MG/YA Review: 8th GRADE SUPER ZERO, by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

The things a book would make you do.

This is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write, because I’m about to embarrass myself big time. I have to share with you what this book did to me, but I can’t talk about it without also mentioning its marketing and the role of the author.

I first heard about 8th Grade Super Zero in the beginning of the year. How?
Every time I visited a blog, it seemed as if Olugbemisola‘s name popped up in the comment section. She has a name that is hard to forget and so is her “voice,” though the comments were most of the time short.
Then I heard about her book, 8th Grade Super Zero. The title intrigued me.
Then I read an interview of her. Then another. Then saw the book trailer: Olugbemisola has a unique voice, one that is fresh and witty, wise and disarmingly honest, unapologetic yet polite, never shying away from a difficult topic. Noticing these qualities, I couldn’t imagine her toning it down in her book: I was hooked right away and dying to read 8th Grade.

The first lines hit me:
“Everyone knows what’s up, because it’s the first day of school and I set the tone.
Donovan’s opened his stupid mouth one too many times. He’s too much of a coward to say anything to my face, and the punk takes pleasure in harassing people when I’m not around.”

Then I lost myself and moved to Brooklyn.

8th Grade Super Zero is my Twilight in a “social justice” kind of way. I compare it to Twilight because of its effect on me (note: I also blame the simple and effective marketing strategy. Dear Authors, blog tours work. It’s really worth your time). I was a starving student when the book came out and couldn’t purchase it right away, but have I heard/read about it in 2009, I would waited for the bookstore to open the day of its release-trust me-would have grabbed the first copy on the shelves. I became a teenager again when I received 8th Grade Super Zero to review. I gazed at the cover, I smiled, I put it in my bag and carried it with me everywhere I went, glancing at it every chance I got, between classes, before sport, staying up late to read it, telling everyone I knew about it (yep, grown-ups too, and the family oversea).

You have to understand. I love books, but the last time I acted like this was in high school.

I’m amazed that this is Olugbemisola’s first book, because it is ridiculously well written and balanced. I didn’t read it just once, but I (still) keep going back and forth and re-read my favorite scenes–high school, I told you! As a writer I learn from the way she developed her characters, every single of them. They are round, they have flaws, they feel real, they are real. When dad snaps, the reader knows where that is coming from. The archenemies are like the ones you encountered back in your high school days, or like the ones your kids have to deal with today. That said they’re not just planted there for the sake of the plot.

So, we have established that the writing alone if worth getting your attention. There is no surprise there: Would you expect less from someone who studied under Madeleine L’Engle and Paula Danziger?

The story
Reggie is 13, and he had one of the worst first day ever at school. That experience resulted in a nickname that makes him sick every time he hears it. It also made him the less popular kid; however his trials are not enough to kill his creativity. Indeed, Reggie works on a comic book about a super hero called Night Man. His friend Joe C. serves as illustrator.
The plot goes beyond that, though. 8th Grade Super Zero is a coming of age story that shatters stereotypes. I was touched by the portrayal of the school life of homeless kids. I smiled at Reggie’s attempts to figure out God, and enjoyed reading about his doubts, shared and cheered his character’s growth while he dealt with bullyism.

Because of its topics, because of how flawed yet proactive the characters are (look for a strong female/activist lead in Ruthie, who is Reggie’s childhood friend), because of the humorous voice, 8th Grade Super Zero should be in every school library, in my humble opinion. Its popularity with teenagers is poised to grow.

This is one book I would nominate for an award.

Edited 06/28/2010: changed “high school library” for “school library” in one of the last paragraphs.

For more information:
o Visit Olugbemisola’s Website
o Her blog
o Facebook
o Follow Olugbemisola on Twitter!

Picture Book Review: A LION’S MANE, by Navjot Kaur; illustrated by Jaspreet Sandhu

A Lion’s Mane is picture book written by Navjot Kaur, illustrated by Jaspreet Sandhu and published by Saffron Press (Canada).

Favorite quotes:
“I have a lion’s mane and I’m different, just like you.
“Do you know that you can actually lionize someone?”

As soon as I opened A Lion’s Mane I understood why it got nominated for the Cybils Awards: the book has heart and is really well produced. I couldn’t help myself, the illustrations transported me back to my kindergarten and elementary years, with colors as vibrant as the ones I used to see the world through. Kuddos to illustrator Jaspreet Sandhu for the playfulness she instilled in her work. They are a delight to look at and, in my opinion, they suit perfectly the narrator ‘s youth and innocence.

I like the fact that Sikh children get to see themselves on the book cover, that kids unfamiliar with the Sikh culture have their curiosity picked as soon as they look at this boy standing in front of a mirror, his hands raised. I want to ask the young audience, “What do you think he is doing?”

I think it would be the beginning of a wonderful conversation.

Another interesting aspect of a Lion’s Mane is its interactive platform, served by the way text and illustrations play with each other. Indeed, at some point the narrator repeatedly asks the reader and the audience if they can see what “lion” means, illustrated in a specific cultural context. The answer is partially in the pose that a character strikes, as well as the writing in the red turban; it encourages the children to read on their own, thus becoming participants of the story.

I learned about a Sikh martial art called Gatka! I didn’t know it existed, I YouTubed it and my jaw dropped. It’s scary great. *Don’t let your kids watch the video!*

The book empowers the reader by its cultural knowledge. It reminds that being different is, in fact, normal, even if it means being the only kid in the classroom wearing a turban on your head. The reader gets to learn words in Swahili, Sikh, Sanskrit… We learn what the lion’s mane means in the Native Indian Ohi tribe, what it meant in medieval times. There would be more to say, notably about great female figures of our century, but I don’t want to spoil your reading experience.

To summarize regarding the review, A Lion’s Mane is a wonderful, meaningful picture book ~ yet another picture book that stole my heart. I have NO doubts children would grab it and read it over and over (I know I did) if displayed in libraries and bookstores.

Other facts you might be pleased to know:
o A Lion’s Mane is written on 100% recycled and chlorine-free paper! 625 trees will be planted for its first edition.
o Part of the book’s proceeds goes to SEVA Canada‘s work to restore sight and prevent blindness in children.
o If you ever looked for a book dealing with bully-ism, this would do wonders in the classroom. The topic is dealt with such a positive and genuine attitude!
o A Lion’s Mane received the 2010 Skipping Stones Honor Award, as a multicultural and international awareness book.
o Age range: 5 to 10 years old.

About the author:
Navjot Kaur is a Toronto-based elementary teacher of Sikh-Punjabi heritage, who grew up in England. A lion’s Mane is her first book.

To purchase a Lion’s Mane and for more information, please check the following links:
o Saffron Press’ Website
o A Lion’s Mane on Facebook

A Lion’s Mane will be part of something special on Multiculturalism Rocks! soon. 🙂

Disclosure: I received the book from the author.
Edited 6/16/2010