A Novel that Focuses on a Character with Disabilities

1. Bibliography

Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker. 2015. The War that Saved My Life. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers. ISBN 9780803740815

2. Plot Summary

Ada has a clubfoot. According to her mam, that makes Ada practically worthless. Mam won’t have Ada going outside, showing her “shame” to all of London, so even though Ada is a very bright ten-year-old, she isn’t allowed to leave her mother’s flat with her younger brother Jamie. Not ever. Not even to use the restroom. And if Mam is having a bad day, she’ll hit Ava. Sometimes, she’ll even lock Ada under the sink to spend the night surrounded by cockroaches.

When Ava learns that Jamie is being evacuated from London to the countryside along with many of London’s children, she decides to go too, even though Mam forbids it. Ava and Jamie end up in the city of Kent under the care of a woman, Susan Smith, who doesn’t want to take them. Slowly, Ava and Jamie crack Susan’s prickly exterior and they learn to trust her too. They also learn to read, to write, and—Ava’s favorite activity—to ride horses. But battle is brewing and it’s going to take everyone in England to help with the war effort—Ava included. Two questions remain on Ava’s mind: Will England survive World War II? And will Mam come to take her back?

3.  Critical Analysis

It’s normal to see a disabled character navigate life in a contemporary setting. Less commonly seen in disability literature is a character from the past, for example one who lived in England during World War II. Enter Ada, a girl with a clubfoot. Not only does placing a disabled child in history grant abled children the opportunity to see a disabled child in a new context, it tells disabled children today that they also have a place in history and an important story to share with the world.

However, Ada’s clubfoot does not define her story. As Ada learns to say, her “foot’s a long way from [her] brain.” Ada’s foot sure doesn’t prevent her from learning to read, write, make a friend, ride a horse, or spot a spy. And Ada never wallows in self-pity because of her disability or asks readers to feel bad for her because of it. Brubaker’s superb writing has made it easy for readers to see Ada not as a disabled character to be pitied but as a heroine to be admired for her determination and courage to stand up to an abusive mother and always protect her brother.

And in fact, Brubaker places Ada’s emotional challenges front and center, rather than her physical ones. The real war that Ada fights is an internal one, a battle against her own feelings of unworthiness and ineptitude because of the way Mam has treated her. Ada’s journey from a prickly pear who feels hatred and fear to a confident girl who learns to trust and feels joy is a convincing one, and one that doesn’t dissolve into an unbelievable happily ever after. When Ada has a panic attack after being placed in the Anderson shelter because it seems like the cabinet her mam shoved her in, readers can understand Ada’s terror. Ada’s Anderson-induced panic attacks never go away, a writing choice that I greatly admire. Brubaker does not gloss over or downplay the emotional damage that has been done to Ada and she certainly doesn’t imply that Ada is “fixed” of all the abuse she has experienced for the past ten years because she’s been placed in a better situation for a mere few months. This writing choice validates the experiences of so many people who may take many years to heal from emotional damage.

With exceptional character development, realistic depictions of emotional abuse and its consequences, and an original historical story about one endearing girl, this book is gold. It’s no wonder that this was a Newbery honor title. The War that Saved My Life is a story that belongs on every middle grade bookshelf.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Cybils Awards, 2015, Nominee, Middle Grade Fiction

Goodreads Choice Award, 2015, Nominee, Middle Grade

John Newbery Medal, 2016, Honor

Odyssey Award, 2016, Winner

Parents’ Choice Award, 2015, Gold, Fiction

Schneider Family Book Award, 2016, Winner

From Kirkus: “Ada’s voice is brisk and honest; her dawning realizations are made all the more poignant for their simplicity. With Susan’s help and the therapeutic freedom she feels on horseback, Ada begins to work through a minefield of memories but still harbors hope that Mam will accept her. . . Ignorance and abuse are brought to light, as are the healing powers of care, respect and love. Set against a backdrop of war and sacrifice, Ada’s personal fight for freedom and ultimate triumph are cause for celebration.”

From Booklist: “The home-front realities of WWII, as well as Ada s realistic anger and fear, come to life in Bradley s affecting and austerely told story, and readers will cheer for steadfast Ada as she triumphs over despair.” 

