Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes

Rescue and Jessica is based on the true events. Jessica Krensky and her husband Patrick Downes had just settled in near the finish line to watch the Boston Marathon. It was a rare day off for the two medical professionals who were about to relocate across the country to San Francisco. But on April 15, 2013, their lives were changed forever when two Islamic terrorists detonated bombs at the marathon. killing three people, injuring hundreds.

At least fourteen people required amputations, with some having traumatic amputations as a result of the explosions. Jessica and her husband were two of those who suffered amputations. Patrick lost his left leg as did Jessica, who also eventually had to have her right leg amputated. They spent three years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center undergoing treatment for their catastrophic injuries.

Jessica and Patrick's recovery was aided by a special dog, Rescue who was trained by NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services). Rescue was named for a firefighter, Jon Davies who rode in a truck, Rescue 1.

Jessica and Rescue's story is portrayed in a way that focuses on their relationship rather than on the events leading up to her needing a service dog. The story first focuses on Rescue who finds that he doesn't make a good guide dog. Instead, he is trained to be a service dog which he does very well. Meanwhile Jessica is a girl who has a leg amputated. The reason for the loss of her leg is never specified. The amputation changes Jessica's life drastically. When she meets a friend who brings her own service dog, Jessica knows this is what she needs and soon she's paired with Rescue. Eventually Jessica must have her other leg amputated. This makes Rescue even more vital to her recovery. The two of them learn to work together and soon Jessica's is able to feel happier and to function much better with Rescue's help.


Jessica and Rescue is a celebration, in picture book format, of triumph over adversity. The struggles of the young girl Jessica in the story, mirrors Kensky and Downes's efforts to regain their ability to function and recover their lives after the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing. As with Kensky and Downes, the service dog in the story helps the young girl Jessica to adjust to the new reality of life as an amputee. Younger readers are invited to consider how life might change as a result of losing a limb to an accident or illness.

Scott Magoon's digitally created illustrations portray these challenges in a realistic way that blends with the authors' simple, straightforward text.

The interesting backstory behind the book's creation, the themes of grit, fortitude, perseverence, and empathy as well as the relationship between a girl and her beloved service dog, make Jessica and Rescue an appealing picture book.

Book Details:

Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press     2018

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Girls On The Line by Jennie Liu

Set in Gujiao, China in 2009, Girls On The Line is a novel about life in China during the One-Child Policy and its implications for women, children, families and society in general. It is told through the voices of two young women, Cao Luli and Fu Yun.

The story begins with Luli arriving at the factory complex of Gujiano Technologies Limited, to meet her friend Yun. Luli has just turned sixteen and has aged out of The Institute, an orphanage she has been living since the age of eight when her grandpa became too sick to care for her. Yun also from the same orphanage, had been left on the street as a baby. With a heart defect and four black marks on her face which were considered marks of bad luck she was never put up for adoption. Yun left the orphanage last year and has been working in a factory. Luli had been offered a position at the orphange but when Yun wrote offering to help her get work in a factory she decided to turn it down. Now she finds herself alone, outside the factory waiting for her friend.

Luli meets Yun who takes her back to her room in Dorm Number 6, telling her she can share her bunk until she gets her own. Accompanied by Yun's roommates, Hong and Zhenzhen, Luli and Yun go to a restaurant for noodles and pork. However, during their meal Yun gets a phone call and leaves Luli with her friends so that she can meet her boyfriend Liang Yong.

Yun met Yong through her old boyfriend Chen Ming whose father is the foreman for Yun's unit at the factory. Ming was angry when Yun left him for Yong, telling her that Yong is a bride trafficker. But Yun doesn't believe Ming, thinking he is jealous. When she questioned Yong, he told her that he works for a marriage broker, delivering brides to their prospective husbands. This satisfies Yun enough that she willingly goes with him now. They leave Luli, with Yun riding on the back of Yong motorbike. They go back to Yong's apartment where they make love.

In the morning, Zhenzhen takes Luli to see Ming about a job. Luli works on a line "...twisting the plastic-coated wires around the USB cords, then slipping them into tiny plastic bags." Three months pass, endless days with Luli working and saving her money. She doesn't see Yun much as Luli is in a different dorm and after work Yun leaves to see Yong. One day at lunch, Ming reveals to Luli that Yong is a kidnapper. "He is a kidnapper.  Or he helps one. They kidnap girls and women and sell them to men out in the countryside." Luli defends Yong telling Ming that she has been told that he helps drive brides to their new home. She believes that Yun is safe, despite Ming telling her it doesn't mean he doesn't traffick other women.

After lunch, Yun arrives for work, late once again. She's confronted by Foreman Chen who lectures her about being late and then fires her. Luli is shocked for her friend, wondering what she will do. After work, Luli encounters Yun just outside the gates and agrees to accompany her friend to the health clinic. Yun shocks Luli by revealing that she needs a pregnancy test.

At the Modern Women's Health Clinic the ultrasound reveals that Yun is definitely pregnant.The doctor tells Yun and Luli that Yun will have to pay the social compensation fee for having an unauthorized pregnancy in order to get a birth permit and be able to give birth in a hospital. She also won't be able to obtain the baby's hukou - the government registration making the baby an official person able to attend school and get a job.

