they don't identify with. George is a girl who is born in a boy's body. Throughout the book she refers to herself as "she", identifies as a girl, but is looked upon as a boy since she was born with the boy body parts.

When people look at George, they see a boy. But George knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. 

Cliched single mom and macho older brother fade into the background, but, George's best friend Kelly stays tight through and through. Kelly is fine with George identifying as a girl. When auditions for class presentation of Charlott'e Web is announced, George immediately wants to play Charlotte, the female spider, and not Wilbur, the male pig.

The books is a quick read, but the message will linger long after the last page is read and the book is put away.

Theater as a backdrop for this story is fitting as where else can George pretend to be who she really is.

When George's brother and mother finally realize and accept it, there is not much brouhaha over George's gender identity. George is who she is. Except, she wants to go by Melissa, that is her name, that is what she wants to be called.

The ending is perfect, where Kelly lets George/Melissa try on her girly clothes and they both go out into the world (to the Zoo with Kelly's uncle, to be precise) and for the first time George is comfortable with being true to herself.

[image source:]

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Sunday, January 01, 2017

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

We waved goodbye to 2016 surrounded by pristine winter beauty, thanks to a well-earned mini vacation.

I got to make a pair of felted alpaca wool booties while on vacation, which was both a relaxing and rewarding enterprise.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

The wool came from these lovely beauties, my favorite alpacas I know by name.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

The indoor booties fit perfectly and seem like a well-matched pair. This wasn't a given, considering how easily they could have turned into a size 7 for one foot and a size 12 for the other if I wasn't paying attention to the template.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

The subdued abstract marbling of strands of dyed merino wool add the rustic charm I was going for. They make a wonderfully warm boot liner for those extra cold days when socks alone won't do. Worn with the cuff turned down, they make a cozy pair of indoor slippers.

Handmade Alpaca Wool Felted Adult Indoor Booties

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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas 2016!

jam cookies

Much like every year so far, the kids were excited to make their wish lists. Since we don't have cable TV or Network TV or Satellite TV or anything filled with ads, kids have no clue what sort of "toys" to ask for Christmas. So, they've always been creative with their wish lists.

One year, when she was 5, the older child asked for a 2-year old sister in her wish list! Yep, she wanted a sister but wanted to bypass the baby phase where they just scream and feed and work out the basics of locomotion, as she noticed with her younger brother.

And at about 5 years, the younger child wanted a very specific book: about ocean creatures along the lines of picture books by Steve Jenkins -- not just the sunlight, twilight, and midnight zones, but more about the abyss and the trenches, which has not been explored much and written about much in picture book format.

Even at middle school, the fascination with unicorn has not faded. Yet again, the older child wrote in her wish list that she would like a real live unicorn that can talk and be her friend. Phoebe and her Unicorn is not just a fictional comic strip for her.

The younger child's fascination with PvZ has not waned after 3 years. He keeps coming up with different packs and different plants, and loved making the PvZ Friendship cards for Valentine's this year. So, naturally, he wrote "PvZ stuff" in his wish list, but surely not plushies and little plastic toys that we looked up on the web. He wanted working kernel-pult and cabbage-pult and black-eyed pea and citron and laser bean...

Some Jam Cookies got made for Santa and was set on the table with a mug of milk. Some carrots were set out for the reindeer. Apparently, at some point Santa mentioned that his reindeer like to eat mushrooms and so the younger one wanted to set out some mushrooms for the reindeer as well... Hmm.

We read The Night Before Christmas - the picture book version with illustrations by the one-and-only inimitable Jan Brett -- that has become our favorite read on Christmas Eve before tucking kids in bed.

Of course, Giving is not just part of the season, but a commitment in life, which we do in our own way as often as we can.

Kids didn't get on the Naughty list, phew!. Santa did stop by and leave some interesting presents for the kids, which is probably going to keep them busy till school starts next year.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

It was a fun little project to do last weekend...

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

sew a few hand warmers...

Homemade Hand Warmers and Sugar Scrubs

and make some soothing sugar scrub.

There's a growing list of fun little projects to make and sew that I have been pinning. Finding little pockets of time to do them is the challenge. I keep telling myself that when kids are older I will have more time for soul-nourishing pursuits... For now, I am at peace with what I get to do, and how much time I get to spend with my kids.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Out of my Mind

Out of my Mind
by Sharon M. Draper

publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

What is it like to be trapped in a body that will not do what your mind wills it to do? When physical movement is completely arrested but the mind races with these exhilarating ideas and thoughts, which shall forever remain uncommunicated?

