Unwind (Book 1 of the Unwind “Dystology”)

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This book could change your life.

Imagine a world in some not-so-distant future where parents can choose to end the lives of their inconvenient children—the troublemakers and underachievers—between the ages of 13 and 18. This is the world after the Heartland War, an American civil war fought over reproductive rights and resulting in a frightening truce. This is the world of Neal Shusterman’s Unwind.

The rejected children don’t technically die; they are “unwound”—that is, they are surgically taken apart, one piece at a time, while they’re still alive. The authorities argue that this is not murder because “unwinds” are kept alive “in a divided state” and their “parts” sold for medical and cosmetic transplants.

Unwind is the story of 3 runaway unwinds fighting for their lives in a world that only wants them in pieces. Connor is a troubled youth whose parents choose to unwind him because they’re tired of him getting into fights at school, even though the fights are usually for a good reason. Risa is an orphan, a ward of the state, being unwound because she wasn’t considered to be exceptional enough for the state to justify supporting her any longer. Lev is a tithe whose religious parents give away 10% of everything they have, including their 10th child.

Connor runs away from home after discovering his parents’ intent to unwind him, and Risa escapes her unwinding sentence when the bus transporting her to the harvest camp suddenly crashes. Lev, on the other hand, has known all his life that he is destined for unwinding, and he is at peace with this until he is roughly torn from his destiny by a kidnapper trying to save him. Our heroes inadvertently happen upon a sort of “underground railroad” intended to save unwinds from their fate, but they don’t know who is in charge, whom they can trust, where they’re going, or what will happen to them there.

Since this book is about 13- to 18-year olds, I suspect this is its target audience. Personally, I probably would not have appreciated it until I was about 16, when I attended a Catholic high school and began to realize that my own beliefs did not match those imposed on me at school. Like many teens, I was preoccupied with ethical questions and finding my place in the world.

No matter what side of the abortion debate you sit on, this book asks provoking questions about when life begins, what sorts of supports exist for kids once they are born, the nature of the human soul, who gets to make life and death decisions, whether anyone ought to profit from the death industry, and about the nature of death itself. I recognize that this sounds really heavy, but it’s often presented in a simultaneously humourous and honest way. Answers to these questions are still very raw and rough and unfinished for most teens; the book doesn’t seem to push a specific political agenda, but instead provides fuel for readers to sort out their own beliefs.

Unwind is an exciting tale of adventure, heroism, survival, protest, friends, family, life, death, and doing the right thing even when it’s most difficult. Fans of the Hunger Games or Divergent trilogies will love Unwind for its strong sense of social justice and youth fighting for their survival in an unjust world. Teens who enjoy this book might also enjoy The Knife of Never Letting Go (of the Chaos Walking trilogy) because it, too, is set in a dystopian future that is a bit like our own world but different in some very important ways; it is also a story about teens trying to escape a terrible fate only to find themselves facing it head-on.

While Unwind successfully stands alone as a complete work, it will leave you aching to find out what happens next. Luckily you can! Unwind is only the first book in a 4-part “dystology” that ends in some incredible, unpredictable, but nevertheless plausible ways. While I found books 2 and 3 to be a little slower-paced and less interesting, book 4 grabbed me by the eyes and did not let go until I’d finished it. Unwind has become one of my favourite books (I’ve read it at least 4 times in the last 2 years) and I would wholeheartedly rate it 5/5 flashlights.

5-flashlight-rating

Let’s celebrate Black History Month!

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February is Black History Month! This is a terrific opportunity to celebrate, through the lens of children’s literature, the contributions African-Americans and African-Canadians have made to the progress and betterment of North American society and to the wider world.

Children are not oblivious to their surroundings. If they are asking questions about Black Lives Matter or the shifting political culture in the context of a Trump presidency, it’s important that we educate ourselves so that we can pass along accurate information.