After several more tests Yun is given the choice of a medical abortion (taking two pills) or surgical abortion which is a vacuum suction under anesthesia. Yun leaves the clinic distraught and undecided but determined to find Yong and tell him. Luli wants Yun to marry Yong and keep the baby. However, Yun remembering her time at the orphanage carrying for babies, doesn't want this. Instead, Yun tells Luli that she will borrow the money from Yong and return to the clinic for the abortion. Luli tries to persuade her friend by telling her what Ming said about Yong being a bride trafficker. Yun runs out of the restaurant, furious but also filled with doubt.

She spends the night outside Yong's apartment where she meets a detective, who is also looking for Yong. He tells her that Yong kidnaps young women and takes them the countryside where they are forced to marry men. The detective is surprised that Yun herself has not been trafficked. Terrified, Yun takes the detective's card and leaves. She has nowhere to go and not enough money for the abortion. Luli can't help her. Her only hope is to find Yong and hope he will pay for the abortion. But will he give her the money? Is he really a bride trafficker?


Girls On The Line tackles issues surrounding China's draconian one-child policy including the many social and human rights issues surrounding this policy.

In 1979 China's Communist party under Deng Xiaoping implemented its infamous one-child policy. At this time it was felt that China's huge population with its anticipated growth would be a drawback to the country's economic development. The belief at the time was that China would need to reign in its population growth in order to improve the quality of life for its citizens. The one child policy was implemented. This policy raised the age of marriage to twenty for women and twenty-two for men, it restricted families to one child, although later on this was loosened somewhat to allow a couple to have a second child if the first born was a girl in rural areas. Birth control was promoted and abortion was made easily available.

During this time, Western countries saw China as a huge economic opportunity and were willing to undertake new business ventures in the country which was slowly opening up to foreign investment. In 1979, Stephen Mosher, a Stanford University social scientist received permission to conduct anthropological research in the Guizhou Province. While in China  Mosher traveled to various villages and uncovered the horrific reality of China's one-child policy: forced abortions, harassment of mothers and their families, even torture and jail. Mosher reported Chinese family planning officials ordered forced abortions of full term babies, while unauthorized pregnancies - even first pregnancies were forcibly aborted. Babies being born without the necessary licence were given a poison injection in the head as they were being born, resulting in death up to 48 hours later. Family members of mothers who refused to abort were harassed and threatened, the fathers beaten and imprisoned. Pregnant women refusing abortion were sent to re-education classes and faced continuous pressure until they relented. If the mother went into hiding to have her baby, family members and relatives were harassed and jailed and many had their homes destroyed by zealous family planning officials. Entire villages and factories were punished if a woman pregnant outside the law went into hiding.

China's one-child policy is believed to have resulted in 335 million abortions and prevented over 400 million births. The one-child policy however has resulted in many serious problems for China. It has not produced the economic windfall the Chinese government forecast and in fact may have serious economic consequences for the country. China's working age population began shrinking in 2013 and will continue this trend for many years. Accompanying the decrease in working adults is an increase in workers reaching retirement age. By 2035, thirty-two percent of China's population will consist of retirement aged people with only 2.4 workers to support each retiree. This is not an sustainable economic model.

Decades of promoting one child families has changed how Chinese couples and Chinese society in general view children. Couples no longer wish to have a second or third child, believing that economically they can only provide for one child. They see children as a financial burden. Not only do they not want more than one child, they also prefer that only child to be a boy. This is because the male child traditionally is the one who is responsible for caring for elderly parents, while a daughter is expected to leave her family to be with her husband's family. As a result sex selection abortion in which girl babies are aborted has resulted in a skewed sex ration of 114 boys for every 100 girls as of 2017. This skewed sex ratio has had a profound effect socially, resulting in men not able to find wives and in bride trafficking.

In Girls On The Line Lui touches on several of these issues. Her friend, Yun falls pregnant outside of the law; she is too young to be married and doesn't have a birth permit, meaning that she is not allowed to carry the child to term and give birth. In the story though,Yun seems to slip through the cracks, not returning to the health clinic, hiding in the factory dorm, disappearing into Yong's rural village and then returning to the factory dorm where she gives birth. Luli naively believes that Yun can have her baby - an option she very much favours.

However, it's unlikely that Yun would have been so lucky in real life. Many women were able to hide their unplanned pregnancies and give birth to their babies, but in most instances, family planning officials caught up with these women and they were forcibly aborted even as they were preparing to give birth.  It's unlikely Yun would have so easily escaped the notice of family planning officials who often had quotas and kept strict track of women of child bearing age in their areas. The immense challenges Yun encountered - lack of family, lack of money, and lack of maternal health care - do demonstrate just how difficult Yun's situation would be in a society where the birth of babies is so strictly regulated and where illegal births are so brutally punished. The birth of a baby outside the law meant a heavy fine that would take years to pay in addition to money needed for the child's hukou. Reader's can't help but feel deep sympathy for Yun's situation.

Both Luli and Yun are orphans but Luli has a distant memory of living in a family and being cared for while Yun has never known family. It becomes obvious that there is something deeply wrong with Yun, that she is broken, a fact she herself recognizes. She is unable to bond with her baby and shows little interest in Chun. Her years of caring for babies at The Institute have made her dislike children immensely and she has no concept of caring for another person. "...The babies and little ones, dull and silent most of the time, suddenly wailing around the mealtimes. I remember Luli picking them up sometimes and cuddling them. The first time I saw her do it, I was so puzzled that I asked her what she was doing. She looked at me strangely and simply said, 'Holding her.' "

It is Luli, who understands what belonging to a family means, and who knows the grim reality of the orphanage where the children receive almost no love, who saves Chun. Luli tries to convince Yun that having a family is a good thing. But Yun feels so trapped and burdened by her circumstances, and is so emotionally stunted because of her experience in the orphanage, that she is prepared to help Yong traffick their daughter. 

