Posts tagged ‘African American’

Counting By 7s

Counting by 7sTitle: Counting By 7s
Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan
Narrator: Robin Miles
ISBN: 978162406902 (audiobook)
Pages: 380 pages
Publisher/Date: Penguin Audio, c2013. (audiobook)
Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., c2013. (print book)

I’ve got some toddler memories, but my first sequence recall is kindergarten; no matter how hard I’ve tried to forget the experience. [...]
I can still hear Mrs. King, spin straight and shrill voice booming:
“How does this book make you feel?”
She then made a few exaggerated yawns.
I recall looking around at my fellow inmates, thinking: Would someone, anyone, just shout out the word tired? [...]
So when the teacher specifically said:
“Willow, how does this book make you feel?”
I had to tell the truth:
“It makes me feel really bad. The moon can’t hear someone say good night; it is two hundred thirty-five thousand miles away. And bunnies don’t life in houses. Also, I don’t think that the artwork is very interesting.” [...]
That afternoon, I learned the word weirdo because that’s what I was called by the other kids.
When my mom came to pick me up, she found me crying behind the Dumpster. (16-18)

Willow Chance, adopted into a loving family, has an obsession with the number seven, medical conditions (particularly skin disorders), and plants. She is analytic, reserved, and highly gifted and lacks social skills, which makes it difficult to make friends but easy to memorize complex languages and scientific concepts. She finds an ally in older student Mai, who visits with her brother Quang Ha the same slacker school counselor that Willow is forced to see after being falsely accused of cheating on a test. These three unlikely companions, along with Mai’s mother and brother, are thrust together upon the sudden death of Willow’s parents. Forming a bond from secrets, everyone’s lives begin to change as they struggle to help Willow. What will come of quiet girl who has now lost her family for a second time?

Full disclosure: I have not yet read Wonder R.J. Palacio, which everyone I’ve talked to keeps comparing this book too. I will soon, I promise. I found myself comparing it to Rules by Cynthia Lord or Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. In any case, Willow is an instantly intriguing character. Narrated by Robin Miles, Willow’s voice is given the subtle nuances that it deserves. She is self-assured when dealing with numbers, details and scientific facts, but quiet and reserved when faced with making decisions affecting her own life and social interactions. Miles distinguishes between the characters well, even realistically portraying the counselor Dell Duke’s stutter, but it’s Willow who readers are understandably drawn to, as she tries to make sense of things.

Mai’s brother Quang Ha is understandably upset by the new living situation, as the family has few resources to begin with and they are essentially taking care of a stranger. There’s little explanation behind Mai and her mother’s immediate acceptance of Willow’s circumstances and instant claim to her, and I find Dell Duke’s passiveness and eventual involvement in the lies hard to reconcile, but the whole situation changes everyone for the better. This is a story of a whole community coming together to aid in a girl’s recovery, and becoming a very nontraditional family in the process. I don’t think this would be the outcome in real life, but if readers are willing to suspend belief they will be richly rewarded with this engrossing tale.

Coretta Scott King Awards 2014

The American Library Association announced their Annual Youth Media Awards earlier this year, and I’ve been slowly but surely catching up on reading all the winners and honorees. The Coretta Scott King Awards are a set of three awards that honor African American authors, illustrators, and new talent of outstanding literature for children and young adults. I’ll be focusing on the Illustrator and New Talent Awards in this post, with the longer author winner and honorees in a separate post once I finish reading them. I have to say though, there were really no surprises in these categories, as the same people are continually recognized for their contributions.

For the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Book Award, the committee chose one winner and one honoree.
Nelson MandelaTitle: Nelson Mandela
Author/Illustrator: Kadir Nelson
ISBN: 978006178374
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2013.
Publication Date: January 2, 2013

The honor was given to Kadir Nelson, who authored and illustrated a picture book biography on Nelson Mandela, published at the very beginning of 2013. Nelson Mandela’s passing at the end of 2013 serves as an ironic footnote to the book’s publication and award recognition. Kadir Nelson’s name has cropped up a host of times, and his work has been recognized over an over again.
Won the 2012 Coretta Scott King Author Award Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
2012 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.
Caldecott Honor for Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine
Caldecott Honor for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, for which he also garnered a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and won an NAACP Image Award;
Won Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange
Won Coretta Scott King Author Award for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Are you sensing a theme here? Whenever he writes something, he gets recognized by someone! And most people will say rightfully so. In his newest book, readers see Kadir Nelson’s signature style of life-like renderings from the cover (which mimics the design of his biographies on Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr.) all the way to the end. Most striking I think is the first page, where we see a young Nelson playing with the village boys and the sun shines forth from behind the hill with such warmth your eye is immediately drawn to the contrasting shadowed silhouettes. The sparse, poetically formatted text supplements the pictures, that carry the light and dark themes throughout the book.

