The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

Breadwinner coverWhen the Taliban took over and barred all girls from school, Parvana was glad of the holiday. But it’s getting a bit tiresome to be the only one in the family able to go outside to collect water, and with her mother unable to work, sifting through the family’s belongings for things they can sell in the market has become a regular chore. There’s not much left that can be spared.

When Parvana’s father is arrested — and Parvana and her mother’s attempt to have him released fails — the only means of feeding the family is for Parvana to dress like a boy and take her father’s place in the market. As she and another girl-in-disguise, former classmate Shauzia, work to support their families, other women in the periphery of the story struggle in their own ways to survive, to grow, and to challenge the limitations the Taliban has placed on them.

The Breadwinner is a beautiful, difficult story that offers richly-realised glimpses of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban. While the details of Parvana’s life — such as the repeated loss of “home” due to wartime destruction, and the customers eager to purchase Parvana and her father’s reading and writing skills — are valuable on their own, what I appreciated most was Ellis’s ability to present a variety of strong, unique female characters that were believable in their own context. Parvana’s mother, Fatana, who braves the Taliban and walks hours on blistered, bloody feet to try to retrieve her husband from jail. Parvana’s sister, Nooria, who desperately wants to continue her own education, but willingly gives what instruction she can in secret to a group of neighbourhood girls. Parvana, herself. The novel is full of women that inspire respect, both for themselves, and for their real life counterparts.

Continue the story with Parvana’s Journey, Mud City, and My Name is Parvana, and be sure to check out the excellent audiobook edition of The Breadwinner, narrated by Rita Wolf.

Check out other reviews from The Prairie Library and from Blogging for Barakat, which supports an organisation committed to providing educational opportunities for women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

Read an article about how one teacher has used Parvena’s stories in her classroom: Expanding Their Worlds Through Books by Tara Smith

Ten: On Fitting in Reading

Like most things that are important, but not urgent, reading time can be tough to justify. Whether you’re in the habit of returning stacks of unread library books or working with students who have no time to read, perhaps something here will help. This week’s Ten suggests some ways to fit reading into a busy life, whether through motivation (making time) or a bit of creative rearranging (finding time).

Read Short Books
Not always possible, and probably not desirable full time, but in certain contexts — if you’re looking to broaden your familiarity with a topic or genre, for example — picture books, graphic novels, early chapter books, novellas and other shorter works can be a life saver. Books requiring a relatively small time commitment are also sooner pulled from the shelf when you have a bit of time. A likely completed task (and finished story!) can be a powerful motivator.

Acknowledge that Reading a Chapter of a Longer Book is Still an Accomplishment
It’s lovely to settle in and read a book cover to cover, but rarely practical. Fortunately, even a few pages does move you forward in the story and nearer to the end. Continue reading

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright — Audiobook Edition

The Cheshire Cheese Cat coverYe Olde Cheshire Cheese Inn and Pub draws the most interesting characters. There are the regulars, of course. The observant Mr. Dickens is in quite often, and his friends Wilkie Collins and William Makepeace Thackeray visit now and again. There’s the staff, including a cook who depends on more than a secret recipe to produce her famous Cheshire Cheese, and a maid with a remarkable talent for discovering mice (and an unfortunate, blithering terror of the same). Turn your eyes downward, and you’ll discover a black cat who smells strangely of…cheese?…and a bold little mouse apparently fascinated by Mr. Dickens’s latest project. And then there’s the queen…but that would take far more explaining that we’ve room for here.

Listening to The Cheshire Cheese Cat, I couldn’t help but think of both The Tale of Despereaux, with its literate mouse and affectionate human girl, and the Jacky Faber books, which take place in a similar time and place and are also narrated by Katherine Kellgren. While I’m a big fan of both, one of the things that impressed me most about this book was the fact that even with these similarities, The Cheshire Cheese Cat stood out as distinct, both in story and narration. Deedy and Wright’s story mixes fascinating bits of real history (see below), a touch of speculation — how did Dickens overcome writer’s block? — and a string of perfectly-timed complications to tell a story about friendship and honesty that will keep readers and listeners engaged from start to finish. Kellgren, for her part, creates a whole new set of voices for these characters, so that while the accents will be familiar to those who know Jacky, the characters themselves are unique. A great choice for bedtime installments, or a family roadtrip this summer.

Read another review of the audiobook by Bunbury in the Stacks, and one of the print edition and its illustrations from School Library Journal.

Find out about the real Tower of London Ravens and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Inn!

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Unwind coverConnor’s parents have had enough of his attitude. Risa, a ward of the state, has not proven herself valuable enough to merit continued taxpayer-funded support. Lev, the tenth child of a large, religious family, has been raised to offer himself up for the good of humanity. All three are on their way to an unwinding camp, where they will be disassembled, their parts used to repair others suffering injury or disease.

In Shusterman’s imagined future, the pro-life/pro-choice debate has brought the US to the point of war. The compromise that ended the war was this: a pregnancy may not be aborted, but between the ages of 13 and 18, a child may be turned over to the government for unwinding. Because the unwound are kept conscious through the whole of the procedure, they are not considered dead, but altered (there is evidence to support this argument toward the end of the novel), so that parents retain the right to decide whether they wish to bring a child to adulthood without threatening the sanctity of life. An unlikely scenario, perhaps, but one that is presented with enough skill to enable readers to suspend disbelief and consider a fresh perspective on an issue whose implications for both sides tend to leave little room for discussion. Remarkably, Unwind manages to challenge the reader without championing one side over the other. Instead, as good stories should, it opens the door to questions, and allows readers to wrestle with the answers for themselves.

