Summary: Thirteen-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle’s mother has vanished after leaving the family for a spiritual quest. With her grandparents in tow, Salamanca travels across the nation, from Ohio to Idaho, searching for her mother. Along the way, Salamanca helps pass the time by telling stories and tales of a friend, Phoebe Winterbottom, whose mother has also vanished. The two storylines constantly intersect and parallel one another as mile after mile roll past and the stories seem to get wilder and more extravagant with each passing mile marker. There is a third storyline—that of the grandparents—which also weaves into the mixing storylines. But it all seems to work and in the end, Salamanca has to discover if the secret message, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins,” also applies to her.
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Sharon Creech is a wonderful author and this book has achieved lots of critical acclaim over the years. Even though it was written some time ago—at least middle school kids will think “it’s so old,”—the storyline is still compelling. The archetype of a journey to find oneself—both the physical journey and the psychological journey—is an old one but it doesn’t turn stale in this book.
Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids tend not to read literature in which the main character is from a culture other than the one in which they currently live, then it is important they broaden their horizons. This book will help do that. Many of the issues Salamanca deals with in the storyline are universal to kids everywhere, but there are some specific Native American topics which are interesting and useful in their own right.
Discussion points with kids:
- What is the meaning of the phrase, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins?” How can you apply the phrase in your own life?
- Salamanca (Sal) goes on a journey to find her mother. What does she learn along the journey? Have you ever gone on a journey and learned something about yourself or someone else? What did you learn?
- Find three examples of Native American beliefs in the book. Do these beliefs apply only to Native Americans? Why or why not?
- As Sal and her grandparents travel across America in search of Sal’s mother, do the stories told by Sal change? How do they change and why do you think the author did this?
- How did you think the book was going to end? Why?
Overall evaluation of this book: A compelling book with characters some kids may not ordinarily encounter in their daily life. Five Stars ★★★★★
Summary: Eleven-year-old Parvana lives in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the time of the Taliban rule. One day her father is arrested and the family finds itself in a crisis because according to Taliban law, women can’t buy food in the market, sell items at the market, get fresh water for family use, or be seen in public without a male escort—and even then they need to be fully covered. To save the family from starvation, Parvana agrees to cut her hair and pretend to be a boy so she can buy and sell things at the market and get fresh water. To make money, she also reads letters for the illiterate and collects bones from a graveyard which has been torn apart by bombs. She sells the bones to a bone broker for cash. Eventually, her father is released from prison and some members of her family head to Pakistan to live in a refugee camp.
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This story has been criticized as being too polemic and politically preachy. I didn’t find this to be a problem, however, because the story accurately describes what life is like for women under the rule of the Taliban. Middle school kids will be interested in this book because they are always fascinated by what life is like for kids their age, especially if they are not treated well by the adults in charge—which is certainly the case in this book. The book was written before the events on September 11, 2001, so the fighting described in the book occurs during the Russian invasion and in-fighting by local tribes.
Why middle school kids should read this book: This is an important book for middle school kids to read in the context of what happens in the absence of a democratic culture and society and the intense mania some adults will go to impose their will on the helpless and weak.
Discussion points with kids:
- Research the history of Afghanistan since the year zero. Create a timeline of important events. What do you notice when you look at the important events which have occurred in Afghanistan? What trends do you see?
- Compare Parvana’s life with your own. What things are different? What things are similar?
- As presented in the book, what are the marriage and occupational and educational options for women in Afghanistan?
- What explanation does the author give as to why the Taliban treat women differently than men? Think for a minute and speculate as to why the treatment of women under the Taliban and your own country is so different.
- How can the people of Afghanistan control their own country, without interference from outside influence? What has to happen to make this possible?
Overall evaluation of this book: This is a worthwhile book for middle school kids to read concerning the ordinary things in life they take for granted. Five Stars ★★★★★
Summary: Minli is a young girl who lives on a poor farm with her parents near the Fruitless Mountains and the Jade River. Even though they work hard, the family never has enough to eat. As the mother grows bitter, Minli’s father continues to tell his daughter wonderful stories at night that fire her imagination. One day Minli purchases a fish with one of her two remaining coins. Her mother doesn’t like her purchase so Minli releases the fish into a stream. Eventually Minli begins a journey to the Old Man of the Moon, hoping he will be able to help her family. As she travels across the land, Minli comes across an assortment of characters, including a dragon, a talking fish, monkeys that aren’t very nice, and even a king. Will Minli finally get to meet the Old Man of the Moon? And will her mother ever be happy again?
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The story is predicated upon folk tales from Asia and yet Americans will notice a resemblance to story events found in The Wizard of Oz. (If this isn’t evidence for the concepts of archetypes as described by Carl Jung I don’t know what else is.) What this means is that even though the setting for the story is somewhere in Asia, the storyline is universal to the world. This book is better suited for younger middle school kids. It is also a great book to read aloud to preschool, elementary, and middle school-age kids.
