Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda's Children (Grace Akallo and Faith McDonnell)

Grace Akallo is a young woman who was abducted from her school in the middle of the night to serve as a child soldier and sex slave of the rebel army known as the LRA (stands for Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony) in Uganda. She tells stories of the absolutely horrific things she saw, experienced, and was forced to do. This poor girl suffered hell on earth. The good news is, she lived through it, and is using her voice to spread the news of what is happening in northern Uganda. And the sad news is, we need her to keep doing it because it seems like the entire world is ignoring the atrocities that continue to plague the Ugandan people.

Faith McDonnell is an author and humanitarian who became interested in telling the story of the child soldiers in Uganda, and once she met Grace and heard her stories, it was decided that they would co-author this book, in which chapters alternate between Grace's narrative of actual experience and Faith's historical explanation of how these events came to transpire in Uganda. It's a beautifully written book that tells a very dark story, but again, it is one that will change your life forever. 

What I've learned is that in Uganda's history, the most powerful leader (or the one with the biggest army or the best guns) is who gets to be in charge. There has been a crazy, violent, twisted "king of the hill" tug of war for power since Uganda's establishment as a British protectorate in the 1800's. Right now, things are stable with the Ugandan government, but there are factions of rebel armies who roam the countryside and take their anger at not being in power out on innocent civilians. Most of those are children. 

What Grace tells us- from her own personal experience- is that the LRA would raid schools and villages in the middle of the night, when people are most vulnerable. They would abduct the children, and immediately begin the process of dehumanizing them by forcing them to kill a sibling, their parents, or another child. This tactic ensured the child would feel alienated from society and therefore would not attempt to escape. The manner in which the murders took place were the most savage, most violent possible. Smashing heads in, using a panga/machete to chop bodies apart piece by piece, stabbing with bayonets, beating with clubs, cutting lips and eyelids off with razorblades, stabbing through lips and pinning person to the ground with a knife, etc. Many of the killing methods I read about that these children were forced to carry out were so terrible that I have never even heard of them. So incredibly sad. These same methods were used to kill parents, teachers, or village elders who tried to protect the children. 

Once they had taken another life, then the children were trained to be killing machines. They were forced to walk for long distances with no shoes or food, carrying materials and weapons for the army. The girls were given to soldiers as "wives," which really meant that they were raped repeatedly. 

I found it interesting that the Islamic Sudanese were funding the LRA through weapons and militia. 

At this moment, Uganda is slowly recovering. Hundreds of thousands of Ugandan people, including those who were children who were forced to serve in the LRA and people who lost their land/homes/family/lives to the LRA, are living in refugee camps scattered throughout northern Uganda. That is a very slow start to the mountain of needs these people have. They have extremely limited medical care, no government protection, very little food, no access to education, and no clean water. 

Eventually Joseph Kony was driven to Sudan by the Ugandan government's troops. There are still divisions of the LRA who are in and active in Uganda. They repeatedly attack the refugee camps and burn families alive, demand food from the people, and continue to kidnap children. 

There are thousands of children who have been forced to become "night commuters," which means they literally walk up to 10 miles one way each day to make it to a shelter or hospital just so they can sleep without fear of being abducted in the middle of the night by the LRA. Rather than providing for these poor kids who are forced to take such desperate measures, it is reported that they are harassed by men and teenage boys along their route. Some girls have been raped. 

Then there are all the former child soldiers whose innocence was stripped away from them when they were forced to kill- violently. They are trying to re-enter a society which does not understand how to help them. The children's minds and hearts have been changed forever. There are organizations like World Vision who have a presence there in Uganda who have counseling centers to help rehabilitate the children back to a point where they can function within Ugandan culture. Slowly but surely, the country is trying to recover from such a nightmare. 

Included at the end of the book is an exhaustive list of resources for people who have been moved to help the Ugandan people after reading this story. It is wise for the authors to include this, because there is no possible way a person can take all of this in without being moved to action. 

Knowing these things leads me to pray more specifically and exhaustively for the Ugandan people. I am praying for resources and help to arrive soon for the refugees, for the Ugandan government to step it up in caring for these displaced people, for families to be reunited and restored, for physical, psychological, and emotional healing to occur for the people, for the former child soldiers to forgive themselves for what they have been forced to do, and of course for all the orphans left behind in the massacres of the Ugandan people. I pray that the Ugandan culture is restored, and that every orphan child has someone to truly love and care for them.



Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew (Sherri Eldridge)

This book is a truly helpful resource in helping adoptive parents understand some of the issues of grief and loss that their adopted children will face throughout their lives. Despite the fact that adoption is a great thing, and that healthy families are brought together and thriving through adoption, there are issues that many adopted children will face. It is their parents' responsibility to become knowledgeable about the issue, triggers that may set off sadness and anger for adoptees, and the important of validating their children's feelings and empathizing with their kids as they hurt. The adoptive parent must realize that even though the child is being welcomed into a loving and excited family, some type of rejection took place (almost always tragic circumstances or through a birth parent's inability to raise their child) first. Some adoptees struggle with this more than others. The most important thing is for the adoptive parents to realize that these feelings are legitimate, and to guide their child to grieve in a healthy way. The worst thing adoptive parents can do is to ignore or repress these feelings of sadness, grief, and loss. 

