Archive for Culture

The Song of Orpheus: The Greatest Greek Myths You Never Heard

Written by Tracy Barrett

Aside from the fact that so much Western thought originated in and around Greece, making it important to explore as many Greek stories as possible, it’s just plain fun to tell stories that may have been forgotten. Then there’s the popularity of Percy Jackson, 300, and other related stories. Those who enjoy these ancient tales inevitably want more, and here they are.

Barrett cleverly approaches the multitude of myths by introducing a narrator who must tell a number of previously unheard tales to be reunited with his love after 3,000 years. The narrator, Orpheus, was turned into a rock and thus separated from Eurydice.

He begins with his own background, then quickly moves on to sixteen other stories about a variety of subjects. First is the Greek version of the big bang. How does Zeus reward two brothers for being amusing? Gods granting wishes, but in unexpected ways. Statues without feet. The life of the first bee-keeper, cheese maker, and olive oil maker. Gods tricking people out of love. People casting spells for love. Fixed chariot races. And so on.

Well-researched and well-organized, this is a great supplement for social studies or literature.

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  • Song of OrpheusTitle: The Song of Orpheus: The Greatest Greek Myths You Never Heard
  • Author: Tracy Barrett
  • Published: Tracy Barrett, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: eBook, 140 pages
  • Grade Level: 5 to 7
  • Genre: Folk tales, Culture
  • ISBN: 978-1535144506
  • Extras: A Note About Spelling, A Note About Pronunciation, Extensive glossary of Greek terms: Immortals, Other Mythological Creatures, and Places


Child of Spring

Written by Farhana Zia

Bastana is a typical child. The only difference between her and the kids reading about her is, she lives in an Indian busti (small community) during the 1960s. In this, Zia’s second novel, the reader explores the lives of the poor in a culture very different from our own.

Bastana and her mother (Amma) cook and clean for a rich family. Bastana has reached the age where she is jealous of her young mistress’ (Little Bibi) wealth. For a time, she even feels justified not returning a lost-then-found ring. Meanwhile, Bastana is dealing with the troubles of her best friend, Lali, and of another friend, who among the poorest in the basti. Bastana is also confronted daily by two very mischievous boys. In addition, she wants to see an older girl pick the right life mate. Through it all, Bastana grows and learns the ways of the world. There is some hope for the characters to rise out of poverty. Little Bibi promises to help Bastana learn to read, and she promises to do the same for Lali. And Bastana learns that generosity is a much better approach than selfishness.

As with Zia’s previous novel, the reader learns a lot about the culture in which the story is set. Indian terms are sprinkled liberally throughout the text, enhancing the feel of being right in Bastana’s world and expanding literacy skills. This would be an excellent book to include in studies of India or Hinduism.

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  • Child of SpringTitle: Child of Spring
  • Author: Farhana Zia
  • Published: Peachtree Publishers, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 176 pages
  • Grade Level: 4 to 7
  • Genre: Fiction, Culture, Geography
  • ISBN: 978-1-56145-904-9
  • Extras: Extensive glossary of Indian terms

The Garden of My Imaan

Written by Farhana Zia

Fitting in is always a struggle in school, but even more so in our American melting pot. As each new generation of immigrants moves into the mainstream, we all must learn to accept one another by seeing how alike we are in reality. Nothing is as successful at that as a middle school story with class elections, clicks, and recess taunts.

Aliya is a fifth grade Muslim girl struggling to find enough courage to talk to the boy she likes. At the same time, she struggles with how much of her Muslim identity she wants to portray at school. But combining the assignments given by her classroom teacher and her Sunday school teacher with the help of parents and grandmother, she comes out of her shell and begins to shine.

One of her projects is writing letters to Allah, in much the same tradition as Margaret wrote letters to God decades ago. It is a technique allowing the author to show the inner thoughts of the main character, as well as giving the reader a chance to notice inner growth over time. Writing unsent letters is much the same as writing a diary.

To Aliya, the hang-up for her classmates seems to be the hijab, the traditional head scarf worn by Muslim women to show modesty. But when a new student, Marwa moves in and wears her hijab proudly instead of with shame, other students respect her. As she says, “what is in my head is more important that what is on top of it.” The introduction of Marwa is a bit contrived and seems “too” coincidental to a writer, but will seem just perfect to a fourth or fifth grade reader.

