Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

Bibliographic Information: Perkins, L.R. (2005). Criss Cross. New York, NY: Green Willow Books.  ISBN: 0060092726.  337 pages.

Plot Summary: “She wished something would happen.  Something good.  To her.  Looking at the bright fuzzy picture in the magazine, she thought, Something like that.  Checking her wish for loopholes, she found one.  Hoping it wasn’t too late, she thought the word SOON.”  Young teen Debbie, keeps hoping something will happen.  Hector, Debbie’s childhood friend “felt unfinished, still in process.”  Debbie, Hector, and a group of their childhood friends are all going through the complex and circuitous journey of growing up.  Periodically, throughout the book, the friends gather on Saturdays to listen to Criss Cross, “the kind of radio show you would like if you liked Mad Magazine.  Which they all did, or had, a few years ago.”  Also, running throughout the book is the story of a necklace, that Debbie loses, that gets passed from one character to the next in a series of interesting coincidences.  Will the teens find the clarity that they are searching for?  Will they become who they think they will be? Who will they become, and how will they get there?

Critical Evaluation: Eclectic and creative, the writing in Criss Cross is mostly from Debbie’s or Hector’s perspective.  Told in a series of interrelated vignettes, poetry, questions and answers, with illustrations and a few photographs, this book is clever, witty and provides an honest portrayal of the inner thoughts and feelings of its characters.  Criss Cross is a coming of age story uniquely presented and rendered, and, though it takes place in the 1970’s, the issues and feelings that arise for the teens in the novel are fully relevant for today’s teens.  As the main characters are young teens, the book is probably best suited for the younger end of teens, ages 14-16.  The compelling story, accessible writing, and interesting presentation make the book a good choice for reluctant readers or teens reading a bit below grade level.  Poetic and charming, Criss Cross ponders some of life’s most common questions with grace, insight and wit.  Criss Cross won the 2006 Newberry Medal and is on the 2006 ALA Best Books for Young Adults list.

Reader’s Annotation: Debbie, Hector and their friends are at a crossroads.  They are growing up, trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be, and searching, always searching.

Information about the Author: Author and artist Lynne Rae Perkins has written and illustrated several picture books and young adult novels.  I did not know this when I read it, but Criss Cross is the second novel that Perkins has written with the character of Debbie in it.  The first novel is called All Alone in the Universe and is about Debbie when she is thirteen years old.

In addition to words, Perkins uses art to express herself, thus, she adds a unique element to her novels.  A quote from Perkins’ website made me smile: “’Books are ideas with meat on their bones.’  I have that written down but I don’t know who said it.  It might have been me, but probably not” (Perkins, n.d.)

Genre: Contemporary Life, Realistic Fiction

Category: Contemporary Life: Coming of Age

Curriculum Ties:  A twist on the classic coming of age novel, this novel could be compared to other more traditional coming of age novels.  Perkins also provides a few ideas for teachers interested in teaching the book here.

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Do you ever wish something, anything would happen?
  • Do you think we are ever finished?  Complete?

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 13 – 16

Challenge Issues: There are no obvious challenge issues associated with this book.  Preparation for any challenge can include the librarian’s: reading of the book, adhering to the library’s collection development department, and possessing reviews of the book from well-regarded sources.

Why is this book included? It won the Newberry Medal and was on YALSA’s 2006 Best Books for Young Adults list. 

References:

Perkins, L.R. (n.d.) Activities for All Alone in the Universe. Retrieved from http://www.lynneraeperkins.com/all_alone_in_the_universe_activities.htm

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Rain is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Bibliographic Information: Leitich Smith, C. (2001). Rain is Not My Indian Name. New York, NY: HarperCollins.  ISBN: 0688173977.  144 pages.

Plot Summary: Cassidy Rain Berghoff knows about loss.  Her mother died when she was eight and her best friend, Galen, just died, on New Year’s Eve, the night before Rain’s 14th birthday.    Rain is a “mixed blood” American Indian, “I’m Muscogee, Creek-Cherokee and Scots-Irish on Mom’s side, Irish-German-Ojibway on Dad’s,” (Leitich Smith, 2001, p. 20).  She lives in a small town in Kansas with her brother and his fiancée and her grandfather.  Her father is in the military stationed abroad.  Living in a small, mostly white, town, Rain has had to face prejudice and stereotyping.  She explains that in school most talk of Native Americans comes up around “Turkey Day,” as she calls it.  Her response?  “I usually get through it by reading sci-fi fanzines behind my text books until we move on to Kwanza,” (Leitich Smith, 2001, p. 13).  This is a young woman who knows who she is and does not let others define her.  With the loss of Galen, Rain has put herself in a self-imposed exile for months, but when anti-Indian prejudice is expressed around Rain’s Aunt’s Indian Camp summer program, Rain has to decide how to respond.  She does so with grace, strength, and sensitivity.

