Larwood, Kieran. Freaks. New York: Chicken House, 2013. ISBN 9780545474245

Freaks is a Victorian mystery whose main characters are the member of a small, and shady, freakshow. Monkeyboy, Mama Rat, Sister Moon, and Gigantus are all seasoned members of Plumpskcuttle’s Peculiars when Sheba is purchased as the newest attraction.

While most novels focus on ‘showing rather than telling’ Freaks by Kieran Larwood takes a slightly different approach. While Larwood does make it easy to see Victorian London, he makes it far too easy to smell it as well. Perhaps the reason for this is that the third-person narrative follows Sheba; a wolf-girl.

Like several other ‘coming-of-age’ stories, the main character (Sheba) only has vague memories of her past before becoming a freakshow attraction. While this mystery underlies the story, it doesn’t overwhelm the plot. Nor are the unusual characters hard to relate to. While not everyone may turn wolfish when angry or be a ninja, the freaks’ feelings of isolation, regret, and longing to belong are common to all people. While initially the peculiars close ranks against outsiders, throughout the novel they not only allow certain outsiders in, they also become more of a family to each other.

While Freaks is likely aimed at a younger audience, likely fourth and fifth grade, any age can relate to it. Perhaps because of the blunt name, Freaks. While it is used as a period correct term for people in a sideshow in the novel, the word itself invokes a kindred feeling for anyone who has ever felt like a freak.

Discussion points could include what is a freak (both the historical and modern definition)? In addition, who was their favorite character, and why? While it is an entertaining novel, it also addresses things such as are the poor and ill useless to society, can a person be bought, and what truly makes a family?


Winner of the London Times Children’s Fiction Competition


Publishers Weekly—“Newcomer Larwood spins a whimsical yet touching story, injecting the unpleasant reality of Victorian-era poverty with a touch of humor and fantastical elements, making for an enjoyable and none-too-serious adventure. A good deal goes unexplained, meant to be taken at face value (such as Sheba or Monkeyboy’s animal natures), but the weird and serious sides of the story balance each other nicely.”

VOYA—“The mystery to be solved will keep readers turning the pages, but other elements are just as strong. The reader is led, along with Sheba, to question whom her freak show companions really are, beyond their shocking appearances; characters who, at first, seem reviling or frightening, end up being portrayed as complex and wholly human.”

Publishers Weekly. Publishers Weekly. Accessed via CLCD at

Sundermann, Liz. VOYA. June 2013. (Vol.36, No.2). Accessed via CLCD at


LS 5653 Module 6-Habibi

Nye, Naomi Shihab. Habibi. New York: Simon Pulse, 1997. ISBN 9780689801495

Habibi is an interesting novel about a Palestinian American named Liyana. Her father is from Palestine (Jerusalem in particular) and has decided it is time to go home. Much like the reader, Liyana is thrown into a world she doesn’t know and doesn’t really understand. She realizes things that aren’t a big deal in America, holding hands with a boy for example, are a big deal. She doesn’t understand why the three people groups in Jerusalem, the Armenians, Jews, and Palestinians are always hating each other.

While the general premise of the story is self discovery and growing up, it does it in a strange meandering way. While there is always an outside tension, it is Liyana’s inner turmoil and thoughts that drive the story. That being said, it isn’t a standard plot. Liyana learns things throughout the book and will occasionally flash back to dreams, conversations, or journal entries that are not recorded. In fact, just when things started getting really interesting (Liyana’s Jewish friend has just visited her grandmother’s village and they have all gone out to find a specific meal) it ends. Liyana never really found herself, the few conflicts that had popped up at the end of the book are not fully resolved, but the book is done. This can lead to imagination or leave the reader dissatisfied. I like Liyana, so I was dissatisfied with the abrupt ending.

Considering the fact that the conflict over Jerusalem mentioned in the book still isn’t resolved, this is a novel that has aged well. I can still easily prompt discussion, not only about culture and acceptance in the Middle East, but also about acceptance closer to home. The premise shown in Habibi can be applied to religions and ethnicities anywhere. This would be a good novel to read in conjunction with a history class’s coverage of the Middle East and Israel.


Jane Addams Children’s Book Award-1998 (Winner Older Children)
Middle East Book Award-2000 (Winner Older Reader)


Booklist—“ To Liyana, her younger brother, and her American mother, it is a huge upheaval. At first Liyana misses the U.S., can’t speak the languages, and feels uncertain at school, “tipped between” the cultures.”

Kirkus—“ The sights, sounds, and smells of Jerusalem drift through the pages and readers glean a sense of current Palestinian-Israeli relations and the region’s troubled history. In the process, some of the passages become quite ponderous while the human story–Liyana’s emotional adjustments in the later chapters and her American mother’s reactions overall–fall away from the plot.”