Eventually Luli comes to realize the truth about her friend, that Yun is selfish and self-centered. While thinking about Chun who she believes has been trafficked, Luli thinks, "Yun chose to do this. For money even though I promised to help her pay off the birth fines. For convenience, even though Ma and I would've happily shared the burden of carrying for Chun. Yun's world starts and end with Yun...." It is Yong's Ma who tells Yun what she needs to hear, " 'Just because you were an orphan, you think you can live only for yourself. Hurling forward! Just doing what you want all the time!....But what you don't know is that what you want is right here.' She gestures with her hand at all of us. 'People. Family."

Although Yun doesn't quite respond as Luli might want, she does see her friend making an effort to care for her daughter. There is hope for the future.

Due to the mature  content, this novel is recommended for older teens. Girls On The Line offers readers the opportunity to consider how social policies can have unintended consequences both on an individual and national level. The novel offers the chance for readers to explore further China's one-child policy, its drastic effects on family, women's physical and mental health, the effects socially and culturally as well as economically. It also encourages teens to ask questions such as Does a government ever have the right to tell a couple how many children they can have? Have other countries ever had laws regulating who could have children?  What cultural influences did Chinese authorities not take into account when they implemented their one-child policy?

Book Details:

Girls On The Line by Jennie Liu
Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Lab       2018
pp. 224

Friday, May 24, 2019

Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith

Black Panther: The Young Prince introduces younger readers to the backstory of T'Challa,  prince,future ruler of Wakanda, and the future Black Panther.

The novel opens with T'Challa racing against his best friend M'Baku in the forest surrounding the city. Their friendly competition is interrupted when they come across a man in a military uniform slumped against a tree. Four women with tribal markings, the Dora Mijae who are the king's private bodyguards suddenly appear. One of the guards  indicates that both T'Challa and M'Baku have been summoned to appear before the king, T'Chaka, king of Wakanda and the Black Panther. They meet the king in the Royal Palace, where T'Chaka is seated on the Panther Throne. Accompanying the king is M'Baku's father, N'Gamo who is a member of the king's war council.

The king and N'Gamo tell the two boys that there are unknown invaders on Wakanda's borders. Suspecting there might be war, T'Chaka has decided to send T'Challa away to keep him safe. The king has decided to send T'Challa to Chicago, accompanied by M'Baku. Both boys will attend South Side Middle School, posing as exchange students from Kenya. They will live at the African Embassy of Nations. M'Baku is excited at the prospect of living in America, believing they will have the freedom to do whatever they want. T'Challa however is concerned, believing he should stay in Wakanda to help his father. His conflicted feelings about leaving are deepended when his older stepbrother, Hunter berates T'Challa for leaving. Hunter accuses T'Challa of "running off to hide in America." Their strained relationship results in the two brothers fighting during the celebration prior to T'Challa leaving.

Just before he leaves for America, the king tells T'Challa that he believes the threat is from a scientist, Ulysses Klaw who has wanted to steal Wakanda's Vibranium. The next day T'Challa and M'Baku are flown by the king's private jet to Chicago. J'Aka, one of the king's top advisers accompanies the two boys to America, leaving them at the African Embassy of Nations.

Left to fend for themselves, T'Challa and M'Baku find their way to their school, register and settle in to take classes.They soon make two new friends, Zeke and Sheila who will turn out to be especially good and faithful friends. T'Challa and M'Baku are harassed by Gemini Jones and his friends DeShawn and Bicep. Zeke tells the two boys that Gemini is a warlock or a witch and that most people are afraid of him. .However, M'Baku is restless but when he proves to be a natural at basketball he joins the team and becomes friends with Gemini and his friends. Soon T'Challa finds his best friend has traded his friendship, responsibilities and duties for his desire for respect. Little does M'Baku realize, he's leading T'Challa into his first test as the future Black Panther.


Black Panther: The Young Prince is loosely based on the Marvel Comic's superhero created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Black Panther is an African superhero from the mythical African nation of Wakanda.

Long ago a meteorite comprised of the fictional vibration/energy-absorbing mineral crashed into Wakanda. When it was discovered and its unique properties realized, the Wakandans named it Vibranium. In the novel T'Challa indicates that the Wakanda warriors made weapons from the strange mineral. However, radiation from the meteor site turned several Wakandans into demon spirits. To overcome them, the warrior Bashenga entreated the Panther God, Bast to help and became the first Black Panther.

As previous Wakandan kings had done, T'Challa's father, the current Black Panther and king of Wakanda - T'Chaka has continued to conceal Wakanda from the outside world. The mineral has transformed the country into a technologically advanced civilization and the Black Panther kings believed its discovery would result in misuse of the mineral as well as exploitation of their kingdom.

T'Challa, heir to the Black Panther throne has been raised by his father as his mother, N'Yami had died in childbirth. This Black Panther story, written for younger readers takes up T'Challa's story as a boy coming of age.

