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Encouraging Empathy in Children

Most children and adults are scared of the severely handicapped.  We feel awkward, we don’t know what to say.  We may assume a person is not intelligent because of their appearance.

Out of My  Mind by Sharon Draper is another book that encourages children to empathize with others.  (See Empathy and Reading)  Both Absolutely Almost and Rain Reign are about children with learning problems.  Children like Albie and Rose could be among your child’s classmates.

Melody is severely disabled. She is  unable to walk, talk or feed herself. She has spent most of her time in special education class. Most people have trouble seeing beyond her twisted body and involuntary movements to recognize that she is very intelligent and full of personality.  We see the world through Melody’s eyes.  .

Melody has struggled  with limited communication.  For most of her life, she had many things she wanted to say but no way to say them.    When Melody accidently knocked over the goldfish bowl, she was helpless to let anyone know that her pet is in trouble.

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A new computer with  special  features begins to change that.  She is able to store more vocabulary and express herself through the computer’s voice.  She can now have conversations with other students. But it’s  the school quiz bowl that allows her to shine.

There are children who make fun of Melody.  They don’t seem to understand that she understands them completely. Other  classmates, Rose and Connor, are friendly but awkward.  When she goes to a celebration dinner for the quiz bowl team, she still has to be fed by her parents.

Students on the  Quiz Bowl team become envious when a TV News Station focuses its interview on Melody.  She encounters major disappointment when she is not notified of a last minute flight change and gets left behind in the national competition.

This is a powerful book.  Melody deals with each day’s problems, rarely expressing self pity.  She doesn’t compare her life to her classmates.  She experiences sadness and rejection but that never defines her.  She deals with her disappointment with her teammates in ways that earn their respect.

This book is so well written that it is difficult to do it justice in a review.  Sharon Draper, the author, also has a severely handicapped daughter.  She did not base Melody’s character on her daughter, instead she creates a unique individual.

Draper talks more about her novel on her website:   Sharon Draper on “Out of My Mind”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Star of Kazan

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This is another delightful novel from Eva Ibbotson.  She  grew up in pre-World War II Vienna.  Because her family was Jewish, they escaped to England.  The Star of Kazan reflects her love of Austria and her dread of Germany.   The observant reader will notice the presence of early Nazi philosophy in her writing.

Annika is an orphan with a mysterious  past.  Two servants discovered her as infant abandoned in a mountainside chapel. They brought her home and raised in her in the servant’s quarters of a grand house. (think Downton Abbey)

Early on Annika delights in the domestic arts, learning at an early age to make gourmet meals and keep house.  She is happy but she often wonders about her “real mother”

Annika delights in her friendship with the lady across the street, the unwanted aunt of  a dutiful family.   Annika enjoys hearing the older lady’s stories about her days touring in Europe with the theatre.  When she dies, she leaves Annika a trunk full of theatre props and costume jewelry, or so she thinks,  but  a scheming woman in Germany knows better.

While Annika has often fantasized about her mother’s return, she is unprepared when Edeltraut Von Tannenburg knocks on her door and insists on taking her to Germany. Annika always dreamed that her mother would come for her but she never thought about saying goodbye to all the  people she loves in Vienna.

Annika’s new home in Germany is a dark and forbidding mansion. It is bitterly cold inside and out. . The walls are covered with dark heavy hangings embroidered with battle scenes. The rugs on the floor are threadbare and the drapes faded.   She is baffled when her mother insists that she is never to cook or do housework.

Then it gets worse. Annika is sent away to a boarding school called Grossenfluss for “daughters of the nobility” so she can be trained to serve the Fatherland. She is assigned to be pupil 127. (No one will say what happened to pupil 126.) She is issued a uniform and assigned to a room with thirty iron beds covered with gray blankets   The school is run by Fraulein Von Donner, the only  woman in Germany who had received “The Order of the Closed Fist.”

This is a great adventure story with lively characters and crafty villains.  There are some dark moments  but in Ibbotson’s world, the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.

Recommended  for fourth grade and up.

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Journey to the River Sea

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Eva Ibbotson is my favorite author. Her style is similar to Roald Dahl and E. Nestbit. Whether her setting  is the Amazon Jungle or prewar Vienna, she creates delightful descriptions of her surroundings.  Her characters are always colorful and her villains deliciously creepy.

Like many great heroines of literature, Maia is an orphan.  She is attending boarding school in England when her lawyer discovers that she has relatives living near the Amazon River in Brazil.  While classmates warn her about frightening creatures and wild jungles, Maia does her research and anticipates a grand adventure.  She is especially excited to meet her twin cousins, Gwendolyn and Beatrice.

Maia and her guardian Miss Minchin sail from England to Brazil.   On the ship, she befriends Clovis, another orphan, who is acting with a traveling company.  Clovis hates his life in the theatre and longs to go back to a more civilized life in England.

In Brazil, Maia discovers that her new relatives despise Brazil and most everything else.  They never venture outside avoiding the heat  and the mosquitos.  They reject the fresh bananas and local seafood in favor of imported beet root, corn beef and green jelly from England.  Gwendolyn and Beatrice are especially disagreeable.  From the start, they attempt to make Maia’s life miserable.

Maia is enchanted by the Amazon River, often called the River Sea, and the nearby rainforest where howler monkeys swing from the trees as scarlet parakeets and clusters of butterflies fly overhead.

Maia also meets Finn (yet another orphan) who lives among the natives on the edge of the Amazon. His father was a wealthy man with an estate in England.  He was an outdoorsman who married a native and settled in Brazil.

Two men from his father’s estate, known to the natives as “the Crows”, because of their grey suits, are trying to capture Finn and take him back to England.  The bumbling crows are constantly thwarted by Finn’s friends who send them in the opposite direction.

