Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher (YA Fiction)

Whale Talk  

Chris Crutcher (YA Fiction)

It’s interesting being “of color” in a part of the country where Mark Fuhrman has his own radio talk show. My parents have always encouraged me to be loud when I run into racism, but I can’t count on racism being loud when it runs into me.

The Tao “T.J.” Jones is almost 18, adopted, and of mixed race (he’s black, Japanese, and white). He’s had to deal with racism early and often and isn’t much bothered by it anymore. What bothers him NOW is the elitism and exclusivity that the Cutter High School athletics department has placed on earning a letter jacket—an article of clothing he vehemently avoids acquiring. But after he’s recruited (rather academically coerced) into starting a swim team, he sets his sights on taking back his slice of the pie and assembles the unlikeliest group of misfits with the promise that each will earn a letter jacket of their own. Over the weeks, these young men not only begin to strengthen physically, but they start to heal emotionally and the lessons they learn in the water will stay with them long after the last swimmer touches the wall.

Crutcher’s Whale Talk was one of the American Library Association’s Top Five Most Challenged Books in 2005 and was removed from the Limestone County, Alabama school district’s five high school libraries for racism and offensive language. But the book also received countless honors and awards—all well deserved. Was the language spicy and derogatory? Sure was. There were also instances of physical abuse, bullying, child abuse, sexual assault, not to mention a little teacher-student blackmail, but instead the school board decided to focus on the “bad words” thus denying its students the opportunity to benefit from the many lessons contained in this exceptional book.

Whale Talk is my first introduction to Chris Crutcher and it won’t be my last. The story (think The Sandlot meets The Outsiders) is a feel-good story about a bunch of misfits who—led by a no-nonsense coach; a homeless, loyal assistant; and a talented, fearless team captain—band together to defy the odds and earn themselves a coveted prize. It’s a tale as old as time. Crutcher could have easily written a trite and predictable underdog story, but instead delivers a tale full of heart, hope, and forgiveness. These kids are diamonds in the rough and each is given an opportunity to shine and show their worth not only to their team, but to one another. These are principled young men who understand that they’re not fighting for a jacket with a fancy letter, but they’re standing up against stereotypes and proving that they are more than the label they’ve been assigned by their peers and society. These characters are steadfastly devoted to each other and you can’t help but cheer as each touches the wall and moves closer to achieving their goal. Crutcher is a master storyteller and truly taps into the high-school mindset with characters that are relatable, likeable, and you just can’t help but root for. With morally centered characters (including T.J.’s adoptive parents and especially his father who was given an incredibly heartbreaking backstory) and themes of acceptance, perseverance, and grace, Whale Talk should be moved from the banned books and instead placed on the required reading list.

Although T.J. may have started this journey with a questionable motive, he learned a lot about his teammates and himself along the way. There is a common theme of being able to project your own thoughts and feelings to the world so that everyone would instantly know your challenges, struggles, triumphs, and joys. T.J.’s therapist once told him that, “There is very little about humans that doesn’t have to do with connection.” Author Rachel Naomi Remen wrote, “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.” Imagine how many problems we could solve if we all just stopped being human for a moment and instead started acting a bit more like whales.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com

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Slug Days by Sara Leach (Juvenile Fiction)

Slug Days  

Sara Leach (Juvenile Fiction)

Lauren has two kinds of days: slug days and butterfly days. Slug days are the worst and spent trying not to flip out, figuring out how other people are feeling, and so many other things that make Lauren feel slow and slimy. But butterfly days are the best! The days that she’s able to control her temper, friends want to play with her, and she gets ice cream with her mom. It’s not easy having Autism Spectrum Disorder. With so many rules, surprises, and changes, a butterfly day can quickly turn into a slug day with just a shove or a snicker. BUT a slug day can also turn into a butterfly day if you make your baby sister laugh or happen to meet the perfect friend.

