Thanhhà Lại gained many readers with her award-winning novel-in-verse, Inside Out and Back Again. Her newest novel, Butterfly Yellow, aims at an older audience of middle grade and teen readers, but, like her first novel, reaches inward to grab the reader’s heart.
The day after Hằng arrives in Texas from a refugee camp, she goes in search of her younger brother who was mistakenly taken from her arms to a plane during the fall of Saigon six years earlier. She has carried the heavy guilt of his separation ever since. When she finally finds him, her brother wants nothing to do with her, insisting he does not remember Vietnam. Hằng takes a job on a nearby ranch, determined to find a way into her brother’s memories and life. LeeRoy, an aspiring cowboy, becomes entangled in Hằng’s search for redemption and in the gradual revelation of her deep and painful secret. Hằng and LeeRoy serve as narrators of alternating chapters so readers experience their love/hate relationship amidst Hằng stubbornness and LeeRoy’s unrealistic dreams. Lai’s beautiful storytelling, full of warmth and powerful imagery, shine in this novel as does her ability to balance humor and trauma. Hằng’s English dialogue, written in Vietnamese syllables, and interpreted by LeeRoy, reflects her strategies as a language learner. Lai says that this book grew out listening to stories from Vietnamese refugees as a reporter and deciding to write a book about healing rather than horror. This is a book that lingers long in the reader’s memory to offer a deeply touching view of the continuing consequences of war. -Recommended by Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona
Author: Thanhhà Lại
PubDate: September 3, 2019
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The use of English and the Aboriginal Australian language of Woiwurrung, in the picturebook, Birrarung Wilam: A Story from Aboriginal Australia, has a lilting candence that will perk up the ears of young listeners. Before reading this book aloud, study the Glossary in the back for the pronunciation and meanings of the Aboriginal words. Birrarung Wilam means Yarra river home, and the story tells how the Yarra River is home to the Aboriginal culture and many unique animals only found in Australia. Continue reading
Tony Johnston’s The Tale of Rabbit and Coyote is a delight to read aloud to children from four to nine. The children I read it to, asked to hear it again as soon as I finished the first time. Tomie dePaola’s lively illustrations spark the humor in this Zapotec legend from Mexico. Continue reading
The clear voice of Manuel narrates his powerful story of how, as a 12-year-old, he left his family in Oaxaca, Mexico to join his older brother, Toño. In Beast Rider by Tony Johnston and Maria Elena Fontanot de Rhoads, Toño has gone North to Los Angeles on the freight trains know as the Beast. “The Beast is a network of freight trains that move from southern Mexico to the U.S. border. La Bestia is a deadly way to travel. Getting on and staying on are hard in themselves. Sometimes a rider goes to sleep and falls from the train, to be maimed or killed. … Gangs swarm the tops of train cars looking for victims” (from the Authors’ Note). Continue reading
Stormy, by Chinese author/illustrator Guojing, captures attention from a first look at its cover: a small, curly-haired dog and his ball created in soft hues with pencil and watercolor. The assumption can easily be that this is another lovely dog story, potentially appealing to both young and old. However, opening this book reveals a visual narrative whose art goes beyond just “another dog story.” Continue reading
Pripyat, Ukraine, Soviet Union, 1986 may not mean anything to many readers but perhaps the word Chernobyl means something. If not, it will upon reading this deeply engaging book about Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko, two middle school girls who find themselves suddenly thrown into the most horrific circumstances when the nuclear power plant—Chernobyl—blows up in their city.