5. Connections

Include The War That Saved My Life in a display about World War II which may also include the following books:

  • Albus, Kate. A Place to Hang the Moon. ISBN 9780823447053
  • Takei, George. They Called Us Enemy. ISBN 9781603094504
  • Korman, Gordon. War Stories. ISBN 9781338290202
  • Bustard, Anne. Blue Skies. ISBN 9781534446069

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley has written many books and won many awards. Create a display of some of her books. The following are possible options:

  • Fighting Words. ISBN 9781662254185
  • Jefferson’s Sons. ISBN 9780803734999
  • The War I Finally Won. ISBN 9780698197138
  • Leap of Faith. ISBN 9780803731271
  • For Freedom. ISBN 978038572961

A Novel That Focuses on LGBTQ+ Characters

1. Bibliography

Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. 2012. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9781442408920

2. Plot Summary

Aristotle is “fifteen,” “bored,” and “miserable.” He’s also friendless. Although he can’t swim, Ari has the idea to spend his summer at the local pool, sitting around in the shallows. Luckily, Ari meets Dante, another fifteen-year-old, who offers to teach Ari how to swim. The two boys become fast friends and spend the rest of the summer connected at the hip, even though Dante is outgoing and connected to his feelings while Ari is closed off and confused about what he wants. As part of their summer escapades, the two friends see a dying bird in the road and decide to help. But when Ari sees that Dante’s bird-saving efforts have put him in the direct path of a speeding car, Ari makes a split-second decision, pushing Dante out of the way and putting himself in the car’s path instead. Ari spends the rest of the summer in the hospital, trying to heal, and hating Dante and the world for seeing him as a hero.

At the end of the summer, Dante and his parents move to Chicago, but Dante continues writing letters to Ari. Dante begins going to parties in Chicago, getting high and drunk, and kissing girls. Ari wonders what it would be like to kiss a girl and get drunk, and determines to kiss Ileana, a girl he’s interested in, and get drunk in the desert in his new truck. By the end of the school year, Dante writes Ari to tell him that Dante’s realized that when he’s kissing a girl, he’s actually pretending to kiss “a good-looking boy.” In the meantime, Ari has kissed Ileana and wants to continue their relationship, but she admits that she already has a boyfriend. Disillusioned, Ari promises himself that he’ll become “the world’s most casual kisser.”

Dante returns for a final summer and asks Ari if they can kiss, just for an experiment. Ari agrees reluctantly, but tells Dante that he feels nothing. Although disappointed, Dante continues to hang out with Ari and starts seeing another boy, Daniel. When Dante and Daniel are caught kissing in an alley at night, Daniel flees while Dante gets beat up and sent to the hospital. Ari, angry, finds one of the boys that hurt Dante and beats him up. Dante’s parents call a family meeting, informing Dante that his actions show that he loves Ari, and that he should stop running from his feelings. The end of the book finds Ari confessing to Dante and the both of them beginning a relationship together.

3.  Critical Analysis

It’s no wonder that fans were still clamoring to read Sáenz’s sequel, Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World a whole nine years after the first book was published. Sáenz wrote a queer story that sets itself apart from the rest. Why? First and foremost, it’s so introspective that most readers will find some way to relate to teenage Aristotle. Ari’s feelings of confusion, of loneliness, and of longing are universal. Readers may not have recurring nightmares like Ari or get hit by a car as they come of age, but they may well question their sexual identity, wonder about the meaning of a kiss, feel strange and different than “everybody else,” deem their parents unreachable and unapproachable, and hide their feelings inside. Sáenz doesn’t make his characters “exotic others” because of their sexual orientation. Instead, he makes them engaging, interesting characters that reflect teenage experiences everywhere.

Sáenz’s story is also commendable for the way it addresses sexuality and the varied experiences and difficulties that may come from being queer in America. When Dante realizes that he’s gay, he writes that “I hate that I’m going to disappoint [my parents], Ari. I know I’ve disappointed you too,” and that he’s terrified of telling his dad, imagining the conversation will go something like this: “Dad, I have something to say to you. I like boys. Don’t hate me. Please don’t hate me.” When Ari’s parents gently suggest that Ari’s gay, Ari initially says, “I’m so ashamed,” “it’s not the way things are supposed to be,” and “I hate myself.” Obviously, accepting one’s sexual identity and coming out is not an easy process, whether it’s due to fear of others’ responses (like Dante) or self-shaming (like Ari).