According to this book, written by an adoptee, the best things adoptive parents can do are to validate their children's feelings, frequently assure them in many ways that they are welcomed and worthy, and to recognize and honor the biological differences between them. Adoptive parents should also respect their child's confidentiality. They should talk to their child about how much information regarding their adoption should be shared, and to respect the child's boundaries and preferences in this. With transracial adoptions, the fact that they are adopted will be obvious to many. The adopted child, however, still should maintain control over the details that are shared about his or her adoption. 

The fact that this is written by an adoptee makes it the most valuable resource on this topic. I've read a lot of research about what scientists and child development specialists and child psychologists and pediatricians say about parenting a child through adoption. Listening to the voice of an actual adoptee carries much more weight. 

There are many helpful lists and suggested responses to children's questions and expressions of fear or sadness in this book, which make it a handy reference guide throughout the child-rearing years. 



Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin)

Greg Mortenson was a mountain climber. Not your neighborhood outdoor store brand of mountain climber either, a real mountain climber. In 1993 he visited the Pakistan Himalaya Mountains, specifically a summit called K2 in the Karakoram district, and set out to scale K2. Long story short, he failed. He came off that mountain lost and broken and near death, but was taken in by a local village called Korphe. They saved his life, and by the time he was well enough to realize it and head home, he had decided he would come back and help this impoverished group of people who had given so much to help him. That turned into a dream of building a school for the Korphe children. Greg raised enough money (in the most desperate, sad, and interesting ways) and returned to Pakistan to build the school. Long story short, he was able to build the school despite incredible opposition and numerous glitches.

Then, one school turned into another. And another. And another. And eventually Greg Mortenson was in charge of an organization called the Central Asia Institute building schools all over Pakistan. He dealt with many issues along the way, and nearly lost his life numerous times. Eventually he was able to build schools in Afghanistan as well. As far as I can tell, Greg Mortenson is still spending most of his time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, building schools. He learned the process of getting things done (usually the hard way) in Pakistan, and also was fortunate to receive wise counsel from some of his friends in Korphe. One mentor explained to Greg that to thrive there he would have to respect their culture, their ways. The first cup of tea he shared with a Pakistani was as a stranger, the second was as a friend and honored guest, and the third was as family member, for whom any of them would die. Greg Mortenson learned to share many cups of tea with his acquaintances in Pakistan.

Mortenson was in Pakistan on September 11, 2001. He made some foolish mistakes during this time, in my opinion, such as returning several times in the months following 9/11, remained in the country even after he was specifically told it was a very dangerous place for American citizens, and approached the Afghanistan border "just to see what would happen" (what happened was he lost his passport and had to waste weeks getting one back and explaining to the hyper paranoid Intelligence Agency what he was doing there in the first place-he was lucky he didn't lose his life). He had a front row seat to the events that occurred in the Middle East following the terror attacks on America. Soon, the motivation for building these schools evolved from merely wanting to return a kindness to wanting to help promote peace in the world through providing an opportunity for educating Pakistan's youngsters...an opportunity other than the Islamic Wahhabi madrassas, many of which at that time taught (and may still teach) militant jihadi Islam. "The madrassa system targeted the impoverished students the public system failed. By offering free room and board and building schools in areas where none existed, madrassas provided millions of Pakistan's parents with their only opportunity to educate their children." (pg. 243)

 Mortenson believed then, and continues to believe, that the most important and effective way to fight terrorism is to prevent future generations from being trained to hate. The schools built by the Central Asia Institute are traditional Islamic schools which honor the culture of this country, but without the harsh militant agenda. The more schools that are available for children (especially girls) to attend, the better a chance the people have at rising above the hate that spews from some of Pakistan's best-known inhabitants (the Taliban and al-Quaeda).

I thought the piece about how Greg met his wife Tara was super sweet, and sort of awe-inspiring. I was a little concerned that this book seems to imply that Greg was married to building schools in Pakistan and was involved with his family only a little the side, though. I certainly hope that isn't an accurate assumption. It would be sorrowful for a man to accomplish so much in the lives of other families while forsaking involvement with his own.

I learned so much from this book. I had no idea there were so many various people groups in Pakistan, nor did I have a clue about the way most Pakistanis felt/feel about the Taliban. I also learned quite a bit about the Pakistani government, and (from Greg Mortenson's point of view, anyway) the United States's great successes and great failures in the days following the September 11th attacks. It made me remember how scary and broken we all were in America on September 11th, but also to realize a new perspective on the events that took place in the years leading up to and following the attacks on the United States. It made me angry to read that the yellow humanitarian food packets that American military planes were dropping down to Afghan refugees closely resembled the bright yellow pods of unexploded cluster bombs. (pg. 279)

This book has been plaguing my life as a reader for well over a year now. As I have inched through it, it has taken up space in my bag, my laptop case, my backpack, my bookcase, basket of books, and my stack of books on the bedside table. I started it over a year ago, when it was first released in paperback. Everyone was talking about this book, and how I just had to read it. I'm a library girl, not much a book purchaser (except for my children's collection), but in this case I made an exception. I've read it on and off ever since then, frustrated because it wasn't a very friendly read. It was difficult, and sad, and did not truly catch my attention until about 180 pages in.

