Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe1. Bibliography

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. 2012. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. ISBN 9781442408920.

2. Plot Summary

During the summer of 1987, 15-year-old Aristotle (Ari) Mendoza meets a boy unlike any other, named Dante Quintana. As they spend time together over the summer and their friendship grows, a devastating accident forces them to question whether they might feel more than friendship toward each other. But can Ari get past his anger and shame to see the love that’s right in front of him?

3. Critical Analysis (Spoilers)

This coming of age story tackles big questions of adolescence: Who am I? How do I fit into my family and my culture? Will people accept me for who I really am? How do I relate to the people around me? Told from Ari’s first-person viewpoint, readers see into his head as he struggles with these problems and learns how to deal with the emotions that go along with them.

In addition to these global problems, this book also tackles a much more specific issue: Coming to terms with your sexual identity. Throughout the story Ari discovers that Dante would rather kiss boys than girls. As the story progresses, Dante must face the challenges of coming out to his family and admitting he is in love with his best friend. Unlike many members of the LGBTQ community, Dante has a supportive family who accept him for who he is, which makes coming out much easier for Dante. Ari, on the other hand, struggles with coming out not because of lack of familial support, but because of his own preconceived ideas; he must fight his own personal war before he can accept his love for Dante.

Coming out is hard, no matter how strong of an individual one is. But sometimes the hardest coming out is to yourself. If you didn’t grow up in a gay-friendly environment, you may have internalized the guilt and shame some parts of society wish to place upon members of the LGBTQ community, which can make you loathe to admit even to yourself that you might be gay. Sometimes the biggest act of bravery is not coming out to your friends and family or facing homophobic bullies, as Dante had to, but coming out to yourself, as Ari had to.

Sáenz’s writing style accurately captures the way people tend to think and speak. His authentic dialog helps move the story forward. Sometimes the short sentences come off as choppy, however, instead of authentic.

Although both main characters are male, there remains a good balance of male and female supporting characters. Both Ari and Dante’s parents play a large role in the story, especially Ari’s mother. Ari’s close relationship with his mother serves as an anchor during the tumultuous times of the story.

While the story does have an interesting plot, Ari’s internal growth and realization are a much more integral part of the story than the events themselves. The story’s plot serves as a canvas on which Ari’s growth can be painted.

4. Review Excerpts

2012 School Library Journal Best Books of the Year

2013 ALA Notable Books for Children

2013 Pura Belpre Award

2013 Stonewall Book Award

2013 Michael L. Printz Award (nominee)

2014 Virginia Reader’s Choice Awards (nominee)

2016 – Nutmeg Children’s Book Award (nominee)

From Library Journal: “A thought-provoking read for teens struggling to develop individuality.”

From School Library Journal: “While this novel is a bit too literary at times for some readers, its authentic teen and Latino dialogue should make it a popular choice.”

From Horn Book Magazine: “Senzs compelling story deals not only with friendship and romance but with personal growth and self-discovery, and is by turns humorous, heartbreaking, and uplifting.”

Form Publishers Weekly: “It’s a tender, honest exploration of identity and sexuality, and a passionate reminder that love-whether romantic or familial-should be open, free, and without shame.”

5. Connections

-Recommend to readers who may be struggling to accept their sexual identity

-Art and poetry play a large role in Ari and Dante’s friendship. After reading, have students write a poem or create a piece of art for a friend.

-Display along with books about astronomy or stargazing.

(Created in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TWU course LS5603.20 Literature for Children and Young Adults)

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Book Review: Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt1. Bibliography

Gantos, Jack. 2011. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ISBN 9780374379933.

2. Plot Summary

Summer starts with a bang for Jack – grounded for accidentally firing his father’s WWII rifle and mowing down his mother’s cornfield, Jack now faces a summer of solitude and chores. His one relief? Helping his elderly neighbor write obituaries for the quickly-dwindling original inhabitants of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. Founded by Eleanor Roosevelt as part of the New Deal, Norvelt was once a thriving community-centered coal mining town, but now faces its imminent death. But one question hangs over the summer: Why do people keep dying?