Critical Evaluation: Leitich Smith lets us enter Rain’s world via Rain’s witty, sensitive, voice, and through journal entries at the start of each chapter, that add authenticity to the novel.  The writing is warm and appealing and the story deals with complex real-life issues for which there are no easy answers.  Readers may take the journey with Rain, as she attempts to figure out who she is and what her culture means to her.  This novel gives reader,s who are not familiar with contemporary Native American lives, a window into one family, dealing with every day life, facing anti-Indian prejudice, and celebrating the richness and gifts of their cultures.  Many novels with Native American characters are historic novels, keeping Native Americans locked in the past.  Beverly Slapin of Oyate sums up the book’s coverage of Native American issues, “Smith (Muscogee/Creek) deftly tackles such dominant icons and artifacts as football mascots, fake dreamcatchers, Elvis, and Anime and places them in a contemporary Indian cultural context alongside fried bologna sandwiches, two-steps, and star quilts,” (Slapin, 2001, p. 116).  This book was an Oklahoma Book Award Finalist; for this title Smith was selected to be part of the 2001 Writers of the Year in Children’s Prose by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.

Reader’s Annotation: Six months ago, Rain’s best friend died and she’s been in a self-imposed exile ever since, but when anti-Indian prejudice is expressed regarding her Aunt’s Indian Camp summer program, Rain has to decide how — or IF — to respond. 

Information about the Author: Cynthia Leitich Smith writes books for all ages, from young children to young adult and adult.  She has published picture books in addition to short stories, essays, and young adult novels.  Leitich Smith’s website (http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/) is a wonder of resources for readers and writers.  It includes recommended reading lists, advice for those interested in becoming writers, and extensive information about Leitich Smith and her writing.

Leitich Smith is genuinely interested in the world and people around her and generously shares her talents and insights.  She is a tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and some of her works include authentically portrayed American Indian characters, something that is unfortunately often lacking in books about American Indians.  She currently lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, also a writer, Greg Leitich Smith (http://gregleitichsmith.com/).

Genre: Multicultural Fiction, Issues, Contemporary Life, Realistic Fiction

Subgenres/Themes: Multicultural Fiction: Multicultural Americans: Native Americans; Issues: Social Concerns: Activism, Racism; Contemporary Life: Coming of Age

Curriculum Ties: Civil Rights, Discrimination

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Identity Development
  • Young Adult Activism

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 13 – 17

Challenge Issues: There are no obvious challenge issues associated with this book.  Preparation for any challenge can include the librarian’s: reading of the book, adhering to the library’s collection development department, and possessing reviews of the book from well-regarded sources.

Why is this book included? This book is included because of its critical praise as well as its subject matter.  There are not that many books for young adults about contemporary American Indian life.  And, though the main character is fourteen years old, the content is relevant for older teens as well, and the writing is accessible for older teens at a lower reading level.

References:

Leitich Smith, C. (2001). Rain is not my Indian name.  New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Slapin, B. (2001). Rain is not my Indian name. MultiCultural Review, 10(3), 115-116.


Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher

Bibliographic Information: Crutcher, C. (1993). Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. New York, NY: HarperCollins.  ISBN: 0060094893.  304 pages.

Plot Summary: In Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Crutcher joins two teens together as friends, their connection?  They both have physical characteristics that make them outsiders and the recipients of much ridicule and bullying.  Sarah Byres’ face and hands are grotesquely disfigured by a burn she suffered at three years old.  She insists on being called Sarah Byrnes, not just Sarah, to cut off at the pass any comment a person might make about the irony of her last name.  Eric Calhoune, called Moby by most of the kids at school, was extremely overweight, hence the nickname Moby, until he joined the swim team where he started to lose weight.

Early in the book we find Eric in a metal ward with Sarah Byrnes attempting to talk to Sarah and bring her out of her catatonic state.  The book travels back and forth in time between the present, Sarah’s current state of not looking at or speaking to anyone, and past interactions between Sarah and Eric.  As the story unfolds between Sarah and Eric and a handful of their high school classmates in a Contemporary American Thought class the book addresses issues of religious beliefs, abortion, child abuse, and suicide.  While these issues are hugely significant to the story, at its core the book is about friendship and love.