This is very unlike me. I believe life is too short to read bad books. I know there is great value in seeing a book through to the end no matter what you think about it. In this case, I never felt like Three Cups of Tea was a bad book, it just required a lot of effort to read. More so than just about any other book I've read. The names of the cities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the unfamiliar names of individuals Mortenson encountered, and the ever-changing rules and politics were so confusing. There is a map included at the beginning of the book, and I wish I had remembered it was there to go back and look up the name of each city rather than relying on my mind's very abstract notion of where those cities were in relation to one another. There is also an index provided so that would also be very helpful to readers. Those are some mistakes I feel as though I made when reading this book. I underestimated it, I did not put forth significant effort to keep the people and places straight, and I did not use the index to refer to places, people, and issues. In essence, I'm saying that this book isn't meant to be read casually. It's meant to be studied and discussed. So I'm reiterating that Three Cups of Tea is not a bad book, it's just a difficult one. Approach with caution, handle with care, and for crying out loud, use the maps.

For more info, follow Greg Mortenson on Twitter- @gregmortenson

or see his website: http://www.threecupsoftea.com/ 


I Will Rejoice (Karma Wilson)

"This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." ~Psalm 118:24

This verse was one of the first Scripture verses we taught our child, which makes this book one of our most treasured. A little girl goes throughout her day, from waking up to playing with friends to taking her nap to eating dinner with her family. As she moves from one activity to another, she repeats Psalm 118:24 and tells how she will rejoice throughout her day. 

Very sweet book! I love that it clearly illustrates this very important Bible verse, and helps younger children make a connection from the words they memorize to actions.  


Alphabet Mystery (Audrey Wood)

What would we do if one of our alphabet letters suddenly went missing? The rest of the ABC's rally together to organize a search and rescue effort for a letter that suddenly vanishes into the night. The letters embark on an adventure, meet Mad Miserable M, and scurry to get their recovered letter back home before they are all turned into alphabet soup! ;)

Love this book! It's more than an ABC book, though children certainly get lots of exposure to all the letters. There is even one page (Mad Miserable M's treasure trove) where each letter connects with an item whose name (very cleverly) starts with that letter. Cute, huh? It also gives younger children the chance to connect letters with words and sounds.

Great book for preschool and primary school aged children!

Let's Have a Daddy Day (Karen Kingsbury)

A dad explains to his children the fun day they might have together. He tells what might happen if they choose this activity or that, and explains that quality time playing together now will help them look back on their childhood and know that their Daddy loved them because they took the time to play.

Sweet book. The "maybe we'll play baseball, maybe we'll look at frogs" scenarios are underdeveloped, but it's a great book for dads and kids to read together!



There's a Princess in Me! (Sheila Walsh)

Shouldn't every girl feel like a princess? 

Gigi is a character who tells, via rhyme, all the ways that there is a princess in her...despite all her failings and imperfections. As she describes her mistakes, she also shares that her free gift is the promise of being a child of God's, of being His princess. There are verses included to explain these promises from the Lord. (Colossians 3:12, 1 John 3:1)

He looks past the mess.
He says she is precious.
He declares that there is a princess in her!

I think the nicest touch is the mirror on the front of the book, so that every little girl can see herself with the title There's a Princess in Me proclaimed over her face! 


If You Give a Cat a Cupcake (Laura Numeroff)

Typical of the "if you give a ___" series, Numeroff's latest involves the cat who starts out with a cupcake, somehow ends up at the beach, then the gym, then eventually back at home with the cupcake. These books are awesome for younger school aged children primarily due to the extreme silly factor. Kids love seeing what the cat is going to come up with next. They are also powerful connections to illustrating the cause-effect relationship with younger students.

I think they're great, but also that they are very ADD-ish. Sometimes kids do need to focus on one thing at a time, and they do need to develop those skills of completing a task once begun. Shoot, sometimes I feel like the ADD cat as I start out taking the laundry to the washing machine, then get sidetracked to stop and pick up some of my child's toys so I can get the basket through the living room, then move on to loading the dishwasher, etc. 

But it sure is good to read a silly, funny book just for the heck of it! 


Scarlette Beane (Karen Wallace)

Scarlette Beane is all about the vegetables.

Born to parents who love to garden, Scarlette has a face "red as a beet, and the ends of her fingers were green." She is constantly surrounded by carrots, parsley, tomatoes, beets, turnips, cucumbers, and onions. Even her baby mobile has veggies dangling from it!

Her mother tells her constantly that she will do something wonderful with her life. Sure enough, one day Scarlette wakes up and her garden has produced vegetables that are enormous enough to feed her whole town. She continues to grow giant veggies until she builds her parents a castle made of vegetables ("with turnip turrets, a drawbridge held by corncobs, and a cucumber tower on each corner") and her mother tells her that she knew all along that Scarlette was going to do something wonderful.

In this fast food nation we inhabit, it certainly is awesome to see a book about vegetables. When I watched Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution a few months ago, I was shocked that most children in that particular school district could not identify even the most basic vegetables. Scarlette Beane really does put a magical, positive spin on the world of vegetables. When I was reading this with my own child, her first comment after we closed the book was to ask for a cucumber...so there you have it!

Just in Case You Ever Wonder (Max Lucado)

A mom and dad tell their daughter how much she means to them, and how wonderful they think she is. They tell her why she is special, that God looked and looked for just the right family before sending her to them, and that they will always be there for her. It is one of the best books a parent can read to his or her children!