At first it seems that T'Challa and M'Baku will have an uneventful experience as students at a middle school in Chicago until they find themselves drawn into a group with sinister designs through the use of black magic. While T'Challa stays true to himself,  it is M'Baku whose rebellion puts the future Black Panther at risk. M'Baku's jealousy over his friend's status as prince of Wakanda, and his desire to be respected like T'Challa,  leads him to disobey the king's command not to bring attention to themselves. He turns against his training and his responsibilities, falling in with the school bully Gemini who happens to be a good basketball player. M'Baku makes the basketball team and is eventually drawn further into Gemini's circle of friends and then into his family. He abandons T'Challa, moving in with Gemini's family. The ultimate betrayal comes when he steals the Vibranium ring that T'Chaka gave T'Challa.

However, T'Challa shows himself to be obedient, resourceful, intelligent, and a good judge of character. In contrast to M'Baku who is swayed by Gemini's words, T'Challa lives out his father's wisdom, "Many men will try to battle you with words, T'Challa, but words cannot sway a man from his duty" . Although he disobeys his father's command to keep his identity a secret, T'Challa does so reluctantly and only because he believes both Zeke and Sheila can be trusted. He also only uses the Vibranium suit in what he considers to be a dire emergency.

There are plenty of holes in this novelization of the Black Panther; for example it is unlikely that two young boys so vital to their country's leadership would be sent to America by themselves without a guardian. In another example, T'Challa and M'Baku arrive at their school where the school administration has no idea of their names and simply accept them without any identification. Yet another plot hole revolves around T'Challa's father giving his son a ring made of Vibranium, a metal with such amazing properties that Wakanda has hidden itself from the outside world so as to protect it's discovery. And yet a young boy is given this valuable metal as jewelry which might be easily lost or stolen.  However, overall, the story of the young boy whose future is that of a superhero is well written and exciting, with a satisfying ending that sees T'Challa and M'Baku return safely to Wakanda, more experienced in the ways of the outside world.

Parents should be aware that there is some black magic in the novel and a frightening description of T'Challa's encounter with a demon.

Book Details:

Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith
Los Angeles: Marvel Press     2018
264 pp

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Golden Bull by Marjorie Cowley

The Golden Bull is a middle-school historical fiction novel set in Mesopotamia in 2600 B.C. Fourteen-year-old Jomar and his younger sister, twelve-year-old Zefa live with their parents on a farm outside the city of Ur. The recent drought has made their once fruitful land barren and dry. The farms "once produced abundant grain, melons and grapes, plums and pears, cabbage and carrots. Gazelle and other wild animals had once been plentiful, attracted to the crops and to the water in the irrigation canals that cut through the countryside."

When Jomar hears Zefa playing a song on the lyre he made for her, he questions her as to why the song is sad. Zefa reveals to him that their parents plan to send him away to the nearby city of Ur. Because of the drought there is not enough food for all of them. This news scares Jomar because he wonders how he will live in Ur. From his home he can see the large mud-brick temple dedicated to the moon god Nanna rising above Ur.

Jomar confronts his father Durabi who tells him that the farm no longer grows enough food to feed them. When he was last in Ur, Durabi arranged  for Jomar to be taken on as an apprentice with Sidah, a goldsmith who works for the temple.Sidah's son had recently died. Jomar's father also reveals that Zefa will accompany him to Ur because she too is starving. Durabi tells Jomar that he must care for Zefa too but that she will have to find her own work. Jomar is not happy about having to travel to Ur nor that Zefa must come with him.  But Durabi insists, stating that he will walk Jomar and Zefa to the road that leads into Ur.

The next morning Jomar and Zefa leave with their father for Ur. Their mother Lilan packs them each a basket containing what food they have. Zefa insists on bringing her lyre. Their father is unable to walk far enough to take them to the road that leads to Ur so Jomar and Zefa continue on their own. However Jomar and Zefa encounter a man named Malak who has been sent by the temple to oversee the irrigation system. Impressed by Zefa's singing, Malak decides she will remain with him and his men, but that Jomar is free to leave for his apprenticeship in Ur. Jomar protests Zefa's enslavement by Malak but decides to stay with her. They spend the day working in the ditches but at night when the men become drunk, with the help of another worker named Qat-nu, Jomar and Zefa escape.

Eventually they arrive at the gate leading into Ur. The gatekeeper is willing to allow Jomar into the city, but it is only when Zefa sings and plays her lyre, that she too is allowed in. While searching for Sidah's home, Jomar and Zefa witness a crowd watching a man undergoing a trial to prove his innocence after being accused of murder. Zefa is horrified and Jomar steers her away. They arrive at Sidah's home only to discover that Zefa is not welcome, especially by his wife Nari. Sidah tells Nari that Zefa will leave in the morning. That night Zefa is allowed to sleep in the workshop, but she angers Nari when she plays the temple lyre that Sidah has been commissioned to embellish. Sidah's son Abbah was to have worked with him on the lyre. Sidah believes Zefa's unexpected appearance at his house is a sign for him to work on the lyre. He decides she will stay and play on the lyre to inspire his work, but Nari, unhappy at this decision states that she will also work for her.