This book can help overcome misunderstandings between people unfamiliar with the Muslim faith.  Students outside the Muslim faith might begin to understand how much they have in common with their new friends. Students inside the Muslim faith will find comfort in this story, as they see they are not alone.

The inclusion of a Korean friend, Winnie, who is also from a part Jewish family, adds distinction and color to the fabric of the story. When their school project takes on the backgrounds, cultures, and religions of all the students, the stigma is removed from any one students.

Librarians, teachers and parents would do well to include this contemporary story of growing up in an American school in their collections. Especially now, when so many people have become afraid of a whole group of people, that clearly has as many good and bad apples as any other ethnic or religious group.  Core Curriculum standards in literature and geography can be met using this book. It would also make an excellent book club choice for grades 4, 5 or 6 for opening discussions about today’s world.

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  • Garden of My ImaamTitle: The Garden of My Imaan
  • Author: Farhana Zia
  • Publisher: Peachtree, 2013
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Paperback/230
  • ISBN: 978-1-56145-921-6
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Grade level: 4 to 7
  • Extras: Glossary of Muslim terms, Glossary of Urdu terms

Trapped Behind Nazi Lines: The Story of the US Army Air Force 807th Medical Evacuation Squadron

Written by Eric Braun

Imagine being young and eager to help the wounded and sick during a war. Imagine flying into the unknown and crashing far from where you were supposed to be. That’s what happened to a group of nurses, medics, and their flight crew during World War II. The group were helped by partisans, hunted by Nazi sympathizers and Nazis, and rescued by a coalition of Americans and the British. They endured fleas, lice, starvation, dysentery, blizzards, and hundreds of miles of walking and climbing mountains. While their families worried for them, many quietly celebrated birthdays hiding from the enemy. Eventually, all of the Americans were rescued, but some were stranded in Albania for four and a half months.

From the “Encounter: Narrative Nonfiction Stories,” this is a very exciting account of a little-known slice of human experience from an event that affected most of the world. Readers get to see the interaction of cultures and the sacrifices people throughout the world are willing to make, even when they don’t know the people who are suffering.

Highly recommended.

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  • Trapped Behind Enemy LinesTitle: Trapped Behind Nazi Lines: The Story of the US Army Air Force 807th Medical Evacuation Squadron
  • Author: Eric Braun
  • Published: Capstone Press, March, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 224 pages
  • Grade Level: 4 to 6
  • Genre: Nonfiction, History
  • ISBN: 978-1-6732-0605-0
  • Extras: Maps, Numerous photographs, Timeline, Quotation Source Notes, About the Author, Glossary, Read More, Critical Thinking Using Common Core, Selected Bibliography, Internet Sites, Index

The Cat Who Came In off the Roof

Written by Annie M.G. Schmidt

Very feline hijinks are the theme of this recently-translated and great fantasy.

Winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, Annie M.G. Schmidt died in 1995. Her books are loved throughout Europe, but especially in her home, the Netherlands. This translation stands as a delightful addition to children’s literature available in the USA.

Minou is very cattish, but she doesn’t look like a cat. And she’s not sure why. She climbs a tree when a dog chases her, and thus begins her association with Tibble, a reporter with the Killenthorn Courier and sometimes rescuer of cats in trees. Killenthorn is full of cats, and Minou finds she is able to communicate with all of them. She helps Tibble gather news and keep his job at the paper. His editor hates cat stories, but they’re able to give him news about humans from what they overhear. Mr. Ellmore is a businessman who has the entire town convinced he is a nice, compassionate man, but he’s really very nasty. Plus, he owns the meanest dog in town. Through Minou’s efforts, Tibble is able to expose Ellmore. The reader also finds out how Minou ended up in her predicament and can cheer for her to find peace in her life.

Fifth graders will enjoy the gentle humor and ridiculous situations. Meanwhile, they’ll learn about a slightly different culture and definitely a different fantasy world.

