BOOK REVIEW: We’re All Wonders, a picture book with the powerful message to choose kindness

Palacio, RJ - We're All Wonders
We’re All Wonders
RJ Palacio

We’re All Wonders
, a picture book for young readers ages four to eight based on the runaway phenomenon Wonder, could not have a better message: choose kind. The narrator (Augie Pullman, unnamed in this book but recognizable from Wonder) loves to do the things all children do: ride a bike, eat ice cream, play ball, and hang out with his dog, Daisy. But, he doesn’t look like other children. Although his mother says he is unique–a wonder–other people often stare or laugh which understandably hurts his feelings.

At these times, he images putting on a space helmet and traveling to Pluto where he says hello to old friends and watches the earth from far away. He reflects on the diversity of humans on the planet, room for everyone. Although he knows he can never change his appearance, he hopes that other people will change their perspective and see him not as different, but as the wonder he is. And in choosing kindness, they’ll know that they are wonders, too. The book closes with the reminder: Look with kindness and you will always find wonder.

I’ve read the book a few times now, and each time, I find myself crying for Augie and for his beautiful message which seems to be needed now more than ever. The story packs an emotional punch and will help guardians discuss differences and empathy with young readers. The illustrations provide an added element of emotional engagement as they vividly display Augie and Daisy’s reactions to cruelness–and kindness.

We're All Wonders Collage

While there is very little to criticize about the book, I did hesitate to give it a full five star rating because, as much as I loved the message, it seemed the story was slight, even for children’s book, and could have been slightly expanded, but I am on the fence a little about this since I wouldn’t want the narrative to overwhelm young readers. On a different note, Augie might look different, but his difference is very cute: he has one big eye in an otherwise empty face. I worried that the benignity of his appearance might undercut some of the prejudice and discrimination he faced and misrepresent the hardships of people who look different. I am on the fence about this, too, because one, Augie’s difference is representational and can be applied to so many aspects of difference, and two, again, this might be the most appropriate representation for young readers. Things to think about anyway while you read this book yourself and to the young readers you know…you definitely should!

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BOOK REVIEW: Separate Is Never Equal, as true today as in 1944

Separate Is Never EqualSeparate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
Duncan Tonatiuh

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation tells about an important court victory against segregated schools in California, a story about which most people are unaware, and that occurred a decade before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Case. When Sylvia Mendez and her family moved from Santa Ana, California to Westminster, in 1944, the local public school would not allow her or her brothers to enroll, instead directing them to Hoover Elementary, the Mexican school Her father met with officials but none were able to give him a better reason than that was how thing had always been done. The Mexican school facilities were poor, in a small and dirty clapboard shack surrounded by a cow pasture.

Mr. Mendez tried to organize other parents through his group, “The Parents’ Association of Mexican-American Children,” but no one would sign his petition for fear they would lose their jobs on the farms owned by white families. Then, Mr. Mendez learned about David Marcus, a lawyer who helped integrate the public pool in San Bernardino. While Mr. Mendez and Mr. Marcus toured Orange County for families who would join the fight, Mrs. Mendez managed the farm. The men’s efforts were successful, and three other families agreed to join a lawsuit.

The Garden Grove school district superintendent testified at the trial that Mexican children were enrolled in Hoover Elementary because they lacked English language skills and needed to improve their social behavior, including personal hygiene. He claimed that Mexicans were inferior to whites “in their economic outlook, in their clothing, and in their ability to take part in the activities of the school.” Mr. Marcus’s case derailed Mr. Kent’s arguments, but Judge Paul McCormick took almost a year to deliver his decision: he struck down segregation in the county!

The school district appealed, and organizations across the country provided support, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP, the Japanese American Citizens League, the American Jewish Congress, and more. The support from such diverse people surprised Sylvia, but her mother told her, “When you fight for justice, others will follow.” In April, the judges of the appeals court ruled in favor of the Mexican families and in June, California’s governor signed a law integrating schools.

Being one of the first students to integrate the local school wasn’t easy for Sylvia–she was teased and insulted–but her mother encouraged her and by the end of the year, she fit in.

