Posts tagged ‘Social Issues’

Bluffton

Will Eisner Week 2014Did you know it’s Will Eisner Week this week, from March 1st through March 7th? Neither did I until I stumbled upon the announcement of the celebration in January. Will Eisner Week “is an annual celebration honoring the legacy of Will Eisner and promoting sequential art, graphic novel literacy, and free speech.” Looking for more information? Visit the website. In honor of Will Eisner Week, I’m going to take this opportunity to review graphic novels, which I’ll readily admit I don’t read enough of. My first featured book will be last year’s Bluffton, by Eisner Award nominee Matt Phelan.

Bluffton








Title: Bluffton
Author/Illustrator: Matt Phelan
ISBN: 9780763650797
Pages: 223 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2013.
Publication Date: July 23, 2013

Henry Harrison realizes that the summer of 1908 is going to be different from every past summer when he sees an elephant stepping off train in his small Michigan town. That was the first summer the traveling vaudeville performers pay a visit and stay for their summer long vacation. Henry quickly meets Buster Keaton, a young slapstick comedian who travels and acts with his family. In other ways though, Buster is just like Henry who enjoys baseball, swimming, fishing, and playing elaborate practical jokes on people. Henry doesn’t know how he is going to survive the rest of the year while he waits for their return, which seems dull in comparison after their numerous adventures together.

I think “subtle” is the best way to describe this graphic novel. The mood of Matt Phelan’s story is portrayed primarily in the watercolor illustrations. Summer skies are bright blue over green grass and it feels like the sunshine can pop from the page and warm you if you sat there long enough with the book open on your lap. In contrast, the shorter winter sequences are painted with less color, and primarily blues and grays, with Henry’s shocking orange hair turning a muted mustard yellow in one school room scene.

Dialogue drives the action and provides conflicting views of the vaudeville lifestyle. Henry of course is jealous of Buster, who can do flips, is nationally admired, can travel the world, and doesn’t have to go to school. But readers also witness the flip side of a coin, as Phelan includes controversies about Buster’s age and accusations of child abuse, with hints of possible alcoholism. Buster was essentially forced into the family business, whereas Henry’s father, who owns a hardware store, alleviates his son’s fears of that same fate. “I never expected you to take over the store, Henry. Unless that’s what you wanted. [...] You’ll have lots of choices to make, Henry. Don’t worry so much about what you are going to do, Henry. Concentrate on who you are going to be.” (191-194)

Following that exchange is a poignant scene where Henry simply leans against his father in silence, soaking in the support. You have to wonder if Buster gets the same kind of support from his father. In an earlier spread, you do get the sense that Buster enjoys his life, taking opportunities away from his father to engage in his signature style of comedy. But long looks towards more traditional families lead readers to think more deeply about his desires. A quiet book that packs a punch with the range of subjects covered, it gives a glimpse of a time long past.

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.

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & ParkTitle: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Narrators: Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra
ISBN: 9780385368261 (book on cd), 9781250012579 (hardcover)
Pages: 328 pages
Discs/CDs: 9 hours, 7 CDs
Publisher/Date: St. Martin’s Griffin, c2013. (audio from Listening Library)

“You can’t sit there. That’s Mikayla’s seat.” [...]
“I have to sit somewhere,” The girl said to Tina in a firm, calm voice.
“Not my problem,” Tina snapped. The bus lurched, and the girl rocked back to keep from falling. Park tried to turn the volume up on his Walkman, but it was already all the way up. He looked back at the girl; it looked like she was starting to cry.
Before he’d even decided to do it, Park scooted toward the window.
“Sit down,” he said. It cam out angrily. The girl turned to him, like she couldn’t tell whether he was another jerk or what. “Jesus-fuck,” Park said softly, nodding to the space next to him, “just sit down.”
The girl sat down. She didn’t say anything–thank God, she didn’t thank him–and she left six inches of space on the seat between them.
Park turned toward the Plexiglas window and waited for a world of suck to hit the fan. (8-9)

This is how Eleanor and Park meet. Eleanor, described by Park as “big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like. . . like she wanted people to look at her.” (8) Eleanor, when comparing Park to the other, meaner classmates on the bus, “couldn’t tell if the Asian kid who finally let her sit down was one of them, or whether he was just really stupid. (But not stupid-stupid- he was in two of Eleanor’s honors classes.)” (11) But then Park notices Eleanor is reading his comics over his shoulder, so he lends her some more. And he realizes that they like some of the same bands and music, so he lends her some cassette tapes. And then batteries. It’s when Park invites Eleanor home with him that they both realize two things: they are becoming more than just two teens who share the same bus seat, and their lives couldn’t be more different. It is those differences that ultimately put their relationship to the test, and Eleanor asks Park to give her something he truly doesn’t want to give up on.