My favorite page, which echoes everything I want my own children to treasure about themselves:
"The same hands that made the stars made you.
The same hands that made the canyons made you.
The same hands that made the trees and the moon and the sun made you.
That's why you are so special. God made you."

(sniff sniff)

Red: Seeing Red All Around Us (Sarah L. Schuette)

This is a very basic book all about the color red. Several red items are shown, with simple sentences describing the red items (ex: Red has flashing lights and horns. -sentence describing a red fire truck). also on each page is a more in-depth explanation of the red things.

2 cool facts from this book:
-Strawberries are the only fruit whose seeds grow on the outside.
-Licorice candy is actually made from the root of a licorice tree.

The House in the Night (Susan Marie Swanson)

This was the 2009 Caldecott winner. My personal thoughts on its selection were simply that it was undeserving. The illustrations are black and white etchings/penmarks with random items colored in yellow.  It is unusual, but not necessarily spectacular.

The story is rather vague and without any real purpose. There's an adult giving a child a key to a house, then describing the house with the light and a bed and a book and a bird and a song  that is all about the dark, then the story reverses until it ends back with the house in the night and a home full of light.

Yep, it's weird. I guess the "notable" portion of the Caldecott Medal can sometimes mean weird.

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (Simms Taback)

This story is about Joseph and his overcoat. His coat wears down, so he turns it into a jacket. When that wears down, he makes a vest, then a scarf, then a handkerchief, etc. At the end of the book, he loses the button that was covered with the last scrap of fabric. The last thing he makes is a story about his overcoat's journey, which shows that you can always make something out of nothing.

It isn't all that terrific a story, but the book is vibrantly illustrated. Each page is brightly colored with cutouts that help predict what and who might come next in Joseph's story.

The "making something out of nothing" connection would be easy with artwork, recycling, cause and effect, etc. There is even a song at the end of the book, written by Simms Taback himself.

From Little Acorns...A First Look at the Life Cycle of a Tree (Sam Godwin)

In this brief book, two little squirrels help explain the basic concept of an acorn's development into a tree and the cycle of that tree producing more acorns.  It is fantastic for giving the first introduction to life cycles in general.

Interesting facts we learned from this book:
-It takes 30 years for an oak sapling to mature into an oak tree.
-It takes 40 years before the oak tree begins to produce acorns.
-The flowers on the oak tree, which produce the seeds, are called catkins.

At the conclusion of the book, the author once again provides a looped illustration of the life cycle of the oak tree, and also provides further resources for exploration on this topic. Great resource!

I Love My Hair! (Natasha Anastasia Tarpley)

 This book is for every little girls of African descent  who wishes their hair was more like other ethnicities on the planet, which is apparently more common that I thought.

Keyana takes us through the process of her mother fixing her hair, including the soothing application of coconut oil and the harsh tugging and pulling of the comb. She describes how her mother can weave her hair into a soft, fluffy bun, she can let it be free, she can part and braid it in straight lines "like the way we plant seeds in our garden,"and she can braid it into tiny little sections with click-clacky beads on the end. Keyana tells about how she felt when other kids teased her about her hair, but that her parents assure her that her hair is a blessing, and to be proud of her hair means to be proud of where she came from.

 I love that this book can be used to help all girls, regardless of their race, remember that their hair makes them beautiful!

In the Author's Note, Tarpley tells readers about how she struggled with and against her hair for years, trying chemicals to straighten it and cutting it super short. Eventually she came to peace with her hair just as it was meant to be, which is what she passes along to other girls who want their hair to be something it's not, and was never meant to be.

ABC Under the Sea (Barbara Knox)

My little one loves all things that have to do with ocean life. She also loves all things ABC, so this was in her mind the perfect book.

ABC Under the Sear is exactly what it sounds like. It's an alphabet book that describes a sea creature that matches its letter. Cool images and very cool info included! I loved that each page has the entire alphabet printed out (with uppercase and lowercase letters) and the letter of the page is highlighted. That is excellent for helping young readers maintain perspective on the relationship between each letter and the English alphabet as a whole.

My favorite "wow" facts were:
-There is a special starfish called the Chocolate Chip Sea Star, which really and truly looks like it has wee bitty chocolate chips all over it
-Jellyfish have no brain at all. That is somewhat amazing to me. I know all it does is pump water in and out of its body, but still. How does it even know to pump water in and out without a brain?
-Sea Turtles are unable to pull their head and feet inside their shells. Well, dang. That stinks for the sea turtles.

Definitely one of the best basic level ocean life trade books around. It's good for preschool kids just becoming acquainted with letters of the alphabet, and is also a reliable source of information for facts about rare ocean creatures. Every school library should include this one!

Guess How Much I Love You (Sam McBratney)

A Caldecott book, this is one of the absolute sweetest children's books in existence. The Daddy rabbit (ahem, "Nutbrown Hare") and his little boy rabbit are going about their little rabbit day talking about how much they love one another. Such a precious story, and perfect for settling a little one into bed. The "I love you to the moon...and back!" line is enough to reassure any child of their parent's love.