My one complaint about this and other picture book biographies is that very few specifics are included. Annual biography assignments for school children often have a checklist of facts that need to be contained in the books or require an inclusion of a time line. While this would be a great asset to children studying biographies, especially during February’s Black History Month, readers would be hard pressed to find specifics. Would it have been so hard to add a timeline in the back of the book along side the author’s note, or include specific dates in the text instead of “in early 1990″? Or am I the only person getting frustrated by this oversight?

Knock Knock My Dad's Dream for MeTitle: Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me
Author: Daniel Beaty
Illustrator: Bryan Collier
ISBN: 9780316209175
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. c2013.
Publication Date: December 17, 2013

More recently published Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me won the Illustrator award. Bryan Collier is another illustrator who has been recognized time and time again, with three Caldecott Honors and four Coretta Scott King Awards over the years. Collier’s collages and Beaty’s text follows a young boy as he experiences the loss of his father’s influence. The author doesn’t specify in the story that the father has been incarcerated until you read the end notes, which I appreciate because it lends versatility to the story and could be used for divorce situations in addition to incarceration. The illustrations follow the boy as he grows into an educated man and an involved father in his own right, but at the end you still see the influence his own father had on him, regardless of or maybe because of his absence.

The more symbolic structure of the illustrations lend the impression this is meant for older audiences, and I can see where this might be a recommendation for patrons specifically looking for material of this nature. Most poignant is the subtle nods to the father’s absence, such as the main character wearing his father’s tie as he peruses his dreams, and an elephant statue peeking out of his office background mimicking the child’s bedroom wallpaper. The ending picture seems slightly out of context with the rest of the story, but although overall I think the less abstract images make the most impact when reading, that last picture makes a memorable ending to a tale of perseverance.

When the Beat Was BornTitle: When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop
Author: Laban Carrick Hill
Illustrator: Theodore Taylor III
ISBN: 9781596435407
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2013.

According to the ALA website the John Steptoe New Talent Award was “established to affirm new talent and to offer visibility to excellence in writing and/or illustration which otherwise might be formally unacknowledged within a given year within the structure of the two awards given annually by the Coretta Scott King Task Force.” This award is often overlooked because it’s not awarded every year.

I can understand why this book was recognized by the committee, as it sheds light on the start of Hip Hop, something that most people have never considered. The story focuses on DJ Kool Herc rise from Jamican music lover peering over the fence at party set-ups to hooking up his father’s super-sized speakers to street lamps and christening the break dance style that evolved during his days of being a DJ. While Laban Carrick Hill includes a personalized author’s note and a partial time line of hip hop in the 1970s and 1980s, just like Kadir Nelson’s picture book biography he avoids specific dates and details.

The pictures by Theodore Taylor III are well drawn, with clean lines showing children what the different break dancing moves look like. His work showcases the old technology of speakers bigger than people, boomboxes bigger than babies, and turntables plugged into one another instead of through wireless connections. It’s almost a time capsule for readers, where parents can talk about the music they used to listen to, and I wish it had a compilation CD that featured some of the “Hip Hop” beats that are discussed in the book. I especially enjoyed the scene of community where Herc is playing street parties in the park and we see people of all ages, including one gray haired woman and a small child with a jump rope, listening to the music. As someone who grew up in the suburbs and didn’t have that type of environment, I’m surprised to find myself wanting to seek out that community network.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. Check out the blog for other reviews of nonfiction books.

Crow

CrowTitle: Crow
Author: Barbara Wright
Narrator: J. D. Jackson
ISBN: 9780804123952 (hardcover: 9780375969287)
Discs/CDs: 7 hours, 25 minutes, 6 CDs
Pages: 297 pages
Publisher/Date: Random House, c2012. (audio: Listening Library, an imprint of Random House Audio Publishing Group, c2013.)