In an author’s note, Duncan Tonatiuh notes that segregation has been on the rise. A 2012 study found that 43% of Latino students and 38% of black students attended schools were fewer than 10% of their classmates were white. A recent Newsweek article proclaimed that “School Segregation in America Is As Bad Today As It Was in the 1960s” (segregation being correlated with if not caused by economic segregation.) While segregation doesn’t surprise me, the extent of it is shocking, and with the nationalist and racist attitudes so prevalent in United States politics, the problem can only get worse.

Segregation is incredibly destructive to students in minority-dominated schools. The Cost of Segregation, a report by the Urban Institute, in a case study of Chicago, linked lower income levels, reduced educational attainment, and even the homicide rate among blacks to segregation. Combined, these effects hurt everyone in a community, not just minorities. Remedying this calamity requires changes not just in educational policy but in housing, development, and social services.

Because of the pressing need for change, Separate Is Never Equal is important not just because it tells a underrepresented story. It also brings awareness to the issue for young readers and their guardians. The book is well-researched and show’s a child’s perspective of complicated legal proceedings, highlighting the unfairness of the segregation policy. It seems the illustrations are inspired by Aztec art, without the violence, of course!

Aztec Art Collage

I was less happy with the writing style itself. It was very dry and while it was from Sylvia’s perspective, didn’t have the characteristics that to me define children’s books (grades 1 to 4 according to the School Library Journal and 2 to 5 according to Booklist): it wasn’t engaging, or lyrical, or have the callbacks and repetitions that capture children’s interest. At the same time, diversity is so needed in children’s books, and this story needs to be disseminated.

BOOK REVIEW: The Goldfish Boy, a twelve-year-old detective with OCD

Thompson, Lisa - The Goldfish BoyThe Goldfish Boy
Lisa Thompson

Matthew Corbin, a twelve-year-old who has lived on Chestnut Close his entire life, isn’t like most of his classmates. He suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, and he is so fearful of germs that not only does he clean his surroundings and wash himself all the time, he is reluctant to leave his house. Instead, he watches the neighborhood from the upper windows of his family’s home, even keeping notebooks of the neighbors’ activities.

He watches when six-year-old Casey and fifteen-month-old Teddy, grandchildren of Mr. Charles, his next door neighbor, arrive for a month-long stay while their mother goes to New York for work, and he sees Casey push Teddy into Mr. Charles’ pond when Mr. Charles is out front talking to Penny Sullivan. He notices the neighborhood bully, Jake, his former best friend, torment Melody, a girl in his class who spends an unusual amount of time in the nearby graveyard. Matthew observes the widow, Old Nina, water her plants at 10:00 each morning, and his gym teacher, Mr. Jenkins, go for his daily runs.

When Teddy goes missing, then, Matthew is sure that he has seen more and knows the neighborhood better than the police, and it’s up to him to solve Teddy’s disappearance. After all, he has a record of his neighbors’ activities the day of the disappearance, and, noticing Teddy alone in the yard at midday, he might be the last person to have seen Teddy. But investigating is difficult when you can’t leave your house, and both Melody and Jake make a case for joining the inquiry. Together, the misfitting trio follow leads, ultimately finding the clue that solved Teddy’s case.

Meanwhile, Matthew’s compulsive washing is so extreme that the skin on his hands is broken, raw, and bleeding. His parents have told the school he has mono, but the authorities are beginning to question his long absence from school. Worried and feeling helpless, Matthew’s parents arrange for him to see a doctor, difficult when he doesn’t want to leave the house. A new therapist, Dr. Rhodes, offers him hope for healing.

For ages eight to twelve, The Goldfish Boy offers a realistic and painful depiction of obsessive compulsive disorder and its possible treatment. Though at times I thought it rather pedantic, the book is a a positive representation that allows any child with OCD to see themselves as a main character or children in general to learn about the condition and develop empathy.

The mystery itself is high-stakes, yet it isn’t scary or gory, so it seems like a good choice for students in the target age group. Not surprisingly, the adult characters aren’t as developed as the children’s, and at first, Matthew sees most adults with some degree of suspicion or distance, but some of the neighborhood residents reveal themselves to be allies. Matthew, Melody, and Jake are all multidimensional with interesting backstories, though the author might be overdoing it on the tragic past angle.

In The Goldfish Boy, the children are given a great degree of freedom which surprised me. I grew up a very, very long time ago, and I would not have been allowed the same degree of movement outside the home. I’m wondering if this is because of the dead-end street where they live giving a sense of security (though a toddler was just kidnapped, so that can’t be right), different expectations of children’s behavior in England, or me having had a very overprotective family.