Melody is eleven years old and has not spoken a single word. She has a photographic memory and a brilliant mind that observes and records everything, non-stop, with no delete button. She also has cerebral palsy, which affects body movement and muscle co-ordination, making her unable to talk or walk, leaving her frustrated.

As we see the world through Melody's eyes, we realize that she is not entirely resentful or enraged by her situation, but is in fact trying her very best to communicate her thoughts and share all that she knows and feels, with such a positive spirit that it will put us to shame for complaining about our petty problems.

The resident 11-year old reader simply could not put the book down. It made her want to learn more about cerebral palsy and understand what it is like to just not be able to talk or walk or do the things we take for granted everyday, and yet be filled with so much positive energy and enthusiasm in the mind that has no way of coming out. And, it made her so angry that her classmates were hurtful and unkind thinking Melody cannot hear or understand what they were saying. Wrong! Melody can, and it is heart-breaking.

Eventually, with Medi-Talker, Melody is able to communicate, albeit one thumb-movement at a time, only to realize how odd it all seems to her friends who think this is too weird. Ultimately, Melody realizes she can never be what is considered "normal", never be like her other friends who have all their faculties working as designed. This self-acceptance allows her to let us revel in her sense of humor and loving spirit.

Melody would not want us to feel sorry for her and neither will we dare. What we do end up doing is cheering for her and respecting her fierce dignity and wanting to be someone like Mrs.V, Melody's mentor and life coach, who loves her deeply and champions for her success in life.

[image source:]

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay
by Cari Best
illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015

"In class 1-3, there are 22 chairs and 22 desks, 22 pencils, 22 hooks and 22 smocks. There are 22 people and 22 names - and one of them is mine. Zulay."

Right off the bat we love Zulay's spirit. As we read along, we start realizing that Zulay pays attention to minute details that many kids either take for granted or never register.

"... when the shoe-shuffling stops, we all line up for two-arm hugs..."

"Good morning, everyone,", says the teacher. Then her key clicks the lock for the class to begin

"I feel with my knees for where the chair fits and sit in my seat.."

The illustrations shows this bright and cheerful girl enjoying her school day with her three friends Maya, nancy, and Chyng. Not until we read this little snippet do we start to take notice:

"Inside my desk there are crumpled papers, pencils and kissed, and a folded-up cane - a folded-up cane that I push to the back for later."

We also notice how diverse the classroom is with kids of different ethnicities, Zulay herself being African American.

When Mrs. Seeger announces to the class that after some common morning work the kids will go to the gym while Zulay goes with Mrs. Turner, it does not sit well with Zulay.

"I don't like when I hear my name sticking out there by itself. If no one else has to have Mrs. Turner, then why do I? But I don't say the way I feel. I might stick out even more, like a car alarm in the night waking everybody up."

We begin to understand Zulay's apprehension when we read that Mrs. Turner is there to help Zulay learn to use her cane. "That fold-ing hold-ing cold-ing cane" as Zulay puts it.

When class resumes with Ms. Seeger, Zulay learns of a big surprise coming up in three weeks: A Field Day! With contests, races and games outside. "Go home and think about which events you'd like to be in," says Mrs. Seeger.

Maya wants to play Capture the Flag, Nancy wants to try Tug-of-War, and Chyng thinks she can walk holding an egg on a spoon. While everyone has something they'd like to do, Zulay is thinks hard about what she would like to do on this big day.

"I would like to run the race in my new pink shoes, " I say - to a class as silent as stones.

From here on begins Zulay's determination to run that race - with the help of her cane. She must get over her dislike for it and work with Mrs. Turner to practise running, with their arms entwined.

On the big day, her friends all shout, "Run, Zulay, run!" and Zulay is ready to run the smooth round track that she knows like her own hands by now.

"So with the wind pushing me and the sun shining me, I feel like that bird that went flying."

[image source:]

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Friday, December 09, 2016

A Mango-shaped Space

A Mango-shaped Space
by Wendy Mass

Thirteen year old Mia is a synesthete, but she doesn't know that term yet. Her brain is wired such that her visual and auditory senses are interconnected so that words and sounds come associated with colors and shapes that fill her world.

When called upon to solve a math problem on the board at eight, Mia figures out not every one sees colors and shapes in letters and numbers.

"This isn't art class," Mrs.Lowe said, wagging her long, skinny finger at me as if I didn't know that. "Just use the white chalk."

"But isn't it better to use the right colors?" I asked, confident that the other kids would agree.

