April Book of the Month

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

 

This is the gripping story of a twelve year old Black boy called Jerome.  He is bullied at his school in Chicago, but befriends the new kid, Carlos who arrives from San Antonio.   Jerome teaches Carlos all that he has learned to avoid the bullies but, inevitably, the bullies find them.  Carlos pulls out a gun, which turns out to be a toy gun, but it serves its purpose and the bullies are scared off.  To thank Jerome for his help in settling in, Carlos gives Jerome the toy gun.  He wants Jerome to play and have fun with it.  Jerome is unsettled with the idea but accepts it, as Carlos is his new friend.  It is whilst playing in the park with the toy gun that Jerome is shot dead by a white police officer.

This story recalls the real life murder of Tamir Rice, a 12 year old Black boy, killed by a white police officer in Ohio in 2014.  There are lots of excellent books written for Young Adults (Senior Fiction) that deal with the racial prejudices and tension that still exist in the USA – This is my America by Kim Johnson, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas or Dear Martin by Nic Stone to name a few.  This story is unusual in that it is written for younger children and it is perfect for Years 7 and 8.  The story allows for discussion about the complex idea of conscious and unconscious racism.

The idea of bearing witness is central to the story.  After death, Jerome joins The Ghost Boys, the ghosts of murdered Black boys, including Emmet Till, who was murdered in 1955 in similar circumstances and whose death kickstarted the Civil rights Movement in the US.  The chapters of the story alternate between the last few days of Jerome’s life, and his after-life, where he observes both his family grieving their loss and the guilt of the police officer’s family.  The Ghost Boys are trying to change the world, to help the dead to speak and will continue to do so until skin colour no longer matters.

Jerome’s story is both a protest for change and a platform to ask people to learn and not to judge.  This is short story and a quick read but it has a big impact.  It’s difficult to say I enjoyed it because of the subject matter, but I do think it’s a book you should all read.

March Book of the Month

The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah

The blossoming of young love across the divide of differing beliefs (or warring families in the case of Romeo and Juliet) is a classic storyline.  In this case, we have Michael on one side, who is dragged along to anti-immigration rallies organised by his parents and Mina, who has survived a long and arduous journey from Afghanistan, a Muslim refugee. 

Michael’s first glimpse of Mina is from the opposing side of an anti-immigration protest. He’s intrigued and his interest is piqued when he sees that Mina is a new student at his (predominately white) school.  Their first exchange is testy and reveals their deep seated differences about Mina’s presence in Australia.  As they get to know each other better Michael struggles to reconcile his feelings for Mina with his family’s publicly outspokenIslamophobic and anti-refugee beliefs.  

This book is a page-turner.  Each chapter is narrated by either Mina or Michael and that allows us to build up a fuller picture of the characters.  In particular, we can see Michael’s growing realisation that his parents’ ideology is flawed and inhumane.  Michael and his classmates are forced to confront their privilege and casual racism as Mina becomes part of their friendship circle.   

I loved the relationship between Mina and her new friend Paula.  They hang out and do regular friend things, like bake and have movie marathons.  This, along with the burgeoning romance between Mina and Michael provide entertaining relief from the anger and hatred Mina and her family face as they are trying to establish their lives in a new home and confront their painful past. 

This is a good read, ideal for Years 9 and 10.  The ending is hopeful and shows how dubious beliefs can be transformed through human relationships. 

February Book of the Month – Years 9, 10 and 11

Run Rebel by Manjeet Mann

At the end of January, the organisation EmpathyLab launched its Reading for Empathy Booklist.  Each book has been chosen to do a specific job in building up your empathy.  I’ve chosen one of the 20 books in the collection for secondary schools as February’s Book of the Month.  Again, it’s a verse novel.  Along with poetry, I can’t seem to get enough of this style of writing at the moment.  It’s direct and I’m in awe of anyone who can articulate themselves with such brevity and beauty.   

Run Rebel is the story of Amber Rai, an exceptional athlete who is growing up in an Indian household in Britain.  Her father is out-of-work, abusive and drinks too much.  Her mother works long hours in terrible conditions and they are poor.  Neither can read or write in either their mother tongue or in English, so Amber acts as their translator, looking at bills, letters and shopping lists for them.  Their community is misogynistic and, like their mother, Amber and her sister are scared into submission with stories of the terrible things that happen to girls who try to be independent and pursue their education and careers.  Amber is trapped by her father’s violence, the community that spies on her and her own fears.  She loves to run and has the opportunity to represent her County but she will have to rebel against her father in order to do this.  It is whilst studying the Art of Revolution in History that she begins to form a plan to break the cycle of her father’s abuse.  Education as a means to empowerment is one of the main themes of this book. 

