Review of Punching Bag, by Rex Ogle

Punching Bag

by Rex Ogle

Norton Young Readers, 2021. 207 pages.
Review written January 6, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review

In Punching Bag, Rex Ogle continues to tell about his life. Free Lunch</em> told about the difficulty of being poor when he was in middle school. In Punching Bag, he’s in high school and his family is no longer desperately poor, but he gets frequently beaten by both his mother and his stepfather.

The book is framed with a story about coming home from a summer away when he was seven years old. His mother tells him a baby sister was born while he was gone. But she died. She tells Rex that it’s his fault because he left.

Then we flash to high school. When things get rough, Rex imagines his sister watching him, helping him cope.

Meanwhile, he’s got his actual little brother with him, to help, to entertain, and to try to protect. Rex doesn’t want to turn to violence like his mother and Sam do, but sometimes it all wells up inside him.

There’s lots of humor in this terribly sad book. His style gives us a taste of how surreal the situation must have been for a teen and how trapped he must have felt. The book is powerful, but painful. I’m so glad I read it.

Let me pass along the Author’s Note at the front of the book:

This is a true story. This is my story. It happened to me.

And as painful as it was for me to write, it may be equally or more painful for you to read – especially if you’ve lived through something similar.

If you’re not ready to read this, then don’t. Please, go enjoy some sunshine, watch a funny movie, or buy yourself an ice cream. This book will be waiting for you when you are ready.

But know this: I lived this, I survived. You survived your past too, or you wouldn’t be here reading this. We are both alive. We may have a few more scars than we’d like – inside or out – but we made it through. No matter how dark the past, or even the present, the sun will always come up tomorrow. There is hope.

This story (and that ice cream) are waiting . . . whenever you’re ready.

nortonyoungreaders.com

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Review of Call and Response, by Veronica Chambers

Call and Response

The Story of Black Lives Matter

by Veronica Chambers

Versify (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2021. 152 pages.
Review written October 22, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

When I checked out this book, I wasn’t sure I’d actually read it. But once I got started, I couldn’t stop. It’s got informative, detailed, and current information about the Black Lives Matter movement, including the widespread protests of Summer 2020. A project with The New York Times, the book is packed with photographs that keep the reader engaged.

I learned so much when reading this book, not only about the Black Lives Matter movement, but also about the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. The author placed current events in the context of an ongoing struggle.

I also learned about what goes into an effective protest. There was a short section about the roles of marshal, bike patrol, frontline, street medics, supplier, and legal observer. This is a book about history – recent history plus background – but it is also a book about ways that individuals can work for justice and change.

With all the pictures, this book took me longer to read than I expected. But the pages are large (the better to hold large photos), and a whole lot of information is presented in creative ways.

Whether you’re critical or supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, this book will help you understand what they are trying to accomplish and how they rose to the moment.

The final chapter is titled “Never Too Young to Lead,” and features young leaders of various movements, including the Civil Rights movement in the sixties and the Black Lives Matter movement today, but also young people like Greta Thunberg against climate change and the Parkland survivors against gun violence – leaving kids with inspiration to find ways to step out and get involved.

veronicachambers.com
hmhbooks.com

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Review of Fallout, by Steve Sheinkin, read by Roy Samuelson

Fallout

Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown

by Steve Sheinkin
read by Roy Samuelson

Listening Library, 2021. 8 hours
Review written 2/22/22 from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2022 Young Adult Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist

Fallout is a nonfiction book about the Cold War, leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Steve Sheinkin takes a storyteller’s approach, telling you the stories of key figures, including many I’d never heard of before. Among others, these included a U2 pilot who got shot down over Russia, a Russian spy who tried to establish a network in New York City beginning soon after World War II, a paper boy who found a nickel that had been hollowed out to hold microfilm, and a Russian chief of staff of a submarine fleet who ordered a submarine captain and first officer not to launch a nuclear torpedo — after the world thought hostilities were ended, but the sub hadn’t heard about it.

The book is gripping and engaging and full of facts from witnesses. Although it takes place before I was born, I remember the climate when nuclear war seemed highly likely, even doing a drop and cover drill at my desk as a child, and being told by my parents that you could never trust the Russians.

Steve Sheinkin begins right after World War II and the development of bombs whose destructive force is hard to even imagine. He progresses through the space race and the rise of Castro and the development of the U2 program to fly over the Soviet Union. We hear about Khruschev’s ruthless rise to power as well as John F. Kennedy’s.