"What do you mean, the right colors?" she asked, sounding genuinely confused and more than a little annoyed.


"The colors. The colors of the numbers, you know, like the two is pink, well of course it's not this shade of pink, more like cotton-candy pink, and the four is baby-blanket blue and I... I just figured it would be easier to do the math problem with the numbers in the correct colors. Right?"

Of course, her classmates call her a Freak. She learns to lie about it when her parents are called in to talk to the Principal. She even hides it from her best friend, and most of all from her family - her older sister and younger brother.

While the plot is a big tangle of threads, none of which go anywhere significant, the rich description of how Mia feels and sees the world full of color is beautifully described throughout the book. She does manage to find out what her condition is after some initial struggles. She manages to connect with an online community of fellow synesthetes. She even extends a hand to a little kid who seems to be a synesthete but is not acknowledged as such by his parents.

Sibling interactions are quite real, the family is fairly odd, living in a fairly unconventional house; Mia misses her grandpa who passed away as the book starts. Which is when she finds this scrawny orange kitten who has this extended orange aura. She names the kitten Mango and cares for him as best as she can. But, the kitten dies due to illness and Mia is devastated, of course -- not for long as she discovers Mango's offspring having the same aura.

A whole bunch of different things happen which don't all come together cohesively, but, in the end we come out of the book knowing a lot more about synesthesia in a positive way, and feel like we know what Mia is going through even though our world is not as lit with color as hers.

[image source: Wendy Mass website]

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Monday, December 05, 2016

The William Hoy Story, Kami and the Yaks

The William Hoy Story
How a Deaf baseball Player Challenged the Game
by Nancy Churnin
illustrated by Jez Tuya

publisher: Albert Whitman and Co., 2016

"They called him Dummy Hoy, but he was nobody's fool. He could steal his way around the bases and score! And while he couldn't hear the cheers, he could sure see them."

Even though by 1817 the first American School for the Deaf was up and active, and the American Sign language (ASL) was adopted from the French Sign Language (FSL), during late 1800s and early 1900s "Dummy" was a common name given to people who were unable to hear or speak.

After William graduated as valedictorian of the Ohio State School for the Deaf, he continued playing baseball while working as a cobbler in between season. He set and broke many baseball records and truly gave his all to the game. By working with the umpires, William helped them develop a number of hand signals that was later adopted as official in baseball.

William was not born deaf, he lost his hearing after a bout of meningitis at a young age. The picture book captures William's lifelong passion for baseball while showing us his upbeat attitude towards life.

Kami and the Yaks
by Andrea Stenn Stryer
illustrated by Bert Dodson

publisher: Bay Otter Press, 2007

While not a true life story, the author shares that this book was inspired by a boy she met while trekking in Mount Everest region of Nepal, who communicated quite well even if he could not speak.

His dad and older brother worked as guides and helpers for mountain climbers, often setting up camp and cooking for the climbers who aimed to summit the mighty Everest.

One fine morning, Kami notices that their beloved yaks have not returned home from their grazing. Kami takes out a whistle one of the climbers had given him, and blew it hard. Even though he could not hear the sound, being deaf, he knew the yaks would hear it and come home. But, when they didn't come home after repeated whistle-calls, he decided to go look for them as his dad and brother were guiding another group of climbers.

Amid rumbling thunder and threat of a blizzard in snow-capped slopes, Kami's resourceful attempt to save a young yak stuck in a crevice and to lead the small herd home safely is told in a strong and uplifting way.

The illustrations are gorgeous; the text projects the urgency and direness of the situation, and we read holding our breath, willing Kami to succeed in bringing some help to these stranded yaks. Which he does. And we heave a big sigh of relief when we see Kami proudly leading the yaks down the mountain, his father and brother assisting him after an arduous rescue.

[image source:]

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Friday, December 02, 2016

Rain Reign

Rain Reign
by Ann M. Martin

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (October 7, 2014)

From the best-selling author of Baby-sitters Club series comes this brilliant story of Rose Howard, a story that will not be easy to forget.

Rose Howard is a fifth grader at Hartford Elementary, and likes these three things in this order:
1. Words (especially homonyms)
2. Rules
3. Numbers (especially prime numbers)

She reveres Rules. And doesn't like it when people don't follow the rules. It disturbs her immensely when people go against the rules.

"Stop!" I shouted. "Mrs. Ringwood, stop right now!"

Mrs. Ringwood slammed on the brakes. "What's the matter?" she cried. She stood up to look out her window. Behind me, all the kids crowded to the other windows to see what had happened. Traffic came to a halt.