And fear of others’ responses is a legitimate concern: Ari’s mother explains that his aunt Ophelia was shamed and shunned by her family for the rest of her life after she came out. And when Dante is seen kissing Daniel, he gets jumped and ends up in the hospital. Yet, Sáenz also shows the compassion of many others: when the girl Dante’s been kissing realizes that he’s really only interested in guys, there’s no hard feelings and the two remain friends. Ari’s parents show profound love for him when they call a meeting to reassure him that there’s nothing wrong with being gay and that he is never alone. Dante’s parents are similarly kind and loving to Dante when they learn that he’s gay. Sàenz never shies away from the difficulties that queer people face, but he also remembers to imbue his story with compassion, reminding readers that they, too, are never alone.

There were a few plot points that seemed sloppy: Ari’s fling with Ileana suggests his bisexuality, a topic that is never breached, and her disappearance due to getting “knocked up” and married to an unkind boy in a gang is a tragic plot point that’s unfairly glossed over and blamed on her. The characters display a flippant attitude toward illegal drugs, which is distressing. Furthermore, Ari’s quick acceptance of his own sexuality after years of painful torment and denial felt somewhat unrealistic. Still, while it has its faults, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is an important and accessible book that treats its main characters with respect and empathy, extending its reach to readers too, both queer and heterosexual.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, 2013, Nominee

International Latino Book Award, 2013, Honorable Mention, Young Adult Fiction

Lambda Literary Award, 2013, Winner, LGBT Children’s/Young Adult

Michael L. Printz Award, 2013, Honor Book

Pura Belpré Award, 2013, Winner, Narrative

Stonewall Book Award, 2013, Winner, Young Adult

From Children’s Literature: “As much about family, friendship, and communication as it is about sexual identity, this is a truly powerful story.”

From CLW: “Ultimately, the story line that makes this novel an important addition to the existing coming-of-age body of work is the beautiful way that the story deals with homosexuality and bias, love and hate. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a novel for a young adult reading audience which handles the issue of sexual awakening and homosexuality respectfully.”

5. Connections

Ari writes down his thoughts in a journal. Give teens their own journals and spread crafts on tables, inviting teens to personalize their journals with stickers and pictures.

Dante likes poetry and art. Challenge teens to draw something with emotion like Dante or, if they don’t like drawing, invite them to write a piece of poetry with emotion. Have an artists’ showcase of finished drawings and poetry.

A Book About Someone with Middle-Eastern Heritage

  1. Bibliography

Budhos, Marina. 2006. Ask Me No Questions. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN 9781416903512

2. Plot Summary

Nadira, her sister Aisha, and her parents are illegal Bangladeshi aliens living in New York City. They’ve lived on expired visas for years, something that “everyone does.” “You buy a fake social security number for a few hundred dollars and then you can work,” Nadira knows. But everything changes after 9/11. The U.S. government begins investigating Muslim communities and cracking down on illegal immigrants. Muslim men from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are required to register with the government. Many are detained, abused, and deported.

Hoping to save himself and his family, Nadira’s father drives the family to Canada, where he hears they’re taking immigrants. Unfortunately, Canada has stopped taking Bangladeshis after the recent influx. Even worse, since his work visa is expired, Nadira’s father is detained at the U.S. border. While Nadira’s mother stays behind to await her husband’s deportation trial, Aisha and Nadira drive back to New York City to live with their an aunt and uncle and return to high school.

Aisha is the family’s golden child, the older daughter who’s at the top of her high school class, the one who knows exactly what she wants and works hard to achieve it. Aisha is “perfect.” Nadira describes herself as the “fat and dreamy second daughter,” “the one who always has to trail after Aisha,” and never does anything important. But after Aisha writes to Homeland Security, calls her father’s detention center, and works with a local Bangladeshi lawyer, all to no avail, she gives up—on her valedictorian nomination at school, on interviewing at Bernard, and on America. Nadira must hold her family together, coming to a new understanding of her value in the family, on her strength, and on the American dream.