The one catch to this amazing audiobook is that my timing wasn’t good. I listened to it as Putin was threatening to invade Ukraine. Learning how several lucky coincidences saved us from World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and learning that all-out nuclear war would mean the end of human life on earth as we know it — all made it disturbing to have Russia threatening war again, even in a different part of the world.

stevesheinkin.com
listeninglibrary.com

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Review of Dragon Hoops, by Gene Luen Yang

Dragon Hoops

From Small Steps Great Leaps

by Gene Luen Yang
color by Lark Pien

First Second, 2020. 446 pages.
Review written May 26, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This is a graphic novel memoir about a notable high school basketball season at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California, when the author was a teacher there. It was the 2014-15 season, and Mr. Yang had just had a graphic novel published on which he’d been working for six years. He puts himself into the story as he finds out all the hopes and dreams of the students and teachers were centering on finally winning a California state championship with their nationally ranked players. The school had previously had teams go to the championship game many times, but had never actually won.

And so we get the story of the season. The starting players and the coaches are featured. Key games are dramatized. We even get the history of basketball and why Catholic schools have a good record in this sport.

The author keeps the theme of “From Small Steps to Great Leaps” going by highlighting many small steps throughout – as people take a step into something new, and big things result. In Mr. Yang’s own life, he was trying to decide whether to quit teaching and switch to writing comics full-time, as he negotiated an offer to write for Superman.

But with basketball, you don’t know if the “good guys” win. And by making that point early in the book, we didn’t know how the season was going to turn out. The final game is well-dramatized and had me shouting at the end. Yes, shouting at a graphic novel as if it were a live game.

Now, the women’s basketball team at Bishop O’Dowd won the state championship that same year, so I found myself wishing there had been more coverage of that. (There was some, but mostly talking about the older sister of one of the players on the men’s team.) Though to be fair, the book was long enough as it was, and that might have made it unmanageable. Not to mention the difficulty the author might have had trying to get to both teams’ games.

I also wasn’t sure I liked the author writing himself into the story. But by the end, I appreciated it. It added a personal touch and emphasized that these were real kids caught up in big events.

I’m not a sports fan. (Though I was, in fact, a big fan of my high school’s basketball team and took stats for it.) But I am a fan of Gene Luen Yang’s writing, and I enjoyed this book thoroughly. The pacing was good; the history was interesting; and the competition was dramatic.

firstsecondbooks.com

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Review of Gone to the Woods, by Gary Paulsen

Gone to the Woods

Surviving a Lost Childhood

by Gary Paulsen

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2021. 357 pages.
Review written January 13, 2022, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Capitol Choices Selection

Oh wow. This book is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The illustrious children’s author Gary Paulsen writes about his childhood, during which he didn’t get to be a child very much of the time. This book came out not long before his death in 2021. I love the part at the back of the book when he describes himself deciding to write this book.

No longer a boy, he lived and filled the years and saw thousands of hills and oceans and forests and mountains and cities and some ugliness and much more beauty and people, God, all the people until finally, at last he came of an age, an old age, a still older age.

Eighty years.

Eighty glorious years absolutely packed with life.

And one day, living in a shack in the New Mexico mountains, he looked in an old box of things from his life, from moving, and saw one of the old blue Scripto notebooks that had somehow followed him in his life. And he picked up the notebook and opened it and found it was the story of the deer killed by hunters that he had written for the librarian.

But more, still more, there were empty pages after the story. Discolored, but he could still see the lines, the beautiful lines that still, after all these years, called to him, dared him, and he sat down and found a pencil and thought:

What the hell.

Might as well write something down.

My library has put this book in juvenile nonfiction, and although I don’t dispute that, I’m going to file this review with teen nonfiction. Although Gary Paulsen writes mainly about his childhood, he finishes when he enlists as a soldier at seventeen, and he saw some horribly difficult things along the way. Things like horribly wounded soldiers when he traveled on a train alone at age five, and later women and children eaten by sharks as he watched on a transport ship, and “night people” obliterated by machine gun fire when they tried to climb the fence around the American military compound in Manila.

So yes, this book has some horrible and hard things, but so much of it is tender and beautiful. Almost half the book is at the beginning when “the boy” at five years old was suddenly sent to his aunt and uncle who lived in an isolated farm (not even a phone line) in the North woods. There he learned to hunt for mushrooms, milk cows, fish, camp in the woods, and so much more. This part just bursts with love and awe for the beauty around him.