It was a Saturday, a half day at school, when Valentina finds her father not at the breakfast table, and the sky is red. Urged to go to school, Valentina notices the neighborhood is filled with police officers, and while she is curious, no one dares to ask the police any questions. At school, she is confronted by Oksana, an outspoken anti-Semite, who challenges Valentina to a race to show how Jews are the weaker race. Valentina does not comply with the rules that suggest she should just let Oksana win and by doing so, keep her place in the social hierarchy. She outruns Oksana, and it is from this starting point that readers are introduced to the two “blackbird girls,” who must navigate an evacuation from their city without their parents and learn to live together with Valentina’s grandmother in Leningrad, whom Valentina had never met. Valentina’s mother kept Valentina from her grandmother because of her dangerous actions, and while Oksana would never willing live with Jews, she has no choice as her mother is sent to Minsk because of radiation exposure. Valentina’s mother gives up her train ticket to Oksana, an action that again causes great dissonance in Oksana’s thinking about Jews.
This is a fascinating narrative that addresses not only the explosion of Chernobyl, but the political and social realities of Soviet rule in the 1980s. As Valentina and Oksana come to trust each other, and Valentina’s grandmother, readers develop compassion for both girls as Oksana, herself, has secrets that must be addressed. Ultimately, this is a story of hope, of friendship, and of loyalty that is truly inspiring. Based on real events and a real person who was a child in Pripyat at the time of the explosion, this book is a great read for any young reader of history and for those who love to see how overcoming dire circumstances is truly possible. -Recommended by Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio Continue reading
Written in free verse, Under the Broken Sky is the story of a family of Japanese settlers in the historical context of Manchuria in northern China in World War II. Manchuria is a forested and rich agricultural land that Japan invaded in 1931 for raw materials due to a lack of resources in Japan. In 1945, twelve-year-old Natsu lives with her father and little sister, Asa, on a quiet farm in Manchuria. Natsu’s mother died while giving birth to Asa, leaving their father in raise them. But Japan is losing the war, and the Soviet Union invades in the summer of 1945, and Natsu’s father is drafted to fight for the Japanese Empire. Natsu, Asa, and Auntie (their neighbor), along with other Japanese settlers, become refugees, fleeing on foot to the city of Harbin, where they live in an abandoned school. Facing a harsh winter, hunger, exhaustion, illness, and bullets from Soviet planes, many die, including Auntie. Natsu and Asa are left destitute and alone. Natsu survives by begging on the streets, and like other Japanese parents, is faced with the agonizing decision of selling her little sister Asa, to a Russian woman in hopes that Asa will be fed, cared for, and kept safe. This story gives readers insight into Japanese refugee families during World War II as well as families today who are forced to leave their homes. -Recommended by Junko Sakoi, Tucson Unified School District. Continue reading
Frank Li is, in many ways, like any boy at his high school. He has a best friend and a great desire to have a girlfriend. His best friend is Black, which produces discomfort with his traditional Korean parents, and Frank’s new girlfriend is also non-Korean. Frank, fearful of becoming a pariah like his older sister, hides his relationship from his parents, but soon hatches a plan to work with Joy, one of the “Limbos” who also has traditional Korean parents and a boyfriend who is non-Korean. Joy and Frank “date” one another, which frees them to meet with their respective love interests. This arrangement has its drawbacks. As Frank negotiates his identity as both Korean and American, and all the issues that come with being a savvy teen living in a home that falls back on old prejudices and biases of race and ethnicity, Frank’s story is imbued with humor, profound insights and adolescent sensibility that produces an enjoyable and realistic experience that both delights and challenges readers. -Recommended by Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati Continue reading
Many years ago when I was reviewing children’s books for the Los Angeles Times, I was approached by a producer who wanted to do a series for PBS centered on Cinderella stories. The series never materialized but in the process of investigating the proposal, I discovered many different Cinderella stories from all over the world. Since then, I have eagerly read any new book that centers on that traditional story. This new title by Rebecca Solnit presents a much-needed lively and thoughtfully updated version of the familiar fairy tale. Continue reading
It’s 2194. Academy rejects forced by proximity to become a team also become friends in M.K. England’s debut, The Disasters. This comedic YA space opera includes a diverse cast of characters, each of whom are flawed, interesting and coming of age. Continue reading