"You didn't use your directional," I said. "That's against the rules."

Mrs. Ringwood sat down again. She leaned her forehead on the steerign wheel. Then she turned around and said to me, "Are you freaking kidding me?" After she parked Bus #7 she went into Hartford Elementary and spoke with the principal.

That's why I don't ride the bus anymore.

Rose's mom is no more (of course, her dad in misplaced concern, tells Rose that her mom left); Rose lives with her dad, Wesley Howard, who works in a nearby garage as a mechanic; her uncle Wheldon Howard drives her to school and back everyday despite his full day work schedule elsewhere in a slightly better white-collar job.

Rose is obsessed with homonyms (homophones, mainly). She makes a list of them in alphabetical order. It is a hand-written list as she has no computer. So, when she finds a new homonym pair (or trio, on rare occasions), she might have to start over and copy her earlier list and insert the new one at the right spot. She doesn't mind. In fact, she enjoys writing this list.

One fine rainy day, her dad brings home a beautiful and friendly dog. He means it as a gift for Rose, even though he just found it on the road and didn't try to track its owners or make any attempt to determine if it is abandoned for good. Rose names her dog Rain/Reign - homonym.

And then comes the hurricane, Hurricane Susan, a devastating downpour that destroys homes, downs power lines, floods the streams and rivers, and leaves people stranded. And, this is the time when Rain goes missing as well. Rose is heart-broken and angry at her father for letting Rain out without a collar in such a terrible weather.

All's well that ends well, but with a twist. When Rose finally takes charge and calls all the nearby animal shelters methodically and manages to find Rain, she also learns that Rain is actually Olivia and belongs to another family with two kids who miss their dog very much, but the family has not been easy to reach. So, Rose sets about finding a way to reach the family through newspaper articles and eventually unites Olivia/Rain/Reign with her original family, the Hendersons.

Rose's dad and uncle are products of foster care system themselves; Rose's dad has never accepted Rose's needs, and has always resented her obsession with homonyms and prime numbers and rules, symptomatic of high-functioning autism. "Don't start with me, Rose..." is all he has to say to shut Rose up. He doesn't seem to know what's best for Rose or how to help her special needs. Thankfully for Rose, Uncle Wheldon does.

And, when the story ends, instead of being abandoned to the foster care system as her dad had had enough with her, we leave Rose with her caring and warm Uncle Wheldon who is her only living relative, and only friend who understands her and supports her needs.

A powerful and unforgettable novel, told in Rose's matter-of-fact voice, laced with humor, that just barely manages to stop our heart from breaking.

[image source:]

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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Welcome to CROCUS 2016: Exploring Inclusive Narratives in Children's Literature

CROCUS 2016 Saffron Tree Online Blog Festival Children's Books Disability

Starting in 2009, at my other home, Saffron Tree, we have been celebrating a short and exuberant annual blog event, a festival of books we call CROCUS: Celebrating Reading of Culturally Unique Stories.

Each year, we adopt a theme after much deliberation and peaceful voting -- a theme that speaks to us at that time, a theme that guides our book picks to share during the few days of the festival.

Our CROCUS 2016  theme is: Exploring Inclusive Narratives in Children's Literature.

We are focusing the spotlight on our fellow humans who are marginalized based on arbitrary criteria that usually defies logic. Folks who are practically cast aside because they do not fit the mould made for social acceptance. Folks whose physical or mental make-up is so different from the generally accepted idea of "normal" that they are pushed into social isolation.

What better way to break this cycle than by talking about it, through children's books that showcase kids of all sorts - kids with disabilities both physical and cognitive, kids who have suffered abuse, kids who have not had a stable home/family, kids whose gender identities are not binary, kids who simply want to be who they are and not be judged and categorized and limited in any way...

To seal the idea, our own talented Lavanya Karthik has created the gorgeous poster for our theme this year, reiterating that differences are good and that we are the same no matter how different we seem.

Starting today, Dec 1, through Dec 4, we hope to bring children's books with diverse characters who believe that their disability is not a limitation, who know that their differences do not define them, and who help us see that their abilities cannot be measured and quantized in conventional terms.

Visit Saffron Tree during this time, as well as any other time, to find the wonderful books on diversity and inclusiveness.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Journey from Children's Book Reader to Children's Book Author

For over a decade now, I've passionately written about children's books here as well as at Saffron Tree, on and off.

What started as a place to record the books my kids and I enjoyed reading turned into a venue for me to champion for all the published gems that filled me with comfort and delight and gratification and pure exhilaration...

