November 15, 2012

Off to Class: Incredible and Unusual Schools Around the World

by Susan Hughes
Owlkids Books
978-1-926-8-18863
64 pp.
Ages 8-13
2011


I don't often review non-fiction.  It's not that I don't enjoy it but I find that it's very hard to find non-fiction that is fresh in its topic, presentation, organization and writing.  Sometimes I wonder if a publisher (none of the ones I list on this blog) just dashes something off on a topic they know is on the curriculum and could get a few school sales.  Having been on non-fiction selection committees in the past, I know the dearth of exceptional children's non-fiction that is published annually.  That said, several Canadian publishers, Owlkids, Kids Can Press and Annick most notably, have an extensive line of exemplary non-fiction for younger readers.  And one of the authors who is making a name for herself via her non-fiction is Susan Hughes

Two of her most highly lauded books are Case Closed? Nine Mysteries Unlocked By Modern Science (Kids Can Press, 2010) which won the 2011 Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's Non-fiction and No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure (Kids Can Press, 2008).  Currently nominated for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian Children's Non-Fiction, the Diamond Willow Award, the Red Cedar Information Book Award and the Hackmatack English Non-fiction Book Award, Off to Class: Incredible and Unusual Schools Around the World also seems destined to garner worthwhile attention and prizes.

The empowering message of Off to Class is that, though every child has a right to an education, not everyone has access or opportunity to go to school, and there are people working doggedly to ensure that all children, no matter their circumstances, are given that chance.  So, no matter how remote or harsh the environment, or how poor the family or how small the community, or what prejudices and circumstances exclude some from an education, there is someone willing to help provide a school.  It may not be a traditional North American school, but it is a place of learning and it works for these children.

Brimming with colourful photographs of children, classrooms, schools and the environs, Off to Class provides a comprehensive look at learning places in three chapters: Working with the Environment, No School? No Way! and One Size Doesn't Fit All.  Classrooms from Bangladesh, India, Cambodia and Nepal, to Brazil, Haiti, and Uganda, Burkina Faso and Kenya are featured, and those integral in making these schools come into being are featured.  For me, the most compelling of stories relate to schools that grew from only a vision and a lot of heart. By working with the communities and their needs and circumstances, rather than imposing their own attitudes and ideas, people have performed miracles, creating schools where only rubble or emptiness may have been.

Susan Hughes' writing is inviting and forthcoming, the information never lost in cumbersome text. With features of non-fiction text like indices, fact boxes (e.g., More than 20 million children worldwide have lost their parents to AIDS.  Almost a million of these kids live in Uganda. pg. 35), captioned photographs, bios and photos of key people, and a map with schools' locations, Off to Class is a fascinating look at the different configurations schools have taken, offering hope to children, communities and the environment that might never have been imagined.


I've posted a very sweet book trailer of Off to Class as told by young people on CanLit for LittleCanadians Book Trailers page here.

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