3. Critical Analysis

Dead End in Norvelt is exactly that – a dead end. Boring from page one, there was nothing about this story to hold my attention. The characters and setting were entirely unrelatable. The story advances at a snail’s pace, with the main problem of the story not becoming apparent until well past the half-way mark of a 341 page study in triviality.

While accuracy may be the most important part of historical fiction – and this story certainly excels in that aspect – works in the genre should be more than a fictionalized history book.

4. Review Excerpts

2012 – Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award

2012 – Newbery Medal

2012 – ALA Notable Books for Children

2011 – Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book

From School Library Journal: “Students will identify the causes of the Great Depression, its impact on Americans, and the major features of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.”

From Booklist: “When things pick up again near the end of the summer, surprise twists and even a quick-dissolve murder mystery arrive to pay off patient readers.”

From Publishers Weekly: “Gradually, Jackie learns to face death and his fears straight on while absorbing Miss Volker’s theories about the importance of knowing history.”

5. Connection

-Recommend to patient American history lovers

(Created in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TWU course LS5603.20 Literature for Children and Young Adults)

Book Review: The Wednesday Wars

Wednesday Wars1. Bibliography

Schmidt, Gary D. 2009. The Wednesday Wars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. ISBN 9780547237602.

2. Plot Summary

Holling Hoodhood, a sole Presbyterian in a class full of Catholic and Jewish students, believes his teacher, Mrs. Baker, hates him – hates his guts. When his classmates leave school on Wednesday to attend Catechism or Hebrew School, Holling now finds himself alone with Mrs. Baker every Wednesday afternoon, where they begin to study Shakespeare together. As the year goes on, the news from the Vietnam war grows progressively worse, as do the relationships between Holling’s family members. Seventh grade romance, embarrassing costumes, parental expectations, escaped rats, and the point of Shakespeare – Holling grapples with them all while trying to determine if Mrs. Baker does, in fact, hate his guts. Maybe she’s a real person, after all?

3. Critical Analysis (Spoilers)

Gary Schmidt brings his A-game to The Wednesday Wars in this funny-yet-serious coming of age story. His characters have depth and grow as the story progresses, most notably the main characters. The largest question to Holling’s believability is whether or not a normal 7th grader could read and understand Shakespeare’s plays as well as Holling does. The portrayal of the frequent cruelty of junior high students, however, is spot-on. Holling faces death threats on a regular basis and is the subject of ridicule when an older student plasters pictures of Holling in an embarrassing costume all over the school. Yet readers also see the bravery junior high students can show, as well, especially when Danny Hupfer defends Mai Tai as she is subjected to racially motivated bullying.

Set in Long Island, New York, during the 1967-1968 school year, The Wednesday Wars depicts an accurate representation of American life during the 1960s. The fear of atomic warfare and the uselessness of hiding under desks; the political tension from the Civil Rights Movement; the anxiety of loved ones serving in the Vietnam War. While the authenticity of the story is generally high, I must wonder: Did Schmidt choose the less probable outcome when the story ends happily with Mrs. Baker’s husband returning after being missing in action? Was it not much more probable for Lieutenant Baker to have never been found? This is my only challenge to the story’s authenticity.

4. Review Excerpts

2007 – Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book

2007 – Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year

2008 – ALA Notable Books for Children

2008 – Newbery Honor

From School Library Journal: “A moving, compelling, often humorous novel.”

From Horn Book Magazine: “Ultimately, Mrs. Baker steps out from behind her desk as a multilayered individual who helps Holling (often through their discussions of Shakespeare’s plays) to dare to choose his own ending rather than follow the dictates of others. Schmidt rises above the novel’s conventions to create memorable and believable characters.”

From Publishers Weekly: “Unlike most Vietnam stories, this one ends happily, as Schmidt rewards the good guys with victories that, if not entirely true to the period, deeply satisfy.”

From Booklist: “Holling’s unwavering, distinctive voice offers a gentle, hopeful, moving story of a boy who, with the right help, learns to stretch beyond the limitations of his family, his violent times, and his fear, as he leaps into his future with his eyes and his heart wide open.”