So Maia and Finn develop an elaborate plan to ship Clovis to England and then set off a journey of their own, with chaperones, down the Amazon River for the most magical journey of all.

This is a great book for fourth grade and up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Empathy and Reading

Here’s more good news for children who read.  A Study by the New School for Social Research in New York revealed that reading quality fiction improves empathy. ( Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.)  This will not surprise avid readers or their parents.

51meGC4gxXL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Your child likely goes to school with someone like Albie.   No matter how hard he studies, he can’t pass the weekly spelling test, or read on grade level.   He never gets picked for sports team and sits alone in the cafeteria.

As Albie shares his story in Absolutely Almost, the reader learns that Albie’s parents are busy people with high expectations for their son.  Mom and Dad feel disappointed that Albie has been asked to leave his private school.  When his  father tells him that his grades are “unacceptable,”  Albie feels baffled because he tries so hard but his work is never good enough.

Albie  knows he is not a “cool kid.” A brief period of “popularity” followed by rejection by the same crowd only leaves him feeling more dejected

His new babysitter, Calista, finds new ways to help him study spelling and math, teaches him how to draw and counsels him on the social dynamics of fifth grade.  As a newcomer to New York City, she insists that Albie show her around. Albie may not be a whiz in the classroom but he  navigates his New York neighborhood.    Unfortunately, Calista often forgets that she is working for Albie’s parents and makes some unwise decisions.

Albie is an appealing character, resourceful and kind. When Calista breaks up with her boyfriend, Albie sneaks downstairs to buy her ice cream. He takes the blame for vandalism in his classroom to keep his friend Betsy out of trouble.

The reader can’t help but root for Albie. There are no simple solutions but his story ends on an optimistic note.   When his grandfather criticizes Albie’s grades, his dad defends his son.  Father and son work on a model airplane together.

Children will both identify and sympathize with Albie.  After seeing the world through Albie’s eyes for 320 pages, they will see some of their classmates with new eyes.  This is a great book for children in 3rd-6th grades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2016 Newbery Honors Books

So yesterday, the ALA Book awards were announced.  For me, this is a more exciting event than the Oscars, The Golden Globes or the Super Bowl.  I was pleased that two of my favorites were chosen as Newbery Honor untitled (3)Books. (more about the Newbery Award later)

       The War That Saved My Live. by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, is a powerful novel that takes a unique focus on the second world war.  Many children were being evacuated out of London and sent to live with families in safer areas of England.  It’s a good novel for 4th-7th grade.

Ada narrates her story. She has a club foot and knows that she is different from other children.  She can’t remember ever leaving her small London flat where she spends her days gazing out the window at the other children and families on their way to school and work.  She knows that her mother is ashamed of her.  Most people assume that Ada is slow minded.  Ada has been gradually teaching herself to walk but it is a painful process.

When Ada learns that her brother Jamie’s class is being sent away from London to escape the bombs, she sees this as a grand opportunity.  Ada and Jamie have lived in squalor for years.  They catch the train with only the clothes on their backs.  When they arrive at their location, all the children are lined up.  People from the community arrive to take the other children into their homes but nobody choses Ada  or Jamie.

The woman in charge takes them to the home of Susan Smith.   Ms. Smith has been a recluse for years. She lets everyone know that she doesn’t like children or anyone else for that matter.   She reluctantly agrees to take the children out of a sense of duty.

There are big changes for Ada and Jamie.  They have to get used to things like baths, changes of clothing, underwear and pajamas.  Susan takes them to the doctor where they are diagnosed with malnutrition and impetigo.   Ada is granted greater mobility when she is given a pair of crutches. Since they are eating three meals a day,  Jamie and Ada decide that Susan must be very rich.

Ada is a gutsy little girl. She and Jamie thrive under the care of Susan who immediately recognizes that Ada is intelligent even though she is not allowed to attend school.  Susan teaches her to read. “That foot is a long way from your brain,” Susan tells her.

Ada becomes a valuable volunteer and makes new friends. She falls in love with a pony   and learns to ride him using an old fashioned side saddle. She even helps capture a spy.

After years of neglect, Ada and Jamie have many struggles with their new life and there is always the threat of their mother who might come to claim them. This is a wonderful story of three people becoming a family even as the war wreaks havoc all around them.untitled (4)

 

 

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson is a well-written graphic novel about the Roller Derby.  Roller Girl is a good book for upper elementary and middle school.

When Astrid goes to the Roller Derby, she is instantly hooked.  She is so excited about attending Roller Derby  Camp.  She is disappointed that her friend doesn’t want to join her.  The camp is harder than she ever imagined, but Astrid pushes on in spite of  falls and bruises.

Astrid also learns about friendship when she and her closest friend seem to be moving in different directions. Astrid learns to appreciate old and new friendships.

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        Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan was also named a Newbery Honor Book.  I have read two excellent books by this author, Becoming Naomi Leone (upper elementary) and Esperanza Rising (middle and high school).  I am going to reserve this one today.

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        The Newbery Award is given to the  book selected as the most outstanding contribution for  children’s literature.  This year’s  winner is Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena.   This story about a boy and his grandmother has lots of critical acclaim. Many predicted that it would win the Caldecott Award or The Coretta Scott King Award.  Traditionally  Newbery awards go to juvenile fiction and occasionally Young Adult Books.  So I imagine this choice was a surprise to almost everyone.  I will talk about it more when I get more time to look at the book.

The War That Saved My Life won the Odyssey Award for the best audio book production and Echo won the Odyssey Honor Awards. I highly recommend audio books.  They can be great on long car trips.  They are usually narrated by actors.