Paula Young Shelton’s Child of the Civil Rights Movement is an autobiographical work that tells an abbreviated rendition of the struggle for racial equality in the US, from the perspective of the author as the 4-year-old daughter of civil rights activists. This book was written with a 4- to 8-year-old audience in mind, but it can also be of educational and moral value to older children, who can glean information from the story as well as from the biographical details of key figures at the back of the book.

While I’m not entirely convinced that the book’s language and themes are accessible to 4-year-olds, there is certainly value in laying a contextual foundation for the questions and conversations to come. Unfamiliar words are also great for the development of literacy skills. For instance, the story includes words like “racists”, “civil rights”, “protest”, “struggle”, “booming”, “symphony”, and “nonviolence”. Unfamiliar words are opportunities for learning! The story also includes the names of several relevant cities and states (Selma, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia), references to Jim Crow as her 4-year-old mind understood him (“CAWWW, CAWWW, you can’t sit there!”), her Uncle Martin (Martin Luther King Jr.), and other notable activists. The author lists some examples of discrimination in terms that a 4-year-old can grasp, and other examples might register more effectively as they re-read it year after year.

Parents can help to further develop these themes of justice and compassion by asking their kids what sorts of things make them feel sad, or mad, or left out. A useful exercise to follow this is a brainstorm of what can be done to make sad people feel better. One way to do this is to consider what the opposite action would be (ex: being mean -> being nice), and how that might make them feel better. Even if they are not yet at an age where they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, you can still communicate the idea that something can be done to make bad situations better.

The primary take-away message I get from the book is that sometimes making things better can be hard, but positive change can happen when people work together. There are a lot of fun games kids can play that show the value of teamwork rather than going it alone!

A final idea to extend the message of this book is to explore biographies of specific individuals and their contributions to Black history. I found several early childhood education websites that recommend looking at snippets of MLK Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech with preschoolers, distinguishing between a “sleeping dream” and a “wishing dream”, and then asking them to draw pictures of what they want to be when they grow up. So many fun ways to make the book come to life!

I give this book 5/5 flashlights for its effort to translate a difficult and complicated subject into palatable and poetic nonfiction for kids, thus helping them to grow into caring, compassionate members of their communities.

5-flashlight-rating

Rock out with Music is…

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From music writer Brandon Stosuy and award-winning illustrator Amy Martin comes Music is…, a board book for children aged 0-3 years that pairs beautiful artwork with the building blocks of pre-literacy skills. And it’s a lot of fun to read!

This playful book has elements suitable for multiple developmental stages in early childhood. Your baby will love the bright colours and high contrast of most pages of this picture book, while the more muted tones of other pages appropriately reflect the mood and feeling described there. The hard board pages are built to withstand baby’s enthusiasm 😉

Activity and movement are highlighted throughout the book, creating a natural connection to interactive singing and dancing activities. It uses narrative rhythm and occasionally rhymes, and some playful onomatopoeia and repetition are sprinkled in, too, which the reader can embellish if desired. Children who have not yet grasped language skills will still love the pleasing sounds and rhythms.

The text is relatively simple, using descriptive and expressive language to present the concept of music alongside the concept of opposites, using both familiar terms (hard/soft, slow/fast) and more advanced ones. The images represent scenarios that might be familiar to the child (ex: banging on pots and pans) or brand new (ex: a rock band).

For children 18-24 months, the simple concept of opposites lays a foundation on which the more complex concept of music can later be learned. Complex ideas like the various moods and feelings of music are expressed in familiar terms like “happy” and “sad”, “quiet” and “loud”. Even kids older than 3 will want to read along, sparking fun conversations about what “low-fi” and “hi-fi” mean, or the difference between “a cappella” and “instrumental”.

Another wonderful element is the inclusion of multiple, diverse cultures and ethnicities. This is important because young people of colour can grow up seeing themselves and their families represented positively in the media around them, and young white kids can learn to accept and embrace difference from an early age.

I’d rate this book 5 flashlights for its beauty, playfulness, versatility, and inclusion!

5-flashlight-rating