cover image for KarmaOstlere, Cathy. (2011) Karma. New York, NY: Razorbill

Plot Summary/Critical Evaluation:

I am skipping ahead to the evaluation so that I can say that no one should recommend this book ever.  I’m not saying it should be banned or burned or anything, I just really think everyone’s time would be better spent on a novel that wasn’t so obnoxiously appropriative.

The genesis of the story alone is disturbing, not to mention how much it’s mentioned in the fore and afterwords.  Ostlere was on an extended tour of various parts of the world when she found herself in India during the destruction and death that followed Indira Ghandi’s assassination.  As she puts it: “My short-lived love affair with India was over.”  It is unclear whether the author was simply referring to having to go home, or if the actions of those days caused her to fall out of love with the country.  Unfortunately, the way in which she describes many of the people in India in the book – as superstitious and dismissive of the carnage that happens in their own country – suggests the latter rather than the former.

The story that Ostlere gives us is not all bad, nor is it full of nothing but racist caricatures.  Almost everyone in the book is Indian – by parentage if nothing else, such as in the case of the main character Maya/Jiva.  That’s what makes it so insidious; whether it was intentional or no, the racism is subtle and all the much more effective because of that.  Maya’s story is fairly compelling…until we get to the point where Maya gets caught up in the events of 1984 just as the author did. Suddenly the shame and heartbreak of an entire nation is all about how it affects Maya.  Despite the fact that her home still waits for her, unchanged.  (Or, at least, as unchanged as it was when she left it.)

It would be bad enough if Ostlere had simply tried to tell two stories instead of one – the suicide of Maya’s mother and the subsequent fallout being the story that the novel begins with.  Instead, Ostlere does not merely try to fit into that elegant tale another story about complex historical events and their effects on bystanders, she does so in a way that only lets us see these complexities through the eyes of someone that is a stranger to the land.  It’s not just bad writing, it’s incredibly disrespectful.

Reader’s Annotation:

Maya, barely coping with the loss of her mother, is caught up in political riots while returning her mother’s ashes to her homeland.


White Canadian writes about her experiences in India through the voice of a fictional Canadian girl whose parents are Indian immigrants.

Author Information:




Booktalking Ideas:

Unless the booktalk is about what not to read? Nope, not doing it. Ever.

Reading Level/Target Age:

4th grade/13-17

Possible Controversy:

You mean, other than the subtle racism?  There’s violence, of course, but nothing that stands out compared to other books.

Reasons for Choosing This Book:

It sounded interesting.  And I was looking for a book about that part of the world, or kids whose families come from there, because there are a decent number where I live and work.


They Called Themselves the KKK

cover image for They Called Themselves the KKK

Bartoletti, Susan (2010) They Called Themselves the K.K.K. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Plot Synopsis:

Beginning with the end of the Civil War and ending with the start of the Jim Crow laws (with a short epilogue on desegregation and the Civil Rights Acts of the 20th century) They Called Themselves the KKK chronicles the formation and growth of arguably the most notorious group in American history.  Before the book even starts we know that Bartoletti is not going to pull any punches, the subtitle on the cover proclaims the KKK to be a terrorist group.  The pages inside make it quite clear this is not an exaggeration.

Critical Evaluation:

We have a habit, here in the US, of portraying history as inevitable – especially when we talk about it with youth.  The idea that the Civil War might not have turned out the way that it did becomes a sub-genre of science fiction rather than a philosophical discussion or an examination of the choices people made.  One of the main strengths of Bartoletti’s work is that she consistently refuses to buy into this narrative.  Her method of digging deep into the individual lives of ordinary people and of often switching from the simple past tense to the subjunctive helps to ground readers in the idea of history as something that was lived and decided upon, rather than a predetermined road that everyone walked down to lead us to where we are today.  They Called Themselves the KKK could easily have taken on the bewildered and helpless tone of an article on school shootings or psychopaths; instead Bartoletti invites us into the homes and minds of the people who lived in the South during Reconstruction and shows us how so much of what happened was an interplay of individuals choices.  The prejudice and willful ignorance of the politically powerful white Northeners; the arrogance and narcissism of the white Southern landowners who convinced themselves that their former slaves really believed that their sheet draped selves were ghosts from the spirit world (and not simply playing along because it was safer); and the pride and fear that left newly enfranchised black Americans walking a constant tightrope of outward submission and often private defiance.  Bartoletti does not present an exhaustive history of the formation of the KKK, but she selectively provides the kinds of details that make it clear that the their reign of terror was a choice and not a force of nature.

