Lit Circle Book Choices

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Children of the River by Linda Crew

244 pages
Grades 7 - 12

Seventeen-year-old Sundara is torn between her Cambodian family's expectations and her desire to become more American now that she has been forced to relocate along with her aunt's family following the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge.

Matters are complicated by her feelings for Jonathan, a popular American boy who has fallen for Sundara and has trouble accepting the custom which forbids Cambodian girls from dating and dictates arranged marriages.

The captivating, touching, and sometimes tragic story touches upon issues of culture, history, gender, and race wrapped around an engaging romance. The story is set in 1979 and provides enough details about the situation in Cambodia at the time to set the scene without bogging down the narrative. Will appeal to teens who like romances.

Dragonwings by LaurenceYep

256 pages
Grades 4 - 7

This book offers insights into the lives of Chinese-Americans in early 20th century California. The story begins as eight-year-old Moon Shadow Lee journeys across the Pacific to join his proud and clever father at the family-owned laundry in San Francisco. The boy recounts their problems with prejudice, as well as the kindness of uncles and cousins.

Father and son must leave the protection of the family to move out of Chinatown, but they find refuge with a generous and friendly landlady. Once they have successfully established a repair business, they turn their attention to making a flying machine. Though it's a modern invention, part of their motivation is the elder's belief in his own previous dragon existence.

Yep draws heavily on his own heritage, but also includes figures and historic events such as the San Francisco Earthquake. The result is a heartwarming story set in a familiar time and place, but told from a new perspective.

Goodby Vietnam by Gloria Whelan

144 pages
Grades 4 - 8

Since the grandmother faces arrest in present-day Vietnam for following the old religion and practicing healing, the Vinh family decides to flee their small rice-growing village in the Mekong Delta and escape by sea to Hong Kong. With his skills as a mechanic, the father has secured their passage on a small boat. In a first-person narrative, 13-year-old Mai relates their odyssey. Before boarding the boat, the Vinhs become acquainted with a female doctor and her daughter from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Whelan uses this relationship to set off Vietnamese rural life against the urban, the old traditions against the new. The book describes well the hardships many of America's newest refugees have endured and is one of the few accounts available on Vietnam's boat people.

Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park

240 pages
Grades 5 - 8

There are big issues in Park's latest novel--conservation, prejudice, patriotism, biology, and more. But the Newbery-winning writer never allows them to swamp the story; in fact, it's the compelling characters and their passionate differences and commitments that drive the plot.

Julia Song doesn't want to do a silkworm project for the state fair. It's too Korean; she wants something American. But she becomes interested in caring for the eggs, the caterpillars, and the moths and then in sewing the silk thread. Kind, elderly Mr. Dixon donates the mulberry leaves the silkworms eat, but why is Mom against Julia spending time with him? Is it because he is black?

The first-person narrative alternates with lively interchanges between Julia ("Me") and the author ("Ms. Park") about writing the story. The author's intrusion may distract some readers, but most children will be hooked by the funny, insightful conversations. There's no easy resolution, but the unforgettable family and friendship story, the quiet, almost unspoken racism, and the excitement of science make this a great title.

Crossing the Wire by Will Hobbs

224 pages
Grades 5 - 8

Ever since his family moved to the tiny village of Los Árboles, Victor has been best friends with Rico. When Rico tells him that he has enough money to pay for a coyote to help him cross into El Norte, Victor is unable to decide if he, too, should go along and look for work or try to feed his family with the pitiful annual corn harvest. The decision is made for him the next day when he discovers that the corn prices have bottomed out and that there is no point in even planting this year.

Readers suffer with the 15-year-old as he makes his painful decision to leave his mother and younger siblings and attempts the dangerous border crossing, jumping trains, fleeing thieves and border officials, and suffering from thirst and hunger. His desperation and fear are completely believable as he faces near-death situations and must decide whom to trust.

The author deftly weaves information concerning the local geography and customs into the plot. The story is well paced, sustaining readers' attention throughout.

Finding My Hat by John Son

192 pages
Grades 5 - 8

Jin-Han Park's earliest memory is of losing his hat to a strong wind in Chicago. The son of Korean immigrants, he seems to be blown around a lot himself, as his parents move from Chicago to Memphis to Houston searching for a better life and a place to establish their wig business.

Son's first novel is a moving and sometimes hilarious portrait of a young immigrant trying to find his place between the culture of his parents and that of his friends and classmates. Set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the book follows Jin-Han from the age of two to the death of his mother when he is in high school. Each memory, from wetting his pants in nursery school to the confusion and excitement of his first girlfriend, is endearing.