The book is plotted well and we follow Amber’s story as she works through each of the eight stages of the anatomy of a revolution.  The way the text looks on the page is interesting too.  The dialogue of each character is written in a different font.  On some pages, letters are highlighted to spell out hidden words which reveal the true feelings that Amber is unable to share with her friends and family. 

This is a powerful read.  The story obviously means a lot to the author, Manjeet Mann, who has started her own organisation called Run the World, which empowers women and girls from marginalised backgrounds through sport and storytelling.  The author’s experiences ensure the authenticity of the characters.  Amber is a complicated and flawed character.  For example, the conflict she feels between her desperation to flee her father and the desperate hope he will change his ways.  She also becomes the bully in order to regain some control of her life and these scenes are difficult to read.   

There’s a lot to learn about ourselves here too.  Amber’s PE teacher cannot understand why Amber’s parents would let her squander her talent and why Amber can’t persuade them otherwise.  “You don’t even understand that rebellion is a privilege” Amber retorts. 

Without giving too much away, the story has a satisfying and hopeful finale.  I found the final scenesplayed out between Amber, her Mum and her sister particularly moving.  This book, and the others on the Read for Empathy booklist, help us to understand the lives of those experiencing tough situations and in doing so, hopefully, can make us all better people. 

Recommended for Years 9, 10 and 11 

February Book of the Month – Years 7 & 8

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jameson and Omar Mohamed

At the end of January, the organisation EmpathyLab launched its Reading for Empathy Booklist.  Each book has been chosen to do a specific job in building up your empathy.  I’ve chosen one of the 20 books in the collection for secondary schools as February’s Book of the Month. 

When Stars are Scattered is a graphic novel based on the true story of Omar Mohamed who was forced to flee, with his younger brother Hassan, from his home in Somalia to a Kenyan Refugee Camp called Dadaab.  There, they live with an elderly woman, Fatuma, who has been assigned to look after them in the camp.  The book covers six years of their lives in the camp as they, and all the other refugees, try to gain legitimate passage out of the camp for resettlement to another country. 

It’s written and illustrated in a beautiful and simple way which makes it accessible but belies the importance of the message.  This page is a great example of what I mean: 

The story opens a window on a world far away, one that is all too easy to forget exists.   When a foreign TV crew turn up to film the camp, Omar wonders “if anyone ever watched these shows back in England or Australia or America?  And if people did watch them, why wasn’t anyone helping us?”  If the news reports aren’t enough to spur us into action then this story might just do it.  Through Omar we see the trauma and uncertainty of refugee life.  We also see the love and support the refugees show to each other.  You cannot fail to be moved by the heartache and sorrow expressed in this story.  I was certainly not prepared for it and read the final few pages in tears.  This is a story that will stay with you for a long time.   

Highly recommended for Years 7 and 8.  (Have a box of tissues close by when you read it!) 

 

January 2021 Book of the Month

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Liz decides to run for Prom Queen so that she can win a scholarship which will enable her to attend her dream college.  She believes she isn’t Prom Queen material and so she has to figure out how to put herself out there, in the glare of social media, a position in which she feels very uncomfortable.  She is funny and smart but also anxious. 

When I was reading this, I was reminded so much of the films I watched as a teenager, like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club.  In fact, Molly Ringwald, everybody’s favourite actress of the time, is even name checked in the book.  The films seemed fresh and unique, not least because a story told from the female perspective (see also Dirty Dancing) was a rare thing and, in the absence of books written specifically for young adults, these films were the only way we could see ourselves in stories.  There is so much to love about these films and though it feels disrespectful to my teenage self to criticize them, there’s no doubt that if I revisited them now they would feel problematic, almost certainly chauvinistic and definitely lacking in diversity. 