Changes in layout help to fix some of the drawbacks of her earlier works; while the text is still dense in terms of content, it’s appearance is less daunting to younger readers by virtue of being broken up by images and quotes on nearly every page.  As always, Bartoletti’s work here is both appealing and appropriate; she does not shy away from grisly truths, but her descriptions of murder and torture are always grounded in respect for the victims and an unwillingness to dismiss the perpetrators something other than human.  Especially well done is her habit of often starting a chapter with a quote from a former slave accompanied by a twentieth century photograph of the person in question.  Much of the visual documentation from this era is in the form of cartoons and other drawings, making it tempting for younger readers to treat the subject as slightly fantastical.  While still in black and white rather than color, the photographs of former slaves standing in front of ordinary suburban homes near the turn of the last century does much to emphasize the reality of historical events to modern readers.  Linking the photographs with quotes from the person in them, and using those words as a thematic statement for the chapter, also provides the victims of the KKK with the dignity and respect that has been so often denied to them.  The idea that their words are worthy of not only being heard but of, in fact, leading the discussion is a powerful refutation of the dehumanized stereotypes of black Americans – both then and now.

Reader’s Annotation:

“Resolved, That in all cases of incendiariam, ten of the leading colored people and two white sympathizers shall be executed…by order of KKK” January 22nd, 1871

Author Information:




Booktalking Ideas:

I think this is one that I would want to bring props for – most likely copies of the pictures inside – and read off quotes from history that can be found in the book; anything to emphasize that it is a book about people not dates and facts.

Reading Level/Target Age:

9th grade/14-17

Potential Controversy:

History should not be controversial, but it often is.  The Civil War may have ended a century and a half ago, but it’s scars still run deep.  This might be challenged for the violence in particular, but also because frank discussions about this period in history make people uncomfortable.  As a non-fiction title by an award winning author, it should be easier to defend than many others.

Reasons for Choosing this Title:

I was impressed with the other works by Bartoletti that I have read and thought the cover and title were especially intriguing.


cover image for FlygirlSmith, Sherri. (2010) Flygirl. New York, NY: Speak

Plot Summary:

There’s a war on, and the United States Army is looking for pilots.  Ida Mae Jones knows she’s the woman for the job; back when her daddy was alive and she was allowed to fly, she was the best pilot there was – except for maybe him.  But in 1941 no one is going to let a woman fly for the army.  Or so she thinks.  When she spies an advertisement for the newly formed Women Airforce Service Pilots, Ida Mae knows this is her chance.   She has more to worry about than just passing the grueling training though – Ida Mae’s biggest worry is whether or not she will manage to pass for white in a segregated army that isn’t at all interested in recruiting colored women for anything, much less letting them fly Army planes.

Critical Evaluation:

Smith does not constrain herself to the typical tale of a plucky young idealist triumphing over sexism and bigotry, rather she weaves a complicated story about the realities of pervasive and institutional discrimination.  Flygirl is full of celebration, hope, danger, and loss – and it’s dealt with in a way that asks readers to not only root for Ida Mae, but to ponder her choices as well.  Ida Mae does more than attempt to shatter barriers in pursuit of her passion, she also has to decide whether achieving her dream is worth compromising her own values, distancing herself from her family, and lying to the friends she now depends on.  With it’s depth of plot and nuanced characters, Flygirl steadfastly refuses to fall into the trap of presenting racism as a Thing of the Past or Someone Else’s Problem.  While the specific barriers that Ida Mae faced no longer exist in that same form, her experiences speak clearly to modern audiences as well.

Reader’s Annotation:

When Ida spies an advertisement for the newly formed Women Airforce Service Pilots, she knows this is her chance to be what she has always wanted to be and she’s determined to take it – even if it means lying about who she is.

Author Information:




Booktalking Ideas:

I think most readers that would enjoy this book would be pulled in by the premise.  The historicalness of it may turn off some potential readers though, so I might bring in more of the actual plot so they have an idea of what it is really about.