I crept along the stone wall and slipped down into one of the basement window wells. From there, no one could see me, but I had a clear view of the man standing at the top of the steps between two massive columns. He was thin and had shaggy eyebrows and a full silver beard that glinted in the sun. I recognized him but couldn’t remember his name. [...] Today he wore a suit and tie and looked like a refined gentleman, but when he spoke, he looked crazier than Crazy Drake. Spit spewed from his mouth and his face turned red as he shouted, “You are Anglo-Saxons! You are armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. Be ready at a moment’s notice. If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win this election, even if we have to do it with guns.” (183-184)

It’s 1898 and has been years since the slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Moses’s father is a respected alderman and reporter in their Wilmington, North Carolina community, and after saving for a year they were able to buy Moses’s mother an organ. But grandmother Boo Nanny is fearful of the changes in the air and the crows circling house, sure that it’s a sign of bad times to come. White folks in the neighboring towns are getting restless and resentful of African Americans succeeding. Red Shirts can be seen throughout the neighborhoods, claiming to be protecting and policing but really working towards taking over the government and intimidating others. Moses’s father won’t tolerate such abuses, but will Moses and his family end up paying for his father’s beliefs? What will happen in a town where simply standing up for what is right is seen as wrong?

The book was a slow start, and J.D. Jackson’s slow drawl, while possibly accurate to the setting and time period, did not improve upon the pace of the book. Short vignettes made up the first part, and you didn’t have anything to pull you along except the superstitions of Boo Nanny until almost half way through the book. Then conflict erupts in a big way, and Moses’s city changes drastically. It’s almost unbelievable the speed of which events and emotions escalate, and maybe that’s intentional as a sleepy story becomes a pressure cooker of confrontations and readers are faced with the improbability of events that are based on actual history. As Barbara Wright reveals in her historical note, “In the twentieth century, the story of what happened in 1898 was largely forgotten by the white community and barely mentioned in history books. That changed when the North Carolina General Assembly created the Wilmington Race Riot Commission to look into the incident. The commission’s 2006 report, which includes photographs, maps, and charts, can be found at http://www.history.ncdcr.gov/1898-wrrc.”; (296) This presentation gives a whole new perspective of racial tensions, and it reminded me of my reaction to the American Girl series featuring Marie-Grace and Cecile, when I learned of pre-Civil War affluent African Americans.

While it probably deserves a place in African American and Black History Month bibliographies, I keep coming back to the almost laborious pacing. Give this book to patient readers, and reassure them that action happens if only they stick with it.

We’ve Got a Job

We've Got a JobTitle: We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March
Author: Cynthia Levinson
ISBN: 9781561456277
Pages: 176 pages
Publisher/Date: Peachtree Publishers, c2012
Awards: Finalist for The YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction (2013)

Though nonviolent, all of these confrontations were illegal. King reasoned that if enough protesters were arrested, they would fill the jails and overwhelm Connor’s ability to enforce segregation laws. […] Only a few hundred adults heard Bevel’s frenzied sermon that night, and just seventeen volunteered to go to jail. But kids got the message, especially when the preacher who followed Bevel proclaimed, “Some of these students say they have got to go to school, but they will get more education in five days in the City Jail than they will get in five months in a segregated school.” (48, 59)

Segregation in the 1960s was a violent time of upheaval. Most of us have heard the most familiar stories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. But very few people may realize the effect that children and teens had in moving segregation efforts forward. During the entire month of April, 1963, the first in an effort to fill the jails and bring attention to the cause, only 123 people were arrested. But then a rallying cry and concentrated effort was made to enlist teenagers to a cause that would directly affect them. “Between Thursday, May 2, and Monday, May 6, almost 2,500 young people had been arrested.” (114) The treatment of these individuals, some as young as nine-years old, who flooded the streets brought national attention to events in the south. Ultimately, four children died in a church bombing that was the culmination of tensions between the black and white populations.

Cynthia Levinson spent four years tracking down and interviewing these participants and researching how history played out almost 50 years ago. Including a map, a timeline, an index, pictures of those interviewed and an assortment of notes, this book is an amazing glimpse into a time that changed America. Levinson does a thorough job of bringing to life the actions of the teenagers but also those of the adults involved. Readers finish the book with a solid understanding of how divided not only the community was on the issue of segregation, but also how disorganized the leadership was in achieving their goals. The government endorsed and encouraged the police’s prejudices against these protesters and it is hard to come to terms with their behavior based on today’s laws prohibiting such actions. At one point, government officials notified the Ku Klux Klan that they would be given 15 minutes to confront Freedom Riders, and the perpetrators who were caught after those violent fifteen minutes were given a minimal sentence.