We’ve come a long way in society to become more inclusive but we still have a long way to go.  The idea of feeling other and angry and afraid and isolated as a teenager is timeless.  You Should See Me In a Crown perfectly reflects the complexity of where we stand today: Liz is gay, Black girl living in small town America.  Yes, we have all the high school tropes, the mean girl, the platonic boy/girl friendship, the romance, the misunderstanding, the Prom night.  However, like the best films from my school days, this book stands out because it takes Liz and her friends’ feelings and dilemmas seriously.   

This is a heart-warming, life-affirming and utterly delightful take on the high school romantic comedy.  I’ve no doubt that if this had been in the cinema during the 1980s, I’d have been there with my friends, on my feet, clapping and cheering as the final credits rolled. 

Recommended for all fans of the RomCom but especially Years 8 and 9. 

November Non-fiction Book of the Month

Black and British: a short, essential history

In 2016 the historian David Olusoga wrote a book and presented a BBC TV Series called Black and British: a forgotten history.  This year, in response to many requests and in conjunction with the social enterprise The Black Curriculum, he has written a children’s edition.  Both versions are available to borrow from the School Library.  I deliberately waited until November to write this review so that the conversation around Black History can be continued after Black History Month has ended.  School is committed to addressing the themes of race and diversity throughout the year and to providing a space in the curriculum for you to engage with issues of diversity and inequality.   This review also serves as the starting point to the library’s pledge to ensure that the books in the library fully reflect the diversity of the school and wider British society.  I will prioritise the purchase and promotion of books written by BAME authors and about BAME characters until the imbalance in the stock is redressed.  This will take time, but the publishing world is slowly catching up and you deserve to read stories with different perspectives and see yourselves in the books that you read.

Olusoga guides us through the unreported history of Black people in Britain, stretching back from the Roman occupation to the felling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol this year.  It highlights exactly how little is taught about the contribution of Black men and women to British history.  Our lives have been affected by peoples from different continents for hundreds of years.  Records can be found in parishes, in legal documents, private papers, artwork and human remains and yet so little is widely known.

What is striking is that the egregious idea of Black inferiority was created by the slave traders of the Eighteenth Century and continued by the Empire builders of the Nineteenth Century to further their own agendas and line their own pockets.  It turns out that fake news isn’t just a Twenty-First Century phenomenon.

This isn’t however, a history a racism in Britain, rather a celebration and reminder of the influence on Black people on British society.  It should be read by everyone.

November Junior Fiction Book of the Month

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

I was delighted that hear that one of the books I have recently read, A Kind of Spark, has made it onto the longlist for the CILIP Carnegie Medal Book Award 2021 .  I would happily recommend any of the books on the list to you.

Evidence shows that reading stories builds real life empathy and this story is a perfect #readforempathy book.

In school, Addie learns about Witch Trials that took place in her home town of Juniper, outside Edinburgh.  She learns that, like herself, some women were misunderstood for being different but these women were vilified and ultimately killed.  You see, Addie is autistic and everyday things that neurotypical people take for granted, can often be a struggle for her.  She recognises the parallels between the persecuted women’s lives and her own experiences at school, where she has to deal with a bully who turns her best friend against her and a teacher who refuses to recognise that Addie’s approach to learning is equally valid.  She feels an affinity with the “witches” and seeks to right the wrongs of the past by campaigning for a village memorial to commemorate the women.

This book allows us to view the world through Addie’s eyes.  I was particularly moved by the scene where Addie apologised for her reaction to a particularly nasty incident of bullying.  She questioned whether she had misread the situation.  Similarly, I found very affecting, the idea that Addie’s sister, also autistic, physically exhausted herself by hiding her true self in an attempt to fit in at University.

This might sound like a book heavy with issues but truly, it’s an incredibly readable book, heartfelt and well written with a main character you will be rooting for.

This is an ideal book for Year 7 but I think readers of any age will benefit from reading it.

 

 

 

November Senior Fiction Book of the Month

The Places I’ve Cried in Public – Holly Bourne

The nominations for the CILIP Carnegie Medal Book Award 2021 were announced on 2nd November.   It’s a strong Iist of excellent books.  One of the books that made it onto the longlist, Holly Bourne’s The Places I’ve Cried in Public, I’ve been wanting to write about for a while and promote to you.  Holly Bourne is one of the most popular authors for Years 10 and 11 and for good reason.  As well as an excellent novelist, Holly is also a mental health advocate and strong feminist and these issues are prominent in her storylines.  These are important issues for staff and pupils at AGGS, so if you haven’t discovered her books yet, I think you’ll love them.