Why middle school kids should read this book: The storyline is a common one which resonates to all kids, no matter where they live in the world—a young boy or girl takes a journey and discovers something important about themselves and their place in the universe. Of course, they must meet a host of characters and individuals and creatures along the way, some of which are helpful and some of which try to prevent the main character from proceeding onward. At the end of the road is wisdom, but it is wisdom the main character must earn and figure out for themselves.
Discussion points with kids:
- What folktales or stories do you know which are similar to this book? How are they the same and how are they different?
- What is the purpose of the Old Man of the Moon? What role does he serve?
- How do Minli’s parents get along in the beginning of the book and how do they get along at the end of the book? What changed?
- Pick out five of your favorite drawings/pictures found on the pages of this book. How do they help the storyline? What is represented on your favorite drawings/pictures?
- Pick one chapter and read it out loud to someone. Try to say the words as a storyteller might.
Overall evaluation of this book: American kids don’t read very much literature either written in or about Asia. Here’s a good reason to reverse that trend. This book is more suitable for younger middle school kids, Four Stars ★★★★
Summary: Evan is a twelve-year-old white boy living in Southern Rhodesia—which is now modern-day Zimbabwe, during the 1960’s. Evan lives in the Methodist mission. He is friends with Blessing, a local boy whose father is a pastor. They are friends, even though Blessing attends an all-black school and Evan goes to a bigoted whites-only school. Events are starting to heat up in Southern Rhodesia, and against the backdrop of Martin Luther King and the events occurring in the United States, a white farmer is murdered by a group of African freedom fighters. Under pressure to “do the right thing,” Evan identifies a black African as someone who has printed off flyers encouraging the locals to revolt against their white oppressors. What follows strains the friendship of the two boys. Will their friendship be able to hold together?
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There isn’t any swearing or sex in the book but there are references to violent scenes—though kids will be spared details of the events. An undercurrent which flows through the book is the interaction which takes place between the Christian Africans and the Christian Whites. You may initially find this troubling, but it was a reality many missionaries had to face when bringing Christianity to the Africans—namely, the question of what is the role of Christianity to the State and the relationship of Christianity between the indigenous population and the white settlers? There’s lots of fertile ground here for extended conversation with kids. This book has more complicated themes than many other middle school books and there aren’t as many action scenes, so don’t be surprised if kids struggle with the first twenty pages.
Why middle school kids should read this book: The chances are very high middle school kids will not have been exposed to many books set in the context of the fight for African independence from their European colonists. Kids will learn quite a bit of history from this book but they will need additional background information to truly understand what is happening and why it occurred.
Discussion points with kids:
- Look at a map of Africa and find Zimbabwe. Research the history of Zimbabwe and create a timeline from the year zero to the present. What are the major events which occurred in Zimbabwe and impacted the future?
- What is causing some of the local Africans to revolt against the whites? Find three examples from the book.
- What is the author saying about the relationship between Christianity, the Africans, the missionaries, and the State government? Find four examples from the book to defend your positions.
- How is the government of Rhodesia presented in this book? How did they treat—and think about—the local inhabitants?
- How does the relationship between Evan and Blessing survive the events which threaten to rip their friendship apart? Defend your response using examples from the book.
Overall evaluation of this book: A good book introducing the historical tension existing between the natives and the interlopers of Zimbabwe. A book which makes you think. Four Stars ★★★★
Summary: This book has two story lines alternating within the short novel. The first is about Salva, a Sudanese boy, who is forced to flee from his family and home in 1985. During his struggles in the Sudanese wilderness, Salva must confront gun-toting rebel soldiers, lions which eat fleeing refugees and crocodiles which lurk in the waters waiting for their next meal. The second is about Nya, a Sudanese girl, who must walk eight hours a day bringing water to her family in 2008. During the dry season, her family must leave the village and move to a dry lake bed and dig into the mud to find water. Their stories eventually intersect as Salva, who had escaped to America, returns to Sudan to help build a well in Nya’s home village. Suddenly Nya is freed from the necessity of spending eight hours a day searching for water and can now attend school.
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are some harsh scenes in the book but many of the details are left to the imagination. Salva’s story is based on a true story involving the “lost boys” of the Sudan who wandered the wilderness for years, trying to find a home after civil war had ripped the country apart. Nya’s story is also based on a true story as the problem of finding clean drinking water is a realistic issue today for many living in both North and South Sudan.
Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a very short book—only 120 pages in length, but the conversations and learning kids will take away from this book will be immense. However, kids will almost certainly need to either research or talk with someone—maybe you—about the historical events presented in the book. Unfortunately, unless you teach them, many middle school kids won’t even know where North and South Sudan are located.
Discussion points with kids:
- Today Sudan has been broken up into South Sudan and North Sudan. Find both countries on a map. How does the geography of the Sudans come into play in the story? (Consider climate and neighboring countries.)