  1. Critical Analysis

Ever since Nadira and her family arrived in America, they’ve lived by the motto, “Don’t let them see you.” To Americans, her family has become “invisible, the people who swam in between other people’s lives, bussing dishes, delivering groceries.” Illegal immigrants are “everywhere,” Nadira admits. “You just have to look.” And yet, Nadira and Aisha’s classmates and teachers don’t look. They don’t pick up the signals. They don’t ask the sisters questions. Thus, both illegal immigrants and the “Muslim problem” are faceless to Nadira and Aisha’s peers, teachers, friends, and the other American citizens the sisters interact with on a daily basis. Nadira’s honest and observant musings on her family’s invisibility in America provide valuable reflections on the distinct experiences that she and so many other illegal Muslim immigrants have shared.

Her honest musings slowly turn outward: It is when Nadira allows Americans to truly “see” her that she begins making a difference in her family’s life—showing the deportment judge that her father was saving money so that his daughters could go to college, urging Aisha to reveal her illegal status to her peers as part of her valedictorian speech, getting local media involved in her family’s appeal for residency. Ask Me No Questions is Nadira’s call to its American audience to “tell [us] who [she is]. What [she] really think[s].” Through Nadira’s character, author Marina Budhos allows readers (who, much like Nadira’s classmates, may not see or understand the plight of many of their classmates) to truly see illegal immigrants, specifically Muslims, in all their humanness. Her unforgettable story invites readers to reflect on current U.S. policies and beliefs, to analyze them, and, like Nadira, to take action.

Author Marina Budhos also uses Ask Me No Questions to point out the cultural nuances that Bangladeshis living in America must learn to navigate. Some, like Aisha, decide to assimilate to American culture, copying what the American kids do with phrases like “my mom” and “awesome” and giving up Bangladeshi fashion in order to fit in. Nadira’s parents try to find a balance between American and Bangladeshi culture, fasting for Ramadan and going to the mosque (Bangladeshi culture), but also encouraging their daughters to go to college and pursue careers (American culture). And a close family friend, “Ali-Uncle,” wears a long kurta, has a beard, and prays five times a day, just like he did in Bangladesh. Yet, despite the fact that Bangladeshis in America may express their culture in varying degrees, they all come from the same place “where there is no difference between land and sea.” Mariana Budhos offers no judgement at the way her Bangladeshi characters choose to express their Bangladeshi roots in America, offering that readers do the same.

Finally, Marina Budhos uses Ask Me No Questions to tell a coming-of-age story of one girl who begins her journey “nestled in the back, not seen,” mocked for her weight, and sure that she’s completely useless, to a girl who realizes that she’s been “the person guiding slowly from behind,” intelligent, important, and loved by her family. Nadira’s story shows readers the power of one determined girl who won’t give up, and who takes her future into her own hands, providing a framework for any teen who feels trapped by their circumstances. This little book packs a powerful emotional punch that readers won’t soon forget. Highly recommended for every teen library.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Booklist Editors’ Choice: Books for Youth List, 2006
Kirkus Best Children’s Books List, 2006
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults List, 2007, Fiction
From Bulletin: “Budhos has composed a compelling and thought-provoking contemporary examination of the human side of the law; further, in illustrating the secret burden that Nadira and Aisha carry with them to school each day as they pretend that nothing is the matter, she reminds readers to think differently about the people around them. Sure to elicit discussion, this novel would work very well for a teen book club selection.”
From Kirkus: “Illegal immigrant sisters learn a lot about themselves when their family faces deportation in this compelling contemporary drama. . . A perceptive peek into the lives of foreigners on the fringe.”

5. Connections

Marina Budhos has written several award-winning books. Set out a display of some of them, which may include the following:
• Eyes of the World. ISBN 9780805098358
• Watched. ISBN 9780553534184
• Tell Us We’re Home. ISBN 9781416903529
• Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers. ISBN 9780805051131

Create a display of Ask Me No Questions and other books about immigrants. This selection might include the following:
• Elhillo, Safia. Home Is Not a Country. ISBN 9780593177082
• Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out & Back Again. ISBN 9781476531229
• Nayeri, Daniel. Everything Sad Is Untrue: (A True Story). ISBN 9781432888725
• Umrigar, Thrity. Sugar in Milk. ISBN 9780762495191
• Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl. ISBN 9780062685100
• Van, Muon Thi. Wishes. ISBN 9781338305890