Reading Level/Target Age:

4th grade/13-17

Possible Controversy:

Being against this book would be like being against kids learning history.  That said, sad stuff happens and not everyone who is a “good guy” is very nice or really all that good all the time.  Pointing out how balanced the book is, as well as all the research that went into it, would be the best defense.

Reasons for Choosing this Title:

I first heard heard about this book when Smith was on a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books [if I was writing this database by hand, I’d need that as a stamp] and I was hooked from the moment I heard the premise.

Through Time: London

Platt, R.  (2009)  Through Time: London.  New York, NY: Kingfisher




Today, London is a bustling modern city, preparing to host the 2012 Olympic Games.  But thousands of years ago it was home to a Stone Age hunters.   Through Time: London attempts to show readers how London changed from a Neolithic camp to the city it is today.

While the illustrations remained intriguing throughout the book, the text was sometimes dry and there just didn’t seem to be quite the right balance between delving into a enough detail and looking at the broader picture.  Eighteen specific years in all were covered (such as AD 225 or AD 1783), each getting a two page spread that showed what the architecture of the city and describing what momentous event happened that year; but while the snapshots of the city at that time are likely to capture younger tweens interest, there’s little to help them make the connection between one historical event to another.  The creators of this series seem to think that simply choosing a specific location and showing different periods of time makes a seamless enough timeline, but I felt it could have used some transitions.  It felt like storylines were introduced and then not finished or explained.

I did like how the insert map of the Thames showed how large the city was at each period in time, and I do think this book will spark some interest in history in general and London in particular among younger tweens

Best for ages 7-11


Author website: http://www.richardplatt.co.uk/

The Wednesday Wars

cover image for The Wednesday WarsSchmidt, G. D. (2007) The Wednesday Wars.  New York, NY: Clarion Books.


Seventh grade is hard enough, even when your teacher doesn’t have it out for you.   Every Wednesday afternoon half of Holling HoodHood’s class leaves early to go to Hebrew school and the other half leaves early to go to Catechism.  Only Holling is left  to stay behind with Mrs. Baker, who clearly isn’t too happy about having to find something for him to do.  To top it all off, it’s 1967 and most everyone else has bigger problems, like the Vietnam war, on their minds.

Holling and Mrs. Baker are both rather unlikely heroes, but then, those are often the best kind.  Like all great teachers, Mrs. Baker’s greatest strengths are her faith in her students and her patience with their mistakes.  Holling, on the other hand, is one of those kids that seems to be mostly just drifting along – but only until events finally force him to make the kinds of choices that will determine what kind of person he really is.

While The Wednesday Wars may seem like a rather simple school story on the surface, Holling’s world is complicated, and not all of the complications are stated directly.  Younger tweens may miss the the undercurrents and find the story confusing or less engaging than older tweens.  Older tweens will empathize with Holling’s predicaments and respect him for his decisions and attempts to do what is right.

Best for ages 10-15

Awards and Reviews: Newbery Honor

Tomorrow, When the War Began

Marsden, J.  (1995) Tomorrow, When the War Began. San Diego, CA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


When Ellie Linton and her friends head out to the bush for a week, their plan is to have some fun and explore – and to get away from school and parents.  Their goal is not to escape an invading army.


But after their outing, Ellie and company arrive back at their homes to find them abandoned, their parents and siblings missing, and even their pets and livestock dead or dying.  With a great deal of bravery and maturity in the face of a crisis – not to mention no small amount of recklessness – the gang returns to their hidden campsite and uses it as a base from which to scout out the town, where most everyone is being detained, and the movements of their new enemy.


This books raises many more questions than it answers, and while some of them are likely addressed in later books in the series, many of them are not meant to be answered ever.  A great deal of this book’s strength is in it’s ambiguity; Marsden uses lack of exactness in the same way that more traditional science fiction author’s use unfamiliar and nonexistent settings and peoples, as a way to force readers to step outside their assumptions and look at the world form a different perspective.


While the story is about an armed invasion, the violence depicted is personal and more than once perpetrated not by troops but by the teens themselves in defense of their homeland.  Overall, the story deals with war and it’s consequences maturely and respectfully without being preachy or overwhelming.  Best for ages 12 to 18.

Awards and Reviews: ALA Best Books for Young Adults (1996)