Pair this book with The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine, which is set a few years earlier or The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon and One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, which are both set a few years later. Especially in this unsteady time when unrest is reigning and emotions are high with so many political issues, including gay rights, immigration, and gun control, teens might take notes about nonviolent actions that they can use to affect change in today’s society.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. For the entire round-up of all the bloggers who participated, check out Anastasia Suen’s blog.

This book in particular was read as I participate in YALSA’s 2013 Hub Reading Challenge which challenges readers to finish 25 books by June 22nd from a list of 83 titles that were recognized and published over the last year.

Me and Momma and Big John

Me and Momma and Big JohnTitle: Me and Momma and Big John
Author: Mara Rockliff
Illustrator: William Low
ISBN: 9780763643591
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2012.

This slight story features a mother and her three children. Told from the perspective of her oldest son named John, the book makes readers aware of his mother’s job carving stones for the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Also called “Big John” and “Saint John the Unfinished”, a afterward more detailed than the actual story talks about how the building of this cathedral has taken over a century and still isn’t completed. Construction was halted for both World Wars and didn’t begin again until forty years later. After resuming construction in 1982 with a program to teach skills to the unemployed which lasted twenty-five years, construction today is again halted due to lack of funds. Even under a temporary roof that probably feels more permanent to the community that utilizes the unfinished structure, people still gather for services and shelter. The illustrations by William Low are appropriately grand in scale, showcasing the size through the use of aerial shots and sweeping landscapes, but I half-expected something more detailed, like David Macaulay’s work. The jacket cover description also makes mention of being “inspired by one of the first women in the United States to learn the traditional craft of stonecutting,” which is not even mentioned much less detailed within the pages. In fact, there are few details about the trade, the history of the building, or information about the family contained in the actual tale.

Overall, I wanted more.

The Lions of Little Rock

Lions of Little RockTitle: The Lions of Little Rock
Author: Kristin Levine
Narrator: Julia Whelan
ISBN: 9780399256448 (hardcover), 9780307968807 (audiobook)
Pages: 298 pages
Discs/CDs: 7 CDs, 8 hours and 23 minutes
Publisher/Date: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., c2012. (audiobook by Listening Library, an imprint of Random House Audio Publishing Group)
Publication Date: January 5, 2012

“So what did Miss Taylor say to you?” JT asked.
I shook my head.
“She said Liz isn’t coming back to West Side,” reported Nora, peering over the top of her glasses. “I was standing by the door and heard her. She said Liz is real sick. But I don’t think that’s true, because Liz was in school last Friday and she was fine.”
JT thought for a moment. “My cousin got the stomach flu last week. That can come on real sudden.”
“Yes, but that only lasts a few days,” said Nora.
“Liz isn’t coming back because she’s a Negro,” said Sally.
We all turned to look at her. (62)

Before meeting Liz, twelve-year-old Marlee didn’t have a lot of friends because she didn’t talk to anyone except for her family or her old friend Sally. But her family starts talking less and less as tensions are running high in Marlee’s household, with her parents on different sides of the debate regarding integrating the Little Rock schools. Liz reminded her so much of her older sister that she just felt comfortable talking to her, and Liz started encouraging her to speak up more at school. Then Liz vanishes from school, and the rumor mill is swirling that Liz was actually a light-skinned African-American, sneaking into school and passing for a white girl in order to get a better education. With tempers flaring in this city and acts of violence threatening, Marlee realizes she must pick a side and speak up if she’s going to prevent disaster from striking her or Liz.

This book reads like a younger version of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. It brings the issue of integration and segregation to a level that kids understand, and sheds light on a period of time that even Levine recognizes in her author’s note is not talked about. “When I was in elementary school, my own education about the civil rights era was sketchy at best, but even I learned about the Little Rock Nine. [...] On the other hand, I had never heard of schools being closed to prevent integration, even though I later learned it had happened in my very own state of Virginia as well.” (292-293) I’ve mentioned several times that I enjoy “based-on-a-true story” type books, which I think is why I enjoy historical fiction so much when it’s set around little known events. It’s a fun way for me to learn about history and serves as a launching point to discover more, and I think other readers would agree.