Jomar's first task is to work on a necklace for the high priestess Bittatti. However, as he's making the necklace, Jomar discovers that one of the lapis beads is missing. This leads both Jomar and Sidah to believe that Zefa who slept in the workshop, has stolen the bead. Jomar is then ordered to take the gold drinking straw to the high priestess at the temple. On his way there, Jomar finds himself accosted by Malak who guards the back entrance to the temple.Malak threatens Jomar, telling him he will come for his sister, who he believes is his slave. The penalty for a slave escaping is severe. Jomar must find a way to protect his sister from Malak while at the same time protecting his apprenticeship with Sidah.


The Golden Bull is set in the city of Ur, located in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia in 2600 B.C. Ur was a major trade center as it was situated where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers emptied into the Persian Gulf. It was a city of great wealth. The Great Ziggurat of Ur or temple of Ur mentioned in the novel was dedicated to the moon god Nanna.

Cowley works many historical details into the story, through the character of Sidah who answers Jomar's questions about the city of Ur and who provides detailed descriptions of  the goldsmith craft as he creates the golden bull for the temple lyre.

Although the storyline in The Golden Bull is driven by Jomar and Zefa's need to survive in Ur where they are sent because their parents can no longer support them, it is the relationship between Jomar and his sister that forms the central theme. At the beginning of the novel, Jomar views his sister as a burden when he learns she will accompany him to Ur. Zefa also struggles as she finds Jomar has gone from ignoring her to ordering her around. However as they set out on their journey, Jomar listens for the first time to the songs Zefa sings and begins to understand that she has a special gift.  "For years he'd heard the songs that Zefa made up, heard them without really listening. They had been about such childish things as a lost doll, the death of a pig, and the sun's magic that shriveled a grape into a sweet raisin. But now Jomar was struck by the words of this song. How could a girl of twelve make up such a solemn prayer?" When Zefa is made a slave by Malak, Jomar refuses to abandon her to her fate, remembering his duty to protect her. Instead he stays with her  and together they escape and continue on their journey to Ur. Jomar begins to realize that Zefa's ability to play the lyre and compose songs may be very helpful to them. Her playing earns them some food from a family with a baby who won't sleep and helps her get into Ur.

When a lapis bead goes missing from Sidah's workshop and Zefa is suspected, Jomar confronts her. Zefa is outraged by Jomar's lack of trust in her.  Jomar feels guilt over his doubts about his sister. "Instead of protecting Zefa, he had become her enemy, her accuser." He is also troubled because he doesn't know how to protect his sister both from the accusations that she is a thief and from Malak who has promised to find Zefa and take her back.

Zefa flees from Sidah's house and ends up living with children in the bazaar who play for food. She leaves because she realizes she is not trusted at Sidah's house and that she is in danger from Malak. When Jomar finds her, he sees that she has changed from the vulnerable young girl to someone with quiet assurance and confidence. Although Jomar expects Zefa to refuse, she demonstrates compassion and forgiveness when she agrees to play on the temple lyre and perform a praise song for Abban at his funeral in order to comfort Nari despite Nari having betrayed Zefa. And Zefa also comes to realize why Nari has found it so difficult to accept Jomar and herself into their home; her grief for her son Abban is too recent. Zefa is a compassionate, honest young girl, who cares for both those who are poor like herself and those who are unkind to her like Nari.

To protect his sister, Jomar decides to take the river test, claiming he took the lapis bead. He knows Zefa is innocent and that his sister cannot be thrown into the river as she cannot swim and will drown. To spare her from this fate, Jomar takes her place even though he too cannot swim. In doing so Jomar also demonstrates his courage and his sacrificial love. Fortunately, the river judges Jomar as innocent.

Both Jomar and Zefa's honesty, willingness to work hard and their kindness do much to heal Sidah and Nari as they grieve the loss of their only son. This is especially true for Nari whose bitterness has caused her to do so much harm to both children.

The Golden Bull is suitable for younger readers interested in historical fiction. Cowley provides a detailed Author's Note at the back of the novel which provides many interesting facts about life in Ur and this region of Mesopotamia at the time of the novel. A map of the region and illustrations would add considerably to the novel's overall appeal.

Book Details:

The Golden Bull by Marjorie Cowley
Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge    2008
200 pp.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Mammoth by Jill Baguchinsky

Natalie Page, paleontology nerd and vintage, plus-size fashion blogger is on her way to spend the summer at the Central Texas Mammoth Site as one of two interns. Natalie lives in Orlando, Florida with her parents and her brothers, Ryan and Dylan.She's spent the past three summers working at her Aunt Judy's indie clothing company, Savage Swallow. Natalie who is a heavy-set girl, learned to sew and tailor clothing and create her own fashion style. Out of this came her blog Fossilista, which posts "plus-size fashion inspiration and vintage thrifting tips..." Because Natalie was bullied in middle school for her weight she always tries to look her best, with makeup and her own vintage style.

Natalie's idol is Dr. Thomas F. Carver whom she nicknames, "Thomas Fucking Carver". Carver is a renowned paleontologist who has made dinosaur discoveries including a Centesaurus which he discovered in Utah. Natalie hoped Carver would talk about the legal trouble the Central Texas Mammoth Site has encountered in his latest podcast on Carved in Bone. However no mention is made of the dispute between the  "family of the property's former owner" and the site over  the first fossils  recovered on the land that is now the Central Texas Mammoth site. Instead the podcast is about Carver and his team working to protect a newly discovered Apatosaurus skeleton from a flash flood and waiting out the storm in nearby trees.