What is it about books lately that are making me see the world so differently? Obviously books are supposed to make you view the world through a window or a light that isn’t your own. But I have never heard Eleanor’s analysis of Romeo and Juliet before, and I loved how contrary she was to the teacher. It’s also a little eye-opening and a little unnerving to have a historical fiction title that takes place during a time (1986) I was alive! Finally, after reading about the censorship scandal last September, I guess I should give fair warning that there are a multitude of swear words and some sexual content, although they don’t make it to home plate.

The relationship between Park and Eleanor I initially thought of as cliché, with two people who originally hate each other slowly falling in love. Really though, they didn’t hate each other in the beginning, they just had to get to know each other better and overcome this huge space between them. The bus seat and their body language while riding to and from school becomes symbolic of their feelings, as they start out avoiding each other, but then slowly migrate closer and closer, first ducking down so no one can see and then not caring what anyone on the bus thinks of them. Park starts off being this stereotypical Asian boy, smart, small, and silent, but then there’s that scene between him and Steve (if you have read the book, you KNOW which one I’m talking about), and it just smashes your entire opinion of Park. It also smashes your entire impression of Eleanor, as her response is just… wow.
Eleanor is getting teased by the kids on the bus. Park gets upset, and Eleanor tells him:

“It’s not worth it.”
“You are,” he said fiercely, looking at her. “You’re worth it.”
“This isn’t for me,” she said. She wanted to pull at him, but she didn’t feel like he was hers to hold back. “I don’t want this.”
“I’m tired of them embarrassing you.” [...]
“Embarrassing me?” she said. “Or embarrassing you?” (130)

You realize how mature she is and it’s sad that her abusive home life is what caused that maturity. Your heart hurts for Park that he gives so much and asks so little, but Eleanor isn’t really in a position to offer any more than she does, and she is forced to keep her guard up around everyone.

Speaking of families, Park’s is the polar opposite of Eleanor’s family. While yes we have the stereotypical absent and/or abusive parents in Eleanor’s case, we also have Park’s involved, loving, and caring parents. Park’s parents can empathize with the spot he finds himself, and while they are not perfect, they play off each other beautifully. They are willing to change when circumstances change, and they are overall some cool parents to have who support and mentor Park with his tough decisions.

Another opinion altering moment comes at the end. That is NOT how I expected this book to end. Not in a million years. But it works, and it makes sense. The book’s ending is so gut-wrenching yet hopeful, all at once, that you may just find yourself smiling even as a tear or two runs down your cheek. Whether you listen to the excellent audio or curl up next to the fire for a cover-to-cover binge reading, be prepared to have your heart stretched.

Two Boys Kissing

Two Boys KissingTitle: Two Boys Kissing
Author: David Levithan
ISBN: 978030793190
Pages: 200 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, c2013.
Publication Date: August 27, 2013

A lot of thought has gone into the location of Craig and Harry’s kiss.
If convenience had been the deciding factor, the obvious choice would have been to do it in Harry’s house, or in his backyard. The Ramirezes would have been more okay with this, and would have made all the arrangements that needed to be made. But Craig and Harry didn’t want to hide it away. The meaning of this kiss would come from sharing it with other people. [...]
Once they start kissing, they will have to keep kissing for at least thirty-two hours, twelve minutes, and ten seconds. That is one second longer than the current world record for the longest-recorded kiss.
The reason they are all here is to break that record.
And the reason they want to break that record started with something that happened to Tariq. (31, 33)

Avery and Ryan are just starting their relationship, after having met at a gay prom. Peter and Neil have been a couple for a year now, and are still trying to navigate their lives together. Harry and Craig used to date and have since broken up. That’s not stopping their public attempt at breaking the world record for longest kiss. They were inspired by Tariq, who suffered a painful event due to his sexuality. Tariq isn’t the only one suffering though, as Connor flees his home out of fear of his family and questions who he can turn to in his time of need. All six of these young men and their stories reflect what a slice of life is like, and the struggles they face. Who will triumph, who will need to reach out for support, and who will be pushed to their limit?

