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Reviews of the 2015 CSK Author Award winners

Winner:

woodson_brown girl dreamingstar2 Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
Intermediate, Middle School     Paulsen/Penguin     328 pp.
8/14     978-0-399-25251-8     $16.99 g

Here is a memoir-in-verse so immediate that readers will feel they are experiencing the author’s childhood right along with her. It starts out somewhat slowly, with Woodson relying on others’ memories to relate her (1963) birth and infancy in Ohio, but that just serves to underscore the vividness of the material once she begins to share her own memories; once her family arrives in Greenville, South Carolina, where they live with her maternal grandparents. Woodson describes a South where the whites-only signs may have been removed but where her grandmother still can’t get waited on in Woolworth’s, where young people are sitting at lunch counters and standing up for civil rights; and Woodson expertly weaves that history into her own. However, we see young Jackie grow up not just in historical context but also — and equally — in the context of extended family, community (Greenville and, later, Brooklyn), and religion (she was raised Jehovah’s Witness). Most notably of all, perhaps, we trace her development as a nascent writer, from her early, overarching love of stories through her struggles to learn to read through the thrill of her first blank composition book to her realization that “words are [her] brilliance.” The poetry here sings: specific, lyrical, and full of imagery: “So the first time my mother goes to New York City / we don’t know to be sad, the weight / of our grandparents’ love like a blanket / with us beneath it, / safe and warm.” An extraordinary — indeed brilliant — portrait of a writer as a young girl. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Honor Books:

magoon_how it went downHow It Went Down
by Kekla Magoon
Middle School, High School   Holt   324 pp.
10/14   978-0-8050-9869-3   $17.99   g
e-book ed. 978-1-6277-9159-5   $9.99

“Two guys with guns, one dies — it’s an everyday story.” But when sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson is shot and killed on the street, the event affects the whole community. Tariq was black, his assailant white, and Magoon tells the story through the many voices of those directly and peripherally involved. Their simple words yield a complicated story. Which characters are reliable? Which look to benefit from the situation? Which learn from it and seek a better life? One witness saw “two guys with guns,” but even that point is questionable. The “gun” may have just been a Snickers bar. Did the storeowner yell “Stop, thief” or “Stop, T”? Was T hassled by “a white guy” or a “light dude”? The local gang enjoys the notoriety of being in the news. A civil rights activist is seen to be “poaching some limelight off a poor dead black boy” to boost his senatorial campaign; the storeowner sees increased sales when thousands of people turn out to march for Tariq; and the media get a great story of a “gang-related” incident. Magoon expertly differentiates the characters by delineating their thoughts, feelings, and motivations; and the accumulation of voices weaving through the narrative effectively makes this “everyday story” believably complex, going behind newspaper headlines and campaign speeches to portray real people caught up in something bigger than themselves. A powerful novel that will resonate with fans of Myers’s Monster (rev. 5/99) and Woodson’s Miracle’s Boys (rev. 3/00). DEAN SCHNEIDER

From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

alexander_crossoverThe Crossover
by Kwame Alexander
Intermediate, Middle School   Houghton   235 pp.
3/14   978-0-544-10771-7   $16.99   g

Josh and Jordan (JB), identical twin sons of former basketball phenom Chuck “Da Man” Bell, are ball legends themselves, and they aren’t yet thirteen; Josh is the only middle schooler around who can dunk, JB has a mean three-point shot, and together they’re a well-oiled machine on the court. But then things start to change, as they tend to do at their age: JB gets a girlfriend, and before Josh knows it, their relationship is strained to the point of a mid-game altercation that lands him benched for weeks. On top of that, their mother frets constantly over Dad’s poor health, and the boys begin to worry, too. Josh’s first-person verse narration is a combination of exciting play-by-play game details, insightful middle-school observations, and poignant meditations on sibling dynamics and familial love. Since poet Alexander has the swagger and cool confidence of a star player and the finesse of a perfectly in-control ball-handler, wordplay and alliteration roll out like hip-hop lyrics, and the use of concrete forms and playful font changes keep things dynamic: “SWOOP in / to the finish with a fierce finger roll… / Straight in the hole: / Swoooooooooooosh.” Alexander brings the novel-in-verse format to a fresh audience with this massively appealing package for reluctant readers, athletes especially. KATRINA HEDEEN

From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

nelson_how i discovered poetrystar2 How I Discovered Poetry
by Marilyn Nelson; 
illus. by Hadley Hooper
Middle School Dial 103 pp.
1/14 978-0-8037-3304-6 $16.99 g

In fifty poems (some previously published) Nelson chronicles her formative years during the 1950s, from age four to thirteen, against the backdrop of the cold war and stirrings of the civil rights movement and women’s lib. Each piece includes a title (“Blue Footsies” begins the book), a date, and a place name. Nelson’s father was a military officer — “one of the first African American career officers in the Air Force” — and the family crisscrossed the country. Nelson’s mother was a teacher who instilled in her children the importance of breaking ground: “Mama says First Negroes are History: / First Negro Telephone Operator, / First Negro Opera Singer at the Met, / First Negro Pilots, First Supreme Court Judge.” Throughout their travels the family encountered racism (both the subtle and not-so-subtle types) but also loving kindness from friends and neighbors. The book ends with “Thirteen-Year-Old American Negro Girl,” in which Nelson realizes that poetry is her métier and that it will be her contribution to the world. Her author’s note calls this volume a “late-career retrospective…a ‘portrait of the artist as a young American Negro Girl,’” and readers will be gratified to follow the progression of “the Speaker” (as Nelson refers to the main character, “whose life is very much like mine”) from tentative child to self-possessed young woman on the cusp of a creative awakening. A few family photos are included, rounded out by spare 1950s–ish spot art that underscores the time period and accentuates the deeply personal nature of the remembrances. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

From the January/February 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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