Although Jin-Han is a fictional character, the author's note reveals that the story has many autobiographical elements. And while it is filled with descriptions of Korean food and culture (a glossary is appended), the feelings and experiences described are universal.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz-Ryan

288 pages
Grades 4 - 8

Ryan uses the experiences of her own Mexican grandmother as the basis for this compelling story of immigration and assimilation, not only to a new country but also into a different social class.

Esperanza's expectation that her 13th birthday will be celebrated with all the material pleasures and folk elements of her previous years is shattered when her father is murdered by bandits. His powerful stepbrothers then hold her mother as a social and economic hostage, wanting to force her remarriage to one of them, and go so far as to burn down the family home.

Esperanza's mother then decides to join the cook and gardener and their son as they move to the United States and work in California's agricultural industry. They embark on a new way of life, away from the uncles, and Esperanza unwillingly enters a world where she is no longer a princess but a worker.

Set against the multiethnic, labor-organizing era of the Depression, the story of Esperanza remaking herself is satisfyingly complete, including dire illness and a difficult romance. Except for the evil uncles, all of the characters are rounded, their motives genuine, with class issues honestly portrayed.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven

146 pages
Native American
Grades 8 - 12

The story tells of a young vicar named Mark, sent to a remote Kwakiutl. In the village, Mark comes to understand the Kwakiutl Indians around him and sees how their traditions are being destroyed through the influence of white men. He watches the "English woman anthropologist" who comes to study the natives; he experiences the impact when the government declares it legal for Indians to buy liquor and when traders cheat the villagers out of their cultural treasures; he sees the children lose their ties with their families and heritage while living in residential schools among whites.

In striking contrast to the avarice and arrogance of most whites is the selflessness of the Kwakiutls and the beauty of running salmon, tall trees, and tribal festivals. Mark becomes a part of the Kwakiutl world, learning its language and ways.

Gentle, full of profound philosophy, this is a book that both calms and disquiets, saddens and exhilarates.

The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez

134 pages
Grades 6 - 9

The author has created a moving story that begins in Mexico when the author is very young and his parents inform him that they are going on a very long trip to "El Norte." What follows is a series of stories of the family's unending migration from one farm to another as they search for the next harvesting job.

Each story is told from the point of view of the author as a young child. The backbreaking work and the soul-crushing effect of the endless packing and moving are portrayed through a child's dismay at having to leave a school where he has just gotten comfortable or, worse, having to miss several months of a school year in order to work. Panchito's desire to help his family by working in the fields often clashes with his academic yearning.

Lifting the story up from the mundane, Jimenez deftly portrays the strong bonds of love that hold this family together.

Journey to America by Sonia Levitin

160 pages
Grades 4 - 8

Lisa Plat and her family live in Berlin, Germany during a time of great Jewish persecution. Although not everyone agreed that all the Jews were in danger, Lisa and her family feared the future. Her father decided that it would be best for them to try and escape to America where they could live freely. However, due to lack of money and a place to live he would have to go ahead and send for his family later.

Soon after arriving in America he sent word that Lisa, along with her mother and sisters would have to travel to Switzerland and wait there until further notice. They said goodbye to all of the people they loved and all the familiar things they new, to move to a strange place where they had little money, no decent shelter and no friends. Many months of struggle lay ahead for Lisa and her family but the outcome proves to be worthwhile.

Even in the face of a life and death crisis, it takes a special kind of courage to leave everything, to face poverty and to begin again in wholly new surroundings. The reader feels as though they traveled back in time to the 1930's and walked in the shoes of a Jewish citizen of Germany in a time of Nazi domination. It helps the reader to understand the many hardships Jews faced and have a more clear comprehension of the true blessing of freedom. This is a story of triumph and success that will warm your heart and open your mind.

Behind the Mountains by Edwidge Danticat

192 pages
Grades 5 - 9

As the best student in the class, Celiane is given a "sweet little book" in which she decides to keep a journal. Her entries date from October 2000 to March 2001, and chronicle the family's departure from their homeland of Haiti to join her father, who had immigrated to New York City five years earlier.

In graceful prose, Danticat seamlessly weaves together all that such a decision involves: the difficulties of rural life on the island and a longing for an absent parent combined with a fondness for her tiny mountain village with "the rainbows during sun showers- the smell of pinewood burning, the golden-brown sap dripping into the fire"; and the excitement and violence of Port-au-Prince where Celiane and her mother are injured in bombings before the elections.