Among other things that I write about in this blog, of late I've focused on sharing the books that came my way, books that my kids enjoyed, books that I wish I had written!

And, finally, here is a book that I have written:

Co-authored with my dear friend Praba Ram from Saffron Tree, the book is illustrated by none other than our flyer-girl and artist-par-excellence, Lavanya Karthik, published by Mango, Children's Imprint of DC Books.

The wonderful D.C. Books, who are placed among the TOP 5 Literary Publishing Houses of India, have a rich collection of children's book through their Children's Imprint, Mango. I am happy that our book has joined their illustrious ranks now.

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Saturday, November 05, 2016


by Edward Bloor

Tangerine is an uplifting multi-threaded story, featuring a young protagonist who has a strong sense of self-worth, that combines rite-of-passage with sibling rivalry, race issues, environmental concerns, football mania, minority communities and more, told brilliantly, without stodgy pontificating or sappy sentimentality.

Seventh grader Paul Fisher moves to Tangerine County, Florida, with his family to start a new school year at Lake Windsor Middle School (LWMS), leaving Houston and his friends behind without too much drama. Overshadowed by his older brother Erik, who is the center of the Erik Fisher Football Dream that his parents have intricately woven and diligently pursued thanks to Erik's phenomenal placekicking, Paul is left to his own devices most of the time, ignored, and underappreciated despite his superb goal-tending abilities for his school soccer team.

Paul wears thick glasses to help him see better. His brother originated this story of Paul staring at the solar eclipse for too long and thus losing his visual acuity. Paul is not sure that story is true, but, he dare not challenge his brother as Erik is quite the mean-spirited bully who hides it well around his parents. His parents don't seem too forthcoming to clarify this vision issue either.

Between the stench of the muck fires that would never go out, and the swarm of mosquitoes that thrive in the swamp created when misguided folks tried to douse the muck fire with gallons of water, life in Tangerine County is not all pleasant. Add to it the very real danger of being hit by lightning, as well as drowning in a sinkhole while sitting in the classroom, life can be positively dangerous.

Indeed, when during football practice, one of the kids of the high school football team is struck by lightning and dies, folks just take it in their stride and don't even suspend practice the next day, carrying on as if nothing can be more important than NFL dreams.

And yes, the sinkhole gobbles up quite a few of the portable classrooms of LWMS, with the kids just barely escaping death. If all this seems highly improbable, think again.

Paul Fisher is furious that his mom demanded a tour of his new school explicitly declaring that he is "legally blind", a tour that was not offered willingly by the Principal at the outset, but was reluctantly given owing to Paul's limitation. She goes so far as to sign him up for IEP as if to emphasize the "visually handicapped" idea, which as it turns out, disqualifies him to play in LWMS's soccer team, despite being the best goalie that a team can hope for.

"I followed slowly, angry at Mom for calling attention to my eyesight. She wanted a tour of the place because she's nosy and wants to see everything for herself. It wasn't because I can't see, because I can. I can see just fine."

Though Paul is visually impaired, he has never considered it a disability. He has sharp insight and perception when it comes to people around him, especially his parents who always seem focused on the wrong things while ignoring the important things staring at them. His thick glasses has never stopped him from being a first-rate goalie for his school team so far. Nor has it stopped him from being deeply observant and profoundly astute for a kid his age.

"But I can see. I can see everything. I can see things that Mom and Dad can't. Or won't."

Or won't. That is the key.

The plot thread of the Tangerine Middle School (TMS) kids and their community where, as Paul puts it, "the minorities are the majority," is superbly developed. As a result of the sinkhole incident, Paul gets an opportunity to change schools, and he voluntarily opts to go to TMS, known as the middle school for troubled youth, while LWMS is for the so-called elite.

Paul makes himself fit in at TMS and works hard to get on the soccer team, even if not as a starter. The citrus farming with its threat of freeze, the bare minimum subsistence, the hardworking Cruz family, the all-too-painful story of Antoine Thomas and his sister, Shandra... There is so much going on in this book that one cannot just put it down and walk away not knowing how it all works out...

Rather than reveal all the lovely details, I think I'll stop here, allowing myself a few more words to gush about this book. While some situations may seem a bit contrived for the dramatic effect, the book is very realistic in terms of relationships, rivalries, priorities, lifestyles -- conditions of life -- in what appears to be an idyllic place that was once the Tangerine capital of the world. Paul is memorable and I can't help but hope that kids in his situation have that level of understanding and maturity to handle what life throws at them. Paul reaches for the light when he could have abandoned levelheadedness and sought the dark. He looks for the positives, not faults, he never complains and he knows what's right even if his own family doesn't acknowledge it.

