Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Kadohata, Cynthia. A Million Shades of Gray. This book is for grades 5 to 8, or ages 10 to 14, depending on reading level (4 stars out of 4!).

Responsible citizens constantly question authority. Sometimes, it’s not clear exactly who is in charge, so it can be difficult to work for big changes. For example, as a school librarian, there are several layers of management I would have to wade through if I wanted an audience with the real boss, the school board. If there are problems in my building, whom do I blame? Is it the supervisors who may not have worked their usual 60 hours that week; the vice-principals who are usually too bogged down with discipline to do much else; the principal whose hands are usually tied by the superintendent, or the assistant superintendents who are necessarily obsessed with test scores because funding depends on them? Y’Tin, the bittersweet protagonist in Cynthia Kadohata’s latest gem, A Million Shades of Gray, wants to place blame, but his sense of innocence and guilt has been shattered by years of war. A member of the Dega, a group that lives in the jungles of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, he has no problem in blaming both the Americans for leaving (although he cannot help admiring Americans), and the North Vietnamese for persecuting them, mostly because they helped the Americans when they were present. To a young teen, right and wrong are not normally this skewed, to the point in which right has been destroyed. Cleverly, Ms. Kadohata’s title refers not only to the color of the elephants that inhabit this novel, but also to the only “truth” that Y’Tin and his peers find, tainted and “grayed” by racism and the terrible misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the middle of a civil war that does not end when the United States leaves.

Y’Tin Eban is determined to become the youngest elephant handler of the Rhade tribe of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Even though the war is still on, it is 1973 and the Americans are still present in the country. In fact, Y’Tin’s Ama (father) has worked with the Special Forces for a while; Y’Tin even gets to go on one of their missions. However, foreshadowing dark times for his people, it is on this ill-fated mission that Y’Tin witnesses and feels responsible for the first death he ever sees: “Soon he heard a soft, soft sound and realized it was his father crying . . . Ama had worked for the Special Forces for several years, but he’d been lucky—this was the first time anyone had been killed on one of his father’s missions. Y’Tin knew it was his fault . . . Was the guilt he felt part of war?” (18-19). Two years after the mission, Y’Tin’s world collapses. Having achieved his goal of becoming Lady’s handler, he may lose Lady and everything he holds dear if the NVA or VietCong attack. Even his lifelong goal of quitting school to handle his elephant full-time turns into a pyrrhic victory when he is finally allowed to miss school because of the impending attack from the North: “Then he remembered that he didn’t have to go to school today and might never have to go to school again. And all of a sudden, he actually wanted to go to school. School had been predictable, but now he wanted a predictable life” (65). Y’Tin must face the imminent peril of a hostile attack and save both his elephant (and her unborn calf) and his family as they struggle to find a haven from war. As Y’Tin’s father has said many times, “the jungle changes a man,” and if they must seek the jungle, Y’Tin must find a way to retain his humanity and morality while recognizing that he must forgive those close to him who may struggle to show true maturity, bravery, and compassion in the face of danger.

Some writers have an incredible knack for always using the right voice for their stories. Cynthia Kadohata has once again created the perfect voice for her champion, lyrical but pragmatic, full of insecurity but bold when necessary, thoughtful but goal-oriented. The story, straightforward and linear, is perfect for Y’Tin’s tale, because he can only move toward the future; his past dissolves before his eyes until all he has is now. His struggle is an excellent model for young people who want to know how to respond in an emergency: Y’Tin is compassionate, determined, and loyal, even in the face of betrayal. He is not perfect, and he certainly resents many things in his life, but he does let his resentments affect his abilities. Yes, he makes enemies, but the reader knows that a simple, sincere apology goes a long way. Despite oppressive circumstances, Y’Tin is able to potentially navigate a path to self-respect and accomplishment. A Million Shades of Gray is a poignant portrait of a tragic time and place in history, and one young man’s struggle to make sense of it. This is an excellent novel for readers who have faced uncertain times in their lives; in other words, everyone.

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Rhuday-Perkovich, Olugbemisola. 8th Grade Superzero. This book is for grades 5 and up, or ages 10 and above, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

I admit it: I’m an old hippie. I still believe in causes, and on a good day, I am fairly certain that we can make the world a better place. I believe that peaceful protest can make a difference, and I also believe in the intrinsic goodness of almost everybody. Under the right circumstances, I believe that love is all you need and that thinking globally and acting locally makes the world better. I try to turn off the lights or the water if I’m not using them, and after getting a $500.00 P S E & G bill last month, I know I’m going to use less heat; I can’t afford to be warm at home anymore. I bring all of this up because 8th Grade Superzero by New Yorker Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich features public service, in this case in the form of volunteering at a local homeless shelter, and I like it. I think the novel has some flaws but the model and message are right on: the world gets better when we work to make it better, and making the world better makes us better as well. Protagonist Reggie McKnight learns that there is no other way for him to grow but through service to others, and if I could, I would broadcast that message on the P.A. system in my two schools every morning and afternoon.

Reggie McKnight is ready to impress his classmates on the first day of school at New York City’s Clarke Junior School. Instead, he earns the nickname “Pukey” on stage in front of the entire school. Reggie’s dad has been out of work for a while and his mom is working much of the time, so things get tense at home. Reggie struggles to find a place he feels at home until, through his church’s youth group and the reasonably cool Pastor Dave, he finds Olive Branch Shelter and he knows that this is where he can make a difference. As a bonus, Reggie can get a fresh start and respite from being Pukey: “This is not Clarke, I remind myself. I’m not a joke here [in youth group] . . . I’m feeling the whole community service thing. It matters” (50). In the upcoming school election, Reggie is conned into managing the campaign of crass overachiever Vicky Ross, and he quickly discovers that the self-centered Vicky is not interested in any of Reggie’s (or anyone else’s) ideas; she only wants to defeat perennial popular guy Justin Walker: “Vicky bombarded me with e-mails the entire weekend. I made some more suggestions for the platform, like cleaner bathrooms or a fund-raiser for a community organization, but she just ordered me to hand stuff out after school” (51). Reggie must navigate some difficult territory, both moral and physical, as he continues to pine after the beautiful Mialonie, who, like Charlie Brown’s Red-headed Girl, always seems just out of reach. Reggie will have to summon from somewhere the bravery to chase what is worth chasing and to give up what must be given up.

There are many good things about the mechanics and style of Eighth Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. The chapter titles featuring date and time effectively provide the reader a sense of time and place (and urgency when indicated) during the action. Also, the author manages many characters in the novel, and they all add to the overall tension and movement of the action; there are no unnecessary people clogging up the story. However, some of the flat characters, especially rival Donovan, seem too over-the-top in their rather stereotypical, predictable manners. Also, unlike Lara Zielin’s Donut Days that simply featured Christian characters and themes, this novel felt preachy at times, and I felt as if the author was clearly stating that activist Christianity is the only answer to Reggie’s (and everyone else’s) problems. However, it is an important part of Reggie’s life and rehabilitation, so it belongs in this work. Despite some flaws, I feel that 8th Grade Superzero packs a powerful punch, is charming and poignant at the right times, and is well worth reading.

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