When Celiane, her mother, and her 19-year-old brother are finally approved to enter the U.S., the teen knows everything will be all right as soon as she sees her father, but there are the unavoidable frictions among family members, fueled not only by the separation and adjustment to a new country, but also by the natural maturing process that the children undergo.

In this gem of a book, Danticat explores the modern immigrant experience through the eyes of one teen.

The Stone Goddess by Minfong Ho

201 pages
Grades 6 - 9

When the Khmer Rouge takes over Cambodia, the Sokha family flees Phnom Penh along with thousands of other city dwellers. Nakri, almost 13, winds up in a brutal labor camp along with older siblings Teeda and Boran. Trained as a classical dancer, Teeda nurses Nakri through an illness and inspires her with her dedication to dance.

Nakri and Boran eventually rejoin the remnants of their family who journey to a refugee camp on Thailand's border. Eventually they immigrate to the U.S., where Nakri begins a confusing new life. It is dance that ties the story together, as Nakri prepares to follow in her sister's footsteps in her new country.

Nakri's first-person account includes a great deal of cultural information. A compassionate portrait of a young Cambodian refugee.

Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate

272 pages
Grades 5 - 7

Kek, a young Sudanese refugee, is haunted by guilt that he survived. He saw his father and brother killed, and he left his mother behind when he joined his aunt's family in Minnesota. In fast, spare free verse, this debut novel by nonfiction writer Applegate gets across the immigrant child's dislocation and loss as he steps off the plane in the snow. He does make silly mistakes, as when he puts his aunt's dishes in the washing machine. But he gets a job caring for an elderly widow's cow that reminds him of his father's herds, and he helps his cousin, who lost a hand in the fighting. He finds kindness in his fifth-grade ESL class, and also racism, and he is astonished at the diversity.

The boy's first-person narrative is immediately accessible. The focus on one child gets behind those news images of streaming refugees far away.

Shadow of the Dragon by Sherry Garland

320 pages
Grades 7 - 12

Danny Vo, the teenage son of Vietnamese immigrants, has conflicting goals: on one hand he wants to date golden-haired Tiffany Marie and be just like the rest of his classmates in Texas, and on the other hand he wants to show respect for his tradition-bound grandmother, who rules the family with an iron fist. Into this volatile situation steps Sang Le, Danny's cousin, who has spent much of his life in a Communist "re-education" camp but has now come to join Danny's family.

Garland adds to this mix a dangerous gang of Vietnamese youths and a band of angry skinheads who stalk the streets of the Vos' Houston suburb. The inevitable violence shatters all whom it touches.

Garland's expert dramatization and deliberate pacing build steadily for a thoroughly gripping, thought-provoking work.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

272 pages
Grades 7 - 12

On Wednesday afternoons, while his Catholic and Jewish schoolmates attend religious instruction, Holling Hoodhood, the only Presbyterian in his seventh grade, is alone in the classroom with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, who Holling is convinced hates his guts. He feels more certain after Mrs. Baker assigns Shakespeare's plays for Holling to discuss during their shared afternoons.

Each month in Holling's tumultuous seventh-grade year is a chapter in this quietly powerful coming-of-age novel set in suburban Long Island during the late '60s. The slow start may deter some readers, and Mrs. Baker is too good to be true: she arranges a meeting between Holling and the New York Yankees, brokers a deal to save a student's father's architectural firm, and, after revealing her past as an Olympic runner, coaches Holling to the varsity cross-country team. However, Schmidt makes the implausible believable and the everyday momentous.

Seamlessly, he knits together the story's themes: the cultural uproar of the '60s, the internal uproar of early adolescence, and the timeless wisdom of Shakespeare's words. Holling's unwavering, distinctive voice offers a gentle, hopeful, moving story of a boy who, with the right help, learns to stretch beyond the limitations of his family, his violent times, and his fear, as he leaps into his future with his eyes and his heart wide open.

All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg

224 pages
Grades 6 - 10

In 1977, 12-year-old Matt Pin lives a fractured life. He is the son of a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier and was airlifted to safety from the war zone. Adopted by a caring American couple, he has vivid and horrific memories of the war and worries about the fates of his mother and badly injured little brother.

Matt's adoptive family adores him, and he is the star pitcher for his middle school baseball team, but there are those who see his face and blame him for the deaths of the young men they lost in the war. The fractured theme runs the course of this short novel in verse: Matt's family, the bodies and hearts of the Vietnam vets, the country that is "only a pocketful of broken pieces" that Matt carries inside him. Ultimately, everything broken is revealed as nonetheless valuable. While most of the selections read less like poems and more like simple prose, the story is a lovely, moving one.