Critical Evaluation:  Told with humor and sensitivity, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is a tale of strength, loyalty, and deep commitment.  Through Eric’s voice, readers deeply feel both his outsider status and his wit, charm, and kindness.  Readers watch him make mistakes, take chances, and work to resolve problems that are perhaps too big for a teen to resolve on his own.  Crutcher, true to his style, manages to get inside a teen’s head and bring his readers there with him.  The excellence of this novel has to do with the fact that Crutcher brings his writing’s signature honesty and authenticity to a compelling, emotional, dramatic and suspenseful story.  The various other young adults: a former bully, an evangelical Christian, and others have depth and complexity not often seen in the supporting cast.  Do to its richness and multiple layers of meaning, this book lends itself well to class or book group discussions.  Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes has earned multiple honors,  examples are: 1994 ALA Best Book For Young Adults, 1997 California Young Reader Medal, and 1993 School Library Journal Best Book.

Reader’s Annotation: High school students Eric Calhoune and Sarah Byrnes have been friends since they were young, connected by Eric’s obesity and Sarah’s disfigurement.  During their senior year, dramatic events stir up their lives and challenge them as they have never been challenged before.

Information about the Author: Chris Crutcher is one of the most challenged authors of the past decade.  He wears his challenges as a badge of honor.  In fact, he says, “There’s only one thing to say to the censors: Shut up.”

Chris Crutcher was born in July of 1946, and has managed to accomplish a lot, and influence the lives of thousands of young adults, in his 65 years.   He started his career as a teacher, he then went on to direct a “last chance” alternative school in Oakland, CA.  After 10 years in Oakland, Crutcher moved to Spokane, WA, wrote his first book, and became a child and family therapist and child protection advocate.  Chris Crutcher has been very busy having a positive impact on the lives of young people for the past several decades.

He wrote his first book in the early 1980’s and written a total of 14 books.  He has been a very  popular YA realistic fiction author since the 1980s, and he has won several awards and honors for his books.  His writing is deeply authentic and often revolves around sports, in some way.  Crutcher himself played sports in his youth.  In 2000, Crutcher won the Margaret A. Edwards Award, for his “body of work,” and in 1998, he won the National Intellectual Freedom Award and the ALAN Award, (Crutccher, n.d.).

Crutcher still works as a therapist and child protection advocate.  He is also a columnist, a public speaker and he recently started blogging for The Huffington Post.  Check out his Huffington Post blog here

Genres: Contemporary Life, Issues, Realistic Fiction

Subgenres/Themes: Contemporary Life: Sports; Issues: Life Is Hard: Physical and Emotional Abuse

Topics Covered: Child Abuse, Friendship, Sports, Abortion, Religious Beliefs, Bullying

Curriculum Ties: Discussions of diversity: racial, ability, physical, religious; dealing with abuse; everyday heroes; stereotypes and assumptions (from Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes: Teaching the Novel )

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Discuss dealing with a friend in a catatonic state
  • Discuss what friendship means

Reading Level/Interest Age: Ages 15 – 19

Challenge Issues: Discussions of abortion, an attempted suicide, premarital sex, a Christian character is portrayed as hypocritical.  In response to any challenges, one can refer to the library’s collection development policies.  Also, there are several positive reviews of the book, and it has won several honors, three are mentioned above.

Why is this book included? First off, Chris Crutcher is a stalwart in young adult literature, and any complete collection should include his books.  Also, this book, in its 304 pages, manages to raise many important issues for teens.  And, interestingly, several of these issues are discussed among the teens, so there are several perspectives represented.  A critically praised, awarded, and honored book, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is a classic young adult novel deserving of shelf space in any young adult collection.

References:

Crutcher, C. (n.d.). Biography. Retrieved from http://www.chriscrutcher.com/biography.html

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes: Teaching the Novel. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.msu.edu/user/schne138/resourcepacket/index.html


Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Bibliographic Information: Desai Hidier, T. (2003). Born Confused. New York, NY: Scholastic Paperbacks.  ISBN: 0439510112.  512 pages.