Kirkus. Kirkus Reviews. 1997. Accessed via CLCD at

Rochman, Hazel. Booklist. September 1997. (Vol. 94, No. 2). Accessed via CLCD at

LS 5653 Module 6-In Our Mothers’ House

Polacco, Patricia. In Our Mothers’ House. New York: Philomel Books, 2009. ISBN 9780399250767

The narrator of In Our Mothers’ House is the oldest of three children adopted by Meema and Marmee. The book shows the family’s happy, fun filled life during holidays (Halloween and Christmas) and events in the culturally diverse community (such as building a treehouse and hosting a block party). The mother of one family (Mrs. Lockner) is the only person in the community with a problem with Meema and Marmee. Her one line in the book, “I don’t appreciate what you two are!” is the one dark cloud for the narrator growing up in Berkley, California.

While the picture book does portray same-sex couples in a positive light, it doesn’t portray them in a realistic environment. Doubtless, there are same-sex couples who live in diverse, welcoming communities, however it seems strange that there is only one person who speaks out (and vaguely at that) against Marmee and Meemaw. In addition, the portraits at the end of the book show all three of the children married to the opposite gender.

This book can be enjoyed by young children, but also is relevant to teens. Teens can explore what family truly means, or can research the prejudices shown by Mrs. Lockner in comparison to what same-sex couples face in their area.


Rainbow List—2010 (ALA)


Kirkus—“ Unfortunately, while this ambitious picture book seeks to offer an inclusive vision of family, it ultimately comes up short…The distillation of hate into a single character undermines the reality of systematic oppression faced by same-sex couples; furthermore, the flash-forward narration depicting each child grown and married into heterosexual, monoracial unions ironically presents this family as an anomaly.”

Kirkus. Kirkus Reviews. March 2009. (Vol. 77, No. 6). Accessed via CLCD at

LS 5653 Module 6-Wonderstruck

Selznick, Brian. Wonderstruck. New York: Scholastic Press, 2011. ISBN 9780545027892

Wonderstruck is a novel that follows two different deaf children, Ben in 1977 and Rose in 1927. Ben’s story is told in words, while Rose’s is completely told in pictures. While this seems like a great concept, it actually makes for a confusing read. The images and words seem to have nothing to do with each other and the jarring disconnect makes it difficult to care for either character. While Selznick does manage to weave it all together in the end, there are some holes that while not impossible, seem improbable (beginning with a newly deafened boy getting out of the hospital and onto a bus at night).

While Ben’s story is mostly straightforward (with a lot of convenient situations), Rose’s story (told only in pictures) is both confusing and more detailed. Selznick captures both her wonder and fear of being alone in New York City. In fact, because of the lack of words to tell the story, the reader feels deaf in Rose’s world. Surprisingly, the most powerful (and believable) story is that of Ben’s father, as told by Rose.

While both middle school and high school students can understand the language, due to the format, it may be easier for an older teen to piece the story together. It could be studied along with other novels or essays about people with disabilities, but I wouldn’t suggest it to be used by itself in a classroom.


Cybil Award-2012 (Finalist Graphic Novel for Elementary and Middle Grades)


Booklist—“Selznick plays with a plethora of interwoven themes, including deafness and silence, the ability to see and value the world, family, and the interconnectedness of life.”

Kirkus—“Readers know that the two stories will converge, but Selznick keeps them guessing, cutting back and forth with expert precision. Both children leave their unhappy homes and head to New York City, Ben hoping to find his father and the girl also in search of family. The girl, readers learn, is deaf; her silent world is brilliantly evoked in wordless sequences, while Ben’s story unfolds in prose.”

Kirkus. Kirkus Reviews. July 2011. (Vol. 79, No. 13). Accessed via CLCD at

Rutan, Lynn. Booklist. August 2011. (Vol. 107, No. 22). Accessed via CLCD at

LS 5653 Module 5-Asian American Book of Choice

Yep, Laurence. Dragons of Silk. New York: Harper, 2011. ISBN 9780060275181

Part of Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles, Dragons of Silk follows four girls who span several generations of the same family. However, beyond blood, love and loss, the tale of the Weaving Maid, and honoring the past, the one thing that binds all of the girls together is silk. As the original Lily’s mother says, “Silk is in our blood.”

The novel begins with a telling of the Weaving Maid legend. The story begins with two different characters narrating their own chapters (they don’t always alternate every chapter), Lily the younger sister who is a dreamer with her head in the clouds and making up “what if” stories, and Swallow the older sister who is seen as sensible though it is mentioned by both Swallow and her mother that she was a dreamer before her father started using Demon Mud (opium). Swallow lives in the girls house with other unmarried girls who are no longer considered children. Her house is going to hold the festival for the Weaving Maid, with special emphasis to the Sisters (which we learn later is uncommon; usually the emphasis is on the Maid and her Cowboy).