I talk a lot in library lessons about the power of fiction to help us understand people, places and experiences we’ve never met, visited or lived.  This is a perfect example of how fiction can help us.  An important though often painful read, it’s a story to store in your memory banks so you are able to recognise manipulation and reject it, should you find yourselves in a similar situation.

The tagline is “It looked like love. It felt like love.  But this isn’t a love story”.   The story deals with the delicate issue of abusive relationships and there are trigger warnings at the front and back of the book.  Amelie is 16 and finds herself living in London, uprooted by her parents, separated from both friends and her boyfriend.  She is shy and lacking in confidence but whilst performing at and winning the talent show at her new school, she is noticed by Reese, the lead singer of the band which comes second in the competition.  She is vulnerable and an all-consuming relationship between the two develops.  The true nature of their relationship is revealed to us in flashbacks by present day Amelie as she revisits each place in which she has cried because of something Reese has done or said.

The book is thought-provoking, honest and reveals many truths about what an unhealthy relationship looks like.  As I said, it’s not an easy read in places  and not a happy book but it’s an important and powerful read.

Recommended for Years 10 and 11.

September Book of the Month

Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens

Death Sets Sail is the 9th and final book in the hugely successful Murder Most Unladylike series.  It is the most popular series of books for Years 7 and 8 in this library and copies are rarely to be found on the shelves.  It’s also a popular choice in the Hodgson household, my daughter having fallen in love with Daisy and Hazel from the moment she read the first investigation by the Wells and Wong Detective Society.  (She loves the floor plans, the suspect lists and the guides at the back of the book too!)

We started to read it together until she read the words “perhaps that way I can bring Daisy back to life”.  At this point, she opted out and couldn’t bring herself to read about the demise of the detective duo that had clearly made an enormous impression on her.  I carried on solo and I’m so glad I did.  As a series finale, it is everything a true fan could have wanted with our favourite characters returning to help out and so many plot twists and turns you are kept guessing all the way through.  It’s a quite brilliant last hurrah for Daisy and Hazel.

Inspired by Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, the plot centres around a group of English tourists who believe themselves to be reincarnations of the Ancient Egyptian Pharoahs.  Naturally, one of them is murdered and the MMU detective team is tasked with finding the killer before the boat reaches its destination.  There is a great sense of place in this story, you are immediately transported to the dusty, hustle and bustle of Egypt.

For me, the beauty of these books, and why I think they are so loved by young people, is in the development of the characters and the friendship between Daisy and Hazel.  By Death Sets Sail they are 16 years old and the book accurately reflects the changes and the challenges of female friendship, in particular when romantic interests are inserted.

This has been a wonderful series and I will miss Daisy and Hazel’s adventures enormously.  Thankfully, there’s a hint that further mysteries are to come in 2022 with Hazel’s little sister May, in the Ministry of Unladylike Activity, so we need not feel so bereft.  If you haven’t yet already become obsessed with the series, I suggest you reserve a copy from the library right now so you can catch up!

October Book of the Month

Wrecked by Louisa Reid

In Wrecked, the author Louisa Reid, again revisits the verse novel form she executed so beautifully in last year’s Gloves Off.  This time we follow the story of Joe, who we meet as he stands in the dock, facing a trial for murder, death by dangerous driving.  Little by little, as the court drama unfolds, we learn more about Joe and his relationship with Imogen, his girlfriend and the events in their lives that lead up to the night of the crash.

As with Gloves Off, the reader can genuinely feel the emotions of the characters.  Both Joe and Imogen are facing tough times at home but how they each deal with their problems is different, and ultimately drives them apart.  All the characters are well drawn and believable but it is Joe, who despite the apparent crime, we are rooting for.  Stereotypes are challenged here.  Joe himself understands that jurors will see him as a teenage boy racer but we know better and though we understand how he has come to be standing here, charged with murder, how we wish he wasn’t.  He’s a decent boy, who loves his parents and wants only to do the right thing.

It’s a strikingly written and moving story.  Momentum and tension build, much like the car being driven too fast, as we race towards the final verdict.  I found it impossible to put down, so compelling was the story.  A perfect read for Years 9, 10 and 11 who like a fast paced but profound read.