[image source:]

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Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Halloween

The younger child decided to be Ivan, from The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Not the scariest costume if one knows Ivan, the sweet and adorable gorilla. He had a mask in his Dress Up cubby and had black pants and black shirt, so, the costume was easy enough for him to put together.

The older child decided to trick or treat as a Voodoo Doll. Chopsticks and large pompoms became the pins for this costume which I did not help make at all.

Pumpkins got carved, Jack-O-Lanterns lit, pumpkin seeds roasted, trick-or-treating done in the neighborhood...

Your Skeleton is Showing: Rhymes of Blunder from Six Feet Under by Kurt Cyrus, illustrated by Crab Scrambly is a popular read around this time, as is the old favorite By the Light of the Halloween Moon by Caroline Stutson, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.

As always, this poem from Halloween Hoots and Howls by Joan Horton, illustrated by JoAnn Adinolfi is the reigning champion:

"Woe is me," the pumpkin said. 
"They plucked me from my garden bed, 
Hollowed all my innards out, 
And with a joyful whoop and shout, 
Carved two eyes, a nose, a grin, 
And stuck a lighted candle in. 
Next they set me on a post 
Where every goblin, ghoul, and ghost, 
Howling, prowling through the night, 
Filled my orange skull with fright." 
"As if that wasn't bad enough," 
The pumpkin grumbled in a huff, 
"They later baked me in a pie, 
And now they're eating me -- GOOD-BYE!"

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Finnigan the Circus Cat

Finnigan the Circus Cat
by Mary T. Wagner

Publisher: Waterhorse Press; First edition (May 27, 2016)
Publication Date: May 27, 2016

An warm tale about a simple life that can have its own adventures, this book can be fun for cat-loving kids.

Cousins Max and Leroy, two circus mice, live a well-settled life at the old Farnsworth Circus Museum. They have comfortable place to rest, enough food to eat, no bothersome dogs or cats. But when little Lucy Farnsworth and her family move in, along with their dog Boomer, things start to change a bit. To add to the annoyance, Lucy hides a rescue kitten in their barn, which totally aggravates the mice cousins, naturally.

This little kitten, which is not allowed in the house as Lucy's dad is allergic, seems oblivious to the disturbance he must have caused in the status quo at first. But, Max and Leroy take him under their wing and show him the best spots for hiding, the best hidden route to the stream on a hot day, all the nooks and crannies in the circus wagon...

Things can't be this idyllic for long, and sure enough Hector and Godfrey show up which is not a good sign for Leroy and Max. When Leroy almost falls into Godfrey's mouth, Finnigan, leaps to his rescue, hangs by his long fluffy tail, and saves him from certain death.

The pencil illustrations in the book were done by the author herself. The story flows smoothly and predictably with engaging dialog and not a lot of fast-paced adventure or rising action or conflict. This might be the first in a series where we follow Finnegan along with his new adventures.

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book but the opinions shared here are entirely mine.]

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Summer Reading: A Baker's Dozen 3rd Grade Chapter Books

There is a reader for every book and a book for every reader. As long as they meet each other I have no complaints.

Now that Summer is over and school has begun in right earnest, I thought I should jot down the books that the then 3rd grader read over summer. Just random picks. I didn't have an agenda. Well, I sort of did, but did not enforce it.

Agreed, I'd rather have my kids read what I consider wonderful and worthy, or what the general writing community and librarians and teachers consider must-reads. But, each kid is different and what speaks to them and appeals to their sensibilities and interests varies widely. So, if they end up not loving a book that I rave about, it's okay.

So far, almost every book by Roald Dahl has been much enjoyed by both the kids. The BFG is a hit, of course, thanks to his whizpopping and his strange grammar. The Witches  made him wonder about the women he sees - seemingly ordinary people - whether they could be secret witches. The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me was nice too. Matilda was fantastic.

As a non-fiction fan, it is gratifying for me to see the younger one finish fiction chapter books voluntarily. Especially because non-fiction picture books have filled our lives with wonder, right from the kid's infancy.

Here are a few fiction chapter books that the 3rd grader has enjoyed this summer either listening to me read it out loud, or reading them by himself as he lost patience waiting for me.

Dave Pigeon
by Swapna Haddow
illustrations by Sheena Dempsey

A quick read pumped with the kind of silliness that appeals to kids, Dave Pigeon has its laugh-out-loud bits as well as some bits that the jaded adult in me knew was a drag but just put in there to get the kids to giggle.