While Swallow is attempting to prepare for the celebration, her father has come home, claiming to no longer be under the influence of opium. Lily and Swallow’s mother won’t let him anywhere near their precious silk worms though. Especially since after he spent all of their money on opium last time, they are already renting the house they live in and the pond they keep. Swallow doesn’t trust him. Last time, he was angry enough to hit both Swallow and her mother. Swallow doesn’t want Lily to go through that as well. On the night of the Weaving Maid’s festival, everything goes wrong for the family. The festival is a success, but the girls’ father stole the recent batch of silk. With no other way to settle their debt, Swallow sells herself into slavery, but not before imparting one final piece of advice to Lily. Keep the family safe and happy.

The next part follows Little Swallow, Lily’s granddaughter and a worker at a steam powered silk reeling factory. Again the themes of love and loss, the Weaving Maid, and honoring Swallow’s wish to be safe and happy appear. For Little Swallow it is loss of home and country as she finally agrees to go with Lucky to the Golden Mountain, also known as California.

The third (and shortest) section is about Young Swallow (whose real name is Lillian), Little Swallow’s granddaughter who has just lost her luxurious way of life, and her generous grandfather Lucky, to the Great Depression. However, while Swallow gave up herself, the first Lily gave up her very nature (being a dreamer), and Little Swallow gave up her country, Lillian must give up her first love, playing the violin. Instead, living in a small one bedroom apartment with her two younger siblings, her mother who acts like a child, and Little Swallow, Lillian learns about silk as Little Swallow takes apart her fancy silk dresses to sew silk shirts for her family instead.

The next to last section is about Lillian (she doesn’t really go by Young Swallow anymore) and Rosie (Lillian’s oldest child). Rosie wants to be a fashion designer and is furious with her mother when she is told she should look into accepting the job at the bank that has been offered to her. As Lillian watches Rosie close off when Lillian belittles her designs, she remembers her own sacrifice of the violin as well as her ancestors’ continuing sacrifice. When an opportunity to help her dreaming daughter drops in her lap, Lillian takes it and gets Rosie a foot in the door of the fashion industry. There is a final short section, though it is more of an epilogue with a twist.

This would be a great book to cover with a history class. It covers the Depression and the California Gold Rush, so it could be used in conjunction with US history. However, the first two sections cover Chinese history and would be better suited to world history or a study of the drug trade (both the old trade and the modern). While this book is a part of a series, it can be read alone without any confusion.


Kirkus—“ Silk, an ancient legend and family history tie several generations of formidable females together over three centuries in this conclusion to Yep’s monumental Golden Mountain Chronicles. Beginning in 1835 and ending in 2011, the novel artfully weaves a tapestry made up of threads of silk production, Chinese history and folklore and immigrants’ eventual success in America, the “Golden Mountain.” Yep traces girls and women through to their modern descendants, who bear the collective memories of ancestors, each of whom had to make a heart-wrenching, life-changing sacrifice in her own time.”

Kirkus. Kirkus Reviews. August 2011. (Vol. 79, No. 15). Accessed via CLCD at

LS 5653 Module 5-Grace Lin Book

Lin, Grace. The Year of the Dog. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. ISBN 9780316060004

The Year of the Dog is a good year to find yourself. At least according to Pacy’s mother when she is explaining what the Year of the Dog means to her daughters. Finding yourself is all what The Year of the Dog (the novel not the actual year) is about.

Pacy, who goes by Grace to her American friends, is the only Chinese-Taiwanese-American in school. That is, until Melody moves to town. Then the two are “almost twins” who are both determined to find their talent and who they are meant to be before the Year of the Dog is over. While the novel is written in a simplistic form that elementary school children can enjoy, it also addresses important aspects of identity that do not end after elementary school. For example, the concept of beauty and importance are quietly addressed several times in this novel whether it is mentioning the practice of binding feet, Pacy deciding not to try out for Dorothy because “Dorothy isn’t Chinese,” or Pacy’s declaration that Chinese people can’t be important because there aren’t any books or movies about them (a fact that sadly the girls’ school library supports by only having one book The Seven Chinese Brothers).

The novel encourages the reader to find themselves…no matter how many times they seem to fail. Pacy is always aware that she is neither Chinese nor American, but somewhere in between, especially when the girls at the Taiwanese American Conference were rude to Pacy because she couldn’t speak Taiwanese. Pacy has to choose what defines her, what her family tells her (that she is Chinese American the same way their Chinese New Year tray was with Chinese candy and M&Ms, which her dad says is a tasty combination), or that she will believe what others say (that she is Chinese on the outside but has no culture on the inside). Pacy’s mother puts it this way, “You don’t have to be more one than the other, you’re Chinese-American.”