But then his mother showed up and they traveled to his father, stationed in Manila. Things got much harder and now instead of learning woodcraft, he learned street smarts. Back in the United States, living a life of his own with his drunk parents not paying any attention, my heart was captured and then wrung out with the story of how a librarian won his trust. And after she gave him the first whole books he ever read on his own, she presented him with a notebook and pencil and suggested that he write down his own stories and the mind pictures that came up as he read.

And so the seeds were planted for the boy to become a beloved children’s author.

I highly recommend this book for anyone from young teens to adults. I promise your heart will be touched. And I’m so happy to know what Gary Paulsen thought about his life before he died. His years were absolutely packed with life.

GaryPaulsenAuthor.com
mackids.com

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Review of Run, Book One, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury, and Nate Powell

Run
Book One

written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
art by L. Fury with Nate Powell

Abrams Comic Arts, 2021. 154 pages.
Review written November 15, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Run, Book One continues the story told in the award-winning series March, about John Lewis’s experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, this one beginning after the Voting Rights Act was signed. John Lewis got to see and approve of almost all the pages in this book before his death. I hope that the collaborators did enough work with him to continue the story, and I’m optimistic about that since they’re still calling it Book One.

We see lots of backlash against what they had accomplished. The book opens with members of the Ku Klux Klan on the march. There’s also conflict in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the organization for which John Lewis served as chairman for years – until dissent got him removed. The whole principle of nonviolence was being challenged.

A note at the back makes me appreciate how much historical research went into getting the detailed images in this book exactly right. They not only researched things like which models of cars were made that year, but also which cars people in any given neighborhood would drive. There are also short biographies at the back of people who show up in the book, and that section goes on for twelve pages. There’s so much detail and so much to learn in this book.

I thought it was interesting that the Black Panther party produced small comic books “explaining to new voters how they could vote for the new party, as well as the responsibilities and powers of the different elected positions they’d be voting for.” So this graphic novel comes from a long and fine tradition.

I am so thankful to the team of “Good Trouble Productions” for making sure that John Lewis’s voice can still be heard.

abramscomicarts.com

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Review of If I Go Missing, by Brianna Jonnie with Nahanni Shingoose, art by Nshannacappo

If I Go Missing

by Brianna Jonnie with Nahanni Shingoose
art by Nshannacappo

James Lorimer & Company, Toronto. First published in Canada in 2019. Published in the United States in 2020. 64 pages.
Review written October 7, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This book takes a letter written by the author to her local police station when she was 14 years old and illustrates it in graphic novel format. She noticed that Indigenous women who go missing do not get searched for as quickly or as effectively as white people who go missing.

Here’s a powerful part, with sinister pictures of men shown in the background:

I am more likely than my friends to be murdered by a person unknown to me.
I am more likely to be raped, assaulted or sexually violated.
I cannot take public transit or go for a walk without being approached or ogled at by men I do not know, even in a safe part of the city; even during the daytime.

She points out that treating Indigenous people who go missing differently than white people who go missing teaches everyone that Indigenous lives are not as valuable.

And she concludes with instructions to the police if she should go missing. It would not be from running away or by her own choice.

Provide details that humanize me, not just the colour of my hair, my height and my ethnicity.

Tell them that I have goals, dreams and aspirations and a future I want to be part of.

Do not treat me as the Indigenous person I am proud to be.

This book will haunt you. It draws your attention to an important human rights issue in a powerful way.

lorimer.ca
lernerbooks.com

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Review of All Thirteen, by Christina Soontornvat

All Thirteen

The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team

by Christina Soontornvat

Candlewick Press, 2020. 280 pages.
Review written March 1, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
2021 John Newbery Honor Book
2021 Robert F. Sibert Honor Book
2021 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist
2021 Orbis Pictus Award Honor Book

Wow! I had checked this book out but had decided not to read it, because it’s long, and I thought learning about an incident faraway on the other side of the world wasn’t all that compelling. I’m so glad that watching it win Honor after Honor at the Youth Media Awards – including Newbery Honor, which is rare for nonfiction – convinced me that I was mistaken and should take another look. And author Christina Soontornvat won an incredible two Newbery Honors in the same year, also getting one for her novel A Wish in the Dark.

I was so glad I did. Christina Soontornvat tells the complete story of the thirteen boys on the Thai soccer team who got trapped in a cave and had the whole nation, even the world, rally round to save them. Having read the book, I now understand how they got trapped – the treacherous geology that brought rainwater suddenly and unexpectedly into the cave. I also understand what an incredibly difficult task it was to rescue them – the people in charge honestly thought five to eight of the boys would die.