Papa, Do You Love Me? (Barbara M. Joose)

This is a wonderful and super sweet picture book about a father and his son, both of whom are members of the Maasai culture in African Kenya and Tanzania. The son is asking his papa questions, and the papa's responses are reflections of the tribe's way of life as well as very reassuring of his love for his son.  The illustrations appear to be done with water color, and are beautiful, but it seems to me that the father's features are rather feminine. On each page I wondered why the book wasn't called Mama, Do You Love Me?

The papa's words on the closing page are the sweetest.

"I'll care for you, love you, and teach you. Always. Because I am your papa, and you are my tender heart."

Great book for fathers to read with their children!


Ruby Holler (Sharon Creech)

Dallas and Florida are twins-brother and sister, misunderstood, orphans, and stuck in a terrible foster environment. They have been betrayed by every adult in their life, and have never known the privilege of a safe, stable family. One day they are sent to live with Tiller and Sairy, an older couple who live down in Ruby Holler. There in Ruby Holler, Tiller and Sairy peel back the layers on these twins until they are finally able to see them for who they are. In fact, Dallas and Florida come to help save Tiller and Sairy, even from themselves.

I loved this book, and count is as one of my new favorites! A discussion on each individual character would be very lively, no doubt. Ruby Holler is an easy read and relatively suspenseful. It would make a great read-aloud or book study for a 3rd or 4th grade class.

Uganda: Enchantment of the World (Revised Edition, by Ettagale Blauer and Jason Laure')

My family and I are adopting a child from Uganda. For that reason, I have been on the hunt for all books Ugandan.

Of all the literature I have read about Uganda, this is my absolute favorite. It is the most thorough, comprehensive, and understandable. It has the best illustrations and resources. Every time I read a book about Uganda, I learn new things that I find interesting. This book, however, is filled with information that keeps making me think, I have to remember this for our child. The authors delve into great detail about plant and animal life, as well as famous women in Uganda's history.

Here are some of the highlights:
-Uganda has very, very fertile farmland. Even in the poorest days of The Great Depression, Ugandans could still grow crops to feed themselves. 
-The "kings" of Uganda are called kabaka (KAH-ba-kah). The President rules over the nation, but the kabakas are very important to the people as a figurehead and representative. The current kabaka (Uganda's 34th) is Kabaka Mutebi II, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi. 
-Oil was recently discovered in western Uganda. Hmmm. It will be interesting to see how that will spark interest in this country, worldwide. 
-Uganda's terrain is diverse. There are vast grasslands, and there are mountainous regions. Margherita Peak in the Rwenzori mountains is the third highest peak in all of Africa. 
-The size of Uganda is 91, 111 square miles, which is comparable to the U.S. state of Oregon. About 15% of the total area is covered in water. This is probably why Uganda has such fertile soil! 
-The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest contains many species of animals, but is also home to the rare mountain gorilla as well as pods of chimpanzees. Those who have studied the chimps has noticed that mothers and sons remain in close relationships in the wold for over 40 years. Daughters leave their mothers when they are mature enough to start their own families. 
-The water hyacinth is a beautiful type of water lily that was brought to Uganda because of its beautiful flowers, but soon it grew so quickly that it began to choke up the waterways. Ugandans had to introduce a type of weevil which helps slow the hyacinth's growth. Pretty cool fact! I can't wait to see those water hyacinths myself when we travel to meet our child. 
-Princess Elizabeth of Toro was the first Ugandan woman to become a lawyer. 
-Coffee is Uganda's main agricultural export. Tea, sugarcane, and coffee are also produced in and exported from Uganda.
-There are about 20 various ethnic groups in Uganda. The largest is the Baganda. 
-Karamajong women make scar patterns with tiny cuts all over their faces. These marks are considered a sign of beauty. 
-There are over 2 million orphans in Uganda. These children have lost their parents due to war, death, and disease.
-Soccer, basketball, and cricket are the most popular sports in Uganda. 
-For women, the national dress of Uganda is the basuuti, which is a long brightly colored dress with a sash (called a kitambaala) to hold the dress in place. 
-Every year there is a special race called the Royal Ascot Goat Race. People push their goats along to the finish line, and prizes are awarded for the best costumes. This event takes place at the Royal Speke Resort in Munyonyo. 
-One of the most inspiring Ugandan athletes is Bashir Ramathan. He is a blind middle-weight boxer!

Uganda's history is detailed in this book. It is a relatively new country but with a long and dark history. The basic overview is that indigenous people inhabited the area until Europeans came looking for the source of the Nile River (which is Lake Victoria-in Uganda). Meanwhile, Arab traders and Christian missionaries were infusing into the region. It was at this point (1840's) that the Arab traders began to trade humans who had been captured by opposing tribes and sold into slavery. The Ugandan slaves were taken to Brazil and the Caribbean islands, and it's not stated but I'm sure some ended up in America as slaves as well. In 1894 Uganda was settled as a British colony/protectorate. Eventually the Ugandans got sick of Britain taking their tax money and not giving them any authority over their own country, and on October 9, 1962 Uganda finally gained its independence. It was the end of some troubles for Ugandans, but the beginning of many other troubles that came in the form of political factions and instability. Groups were vying for power in the country when Milton Obote took over by force. The Ugandan Parliament voted him out of office in 1966, but he again used the army to take direct physical control of the country. He suspended the constitution and implemented martial law. General Idi Amin was the most powerful military leader who assisted Obote with this take-over, and Obote continually grew suspicious of the amount of control Amin had. He was right to be concerned, because as soon as he left Uganda for a short trip, Amin forcibly took over reign in Uganda, and this began the darkest days of all in Uganda's history. Idi Amin was crazy, and extremely paranoid. He commanded the deaths of 300, 000 Ugandan citizens (men, women, and children) in the most heinous ways possible. Uganda has had a new, stable, positive President since 1986 (Yoweri Museveni), but in many ways the country continues to suffer from the attrocities of life in Idi Amin's reign. 