At the airport in Austin, Texas, Natalie is met by Eli Washington, a senior intern. She also meets two other student interns, a blond girl named Quinn who later reveals that she is Dr. Carver's daughter, and a handsome, tall boy named Chase. Natalie and Quinn are rooming with another senior intern, Mellie McCormick who happens to share Natalie's interests in crafting and thrifting. At the welcome meeting, Natalie and the other interns meet Dr. Helen Lauren, assistant director at the Central Texas Mammoth Site, who oversees the intern program. She takes them on a campus tour and dinner at the cafeteria. The next day they meet the site's director, Dr. Vincent Gallagher, an expert in paleontological taphonomy. During their introduction to the site, Natalie realizes that Quinn has an advantage over her because as Dr. Carver's daughter, she is already known to the site staff. So she competes with Quinn, attempting to impress Dr. Gallagher and be acknowledged.

On a tour led by Cody, a high school senior, Natalie and the other interns see the in situ bone bed, the remains of a single nursery herd that likely died around forty-thousand years ago as a result of a sudden flood. Natalie interrupts the tour to correct a father and son's misconceptions about the site. This makes Cody angry and he tells her never to do that again. When they reconnect with Dr. Lauren, Natalie realizes that her choice of clothing and footwear is not reasonable for walking on the forest trails. But she does have an eye for finding things, spotting a bone in the river bed, that turns out to be from a pork chop.

Natalie's crush on Chase continues to blossom when they spend time together that night talking about their lives and their mutual interest in fossils. The next day Natalie and the interns visit the Dr. Warren Roland lab, a warehouse-sized building that houses labs and fossils. Dr. Roland was in charge of the original dig at the Mammoth Site and he founded the paleo program at Austin State. Dr. Ted Glass is in charge of the bone prep lab, explaining that although there still are bones to dig up, the warehouse is full of fossils, many of which they don't know about and many needing preparation. Dr. Glass and Amy Seeker, a grad student train the interns on screen picking. Watching Quinn flirt with Chase, during the training session, makes Natalie jealous.

The interns begin to settle in learning various jobs; Natalie and Brendan work with Cody to learn the tour while Chase and Quinn train in the sandbox. Natalie quickly becomes adept at leading the tour, adding in her own paleo facts and is soon allowed to lead tours with Cody observing. One afternoon during break Cody overhears a conversation in Dr. Lauren's office. When the first bones were discovered, Dr. Roland and the landowner supposedly signed a contract which allowed the university to lease the land and keep any fossils found. However, now the family is claiming the contract never existed, that the fossils belong to them and they want financial compensation as well.

Natalie is thrilled to learn that her idol, Dr. Carver will be visiting the site to film segments, including the interns for his new show. During Carver's visit, Natalie is filmed while working in the sandbox and is even coached by Dr. Carver. A photograph of Natalie and Dr. Carver appears on his website but while it is wonderful for Natalie, his daughter Quinn is less than impressed. Quinn shows Natalie a text from her father critical of her work at the site, and shares that she has a strained relationship with her famous father.

After a week at the site, Natalie is recognized for her exemplary work leading tours and she, Brendan and Chase are cleared to work in the bone bed. That night, the interns are given time off and all including Natalie decide to meet at the amphitheater and drink beer Brendan has stolen from a fridge in the lab. While Cody limits himself to one beer, the rest drink until they are very drunk. Cody refuses to go along with Quinn's plan to walk to the site to dig. Eventually only Chase and Natalie attempt to walk to the site even though both are very intoxicated. They begin kissing passionately but Natalie becomes annoyed when Chase tries to take things further. At this point the two are discovered on the road by the senior interns, Eli and Mellie who drive them back to the residences. The next day Dr Lauren places both Chase and Natalie on probation. Natalie worries about the repercussions for Cody but fortunately he just gets a reprimand. At this time, Cody notices that Natalie looks different, because she hasn't done her makeup due to her hangover. He tells her she looks nice.

However Natalie is totally absorbed with Chase, holding hands with him and telling her best friend Charli back home that she thinks they might be a thing. But Natalie soon discovers that Chase is anything but sincere about their relationship. When she discovers Chase and Quinn making out in Natalie is devastated and runs to the bone storage room. Quinn finds her and tries to apologize, explaining that she acted the way she did because of her fractured relationship with her father and her inability to please him. While Natalie is listening, she suddenly notices that there is a labelled specimen from the Mammoth site on the storage shelf. Since all the specimens from the site are supposed to have been processed this is a shocking find. Natalie's discovery has huge implications for the site and its legal issues.

As Natalie deals with Chase's betrayal, and with the realization that her hero Dr. Carver is not the great guy she thought he was, she begins to shed some of the armour she's built up to protect herself. In an attempt to redeem herself, Natalie takes a risk that put her internship at risk and almost cost the life of the boy who turns out to be a true friend.


Mammoth tackles the tricky subjects of body image and body shaming as well as self-esteem.Natalie Page is a plus-size teenager who has experienced bullying over her weight. In middle school she was known as "Fat Nat", a nickname given to her by a classmate. However, in high school, Natalie's Aunt Judy helped her forge her physical and emotional armor against body shaming. She taught Natalie to "be awesome", to be Awesome Natalie instead of Fat Nat. "It's the persona I put on each day, the tight shapers that bind me, the cute dresses, the flawless makeup. It's everything." Every minute of Natalie's day is focused on being awesome. She chooses her outfits for the day, spends time putting on makeup and restraining her naturally curly hair. But sometimes all of this isn't enough. As when she sits in her seat on the plane and notices her upper arm is partially in the middle seat. "All the armor in the world can't protect me from moments like this. Be awesome, I tell myself. I can't slip not. Not now."