I was struck by the presentation of this book. The stories are tied together not by overlapping characters or plots (although some of them do at the end) but by the observations of what could be called the ghosts of gays gone-by. It’s a unique technique, and their narration provides prospective. I was a little thrown by it at first, but then it started to grow on me. This reflective tone made me stop and think, and I found myself marking passages and pages, which I don’t normally do when reading fiction. So, please forgive my extensive quoting, but these are just three of the passages that made me stop and reflect, and I hope the readers of my blog can do the same.

Avery wonders why Ryan is looking at him out of the corner of his eye, why Ryan would rather watch him than watch the road. Even when friends look at Avery, a small part of him still worries they are looking for flaws, irregularities. In this Avery isn’t all that different from anyone else. We all worry that looking at is really looking for.
Finally, Avery can’t stand it. The look. Then a knowing smile. Then another look.
“What?” he asks.
This only makes Ryan smile more. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t usually like people. So when I do, part of me is really amused and the other part refuses to believe it’s happening.” (150)

It’s one of the secrets of strength: We’re so much more likely to find it in the service of others than we are to find it in service to ourselves. We have no idea why this is. It’s not just the mother who lifts the car to free her child, or the guy who shields his girlfriend when the gunman starts to fire. Those are extremes, brave extremes, which life rarely calls on us to offer. No, it is the less extreme strength-a strength that is not so much situational as it is constitutional-that we will find in order to give. [...] Some supposedly strong people in our lives showed that their strength was actually made of straw. But so many held us up in ways they would not have held themselves. They saw us through, even as their worlds crumbled through their fingers. They kept fighting, even after we were gone. Or especially because we were gone. They kept fighting for us. (153)

For the past year, Neil has assumed that love was like a liquid pouring into a vessel, and that the longer you loved, the more full the vessel became, until it was entirely full. The truth is that over time, the vessel expands as well. You grow. Your life widens. And you can’t expect your partner’s love alone to fill you. There will always be space for other things. And that space isn’t empty as much as it’s filled by another element. Even though the liquid is easier to see, you have to learn to appreciate the air. (181)

Another scene that really made me stop and examine how I viewed the world was when one of the characters was confronting his family about his sexuality. His mother said “I don’t have to tell you that you have black hair, do I? I don’t have to tell you that you’re a boy. Why should I have to tell you this? We know, [name removed]. Is that what you want to hear? We know.” (134) I’ll be honest, I’ve always felt the same way as that mother. What does it matter if someone is gay or straight or bi or asexual, and why is it so important to acknowledge it publicly? I don’t go around announcing to the world my sexuality, so why do you need to?

Regardless of what the author’s intentions were, I’ve come to the conclusion that some people might still be struggling with accepting themselves and are looking for that confirmation and validation that being who they know they are is okay. I found myself expanding on that hair color reference. There is no right or wrong with hair color, and there shouldn’t be a right or wrong sexuality either. Some people still tell blonde jokes and the Nazis still preferred the blonde-haired blue-eyed Aryans over other races. But for the majority of the population, it doesn’t matter if you are brunette, red, blonde, or black, because they know that you have no control over what your natural hair color is. But sexuality is not seen as “natural” but rather a choice by a vocal group of people, and so I think that lends people to assert their sexuality with more vigor and volume, in order to ensure they are recognized as “natural”. Right now, some people see sexual orientations outside of heterosexual as other, similar to a bright pink or neon green hair dye. This character saw his mom reluctance to say his orientation aloud as proof that she didn’t accept him, and the author portrayed it in that manner, with the character responding to her question with “But you don’t mind about the other things–that I have dark hair, that I’m a boy. You mind that I’m gay. Which is why I need you to say it.” (134) I also saw it as confusion that her words could have such an impact on his opinion of his situation. Even though she didn’t say it aloud, I could almost hear her thinking “You don’t need me to tell you that you have black hair, or this color eyes, or that you’re so many feet tall, because you know it just as strongly as you know you are gay. I don’t understand why you think this is any different.” Just because we don’t acknowledge how we are different doesn’t mean we mind it.