English is the official language, but there are many many tribal languages spoken throughout the country. Lugandan is the most popular of these, and we will be striving to teach our child some of these words and phrases from her birth country. So...

Webale (thank you) for reading this very lengthy post, and look for more books reviewed enkya (tomorrow)!

Welcome to Uganda (Grace Pundyk; Welcome to My Country series by Gareth Stevens Publishing)

This was a wonderful basic-level overview of Uganda's history, government, and culture. The author provides very simple descriptions and explanations of the features of the Ugandan flag, its rivers and lakes, its plants and animals, and its history (including the terrible years of Milton Obote and then Idi Amin). She briefly mentions the existence of child soldiers, but does not explain that they are kidnapped from their families and forced to fight in the rebel LRA army. I suppose that may be a bit too much for young adult nonfiction, though.

I found these points very interesting:
-When a boy turns 15, he is old enough to serve in the Ugandan national army.
-In 1997, President Yoweri Museveni (still serving as President) introduced the Universal Primary Education program, which provides free education for up to 4 children in every family. If a family includes boys and girls, 2 of the students must be girls. If a child has special needs or some sort of physical disability, he or she must be given preference among applicants to local school programs. This program has increased the number of Ugandan schoolchildren from 2.5 million to over 6.5 million.
-Some Ugandans believe that their living elders can curse family members with illness or bad luck.
-Storytelling is a vital part of Ugandan life, and is even included in the school program.
-Popular foods are matooke, ugali, yams, potatoes, cassavas, and luwombo.

I think this book would be a perfect introduction to a 3rd or 4th grader to the Ugandan culture. I think that it would be good for them to read about how difficult it is for children to get an education in Uganda, and would likely prompt them to be thankful for the abundance of opportunities they have here in the United States.

Despite the number of books I have found about Uganda, I am pleased with the consistency in its story, even if I continue to be heartbroken over the plight of this country and its millions of orphans.

Africa (Yvonne Ayo-Eyewitness Series)

I love Eyewitness books. My students love them, too. My teacher colleagues love the Eyewitness video series as well. What's the big deal about Eyewitness? These books are notoriously thorough, and infused with hundreds of real-life photographs of both historical and modern objects. Every aspect of African life is covered in this book, including great civilizations, building a house, home life, finding food, sports and entertainment, both female and male attire, medicine and healing, weapons and armor, crafts and skills, and a slave's journey. Each page is so filled with images that the reader could study it for a long while before moving along to another element of African life.

My favorite pages were those regarding female dress. I learned that a woman's attire can indicate her marital status (an unmarried Ugandan Karamajong girl wears a hip skirt and head ornaments; a married woman wears a leather cloak and a skirt that ties in the front), and also her stature (the larger her head piece wrap, the more important she is).

Africa is such a diverse continent, filled with amazing culture and history!


Peoples of East Africa (ed. Bridget Giles-The Diagram Group/Facts on File, Inc.)

This book divides east Africa into regions of people groups, and gives a thorough history and description of each. There are climate descriptions, historical timelines, and descriptions of culture and religion practices of each. It was very informative, but overwhelming. The illustrations were hand-sketched, and therefore a bit disappointing. We don't want to merely see drawings of Ugandan and East African people. We want to see actual people.


The Watsons Go to Birmingham (Christopher Paul Curtis)

The self-proclaimed “Weird Watsons” are Kenny, Byron, and Joetta, along with their mom and dad. They are all just busy living life in Flint, Michigan in the 1960s. They have school issues, work issues, and behavior issues just like any other family. When Byron, the oldest brother, begins to make some seriously bad choices, their parents decide it is time for him to spend a few months with their grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama. Unfortunately during that time, a church is bombed by racist segregationists, which deeply affects the Watson family and changes their lives and view of the world forever. 
Christopher Paul Curtis takes a very dark and sad time in our nation’s history and presents it on a palatable 5th grade level. He concludes the story with a summary of facts about the civil rights movement and the heroes who gave their lives during this time. Winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and a Newbery Honor Book, it is very easy to see why this book is such an important and effective piece of literature. This tight-knit family experiences small doses of racism in Michigan, and Curtis thoroughly communicates the differences in Northern and Southern culture during this time. 
One of my favorite quotes (by whom, I wish I knew) is that a good writer notices things that other people don’t notice. Curtis brings to light several characteristics of daily life by black Americans during this tumultuous time period. One was that the Watsons had to plan out every single rest and refueling stop for the journey from Michigan to Alabama. They knew they would have to take great care in where they stopped and tried to rent motel rooms or purchase food, because many Southern cities simply refused service to African Americans. We travel a bit, and I can’t imagine setting out for a far away destination without the knowledge that we can stop anywhere we want to for gas or supplies. Another was the way Curtis pointed out that black people and white people could be pretty much just as ignorant about one another during this time, simply because they did not associate with anyone of the opposite race. Byron and Kenny were terrified during one rest stop because they were afraid the rednecks would catch them, hang them, and eat them for dinner. There were some very ugly things that happened in Southern states during the civil rights movement, but it would be unfair to say that all white southerners were hostile.
My only criticism of this work is that it was too brief, too light, with coverage too superficial for such atrocities in American history. I would love for Curtis to have delved more deeply into the issues of this time and how the Watsons were affected by them. But then again, that wouldn’t be a children’s book, now would it?  



