It’s only March, and I’ve read four of the six books I selected for the Newbery Reading Challenge. I reviewed Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming last month. Here are mini-reviews of the other three Newbery books I’ve read so far:
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
This novel, based on the author’s own experiences, follows 10-year-old Hà as she and her family flee Saigon during the Vietnam War, ultimately ending up in the United States, in Alabama. This is a child’s perspective of not only a complex political situation and humanitarian crisis, but a family crisis as well: Hà’s father was missing, so they had to leave Saigon without him. Hà talks about the painful process of learning English: She felt smart in Vietnam, but dumb in America. The language barrier was all that was holding her back. She experiences the difference between kindness and pity. She also experiences racism, bullying, and bad feelings that come with stereotypes and tragedy porn, such as when her teacher shows the class tragic pictures of war-torn Saigon (the famous napalm girl photo, skeletal refugees, etc.), but none of its beauty. If ever a book helps readers understand the plight of refugees without devolving into pity, this is it.
“The pity giver feels better, never the pity receiver.”
(Inside Out & Back Again is written in verse. When listening to the audiobook, know that the dates given appear at the end of each poem.)
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
When the Takeshima family’s grocery store goes out of business, they move from their Japanese community in Iowa to work in a hatchery in Georgia. It’s the late 1950s, and there aren’t many other Japanese families in their new community in the Deep South. Katie is a typical kid, though she shoulders far more responsibility than a lot of kids her age. She looks up to her sister, Lynn, who taught her the word kira-kira, which they use to describe things in their lives that sparkle. Katie’s parents work so hard, it’s almost suffocating. They don’t have the luxury of being with their children very often, even when Lynn is ultimately diagnosed with lymphoma. This book is an emotional read. Not only is Kira-Kira the story of a young girl who has to watch the older sister she adores fight cancer, it’s also a heart-wrenching story about discrimination, the fight for workers’ rights, and the need for basic healthcare.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
The One and Only Ivan is told from the first-person point of view of a thoughtful, artistic silverback gorilla named Ivan. Ivan, Stella the elephant, and Bob the stray dog live in the dilapidated Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. This story tackles animal rights, welfare, and cruelty with a middle-grade audience in mind. But I’m 40 years old, and this was downright tough to read in places: I unexpectedly burst into tears at one point, and cried plenty of other times. This one was rough. As difficult as its themes are, this story is beautifully told and it is hopeful. It’s an important story; it even shows the power of a peaceful protest and how that can effect change.