It’s because this character needed confirmation that his family saw it that same way. This character thinks people mind, and I think that might be why so many gay pride parades and speeches happen. Until they know that sexual orientation becomes another common place descriptor such as eye color, that doesn’t mean anything, then they have to keep confirming that their sexuality won’t make a difference in how people view them. They feel like they are hiding it, when really, I think a good half of the population just get tired of hearing about it.

It’s these and other thought-provoking passages that really drew me into the story and I realize I’ve barely touched upon the other parts of the book while I mulled introspectively over select scenes. I loved the different characters and the different types of relationships that we witness, many of whom were inspired by true events. An author’s note reveals he talked to one of the participants of the longest continuous kiss, which was gay couple back in 2010, and we get those details that everyone would probably be asking themselves if they thought about it, like musical motivation, exhaustion, dehydration, and bodily functions (I’d be afraid to sneeze!). The observers from generations past take some getting used to, but they provide great perspective to the multitude of emotions that are portrayed with each person. Levithan made a smart choice in presenting the stories over the course of a single weekend, because it kept the pacing and suspense tightly wound and contained. We can cheer on all the characters and hope for happy endings, but even with possibilities in tact, the book came to a satisfying conclusion. With one final quote, I’ll end this post the same way Levithan ended the book.

There is the sudden. There is the eventual.
And in between, there is the living.
We do not start as dust. We do not end as dust. We make more than dust.
That’s all we ask of you. Make more than dust. (196)

The Last Dragonslayer

I waited so long to post this review because I was on the Cybils committee the year this was a finalist, and I didn’t want to post it immediately after the results were announced.

Last DragonslayerTitle: The Last Dragonslayer
Author: Jasper Fforde
ISBN: 9780547738475
Pages: 287 pages
Publisher/Date: Harcourt an imprint of Houghton Mifflin, c2012.
Cybils Finalist for Middle Grade Fantasy

Once, I was famous. My face was seen on T-shirts, badges, commemorative mugs, and posters. I made front-page news, appeared on TV, and was even a special guest on The Yogi Baird Daytime TV Show. The Daily Clam called me “the year’s most influential teenager,” and I was the Mollusc on Sunday’s Woman of the Year. Two people tried to kill me, I was threatened with jail, had fifty-eight offers of marriage, and was outlawed by King Snodd IV. All that and more besides, and in less than a week. (intro)

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange is the manager, receptionist, booking clerk, and taxi service for Kazam Mystical Arts Management, an employment agency for magicians, soothsayers, shifters and other “mystical artisans.” Originally slated to serve as an apprentice but taking over after the owner mysteriously disappeared, she has little authority with her employees. Business is literally dying as magic is drying up. Most suspect magic is tied in some way to the dragons that have been held in reserves meant to keep the peace between humans and dragons. Rumor and premonitions predict the immanent death of the last surviving creature, and possibly the death of magic as well. Jennifer sets out to save the company and her position, the only things she values, before Big Magic brings unwanted changes and possible war.

This was a book that I enjoyed more with a second reading than I did after the first. It’s not something I would give rave reviews for, but still something I would recommend. Readers are thrust into the story with little introduction, and the fast pacing and detailed descriptions make it difficult to catch up with what’s going on originally. There are a lot of complex satirical themes that recommend itself to teen or tween readers, such as capital and corporate gains, political maneuverings, and legal wrangling that are used to manipulate events one way or another. Jasper Fforde handles all these angles with skill, but I’m just not sure how well I could summarize them when recommending it to readers without revealing too much. There’s a somewhat anticlimactic twist at the end that I didn’t see coming and still don’t fully understand the magic involved in its resolution. I think my favorite part of the whole story was the characters. Jessica is a no-nonsense, independent thinker who comes to her own resolutions and holds to her beliefs in a community that is corrupted by greed. The book doesn’t have the fight sequences that you would expect in a book titled The Last Dragonslayer but for people who want a unique fantasy with some social commentary mixed in, this is a good place to start.

