The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani

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I evaluate every book I choose to read aloud to my students by questioning if it will provide a window or mirror to my students. Will this book reflect who they are? Will it open their eyes to a life much unlike their own? I love watching my students faces as they experience characters much like themselves, but I especially enjoy watching their faces when they realize the world is a little bigger, a little more unique, and often a lot more challenging than they expected.

As an adult, the books I read for pleasure are often windows…. I see into other people’s lives, the rich, the famous, the struggling… and I imagine. However, when I was flipping through some books in my classroom and came across The Whole Story of Half a Girl I noticed  instantly that this book might reflect my own experience. In this book our main character, Sonia, is half Indian and half Jewish American. The first part of the book really explores this sense of identity and how youth often try to figure out who they are based on the roles and identities their born into.

I was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. I grew up in a town with very few Jewish people and often felt very “left out” when kids spoke of their CCD experiences, Confirmations, and more. But because my dad was Catholic, I also felt “left out” at Hebrew school… I had Christmas, Easter, and a dad with a large Jesus tattoo on his arm. Needless to say I too felt like “half a girl” in these settings.

As the story goes on, Sonia’s father loses his job and struggles with depression. As a child, both of my parents battled addiction and the mental health issues that come with that disease. Growing up, I never saw my experience reflected in books. I wonder how transformative it would have been to me as a child to see a little bit of my life in Sonia’s. I may be 34 now, but I was 11 again as I read about Sonia and deeply related to her family. It makes you feel “normal” and like you’re not alone, even when your life might feel a little abnormal. That’s the power of a great book!

Sonia also experiences all of common social struggles and triumphs that our tweens face. She had to navigate social situations, friends, standing up for who she was, and being true to herself while also navigating her home life. As a teen I often felt I had two lives- school, where I could be “normal”, and home, where I had to be an adult and handle situations many kids didn’t. I really felt if Sonia was a real person, she and I could have shared stories and been friends.

I didn’t expect to find a mirror in this book when I grabbed in from my classroom library, but that’s why we as teachers need to not just have books in our classroom, but also read them. You never know what you might find… and what student you can recommend it to who might find it to be just what they needed.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

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I read Front Desk for the first time last summer (2018) and instantly knew this book was a must read for my class. At first I thought I’d start my school year with it, but I decided to “hold it” for last. Read aloud time in my class is the most precious time of our day. I teach 5th grade, and if you came into my room during read aloud, you’d see 28 kids on the rug, stools, the bookcase (not my favorite spot!), but what you wouldn’t see is anyone off task, talking, etc. It is a sacred time and the conversations that come from our read aloud are always my reminder for why I teach. I knew that Front Desk would provoke some deep conversations and I wanted to save it for when the kids knew me, knew the culture of our room, and had the comfort that comes at the end of a year spent together.

Front Desk tells the story of Mia, a child who has immigrated from China to the US. She is going to school in California, where she and her parents also run (and live) in a motel. The book covers racism on many fronts- between different races, within the same race, between the police and races, and more. It covers economic disparities and the shame some kids face when they feel “less than” their peers. It covers family dynamics, immigration, and so many issues that you could probably spend months reading and discussing this with your class.

What I love about this book the most is that it is completely age appropriate for my students, while also forcing them to think deeper, challenge their preconceived notions, and explore the world through someone else’s eyes. It doesn’t hurt that the author, Kelly Yang, is a pretty incredible inspiration for my students with an awe-inspiring story to share. I read to them a little about her before we started reading since Mia is based on her life, and they were instantly hooked.

I’m so excited that this is the book that was selected for GRA 2019 and cannot wait to share this reading experience with my class next year as well.

How Do You Measure, Measure A Year?

If you’re reading the title to this post and singling along to “Seasons of Love”… we should be friends. When I look back on my college years I can say that Rent was a defining part of my college experience. I listened to the soundtrack, saw the play, watched the movie when it eventually came out… and hearing any song from Rent will always take me back to my years in college.

As a teacher I measure a year on a different timeline than most people. To me a year starts in September and ends in August. I look at my years in terms of school years. When I look back on all the years in my career there are different events that mark the year in my memories.

When I entered the classroom in late August of 2018 I was confident of what this year would be. This would be the year I chased my passion for diversity in children’s literature. From August through January I presented on the topic three times, added countless titles to my library, and started this blog. I had the pleasure of bringing two incredible authors into my school and felt I could see my dream coming to fruition.

And then my year changed. My father got sick and ultimately died. My dad was a big supporter and a huge part of who I was. His death rocked me and still does as it’s only been 3 months. In that time it’s not that my dream changed, it’s not that my focus changed… it’s that my priorities changed. For this period of time it was about survival and perseverance.

But time has passed and I feel more like myself. I am ready to return to sharing my passion. I’m ready to get back to reviewing books and sharing this message. When I think back to how I measure this year, it’ll be a mixed bag of emotions, but while there will always be the sadness of his passing, there is also the joy in knowing I am helping to bring voice to a topic that is so important.