The Pinballs (Betsy Byars)

Carlie, Thomas J, and Harvey are in foster care. Carlie likens them to pinballs, bouncing around from one place to another without having any care or control over who or what they slam into. Each of the kids has their own heart-breaking story, and they are as united by their tragedies as they are by the love of their foster parents. When Harvey hits rock bottom, it is up to Carlie and Thomas J to bring him back to the land of the living.

I really loved this story, and the insight into the minds of children who have been damaged. It is good to remember that these kids rarely feel the way that we think they should, or sometimes even the way we want them to. Both the characters in this story, and real life children in foster care must be granted the dignity of maintaining control over their own thoughts and feelings, as well as their story.


The Big Wave (Pearl S. Buck)

This is a short one, easily swallowed in 1 sitting. It is the story of a Japanese village blended with fishing and farming agriculture. Kino's father is a farmer, and they live high on the mountain near a volcano. Jiya's father is a fisherman, meaning they live on the beach, safe from the volcano but dangerously close to the tsunami-prone sea.

One day, the big wave comes. It decimates the village, and Jiya barely escapes with his life. He becomes part of Kino's family, nurtured back to health by Kino's wise father. It seems that everything the man says is a note-worthy nugget of cultural wisdom. For example:
pg. 12- "Enjoy life and do not fear death-that is the way of a good Japanese."
pg. 24- "for life is always stronger than death."
pg. 26-"Ah, no one knows who makes evil storms. We only know that they come. When they come we must live through them as barely as we can, and after they are gone, we must feel again how wonderful is life."

and on and on

It is easy to infer that Kino's father has had experience with a big wave and losing his family before.

Not my favorite Buck book, but it's good for connecting literature and empathy to science.


Kenya ABC's: A Book About the People and Places of Kenya (Sarah Heiman)

This was a great book about Kenya, with very interesting information about this African country. Each page is a letter of the alphabet and a key feature of the culture. 
N is for Nairobi
U is for Ugali
Z is for Zebra

You get the picture. 
It's a great book, perfect for younger children, for teaching about Kenya. 


Blue Moon Mountain (Geraldine McCaughrean)

So, today my preschool daughter signed up for the summer reading program at the local library. It was so sweet to see her getting her very first library card, playing with the kids' computers, and browsing the children's literature collection. It is a massive library, so she was pretty overwhelmed. For that matter, I'm a librarian, and I'm overwhelmed when I go into this particular branch. But, we'll continue to visit and get oriented to the building throughout the summer, especially when we go to show her reading log to earn her tickets. Granted, the prize room looks just like the treasure box at Chuck E. Cheese's, filled with trinkets that are either cheap pieces of candy or what must be lead-laden toys. Sweet Sassafras (my nickname for her), I'm not trying to micromanage your ticket purchases, but darlin', I can buy you a teensy pack of fun dip for .15.

But...it's about the reading, right?

Which brings us to this post.

Her poppa is rather goal-oriented, and competitive, so he is all into this earning-a-ticket deal. We have just completed 4 books (and 140 points total, mind you), so as much as time permits, I'll be sharing about some of the books we are reading this summer.

Blue Moon Mountain is a weak effort at trying to weave a story together filled with villains from mythical and folktale history. Big Bad Wolf, the Kraken, Hydra, Gorgon, something called the Cockatrice, the Troll from the 3 Billy Goats Gruff, etc. are all characters living on this mysterious Blue Moon Mountain. The mountain can only be reached once in a blue moon, and so one night a little girl (Joy) makes her way to the Blue Moon Mountain in search of the unicorn (which, by the way, when did a unicorn become a villain?). She meets all these creatures, tells them they are wonderful, and then goes home. That's pretty much it. I found it spotty and poorly written, with illustrations that never matched the animals mentioned on the pages. Sassafras found it rather boring, and so the book became a lesson at reading a book to the end, regardless of how lackluster it is.

Because we have TICKETS to earn, right?! ;)


The Trouble With Boys (Peg Tyre)

Do you have, know, or teach boys? Do they struggle in school?
If you are a teacher or involved with education in any capacity, who are the kids who end up being diagnosed with learning disabilities, sent to the office/disciplined for misbehavior, referred to the BBSST committee, referred to Exceptional Education programs, and end up on medication for attention disorders? Boys, that's who.

*"Between 2000 and 2005, the number of boys from birth to age 19 who were being prescribed ADHD medication grew 48%. That...suggests 2 things: Either we are witnessing the largest pandemic in our country since influenza struck the US in 1918, or school-age boys are being overidentified and overdiagnosed." pg. 111

Oh, this book has riled me up for sure.