5. Connections

-Read in a language arts class at the same time a social studies class studies the Vietnam War.

-Read in a language arts class at the same time a social studies class studies studies Martin Luther King, Jr.

-Recommend to library users who enjoy a good laugh.

-Listen to the music that Holling’s sister, Heather, liked to blare from her room.

(Created in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TWU course LS5603.20 Literature for Children and Young Adults)

Book Review: Quest for the Tree Kangaroo

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo1. Bibliography

Montgomery, Sy. 2006. Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forrest of New Guinea. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. ISBN 9780618496419.

2. Plot Summary

Follow author Sy Montgomery, photographer Nic Bishop, and the rest of their team on the adventure of their lives as they scour New Guinea for the elusive tree kangaroo. A record of their journey, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo tells the adventurers’ back story as they prepare for their long stint in the Cloud Forest studying the elusive creatures other scientists said could not be studied. Through perseverance and ingenuity, the team is able to extensively study these cute marsupials for the first time.

3. Critical Analysis

Quest for the Tree Kangaroo is organized in a logical order, following the chronological order of events. Facts about the tree kangaroo are woven throughout the story, bringing together the story and the details in a way that doesn’t feel like learning but like listening to a story around the campfire. Featuring an index, users will be able to quickly return to key parts at a later date.

The photos presented in the book were taken on the same expedition which the book describes, giving an extra layer of authenticity to the tale. Additionally, the beautiful photos help the reader wrap his/her head around a strange creature and culture which would be difficult to understand in a text-only presentation.

Montgomery’s clear writing style helps the reader get straight to the point without digging through fluff. The author’s passion for the subject can be clearly seen when the story reveals that Montgomery was one of the adventurers in the story. Montgomery does a great job providing details about the culture of New Guinea and about the tree kangaroo without overwhelming the reader with scientific details, but also avoids talking down to the reader. Readers are encouraged to find out more about tree kangaroos and their own areas of interest.

Although the text contains no bibliography, the book may be given a pass on this topic since it is a record of personal experience. The author is a credible recorder of this information since she was a participant in the story.

4. Review Excerpts

2007 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award

2007 ALA Notable Books for Children Award

2006 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

2007 Robert F. Siber Informational Books Award (nominee)

2007 Maine Student Book Award (nominee)

2009 Beehive Children’s Informational Book Award (nominee)

2009 Young Hoosier Book Award (nominee)

From Booklist: “Montgomery gives an unusually strong, visceral sense of the work and cooperation fieldwork entails and the scope and uniqueness of this particular mission.”

From Horn Book Magazine: “Montgomery’s friendliness and curiosity set the tone: she enthusiastically engages with the people, plants, and animals she encounters on the trip.”

From School Library Journal: “The book’s fascinating glimpses into a little-explored region will hold the attention of anyone interested in unusual creatures and the efforts to study them.”

5. Connections

-Use in a science unit about animals; each student reads a book about a different “odd” animal and makes a poster about the animal.

-For older students, read the book together as a class; then have each student write a short story featuring a tree kangaroo.

(Created in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TWU course LS5603.20 Literature for Children and Young Adults)

Book Review: Jazz

Jazz1. Bibliography

Myers, Walter Dean. 2006. Jazz. Ill. by Christopher Myers. New York: Holiday House. ISBN 9780823415458.

Review of both the print book and the 2007 Live Oak Media audiobook.

2. Plot Summary

This beautifully illustrated and fun collection of poems explores and celebrates jazz music and history, especially in New Orleans. From a introduction to jazz itself to a picture of New Orleans funerals to a description of all the parts of jazz, this book begs to be read aloud with a live jazz band accompaniment.

3. Critical Analysis

Walter Dean Myers’ poetry book Jazz can be appreciated in its print version, but the absolute best way to enjoy Myers’ poetry is listening to the audiobook. The cd audiobook is read by James “D-Train” Williams and Vaneese Thomas; some of the poems they read in unison, some they trade off parts. Additionally, the poems are read over jazz music composed especially for this audiobook; some of the poems are sung along with the music rather than merely read. I could hardly sit still while listening to these wonderful poems!