Lin admits that she wrote this semiautobiographical book because it’s what she wished she had growing up. Considering the book Pacy writes in the novel, The Ugly Vegetables, is a picture book by Lin, it is easy to watch the lines blur between author and character.

While this book could easily be enjoyed by third graders (especially if a Chinese or Taiwanese American is looking for a book about someone like them), it should be revisited in middle school when preteens and teens have to find themselves all over again. The preteens would likely appreciate the views of beauty (like the china/China doll incident), Pacy’s fear of embarrassment, and how she can both fit in and not fit in at the same time (like a teenager).


Asian Pacific American Award for Literature-2006-2007 (Honorable Mention)


Booklist—“Now she[Lin] has written the book she wished she had as a child. Told in a simple, direct voice, her story follows young Grace through the Year of the Dog, one that Grace hopes will prove lucky for her. And what a year it is! Grace meets a new friend, another Asian girl, and together they enter a science fair, share a crush on the same boy, and enjoy special aspects of their heritage (food!).”

Kirkus—“ Being Taiwanese-American is confusing, and being the only Asian kid in your elementary school-except for your older sister-is not always comfortable. Pacy has high hopes for the Year of the Dog, which, she learns, is a year for finding friends and finding yourself. The friend comes first: a new girl, Melody, whose family is also Taiwanese-American…Interspersed with the happenings of daily life are her mother’s stories of Pacy’s grandparents’ lives and her own struggles as a new immigrant.”

Cooper, Ilene. Booklist. Jan 2006. (Vol. 102, No. 9) Accessed via CLCD at

Kirkus. Kirkus Reviews. December 2005. (Vol. 73, No. 24) Accessed via CLCD at

LS 5653 Module 5-Allen Say Book

Say, Allen. Drawing from Memory. New York: Scholastic Press, 2011. ISBN 9780545176866

Drawing from Memory is an autobiographical tale about Say’s childhood in Japan. However, what started his art career was actually not art, but reading. Say tells the reader that, because his mother worried about him drowning as a young child, she taught him how to read. Say read comics to the other children in the village. From there, he began drawing…on everything. Say goes on to face a disapproving father and grandmother as well as the pressure to get into one of the private schools in Tokyo. Ironically, after getting into the school (and getting an apartment through an agreement with his mother and grandmother if he got into the school) it is something small that pushes his art career further.  He reads the newspaper.

Reading Drawing from Memory is more like looking at a scrapbook than reading a standard picture book. Some pages have detailed drawings to go with the text; others have sketches, photographs, or prints of cartoons. Several have a mixture of these elements (hence the scrapbook comparison). The text itself is easy to follow, but it needs the images to function. Despite the variety of techniques, for the most part you can recognize the people in both the photographs and the sketches or illustrations (except the ones where Tokida takes off his glasses). In addition, the characters have the same skin tone and dark hair, the variety comes in haircut, dress, and facial expression.

While Drawing from Memory always makes forward motion, it isn’t in the direct fashion of most books. Part of this is the writing style and the need to read all of the little notes that go with each photo, sketch, or image, and part of it is the fact that while some pages have a lot of text, others have panels like a comic book.

The author’s note at the end of the book tells how the story between Say and his sensei ends. While this doesn’t fill in the rest of Say’s life, it does feel like it completes the book. The reader knew from early on that Noro Shinpei was important to Say, so it is nice to see that part of his life through to its completion.

This book would work well for several different classes. For history, it could be used to look at Japan during American occupation and the student strikes. For art classes, it shows not only a variety of styles, but that art doesn’t have to start from some big inspirational moment. It could be looking at the city and wanting to paint red roofs. It can be used in English classes to show how what some people may think of as boring and not story worthy (namely their life which never seems to have enough excitement) actually can make an interesting story. Like art doesn’t need some mythical muse to hit the artist with inspiration, stories don’t need large fight scenes or large amounts of drama. They need characters that the reader can invest themselves in.


Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal-2012 (Honor Book)
School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books-2012 (Nominee)


Booklist—“The scrapbook format features photographs, many of them dim with age; sketchbook drawings; and unordered, comic-book-style panels that float around wide swathes of text and unboxed captions, and the overall effect is sometimes disjointed. Still, as a portrait of a young artist, this is a powerful title that is both culturally and personally resonant.”

Kirkus—“Nothing—not political unrest, not U.S. occupation, not paternal disapproval—derails his singular goal of becoming a cartoonist. Shinpei’s original comics are reproduced here, harmonizing with Say’s own art from that time and the graphic-novel–style panels, drawings and paintings created for this book. Aesthetically superb; this will fascinate comics readers and budding artists while creating new Say fans.”

Chipman, Ian. Booklist. August 2011. (Vol. 10, No. 22). Accessed via CLCD at

Kirkus. Kirkus Reviews. July 2011. (Vol. 79, No. 14). Accessed via CLCD at