The Trouble With Boys is not about what is wrong WITH boys. It's about what WE are doing wrong FOR boys. This author presents some very interesting research and case studies of boys and how they are affected by the structure of our education system. They fail, they disengage, and they drop out. School is not fun for them, nor is it interesting to many boys.

I see this regularly. In most schools, there is a 30 minute reading intervention program which involves sitting and reading. There is a 90 minute reading block which involves sitting and reading. There is time worked in for other subjects, which mostly involves sitting and reading or working abstract math algorithms. We tell them to hush in the classroom, hush in the hallway, hush in the lunchroom, and hush both before and after school during bus duty. We want them to fall in line and produce the work we either worked hours to plan for or were handed by state or local education officials as mandatory lesson plans/curriculum pacing guides.

When, in the midst of all that, when can boys be boys?  Peg Tyre points out in this book that we are simply failing our boys. Fewer boys finish high school, even fewer enter college, and fewer still actually graduate with a degree. The effects on that reach even to our nation's economy and the stability of families for future generations due to the fact that fewer men are becoming college educated and are maintaining well-paying jobs, fewer women want to marry them. Our failure to support the way boys learn best is quickly becoming a national epidemic.

One reason for the underachievement of boys is that there are fewer and fewer male teachers, especially in elementary school. The reasons for that boil down to simple economics and prejudice. Male teachers experience negative prejudice from parents and even other teachers who are female. They also cannot support a family on the measly $32,000 salary that most starting teachers make. What I found incredibly interesting about the male teacher demographic was that even though guys make up only 9% of elementary teachers and only 35% of secondary teachers, males account for 44% of elementary principals and a whopping 74% of secondary principals. Why? Because administrators make the most money in the education system. Pay teachers more, and there will be more dudes serving as positive male learning role models in the classroom. Even outside the school, most of the time it is Mom or Grandma who is making the grocery list, reading a novel just for fun, reading a magazine, writing in a journal, visiting the library. Dads tend not to do those things, communicating to their sons that reading is for girls.

One interesting solution to the gender issue here is that one principal began inviting in very masculine community members such as police officers to read to students. Having them come in once a week and show that reading is for rough-and-tough guys was a powerful motivating factor for the boys in that school. And one very easy solution for parents is for Dads to become intentional about modeling a habit of reading for their sons (and daughters, for that matter). And furthermore, we should be more open in the reading material our boys select. Boys are gross, and they like to read about gross things. They are never going to choose The Little House on the Prairie. Nope, they'd rather read The Adventures of Uncle Stinky or Rumble and Spew: Gross Body Systems. And you know what, parents and teachers and librarians? THAT IS OK. A child's interest in reading something is far more important than how well they can sound out a word. Boys and girls alike should connect with literature in a way that is appealing to them. They should develop an appreciation for how books can help them, both in providing them with information and entertaining them. Just let them read what they want to read, stop interfering with their book choices, and sit back and watch young boys fall in love with literature.

This brings us to the unfortunate see-saw effect between the focus of successful learning experiences between boys and girls. When the nation, states, and local districts get on board with something or issue a mandate, the pendulum swings from one side to the other. In Alabama we have the Alabama Reading Initiative. This means that a whole lot of time and research is spent on reading, talking about reading instruction, analyzing reading data, writing goals for reading instruction, etc. Our kids can read (they hate it, but they are capable-another blog post entirely), but their math skills are lacking. The same is true with gender emphasis. If we shift everything about the learning system to what best meets the needs of boys, then girls are once again at a distinct disadvantage educationally. Balance is key.

So what's the answer? There are a few that the author provides, although she causes the reader to ask more questions than are answered. For starters, boys require movement. Their brains are not hard-wired to sit and hush and write all day long. Let them move. Let them eat. Boys function best when they are full and active. Chunk up your lessons and let them snack, then write, then move around for some active learning. Let them build models instead of writing in a journal or creating a timeline. Acknowledge that not all boys and girls work and think and learn the same way. In the world of education right now one buzz word/term is "differentiated instruction," which basically means meeting the needs of all levels of learners...planning things for advanced learners and for those who struggle. Teachers should become aware of and know how to meet the specific needs of boys, and then they should actually do it. For some boys, an all-boy school may be the best answer to a family's struggle to meeting the needs of their sons. For others, it may be as simple as learning more about how boys think and helping teachers understand their sons (in a non-threatening and respectful way, of course). For all educators and parents, the key that Peg Tyre has successfully driven home with her book is advocacy. Parents should know their sons' needs and how to best advocate for their best interests in the educational setting. Teachers should do all they can to learn about the differences between boys and girls, and intentionally plan lessons to meet their varying needs. Teachers should also be paid much more, which would attract more guys to enter and remain in the classroom.

It broke my heart to read about one little boy who was struggling with school and whose parents were told over and over and over and over that something was wrong with him and that he should be medicated for attention deficit issues (Which, by the way, is completely unethical. No teacher can or should ever make such a recommendation, because we are not medical professionals. This does NOT occur at my school, nor any others that I know of.) But the real problem wasn't that there was anything wrong with the little boy, it was that there was a whole lot wrong with the school's expectations of him and provisions for his learning needs.

Absolutely wonderful book, and should be required reading for every active and pre-service educator. It should be handed to parents of boys when they register their sons for kindergarten. There should be community groups meeting and talking about this book and the issues within it. Our boys deserve it!