What I remembered about the news event was that one rescuer – a Thai Navy SEAL – did die in the rescue process. I now understand why cave diving is so much more treacherous than open sea diving and how that could have happened, even to an expert diver.

The author was visiting family in Thailand when the boys got trapped, so she was able to express and understand what the people there were thinking and feeling about the rescue, and how hundreds of people pitched in to help without pay.

It was an international team that saved the boys, including American Navy SEALS and British cave divers. But the author tells about the many Thai people that were involved, including those who worked to divert streams flowing into the cave and drain water coming out of the cave, which was also crucial to making the rescue possible.

Believe it or not, I was so taken up with this story, I dreamed about it one night when I was in the middle of the book!

This book is long, with lots of text, but the text is broken up with photographs or charts or sidebars on almost every spread. This is more for middle school or high school readers than younger kids, but whoever picks it up, once you start reading, you’re going to be drawn in.

candlewick.com

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Review of Almost American Girl, by Robin Ha

Almost American Girl

by Robin Ha

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2020. 233 pages.
Review written May 13, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Longer Children’s Nonfiction

The graphic format is so wonderful for a memoir about dealing with middle school and high school under exceptionally trying circumstances. I hope this will enjoy the popularity of similar books such as Smile, Best Friends, and New Kid.

When Chuna Ha’s mother brought her to America one summer, Chuna thought they were just taking a vacation. They went to Alabama, a place Chuna had never heard of, and stayed with a “friend” of her mother. At the end of the “vacation,” her mother said she was getting married and they were in America to stay.

Chuna took the American name of Robin, but it was hard to pronounce. She didn’t speak English very well and had a lot of trouble in middle school in Alabama. We see Robin having trouble getting along with her step family, bullies teasing her cruelly at school, and how hard it is to make friends when you don’t speak the same language. She finally meets kids she connects with when her mother finds a comics class at a comics store.

She and her mother move to Virginia when she’s ready to start high school, and then there’s an entire classroom full of English Language Learners, so she no longer feels so out of place, and doesn’t stand out. At the end of the book, Robin visits her hometown in Korea and sees her old friends and learns that not only is she different from them now, she has different hopes and dreams for her future.

This graphic-format memoir brings you into Robin’s experiences with all its struggles and triumphs.

banchancomic.tumblr.com
epicreads.com

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Review of Champion, by Sally M. Walker

Champion

The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree

by Sally M. Walker

Henry Holt and Company, 2018. 136 pages.
Starred Review
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#8 Longer Children’s Nonfiction

I’m not sure when I heard that American chestnut trees had all died off, but I know I heard it as a regrettable fact.

This book says that isn’t actually true. Scientists are using a three-pronged approach to bringing back the American chestnut tree.

First, we learn what happened. A mysterious blight hit the magnificent trees in 1904 in New York, killing them quickly.

It took some work, but scientists determined that a fungus was causing the problem. Finding a way to fight the fungus proved to be very difficult. By 1940, nearly four billion American chestnut trees had died.

However – there’s still some hope.

The roots of many American chestnut trees are still living beneath the soil. Certain microbes in the soil stop the blight fungus from invading the buried roots. The healthy roots continually send up new sprouts that ring the lifeless stump. Each sprout develops its own root system and becomes a sapling. But its reprieve from the blight is only temporary. The sapling grows for 5 to 10 years, until eventually the blight kills it.

However – those still-alive trees give scientists something to work with.

There are currently three approaches being used to try to bring back the American chestnut tree. One is weakening the blight – a virus was found in Europe that attacks the fungus that causes the blight and makes it weaker, so that trees can survive its attacks. Scientists are working with this virus and inoculating trees.

Another approach is to cross breed American chestnuts with Chinese chestnuts, which are naturally resistant to the blight. The challenge is using backcrossing to keep almost all the characteristics of the American chestnut in the resultant trees – but have them resistant to the blight.

The final approach involves genetically modifying the trees’ DNA with a blight-resistant gene from wheat. However, genetic engineering is highly regulated, so there will be many tests the resulting plants must undergo before they can even be allowed to propagate in the wild.

It’s all very interesting, real-life science. Because trees are slow-growing, it all takes years, but maybe our grandchildren will once again be able to find forests of American chestnut trees.

There’s plenty of back matter in this book, including four appendices about side stories. I liked Appendix B where they tested whether squirrels like the taste of the new chestnuts and would gather them. Appendix C talks about ways children and classrooms can help the effort.

sallymwalker.com
mackids.com

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