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  • Cat Who Came in off the RoomTitle: The Cat Who Came In off the Roof
  • Author: Annie M.G. Schmidt
  • Published: Delacorte Books for Young Readers/Random House, January, 2016
  • Reviewer: Sue Poduska
  • Format: Hardcover, 160 pages
  • Grade Level: 5 Up
  • Genre: Fantasy, Humor
  • ISBN: 978-0-553-53501-3

Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures

Written by Erin Hagar

Julia Child was passionate and friendly, as is this new biography about her life and work. The text is conversational as well as informative.

Like many grown-ups, even Julia Child sometimes wondered what her real life’s work might turn out to be as she moved all over the world. Finally, one day while having lunch in a restaurant in Paris, France stirred up her passion for good food.

Grade three readers, or grade six readers and any others who pick up this biography will be amazed at how this girl from Pasadena, California grows up to become one of the most successful and famous chefs in history. Her cookbooks and television shows were followed by thousands. People still roast a chicken the same way Julia taught them, all while laughing and visiting with them and the TV filming crew.

Each chapter includes several full-page sketches depicting various events of Julia’s life. Readers will love how these sketches help transport them into her world.

Teachers, librarians, and parents will applaud how much this book can be a comfortable read, and also provide a bridge to research-based reading and writing. It fulfills many core curriculum standards in the areas of literacy, geography, history and culture. Students can use the index, glossary, bibliography and timeline while completing their own research into the life of this famous woman. This would be a great addition to any upper elementary or middle school, and public library collection. Also, a fun birthday or Christmas surprise for any third to seventh grader who loves to read and cook.

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  • Julia ChildTitle: Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures
  • Author: Erin Hagar
  • Illustrator: Joanna Gorham
  • Publisher: Duopress, 2015
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 160 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1-938093-34-0
  • Genre: Biography
  • Grade level: 3 to 7
  • Extras: Glossary, Index, Time-line, Bibliography, Illustrations of Julia Child Historic Kitchen in Washington, D. C.

The Thing about Luck

Written by Cynthia Kadohata
Illustrated by Julio Kuo

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Summer is a believer in the old saying, “If I Didn’t Have Bad Luck, I’d Have No Luck At All.” She has had malaria, her parents have been called back to Japan to care for ill, elderly  grandparents and there isn’t enough money to pay the mortgage. So now she has to leave school to work at harvesting crops with her grandparents.

Summer and her little brother, who seemingly suffers from some form of autism, go along with Obaachan and Jichan (Grandmother and Grandfather) to help harvest wheat in the Midwest of America for the late summer months. Grandfather drives a combine while Grandmother and Summer cook meals for the workers. They all work for twelve, fourteen and sixteen hour days.

This is a story of immigrant workers in the Midwest and gives readers a flavor for that almost migratory life style. It is also a multicultural story as the family is Japanese American and that combination of cultures shows through in language, habits and foods.

Grandmother and Grandfather are getting too old to work such long hard hours, but if the work isn’t done before the rains come, they won’t get paid. In the middle of one night when Grandfather is worn out with work and Grandmother is overwhelmed by pain, Summer realizes it is up to her to save the day. She needs to do something that scares her, but she finds her courage, follows through and succeeds.

This is a good book for crossing core curriculum with social studies and science. In social studies to study crops, parts of the country and growing seasons. In science to study mosquitoes, the spread of disease and the moisture level of grains.

Literacy skills enhanced include reading for information as students learn how a combine works, where mosquitoes live and breed as well as which ones carry malaria. Students will also enjoy the inclusion of Japanese words, names and terms.

Summer works at overcoming her fear of mosquitoes by drawing detailed sketches of them in order to tell apart the males and females. The book includes beautiful detailed sketches of mosquitoes. It is an interesting coping strategy that could be discussed in book clubs or classes.

  • Thing about LuckTitle: The Thing about Luck
  • Author: Cynthia Kadohata
  • Illustrator: Julio Kuo
  • Publisher: Atheneum, 2013
  • Reviewer: Elizabeth Swartz
  • Format: Hardcover, 290 pages
  • ISBN:  1416918825
  • Genre: Realistic Fiction
  • Grade Level 5