Monday, July 21, 2014

How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle

Everything about Tim Tingle’s How I Became a Ghost is lovely, startling, and original.  I have never read anything quite like it and, odds are, neither have you.  Tingle’s book, the first in a trilogy, was the 2014 American Indian Youth Literature Award Winner for the Middle Grade category. It tells the story of a 10 year old Choctaw boy named Isaac, who along with his family is driven by the US government off their land in Mississippi. Yes, this is a Trail of Tears story, but it’s not one you’ve ever heard in your textbooks before, because it is based on Tingle’s research and interviews with members of the Choctaw Nation and it uses the heart, humor, and beliefs of actual Choctaw people to describe not only the suffering of this historical event but their resilience and survival. There comes a point where Isaac confidently declares “We are Choctaws.  We are stronger than the soldiers.” This, more than suffering and woe, is the resonant theme of How I Became a Ghost.
Isaac opens the story with the unforgettable declaration: “Maybe you have never read a book by a ghost before.  I am a ghost.” From this very first line, Issac is a fully-realized character with a strong voice that readers will want to know more about.

There is so much in How I Became a Ghost to engage readers.  Isaac’s historical journey is enriched by the spiritual touches throughout the story such as the belief in ghosts and the way they interact with the daily lives of those still living and a character who has the ability to shapeshift to be a jaguar. There’s also a fast-paced escape plot lead by the young characters who strive to make their ancestors proud and do the right thing.  They are brave and clever and their plan keeps the pages turning. Middle grade readers love stories where the young characters take action for themselves and Tingle provides that in abundance in this plot.

Yes, How I Became a Ghost has some intense sadness and violence too - but Tingle knows better than to make it gratuitous. Instead, it is included in the narrative to actually challenge the reader about things they may have always accepted about American history.  More than that, it makes Isaac’s story compelling and interesting for even reluctant readers or readers who may not think they like historical fiction.

Tingle, a Choctaw storyteller, knows just how to pace the narrative - even when things are scary, bleak, and dark there is still love, determination, and even a little fun in Isaac’s life.  Isaac knows, from very early in the story, that he will die and end up as the ghost of the title.  But he also knows that, in the Choctaw belief system, this doesn’t mean he will be separated from them.  When How I Became a Ghost ends, Isaac story isn’t over (and not just because this is the first volume in a trilogy) and I am sure readers will want to read the next part of his story.  

This is a great book for use in classrooms to supplement history lessons and to engage students in discussions. I couldn’t stop reading it once I started and it circulates well at our library, due in no small part to a very cool cover and great title.  You can tell it was written by a gifted storyteller because the language is rich and repetitive in all the right ways. While it is written for middle grade readers, I think it has appeal up to high school because it’s a vivid story that also features teen characters. How I Became a Ghost is highly recommended as a first purchase for all public libraries and all school libraries serving grades 6-12. It will not only fill a gap in your collection - one for authentic Native voices telling their own stories - but has wide reader appeal; as it is a fast-paced, emotional, original hi-lo read under 200 pages. Once you meet him, you will never forget Isaac and How I Became a Ghost and I know you’ll want to share him with as many readers as possible.  Let’s get out there and start promoting this book!

1 comment :

Liviania said...

Great review - and I agree that it has major appeal as a hi-lo text.