Not only is Natalie focused on her own body but also on the bodies of those around her. Whenever she sees another woman, she automatically guesses that woman's weight, without even realizing she's doing this. "The number flashes in my head, illuminated like a digital display. Like the numbers on a scale. it's a game I play with myself; I can't meet a woman without guessing her weight. It always makes me feel a little guilty, but working for Aunt Judy and writing about fashion have made me almost too good at estimating things like weight and clothing size. The reaction is so automatic and objective that I can't seem to stop. Beside, when you're as aware of size as I've learned to be, when you're reminded of it everytime those great jeans don't fit or some anonymous idiot leaves a rude comment on your blog, you notice aspects of it everywhere."

To cope with her stress, Natalie snaps the hair elastic on her wrist. She constantly compares parts of her body, especially her thighs with those of others despite her Aunt Judy telling her she has "sturdy thighs" that will carry her far. Baguchinsky realistically portrays Natalie's constant war with food. "In the cafeteria, I settle on a soy cheeseburger on a whole wheat bun and a bag of crackers. At the end of the line, near the cashier, a pile of prepackaged desserts sings like a siren on treacherous rocks. I try not to look, but I'm hungry. And they have snickerdoodles -- my favorite. I take two and stare at them on my tray, anxiety blooming in my throat like bile."

Baguchinsky has crafted a very realistic heroine in Natalie Page. Natalie, a paleontology geek shows her passion for the fossil site, makes the typical poor decisions one expects of teenagers, such as getting drunk, working with a fossil when she's not trained on bone prep, and going out to prospect without permission. She's ambitious to the point of recklessness, endangering Cody's life. But she's also forgiving, salvaging her friendship with Quinn who betrayed her and recognizing the pain Quinn is suffering from the strained relationship with her famous father.

The main theme of the novel is that of a young woman who has created this persona to fit in with societal expectations of beauty and health. In the process, she's lost who she is. As a young girl, Natalie experienced body shaming from classmates such as Fred Parkmore. Baguchinsky shows her readers how this has affected Natalie; she has low self esteem and in order to protect herself has devised her "armor" literally with a shaper that she puts on each day to mold her body into the approved shape, even though she can't take a full breath while wearing it and figuratively through the mantra of "be awesome". However, as her internship progresses, Natalie begins to slowly shed that armor. First it's her dresses styled to her plus-sized figure, then it's her shoes which are inappropriate for working in the bone bed and walking on the trails. Then after the night drinking, a hung-over Natalie dispenses with the makeup, the foundation and eyeliner and lipstick and even her shaper. Cody notices immediately that she looks different, telling Natalie, "You look nice. Softer. That's all." But Natalie's not ready yet to drop her armor and she changes "softer into vulnerable. Unprotected. Fat." Natalie can't accept Cody's compliment and does her makeup.

But it is only after Cody almost loses his life while they are attempting to protect a newly discovered fossil during a severe storm that Natalie finally decides to shed her armor. She recognizes that her armor makes her look invulnerable, which is not really true. When she goes to meet the people who will decide her fate after so many mistakes and poor choices, she doesn't wear her shaper, does her makeup only lightly and pulls her frizzy hair back in a ponytail. Natalie decides to stands up for herself, telling the panel about her love for paleontology and expressing regret over her poor decisions. She also stands up to her Dr. Carver, whom she no longer idolizes.

After she is expelled from the internship program, in the bathroom Natalie remembers why she began using makeup. "...I liked what I saw in the mirror - but I felt like I was looking at someone else. It was a mask to help me hide from people like Fred. It was part of what would become my armor. I don't think I want to hide anymore." She decides that she will wear makeup, the dresses, the shapewear and even the shoes if she wants to, if she feels like it. "If not...well, the world can deal. I'm doing this for me, not for anyone else. There's no more Fat Nat, no more Awesome Natalie, no more fake-it-till-you-make-it. There's just me." Natalie is helped further by Cody's acceptance of who she is. He gives her the confidence to be herself and we see this at the end of the novel when she chooses a casual outfit - one that isn't her armor.

After her expulsion, Natalie meets with Dr. Glass who tells her she is very much like Thomas Carver. She has the same reckless ambition as Carver, whose ambition cost Dr. Glass his right calf and foot many years ago. But Natalie is also like Carver in another aspect in that she too has created a public persona that is very different from the real person. Dr. Gallagher explained to Natalie earlier that Carver has "...cultivated a persona for himself - that of the dashing adventurer - and he does whatever it takes to keep that up. That includes taking advantage of situations like this to keep his name out there..." Dr. Glass recognizes Natalie's potential and hopes to mentor her, guiding her ambition and channeling it in a productive way.