Lions of Little Rock paperbackLevine stays true to the era with language, which I appreciate when an author doesn’t cheapen the story by not using culturally significant words, like “Negro” and the not so nice term for African-Americans. I realize my not using it might look contradictory to some readers, but I don’t need to use the word to lend historical accuracy to a story, which is how Levine uses it. I absolutely love the front of the hardcover, featuring the black and white birds, both of which play a role in the story. While I know there’s lots of talk out there about white-washing covers and not portraying actual photographs of minorities on covers, I think the cover implies the tone of the story that can be found on its pages. The paperback version does have a photograph looking cover (I haven’t seen it in person, and it’s hard to tell by this graphic), but I think it makes the book look intended for younger audiences, which I don’t think would be right. Marlee is a seventh grader in the story, and things do get somewhat violent towards the end, so I would whole heartedly recommend it for middle schoolers but would probably hesitate to go younger. However, I do know some people who would argue that there was no audience filter on the events as they were happening, so why should we filter what they read since they would have experienced it first hand if they had been there. Obviously it’s your call as to who you recommend this book.

All the characters in the book are multi-faceted and very accurately portrayed. The time they are growing up in and the issues they are facing are not simple, and it’s refreshing to see so many characters realistically grappling with their lives. Marlee’s evolution is slow but steady, and we see enough glimpses of her during the school year to witness her thought-process and how major events influence her decision-making. Liz is bold and intelligent, and it’s no wonder that Marlee is pulled towards this new girl packing so much personality and self-assurance. Although told time and again that it would be dangerous to remain friends, just like typical teens they don’t recognize that danger and refuse to heed warnings until it’s almost too late. I want to also recognize the parents of both girls in this novel who work jobs and are out of the house but are far from absent or removed from the situation. Their thoughts and feelings grow, evolve, and change as the situation changes and the school closings continue to stretch on indefinitely with no answer in sight. They discipline their daughters but also support them, worry over their safety, and try their best to be involved and encourage what’s best in their children’s lives.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Julie Whelan’s narration, which is spot-on. It probably helps that the book is told from Marlee’s perspective, which limits the rare male voices to a meager half-dozen at most. Readers get swept away by the story and don’t notice the time passing until you have to change discs. I waited a long time to read this, but you shouldn’t. Put this on every recommended book list you can, whether it is a list of historical fiction, African-American fiction, amazing audiobooks or simply friendship or school stories. It’s a heartfelt, memorable, and eye-opening account of friendship in tough circumstances during a period of time that strongly affected the people who lived through it. The story will stay with you for some time after you’re done reading it, making it a strong contender for reading group discussion.

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

Title: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship
Author: Russell Freedman
ISBN: 9780547385624
Pages: 119 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2012.

Douglass and Lincoln had never met, but they had some things in common. They had both risen from poverty and obscurity to international prominence. Both were self-educated. Lincoln, born dirt poor, had less than a year of formal schooling. Douglass, born a slave, wasn’t permitted to go to school. He taught himself to read and write in secret, hiding the few books he was able to get his hands on. And in fact, the two men had read and studied some of the same books.
Even so, in the year 1863 it required plenty of ‘nerve,’ as Douglass put it, for a black man to walk unannounced into the White House and request an audience with the president. [...]
He was determined to wait. (3)

Describing the relationship that Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass had as a friendship might be hard for us to believe, considering they only met each other three times. But since some friendships these days are formed solely through digital communication means like the phone and the Internet, it might not be so hard for people to accept this description as I might think. In this book, Russell Freedman returns to his roots. Having already written a Newbery Medal winning photobiography about Lincoln, I can only imagine the resources he has at his disposal to investigate the relationship between Lincoln and Douglass.

But really the book isn’t just about those three meetings. It covers Lincoln’s and Douglass’s lives before they met up to Lincoln’s assassination. The unique part about this book is it discusses the evolution of Lincoln’s thoughts about slavery. Most students only learn about the Emancipation Proclamation and that Lincoln was against slavery. Freedman’s book shows that Lincoln’s actions and beliefs were never that black and white (pardon the pun). Lincoln maintained during the early part of the war that his only goal was to restore the Union, and didn’t end up issuing the Emancipation Proclamation until over a year into the war. He appears to be a political strategist from the beginning, and he always hesitated before slowly enstating further liberties for African-Americans because of his fear of the public’s response. Douglass had so such fears, and actually fled the country twice to avoid the public backlash against him and his beliefs.

While I can see it being added to numerous African-American History Month reading lists, students will probably have to consult other sources in order to get a complete view of these two influential men and the circumstances that brought them together.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. For the entire round-up of all the bloggers who participated, check out Jennifer Wharton over at Jean Little Library.

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