- Salva is one of the “lost boys” of the Sudan. Research the “lost boys.” What did you find? Why did it happen? How would your life be different if you suddenly lost your home and family like the “lost boys” and had to walk for hundreds of miles looking for shelter?
- Nya is constantly looking for water. Why is finding water so important? Why are there so few water wells in Sudan? How would your life be different if you had to spend eight hours a day looking for water?
- How does the author weave together the separate stories of Salva and Nya? Did you like how the stories came together in the end? Is it believable? Why or why not?
Overall evaluation of this book: A great book to help middle school kids begin to understand the human costs of the Sudanese civil war. Five Stars ★★★★★
Summary: Tree-ear is a ten-year-old orphan who lives with a crippled man under a bridge in Ch’ul’po, a village in Korea. As Tree-ear roams around the village, he becomes interested in the work of the potters and in particular that of one potter who goes by the name of Min. As luck would have it, Tree-ear breaks a piece of Min’s pottery and must work for nine days to pay it off. The work is difficult and hard. After the nine days are over, Tree-ear stays on as Min’s helper. Eventually Tree-ear is given a piece of new pottery and is sent to give the pottery to the king. Disaster strikes along the way and Tree-ear can only deliver a single shard to the king. How will the king receive the single shard and what will Min say when he finds out that Tree-ear failed to deliver the pottery intact?
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: The prose in this book is fairly spartan so it reads quickly. The writing isn’t nearly as poetic as some other authors but almost all middle school kids will be able to read this without too much difficulty. The novel is fairly short, and for this reason alone some middle school kids may decide to read the book. (Most middle school kids tend to want to read shorter and thinner books.) Authors who write about Korea are in fairly short supply in America so there will be some unique factors which will warrant American kids to read this book. The book also shows the fairly long and complicated process to make celadon pottery.
Why middle school kids should read this book: This is the hero’s journey, as Tree-ear, so named after a mushroom which grows without needing to be seeded by a parent mushroom, undertakes both a physical and psychological journey to determine who he is and where he stands in the world. Kids will cheer on Tree-ear’s dogged determination to deliver the broken shard to the king, even though he will not be able to predict how his actions will be received.
Discussion points with kids:
- Why does Min agree to keep Tree-ear on as a worker? What does he see in Tree-ear? Where in the book does it say this?
- How has Tree-ear changed from the beginning of the story to the end of the story? Find examples from the book to support your claim.
- Predict what will Tree-ear will be doing five years from the end of the story. What will others think of him?
- How is pottery made today? Do some research and find out. Then compare how pottery is made today with how it was made in the story by Tree-ear and Min.
Overall evaluation of this book: AA short and good read about a young Korean pottery maker. Four Stars ★★★★
Summary: This is a story of soccer but more importantly, this is the story of how children leaving war-torn homelands arrive in America and begin the process of discovering who they are and how they fit into their new country. Most of the story takes place in Georgia, with occasional flashbacks to war zones in Africa and Eastern Europe. Luma, a young Jordanian woman, finds herself coaching several soccer teams which are comprised entirely of the children of refugee immigrants. The going is not easy as she has to battle kids who don’t want to make a commitment to the team and local gangs who pull her players in different directions. The field they play on is filled with holes and rocks but somehow the team manages to play at a ferocious level of intensity and end up defeating some opposing soccer teams from wealthier, affluent neighborhoods. Along the way, we learn of the struggles refugee immigrants face, which are unique to their situation and environment.
What you should know before middle school kids read this book: Even though many of the kids in this story have witnessed major atrocities in their homeland, the author doesn’t bring those into the book in graphic detail. Thus, kids will read about some of the events which have occurred around the world and which have negatively impacted many political refugees, but they will be spared vivid descriptions of the terrible events. In addition, the coach uses some unconventional methods to prep her team for their soccer games, but the athletes and situational context they are in makes the coaching tactics understandable.
Why middle school kids should read this book: If kids love soccer, they will truly enjoy the soccer scenes in the storyline. The way they are described will put them right in the middle of the action. More importantly, kids will get a sense of how different nationalities of kids can come together around a common purpose—soccer in this case.
Discussion points with kids:
- The soccer coach uses some unconventional coaching tactics. Why does the soccer coach do things that most soccer coaches would never dare attempt? What is the coach trying to accomplish?
- Imagine you are one of the players on Luma’s soccer team. What would you experience? What do you think you would learn? What about the other players? What would you learn from them?
- Imagine you and your parents are taken from your house, have to leave everything behind, and then must live thousands of miles away in a strange country where you don’t speak the native language. How would you feel? What would life be like?
- Think about somebody who is new to your school or neighborhood. What can you do to help them feel important and at home?
Overall evaluation of this book: Soccer fans will enjoy this book. I found the third-person narrator a bit distant but others may not be bothered by this. Three Stars ★★★