Plot Summary: Dimple Lala was born in America to Indian immigrant parents.  Somewhere between her Indian ancestry and her New Jersey upbringing Dimple seeks answers about who she is and who she wants to be.  Dimple’s best friend, Gwyn, does not seem confused at all about who she is and where she belongs.  When Gwyn enters the room, people notice; she is blonde, blue-eyed, outgoing, tall, and strikingly beautiful.   Dimple would not use any of those words to describe herself.  Dimple goes along for the ride with Gwyn, and sometimes gets noticed for her proximity to Gwyn, but rarely does she feel seen herself.  In fact, she spends a lot time alone seeing others through the lens of her much-loved camera that she has named Chica Tikka.  Dimple and Gwyn have been best friends since they were little, and their love for each other is strong.  But this summer, the one when Dimple turns seventeen, things begin to get complicated.  Dimple starts to unravel the complexities of her identity and her feelings toward Karsh, “ a suitable Indian boy” her parents try to set her up with.  Before she meets him, she rejects even the possibility of liking Karsh, as she does not want her parents picking her boyfriend for her.  But, slowly, she realizes, to her pleasant surprise, that Karsh may not be quite as “suitable” as her parents think, and she starts to have feelings for him.  Karsh is also the object of Gwyn’s affection, who, unaware of Dimple’s feelings, asks Dimple to help her get Karsh’s attention by wearing Dimple’s Indian clothing and jewelry.  Can their friendship endure the strain?  Told in the self-deprecating, witty, and charming voice of Dimple, Born Confused provides an authentic look at life from the perspective of one young woman ABCD (American Born Confused Desi).

Critical Evaluation: The themes in Born Confused feel comfortingly familiar for a teen novel: friendship, first love, and identity.  But the book is anything but typical.  Woven throughout her journeys into her teenage life is Dimple’s deep connection to Indian culture, the traditions, the food, the people.  Desai Hidier’s Dimple will make readers smile, as she is sarcastic and quick witted and at the same time caring and sensitive.  Readers will be moved by Dimple, will lament her failures and cheer her successes.  Born Confused, a Larry King pick of the week, an ALA Best Books for Young Adults book of the year, and a Sunday Times (Times of London) book of the week, is a great addition to a multicultural teen collection.  Teen children of Indian Parents living in American will likely find some, if not many, of their experiences reflected in Dimple, and American teens with immigrant parents or whose parents were born in the US will have the opportunity to see the world through Dimple’s eyes and discover the similarities as well as differences in their experiences. Though the book might benefit from a bit of editing to shorten and focus the story, it is nonetheless well worth the read.

Reader’s Annotation: Born in America to Indian immigrant parents, Dimple Lala is caught between two worlds, never feeling like she quite fits in to either one.  The summer she turns seventeen is an eventful one, as she traverses the complex worlds of identity, friendship, and first love.

Information about the Author: Though the book Born Confused is not autobiographical, author Tanuja Desai Hidier drew from her family’s history and her personal experiences to create Dimple Lala.  She, like Dimple, grew up in a South Asian home in a town with very few people of color.  She says that she wrote Born Confused, “To make sense of things, to shape a period of cultural confusion and cultural exhilaration—which can be one and the same thing at times! What does it mean to be Indian? To be South Asian? And, at the heart of that: To be American? And at the soul within that heart: To be yourself?” (www.thisistanuja.com, FAQ’s).

Born Confused is Desai Hidier’s first book, but she has published several short stories, made a short film, and is a singer and songwriter as well.  She has adapted Born Confused into screenplay and it is in development with IndieVest Pictures.

Genre: Contemporary Life, Realistic Fiction

Subgenre/Theme: Contemporary Life: Coming of Age

Topics Covered: Identity, Race, Immigrants, Friendship, Love, Music, Indian Americans, Bhangra, Family

Curriculum Ties: Immigrants, children of immigrants, family, race in the United States, social studies

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Talk about being in between two worlds
  • Talk about Dimple and Gwyn’s relationship as things start to tense
  • Discuss Gwyn’s appropriation of Dimple’s culture
  • Read Dimple’s description of how good she feels being in her dark room

Reading Level/Interest Age: 15 – 19 years

Challenge Issues: There are no obvious challenge issues associated with this book.  Preparation for any challenge can include the librarian’s: reading of the book, adhering to the library’s collection development department, and possessing reviews of the book from well-regarded sources.

Why is this book included? Originally, I found the book while researching the journal, MultiCultural Review, which critically praised the book, as did reviewers from VOYA, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal.  Born Confused portrays a unique perspective, that of an American Born teenage girl of Indian ancestry.  While there are excellent books about South Asian young adults, these books are not abundant.  But, South Asian American teens, like all teens, deserve to have their stories told and to see themselves reflected in the books they read.  Additionally, Dimple Lala has important things to share with teens from all backgrounds

References:

Ringler, R. (2003). Born Confused (Book). Multicultural Review, 12(3), 103.

Makhijani, P. (2010). More than Monkeys, Maharajahs, and Mangoes: South Asian Literature for Your Readers. Voice of Youth Advocates, 33(1), 14-17.