Audio edition highly recommended.

Read reviews from the New York Times and The Page Sage.

This short film, based on the world presented in Unwind, is very well done. However, it will make more sense if you’ve already read the book:

Ten: Books that Must Be Heard

There’s been plenty of debate in recent years regarding the legitimacy of “reading” a book by listening to an audiobook edition. Personally, I’m a huge fan of audiobooks. This is partly because they allow me to read while I wash the dishes — walk the dog — do the laundry — drive, and partly because, at least in some cases, audiobooks can add a lot to the experience of a book.* Have a reader who’s unsure about pronunciation? Who wants to know what people in a particular area sound like? Who has trouble pushing through difficult passages? Just want to recommend the best possible reading experience? Try these:

Life of Pi by Yann Martel, narrated by Jeff Woodman with Alexander Marshall
Woodman creates a very satisfying Pi Patel, but I was especially impressed with his handling of conversations between Pi and the French and Japanese characters toward the end of the novel. Pulling off multiple accents at the same time wins this one big points.

The Moor by Laurie R. King, narrated by Jenny Stirlin
Another title particularly notable for its accents. Jenny Stirlin does a fantastic job of all of the Mary Russell books (which should suit many older teens very well — picture a young feminist, partnered with Sherlock Holmes in a detailed 1920s setting, solving mysteries all over the world). But how often do you come across such a convincing portrayal of a Moorish dialect?

Unwind by Neal Shusterman, narrated by Luke Daniels
You can read about the story in the full review, but I will say that the most intense scene in the book is made by the audio presentation.

Feed by M.T. Anderson, narrated by David Aaron Baker
An abundance of (purposeful) coarse language means readers will probably want to listen to Feed with headphones. However, the choice to present the samples of the characters’ commercial feed like commercials is very effective. Continue reading

Scumble by Ingrid Law — Audiobook Edition

Scumble coverLedger (Ledge) Kale has some pretty specific ideas about what his savvy is going to be. He and his dad figure that with his mother’s savvy genes and his father’s athletic ones, Ledge is sure to wake up on the morning of his 13th birthday with a gift for speed that will leave his competition in the dust. Unfortunately, what his birthday actually brings is a litter of broken devices and an itchy feeling that promises that things around him will continue to fall apart until he can figure out how to control, or scumble, his “gift.”

Instead of sending Ledge off to figure out his savvy for himself, this time Law places her protagonist’s new talent in the midst of a multitude of mentors. Left on the family ranch for the summer, Ledge receives coaching and encouragement — some of it helpful — from Grandpa Bomba, Uncle Autry, a variety of cousins, and even a few outsiders. While Scumble acknowledges the impact of Ledge’s talent on the people around him, the emphasis here is on self-acceptance. Though there is evidence that his father tries hard not to burden his son, Ledge feels a heavy obligation to meet his family’s expectations. The accidental discovery of the positive side of his savvy draws the reader’s attention to hints earlier in the story even as it suggests to Ledge that there may be more to his future than those expectations proposed.

Scumble‘s message — that each person should learn to accept and use their unique gifts, rather than trying to making them fit in with everyone else — is much more direct than Savvy‘s. While some older readers might tire of the often-repeated theme, it really is handled well, with different characters drawing on their own experiences and personalities to contribute to the overall argument. I was a bit surprised to discover that Law’s tendency toward colloquial language was largely the same between the two books, despite the fact that Mibs and Ledge come from different families living in different parts of the US. However, narrators Lily Blau (Savvy) and David Kremenitzer (Scumble) help to create distinct voices for each character, so that the unusual vocabulary takes on a different colour in each novel.

Read another review from Book Aunt.

Check out an interview with Ingrid Law: How I Write, or read Law’s savvy origin story.

Savvy by Ingrid Law — Audiobook Edition

Savvy coverMibs Beaumont’s 13th birthday will reveal her special talent – her savvy – but it’s only the beginning of the process of learning to use that talent. Last year, when her brother Fish turned 13, his newfound power over local weather resulted in a short-lived, but damaging hurricane. He’s still figuring out how to keep that power under control.

A few days before her birthday, her father is in an accident that leaves him in a coma in Salina, 90 miles away. Mibs’s mother leaves the younger Beaumonts at home with Grandpa Bamba to be with him, but when events on her birthday convince Mibs that her savvy can help her father, she stows away on a Bible delivery bus in an attempt to follow. Her rescue mission gets complicated when Fish, the pastor’s kids, Roberta and Will, Jr., and the Beaumont’s younger brother, Samson, join in, and the fact that the bus still has several stops scheduled in the opposite direction before returning to Salina doesn’t help, either. In the two days that it takes to actually reach her destination, Mibs discovers the true nature of her savvy, Fish figures out the secret of managing his, and all five kids find ways to share their respective talents, savvy and otherwise.

Savvy places a lot of emphasis on the roles that a person’s talent plays in the context of a community. Mibs’s talent is an inherently social one, focusing the necessity of control on the way that that talent affects her relationships with her brothers, her friends, and a handful of others encountered through the course of the novel. The audiobook, narrated by Lily Blau, does a great job of bringing the story to life and settling Law’s tendency toward creative colloquialisms into the broader “tall tale” approach to the story.

Check back Wednesday to find out how the next Savvy book, Scumble, compares!

For a conservative but very detailed review, visit Kimberly Lyn Kane’s blog. For another take on Savvy, check out another review on Librarian Tells All.

The official Savvy book trailer:

P.S. Apologies for the delayed review.