The Goldfish Boy also provides a hint into how difficult Matthew’s condition is for his parents. Every time they entered the narrative, my blood pressure increased. While his mother attempted to understand his illness, his father was impatient. In their defense, Matthew wasn’t being completely honest about the event that triggered his OCD, but still. At one point, they decided to take down the wallpaper in his room and paint it without talking to him. This seemed to be so disrespectful and boundary transgression that I was beside myself, especially when his dad exhorted him to stop being silly. In response, his mother told Matthew that they’d been too easy on him, and what they were doing was for his own good. I expected Matthew to confide in the therapist and her to caution the parents about their very, very bad behavior. Instead, Matthew decided that he liked how his room looked after all. This sequence bothered me so much as it promotes the idea that parents-know-best, when that is not always the case, and that children should do what their parents say without having a voice. Sadly, I think my distress over this scene will last longer than some of the other more positive aspects of the book.

In any case, The Goldfish Boy offers a readable and at times funny mystery with a non-conventional protagonist that should delight middle readers and help them develop empathy for people who are different, with Matthew, Melody, and Jake all presenting examples of how the past affects the present. It also promotes the idea that friendships might be difficult but are healing themselves.

I like the UK cover so much better than the cover released in the US. What do you think?

Thompson, Lisa - The Goldfish Boy UK

BOOK REVIEW: The Juggling Pug, featuring a cute but naughty pup

The Juggling Pug
by Sean Bryan
Illustrated by Tom Murphy

Being a pug lover, I had to read The Juggling Pug. In the book, written for children ages three to six, a talented pug learns to juggle. He and his town become famous. But pug is naughty, destroying homes, digging on floors, and pooping on carpet. Since kids get such a kick out of laughing at bodily functions, I’m sure that will amuse young readers!

One day, a girl lost her patience and declared to the town that no matter how good he was for the town, they should get rid of him because he is so troublesome. Pug begged forgiveness and promised to change his ways, but he can’t resist pooping on his friend Doug’s carpet.

The illustrations are great, and it would be fun to discuss with a young reader how many different things pug juggles. I am conflicted about the story itself. It seems draconian to expel pug without some coaching. Then when pug gets a reprieve, his promises are false and he doesn’t even try to be more well-behaved.

Insofar as a kid is exposed to the book without any critical analysis, they may come away internalizing some poor messages. However, if the reader uses the story as a teaching moment, then the book can be a springboard for discussing respect for others and their property as well as consequences of bad behavior.

BOOK REVIEW: Tiptop Cat, gorgeous illustrations compromised by lackluster narrative

Tiptop Dog w Tiptop CatTiptop Cat
Written and Illustrated by C. Roger Mader

A little girl receives Tiptop Cat for her birthday, and he loves his new home. In fact, his favorite place is the roof where he can see across the tops of buildings all the way to the Eiffel Tower. One afternoon, a bird dared alight on the cat’s balcony. He jumped at her…and fell…down…down…down…down. Miraculously, he was uninjured but he lost his confidence. That is, until he saw another bird in his domain.

The illustrations in Tiptop Cat are absolutely gorgeous and very life-like, and were my favorite part of this book. On some spreads, they are presented in panels, like in comic strips. (I’m of two minds about this. It’s different and interesting, providing some sense of forward movement, but the small size of the images detracts from their effect). The text on the pages is often presented in unusual places which I also thought was a fun detail.

Tiptop Cat Collage

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I expected for two reasons. First, Tiptop cat regains his mojo not because of anything he did or thought but just because of instinct when he saw another bird on the roof. I thought this was a missed opportunity to model to children how they might be able to recover after a setback.

Second, and here I am being pedantic, but I think it is a bad idea to legitimize allowing cats outside. Outdoor cats have a shorter lifespan due to things like predators, cars, and, ahem, falls. Additionally, outdoor cats threaten birds and native wildlife. Organizations like American Humane and the American Bird Conservancy, and Audubon all call for responsible cat owners to keep their cats indoors for their own safety and that of the ecosystem. (It is a complete myth that indoor cats are unhappy!)

So, thumbs up for the art in Tiptop Cat, thumbs down for the message.