Leach has over twenty years’ experience in education and has taught and worked closely with ASD students. Her knowledge of coping mechanisms and behavioral characteristics is evident in this thoughtful and touching story about a girl struggling to fit in and be understood. It’s a quick read filled with beautiful illustrations by Rebecca Bender that give life to Lauren and her world filled with uncertainty and unpredictability. Leach’s story also demonstrates the importance of a strong support system—one that ensures Lauren has the resources she needs at school and home to thrive. From calming erasers and rubber balls to a home safety plan, Slug Days shows us that it truly does take a village to ensure that these wonderfully unique individuals are included and succeed.

This book is targeted for readers ages 7 to 9, but slightly younger readers can also enjoy and benefit from this story. Slug Days is told from Lauren’s point of view and gives readers a peek into one of her weeks at home and school. This is not a how-to kind of book, but more of a hey-I-can-see-me-through-her story that allows neurodiverse individuals to connect with Lauren and relate to her everyday obstacles and triumphs. The book is also a great tool for introducing some important discussion points about how certain behaviors can be misinterpreted and what can be done differently. For example, Leach has Lauren engaging in a few instances of inappropriate physical contact such as touching, kissing, hugging, and playing with a classmate’s hair. These instances are innocent but are important to identify and remedy, especially in today’s social climate.

Author Drishti Bablani wrote, “There is a beauty in difference that only understanding reveals.” Recent CDC reports show that around 1 in 36 children in the U.S. has been identified with autism so books like Slug Days will continue to play an important part in increasing awareness and promoting understanding and inclusion. Now wouldn’t THAT be beautiful.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com

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The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (Adult Fiction)

The House on Mango Street   

Sandra Cisneros (Adult Fiction)

The house on Mango Street wasn’t what Papa had talked about when he held up a lottery ticket or what Mama had dreamed up for our bedtime stories. Instead, it was small and red with crumbling bricks and no front yard. Even a nun, who was passing by the house one day, couldn’t believe that it was actually the home of little Esperanza. It was at that moment that Esperanza knew that she had to have a house. One with stairs on the inside and a front yard with grass. One that was filled with quiet. Quiet like snow. A home all her own.

Published in 1984, Cisneros’s celebrated The House on Mango Street is a coming-of-age story about 12-year-old Esperanza Cordero, a Chicana girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago. Comprising of 44 vignettes and being just a squeak above a novelette, Cisneros introduces us to several memorable characters who are the color, texture, and fabric that make up Mango Street. We meet the rotten Vargas kids, Alicia who studies to avoid a life in a factory or behind a rolling pin, Darius the philosopher, Sally with the Cleopatra eyes, and Geraldo who was so much more than a shiny shirt and green pants. But as is the nature of vignettes, our knowledge and connection with these and other characters are superficial and barely scratch the surface. Like a movie trailer, we get the highlights, but not the heart.

In her introduction—which I loved and wished that the rest of the book had been this immersive and rooted—Cisneros wrote that she wanted to write a book “that can be opened at any page and will still make sense to the reader who doesn’t know what came before or what comes after.” I think that was the biggest barrier for me to overcome. While accomplishing her goal, Cisneros sacrificed a connectedness that would have given readers more than just a superficial glance at characters who did have a before and, more importantly, an after. I wanted to know Sally’s after, who married to be free yet ultimately found herself in a different prison. I wanted to understand Geraldo’s before in hopes that someone would miss this charismatic young man who loved to dance.

Although I miss the richness of the novel that could have been, I can’t deny the beautiful and artful way Cisneros evokes raw emotion and vivid images with just a few well-placed words. She describes a family who enters a garden area between her building and a brick wall as “a family who speak like guitars”, equates the entry into womanhood by describing the sudden development of hips as “One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?”, and recalls meeting her three aunts as “one with laughter like tin and one with eyes of a cat and one with hands like porcelain.”

Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, a Danish businessman and the former CEO of the Lego Group, said, “Any creative people are finding that creativity doesn’t grow in abundance, it grows from scarcity.” Now, he was talking about Legos and how having more doesn’t necessarily equate to more creativity, but it does show how a novella, not quite 18,000 words, is beautiful and creative because of its scarcity rather than in spite of it.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.abebooks.com

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