Two pigeons are scrounging for scraps, and not doing so well, when a Human Lady (with a cat in her basket) comes along with a perfectly stale bread that is a heavenly treat for the said pigeons. Her cat, however, finds its own treat in tormenting the two pigeons, one of which gets its wing hurt. That's our "Dave", so named when the Human Lady takes him home to mend.

The friend pigeon, Skipper, follows along and finds that life can be good with the Human Lady if only the Mean Cat was out of  the way. They both embark on schemes to throw the cat out, but end up with a different problem when the book ends.

So, there is bound to be a part 2 that tells us more about how things progress.

[image source: Author website]

Oggie Cooder (2 book series)
Oggie Cooder, Party Animal

by Sarah Weeks

Veteran author Sarah Weeks manages to create a likable character whose life is realistic enough for kids to take notice and bizarre enough for kids to keep reading. Oggie Cooder is a naturally talented charver. What is charving? It is carving cheese with teeth.

There's the usual super-privileged girls, the boisterous jocks, the dorky smarties; and despite fame trying to change him, Oggie remains true to his sweet nature.

The second book, Party Animal, is all right. There is the requisite diva-ish girl who does not want Oggie to come to her party but invites him anyway, and then imposes these impossible rules for him to follow if he is to come to her party. Not my cup of tea, but all in all, Oggie comes out nice and likable again.

[image source: scholastic]

Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing
(Superfudge, Double Fudge)
Judy Blume

What's not to love about these soon-to-be classic books? Peter Hatcher, his little brother Fudge, and their lovely family are quite a bunch. Virtually every kid I know has read at least one "Fudge book".

Ms. Blume is a master at her craft, spinning seemingly mundane everyday events into wild adventures that turn out to be entertaining, and yet full of heart and tons of humor.

Although Peter is our protagonist, he mostly talks about his brother, Fudge, whose attention-getting antics might be all-too-familiar for parents with high-energy/highly-imaginative kids. Baby sister Tootsie brings new fodder for such antics and the anecdotes flow into a general story with not necessarily a huge conflict/resolution style arc but more of a things-happened-and now-it's-all-right kind of sequence.

Read an Excerpt

[image source: Puffin- Penguin/Randomhouse]

Heck (series)
(Rapacia, Blimpo, Fibble)
by Dale E. Basye
illustrated by Bob Dob

This is a book I did not scan ahead, or read to the child, so I kept getting updates from the reader in installments as and when he read it. It seemed so bizarre that I had to pick it up and do my usual rapid-reading to make sure.

Marlo and Milton get sent to Heck after they are killed. They meet Virgil there, in Heck, which is practically like Hell: there is school there! The threesome try to escape this freakish world.

There are a few more books in the series and the kid has been working his way through them. The rich wordplay and fantasy world building might just be offbeat enough to keep the kid engaged.

Read an Excerpt

[image source: Penguin Random House]

Ukulele Hayley
by Judy Cox

A heart-warming book where kids are not bystanders in their own art enrichment education. Hayley can play the ukulele, it must run in the family since her great-aunt Ruby was famous for it. But, when her school decides to cut funding for the music program, she gathers her fellow music enthusiasts and puts together a show, and in effect appeals to the board to change their mind.

Kids can identify with Hayley and her seeming lack of special talent: while others can sing, dance, juggle and what-not, she seems to be talentless. Until she discovers ukulele, and discovers that with just 3 chords she can learn to play many tunes.

[image source: Holiday House]

The Story of Diva and Flea
by Mo Willems
illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi

I must admit that the main reason the resident Elephant and Piggie fan picked up this book is the name-recognition factor: being familiar with the Mo Willems name.

It's a sweet story of friendship between an alley cat, Flea, surviving on pure wits and next-to-nothing-scraps and a pampered little 'fraidy-cat dog, Diva. Their friendship grows gradually, organically. They each help the other out of their comfort zone and find that life isn't so bad on the other side.

Diva shows the joys of regular, reliable, predictable Breck-fest and indoor life to Flea who is used to scavenging for fish bones and food remnants in the dumpsters.

Flea shows the joys of exploring, living free and flâneur-ing, while helping Diva overcome her fear of feet.

[image source: Disney Publishing]

Jelly Bean
Shelter Pet Squad  

by Cynthia Lord

After Rules by Cynthia Lord, I was looking for other books that the younger child might enjoy. Having lost our own pet guinea pig, it seemed like he was ready to read about another guinea pig looking for a home.