As is appropriate for poetry discussing the topic of jazz, Myers’ poems have a musical quality with a nice, flowing rhythm. The rhythm really is the star of these poems – the rhythm perfectly captures jazz and, thus, ensnares the reader/listener. Care is given to diction to ensure that the printed words mimic the jazz technique or scenario being discussed.

4. Review Excerpts

2006 – Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year

2006 – Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Books

2007 – ALA Notable Books for Children

2007 – Golden Kite Awards

2007 – Coretta Scott King Awards Honor

From Publishers Weekly: ” cogent introduction, selective glossary and chronology round out this mesmerizing verbal and visual riff on a uniquely American art form.”

From Booklist: “Middle-graders will feel the sound of the words and pictures working together, and younger kids will hear and see that connection when adults share the book with them.”

5. Connections

-For secondary students: Listen to/read at the beginning of a poetry unit to help make the connection between poetry and music

(Created in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TWU course LS5603.20 Literature for Children and Young Adults)

Book Review: The Adventures of Beekle the Unimaginary Friend

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend1. Bibliography

Santat, Dan. 2014. The Adventures of Beekle the Unimaginary Friend. New York: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 9780316199988.

2. Plot Summary

Beekle lives in the world of imaginary friends, where imaginary friends wait for humans to imagine them. Beekle waits and waits to be imagined, but no one does. Eventually Beekle travels to the human world to seek out a child to be his best friend. After searching through the drab world of adults, Beekle finally discovers a park filled with children; no one there imagines him either. Finally Beekle climbs into a tree and then encounters Alice, who adopts Beekle as her imaginary friend.

3. Critical Analysis

The diversity of the imaginary friends presented lends an air of believability to this fantastical world since each imaginary friend would be as unique as the child who imagines it. Beekle’s cuddly, marshmallowy appearance immediately endears him to readers. As Beekle embarks on his grand adventure, readers gain an impression that his strength will help him be an excellent friend to a lucky child.

Although the real-world portions of the story are set in a city, the setting does not alienate readers from less urban locales; Beekle could just as easily have appeared in the real world in the fields of Iowa as in a large city. The children represented in the park and playing in the tree represent a broad range of ethnicities, ensuring no one feels excluded.

Characteristic of wonderful picture books, the artwork steals the show in this story. Each full-page picture brings Beekle’s world vividly to life. Whether the art draws readers into the whimsical world of imaginary friends, saddens with the drab nature of an adult world, or excites with the brilliant colors of the park, the stunning art creates the sense of wonder so in line with children who have imaginary friends. I want to plaster the walls of my room with the pages of this book!

The subtle presentation of theme in this story leaves readers understanding the point without coming across as preachy. Instead of stating, “It’s okay to have an imaginary friend,” Santat creates a world where having an imaginary friend is the norm. As Beekle searches for his friend, he comes across child after child with their own imaginary friend, not just one or two. This is an important message for young children, who may face ridicule from adults or bullying from other children over their imaginary friends.

4. Review Excerpts

2015 Caldacott Medal

2015 ALA Notable Books for Children winner

From Booklist: “Whether he’s lost amid a sea of black pants-legs, lonely on top of a bare tree, or joyful at discovering the loopy, colorful world of vivacious children with vivid imaginations, Beekle’s journey is lovely.”

From School Library Journal: “Like Beekle’s new friend, there’s something here that feels just right as an “unimaginary” friendship creates a joyous, recognizable bond.”

From Horn Book Guide: “Santat’s bright digital illustrations capture the vivid land of imagination, the drab adult world, and the giggle-inducing expressions on marshmallow-like Beekle’s pudgy white face.”

5. Connections

-Use in an art unit and have children draw/paint what they believe a world full of imaginary friends might look like
-Use in a writing unit and have children write the story of an adventure Beekle and Alice might have together

(Created in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TWU course LS5603.20 Literature for Children and Young Adults)