The interior of the building covering the Waco Mammoth site.
Baguchinsky spent time at the Waco Mammoth National Monument Site where the fossils of twenty-four Columbian mammoths, from the Pleistocene Epoch died. The first fossil was discovered in 1978 by two teenagers looking for arrowheads along the Bosque River. The fossil of a mammoth tusk was taken to Baylor University where it was identified as belong to a mammoth. Excavations by staff from Baylor's Strecker Museum eventually uncovered the fossil remains of sixteen Columbian mammoths who were believed to have perished together in a natural disaster. Subsequent fossil finds and continuing research suggests that there were at least two separate natural events resulting in the deaths of an original ammoth nursery herd (females and juveniles) and later on a mammoth bull, female and juvenile mammoths.

Mammoth is well-written novel that combines the themes of body shaming, self-acceptance, forgiveness and redemption against the unique setting of a Pleistocene paleo-dig in Texas. It's a strange but interesting combination that really works. Readers should be forewarned there are plenty of f-bombs and a few sexual innuendos in the novel.

Book Details:

Mammoth by Jill Baguchinsky
Nashville, Tennessee: Turner Publishing Company      2018
333 pp.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck

The Big Wave is a novella written by the late American  Pulitzer Prize winning author, Pearl S. Buck about a young Japanese boy who survives a tsunami and learns much about life.

The story is set in a small fishing village in Japan, located on a beach by the ocean. Kino lives on his family's farm, set high up on the mountain overlooking the fishing village. His ancestors have farmed the mountain for generations, terracing the land. Kino's best friend is Jiya the son of a fisherman. Jiya lives in the village on the beach with his parents and his brother. Like all the other homes in the village, Jiya's home has no window facing the sea.

While Jiya fears the ocean , telling his friend "The sea is our enemy.",  Kino believes it is beautiful. On hot summer days after work, Kino swims in the clear water of the sea.He and Jiya often swim out to an island owned by an old man, whom everyone calls the Old Gentleman.

Whenever they are on the island, Jiya always watches the sea carefully. This puzzles Kino who questions him about why the sea gets angry. Jiya doesn't have an answer for this. However, Kino gets a sense of the sea's danger when he dives deep and feels its "cold grasp." When Kino asks his father why Jiya and his father fear the ocean his father explains that there is much they do not understand about the sea. His father also reminds him that there is the volcano to be concerned about too on land.

Then one day the volcano which is far from Kino's home, begins to spew out smoke and steam. Kino's father stays awake all night just as do the other fathers in the fishing village on the beach. At noon the next day a red flag is seen at the Old Gentleman's castle on a knoll halfway down the mountain. Kino's father tells him this is a sign for the people to be ready. Soon a bell begins to toll, encouraging the people to shelter within the castle. But few come. Only the children begin to stream out of the fishing village and up the path towards the castle. At Kino's suggestion, he and his father wave a white handkerchief to draw the attention of his friend Jiya. Shortly after Jiya arrives at Kino's home, they look out towards the sea and watch a huge wave race towards the shore. Terrified, Jiya wants to rush down to the village to tell his father but Kino's father holds him fast. The wave, crashes ashore, destroying everything in its path. Jiya and Kino's lives are forever changed.


The Big Wave is a story for children about a tsunami that devastates a village and changes forever the life of two boys. Although the story is one of tragedy and loss, of a horrific natural disaster, it is told in a gentle, direct manner. Written in a simple style, the novella's overarching theme is about overcoming tragedy in life.

At the beginning of the story, Kino attempts to understand the world around him. His friend Jiya fears the sea as he is aware of its great power. Kino who is the son of a farmer is puzzled by his friend's fear because the sea looks so beautiful. But he comes to understand his friend's fear during a deep dive in the ocean. When he tells his father that he feels safe on land, his father reminds him that even the land holds danger that they must be watchful for - in this case the distant volcano. Kino questions his father, "Must we always be afraid of something?" and he is told the he must "learn to live with danger." Kino's father tells him he must accept that danger exists and learn to live with it, knowing that death comes to everyone. However, this is something  that Kino as a young boy, does not want to consider.

A tsunami wipes out the fishing village, orphaning many of the children who were saved by seeking refuge in the Old Gentleman's castle. Jiya who joins Kino's family on their farm, witnesses the destruction of the village and collapses in utter distress. Yet Kino's father is both patient and kind, telling Kino that they must wait for Jiya to grieve. Jiya's body heals first from the shock and gradually his mind and soul do too, as a result of the careful kindness of Kino's family. He chooses to stay with Kino's family rather than live in the wealthy Old Gentleman's home.

The tragedy of the wave changes Jiya forever. Although his life is divided into two separate periods by the tsunami, he "learns to live with his parents and his brother dead..."and to find happiness in life in spite of tragedy. He learns to love everything this is good and to avoid cruelty Ultimately, Jiya learns the lesson that Kino's father was trying to explain to his own son Kino,  years before, that one must accept the dangers in life and learn how to live with them. This is exemplified by his conversation with the Old Gentleman who scolds the grown survivors of the tsunami for rebuilding homes on the beach. Jiya tells the old man that life is filled with dangers, which they must learn to live with especially since their island of Japan has volcanoes and the sea. Even the Old Gentleman's castle is not safe if the earth shakes hard enough.  Jiya builds himself a home on the same beach where his parents died, this time with a window that faces the sea. He tells Kino's father, "If ever the big wave comes back, I shall be ready. I face it. I am not afraid."

The Big Wave is a thoughtful, beautifully written short story that should appeal to many young readers. Pearl S. Buck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for her novel, The Good Earth and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938

Book Details:

The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck
New York:  HarperTrophy 
57 pp.