Second-grader Suzanna cannot have pets in her apartment, even though she would love to have one. Her parents thought it would be a good idea for her to volunteer at the nearby pet shelter. Suzanna is shy at first, but soon makes good friends at the shelter and takes it upon herself to find a good home for Jelly Bean, a guinea pig that another family dropped off at the shelter as they cannot care for it anymore.

[image source: Scholastic]

No Talking
by Andrew Clements
illustrated by Mark Elliott

It seems like just about every fourth-grader has encountered this book in school as teachers and librarians seem to put it on every reading list they send home. As they should, indeed!

The noisy fifth-graders, notorious for their rambunctious behavior, decide to stop talking in school suddenly, after being inspired by Mahatma Gandhi who had made it a habit to abstain from speech one day a week during his adult life.

It is a riotous read. The complicated rules for "allowed" talking is laid out organically - three-word sentences only at a time - as the teachers and principal try to deal with this civil disobedience. Of course, on the one hand, the teachers are happy with all the peace and quiet, but on the other, it clearly is not working out well overall.

All's well that ends well, of course, as the two camps (girls vs. boys) end up as allies rather than adversaries and learn a thing or two from each other.

[image source: Atheneum/ Simon & Schuster]

by R.J. Palacio

Ten year old Auggie starts mainstream school after spending his formative years hiding under a toy helmet. His face is quite deformed and that becomes the focus for anybody who meets him. They are unable to see the humanity in him and his struggles.

Told via eight different narrators with unique voices and perspectives, the book allows us to get to know Auggie for who he is, not what he looks like. And, it captures the circumstances and emotions that lead to misunderstandings, perhaps even to friendships. As Auggie navigates his middle-school life, he learns to be more comfortable with himself, and we learn to choose kindness.

As the Dalai Lama said, and as I quote him at home often when kids start fighting with each other:

"Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible."

Read an Excerpt

[image source: Penguin Random House]

Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything
by Lenore Look
illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf

Ruby Lu ends up being likable, even if not memorable. When her (deaf) cousin, Flying Duck, emigrates from China and starts living with them, things change for the worse at home. At least, that's what Ruby thinks.

At first, Ruby is quite excited about Flying Duck's arrival and takes it upon herself to be the best Smile Buddy. But slowly, things she took comfort in starts to change - more Chinese spoken at home, more Chinese foods at the table, and her best friend Emma doesn't seem like her best friend anymore.

The book easily addresses the challenges of summer school, swimming, emigration and transition to life in a new country as seen through an Asian-American kid whose hopes and fears are quite authentic, convincingly told from a second-grader's point of view.

Browse Inside 

[image source: Simon & Schuster]

Bud, Not Buddy
by Christopher Paul Curtis

Ten year old Bud Caldwell is probably known to most 4th and 5th graders in public schools. Orphaned, and abused in foster homes, he flees his quiet town in Depression-era Michigan, setting out on a journey to meet his father. Rather, the man he thinks is his father - bass player for the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, Herman E. Calloway.

Along the way, Bud-not-Buddy has a lot of weird experiences/adventures. Even the most heart-wrenching moments are infused with hope, and Bud's attitude is ever-hopeful and positive. Bud is extremely likable - polite and sensitive, brave and smart.

Read About the Book at Penguin Random House

[image source:]

The Seventh Wish
by Kate Messner

Although it seemed that this book might be a bit beyond his realm of experience, it worked out all right for our nightly read aloud sessions. Much like the fairy tale, "The Fisherman and His Wife", where the fish can grant a wish but the wish always backfires unless worded carefully, our protagonist, Charlie, catches one while ice-fishing.

Charlie's struggles and daily travails was appreciated more by the eleven year old than the eight year old, but still, he was somehow drawn to it and stuck with it till the end, having us read aloud till the book was done. The heroin-addiction for Charlie's sister was a bit much for him, as it bothered him that it can really happen, even if to a character he doesn't care about...

[image source: Author website]

The Hobbit, 
Or There and Back Again
by J.R.R. Tolkien

Since I love the book a lot, I took it upon myself to read it aloud to the kid. It was a blast as expected, reading a chapter at a time.

And, it was even more fun comparing it to the movie(s) to see what parts got dropped out of the movie and speculating why.

[image source:]

Flora & Ulysses
by Kate DiCamillo
illustrated by K.G. Campbell

While this was a fun summer read, I decided to dedicate a separate post to Flora & Ulysses.

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