2 The Point Tuesdays Zebra Forest

Each month for my job, I write a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ll be expanding that idea to the blog in a new feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Zebra ForestTitle: Zebra Forest
Author: Adina Rishe Gewirtz
ISBN: 9780763660413
Pages: 200 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2013
Publication Date: April 9, 2013

“Just stay quiet and I won’t hurt anybody,” he said. “I’ll stay only as long as I need. Just stay quiet and you’ll be fine.”
I couldn’t think what he meant. But Rew, always quick, understood immediately. Behind me, I heard him dash into the front room and grab the phone.
The man was quicker. He shoved past me, rushed at Rew, and knocked the phone from his hands. [...]
Rew turned and ran for the front door. He fumbled with the lock, his hands shaking. I darted forward to help him, but the man grabbed at me as I passed, catching me by the hair. He jerked me back so hard, I lost my footing and fell against him, my head slamming against his ribs. Then his heavy arm came round my throat, and with his free hand he grabbed my arms and held me tight to his chest as I struggled to pull away. I kicked back as hard as I could, but his arm squeezed my throat and I held still, gagging.
“Stop!” he yelled at Rew, who had nearly gotten the front door open. “Go anywhere or call anyone and I’ll hurt her! You see? I will!” (31-32)

Annie and her brother Rew have lived with their grandmother for as long as they can remember. Their grandmother doesn’t talk much and has trouble caring for them. Knowing only that their dad was killed in a fight, they make up stories about how their dad could have been a pirate, pilot, or secret agent. But it’s hard to maintain their fantasy stories after an escapee from the local prison arrives at their doorstep and holds Annie, Rew, and their grandmother hostage. With no help coming to their secluded home any time soon, Annie and Rew need to come up with a course of action before something happens that tears the family apart forever.

More of a psychological question than an action packed thriller, I could see this sparking interesting discussions in middle grade reading groups.

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.

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.

Chess Rumble

Title: Chess Rumble
Author: G. Neri
Illustrator: Jesse Joshua Watson
ISBN: 9781584302797
Pages: 64 pages
Publisher/Date: Lee & Low Books Inc., c2007.

My Daddy
used to play chess
to calm his nerves
after workin’ all day
in a room
with no windows.
I wanted to play him,
but he always say
I wasn’t ready.
“This is a man’s game,” he say.
“You a man?” (4)

Marcus is leading a hard life that just got harder. After his sister suddenly died, his father left him, his mother, and his twin siblings to fend for themselves. Taunted by a bully at school, Marcus is frustrated and feels like the world is out to get him. That’s when he gets shoved into the school’s chess program by his principal, a woman who sees him going down the wrong road and wants to help him stay out of trouble. But while his dad used to play, Marcus is not about to become a chess chump just because some guy’s talking about endgame and strategy.

It’s hard to put into words what I like about this book. I’m a fan of chess, so maybe that adds to my appreciation. I like the idea of using chess to teach kids, and by the front jacket text, it sounds like people are actually doing that, since Neri was “inspired by inner-city school chess enrichment programs.” I loved the dialogue too. Marcus comes across as very realistic, dropping letters and not speaking entirely grammatically correct, throwing down challenges to anyone who will listen. It’s not just the speech patterns, but also the behavior shown, and readers are able to relate to Marcus even if they’ve never been there themselves. CM, the Chess Man, is also realistic in his approach, as he waits for Marcus to come to him. While he might lay the lessons on thick, he doesn’t force the issue and he still approaches the problem in a way that Marcus understands.

This short debut book packs a powerful punch, and between this, Yummy and Ghetto Cowboy, Neri is making a name for himself for relatable, readable, urban fiction for boys.

Shadow

Title: Shadow
Author: Michael Morpurgo
ISBN: 9780312606596
Pages: 180 pages
Publisher/Date: Feiwel and Friends Book, an imprint of Macmillian, c2010.
Publication Date: Sept. 4, 2012 (US) (first published Jan. 1, 2010)

I saw then what they had seen, foreign soldiers, several of them, coming slowly toward us. The one in front had a detector–I’d seen them before in Bamiyan–and I knew what they were for. He was sweeping the road ahead of him for bombs. I think it was only then that I put two and two together, and realized what Shadow was doing. She had discovered a bomb. She was pointing to it. She was showing us. and I knew somehow that she was showing the soldiers too.
But they still couldn’t see her. She was hidden from them by a boulder at the side of the road. So I just ran. I never even thought about it. I just ran, toward the soldiers, toward Shadow, toward the bomb.(72-73)

When Aman was just a child living in Afghanistan, his father and grandmother were killed by the Taliban. Forced to flee the country with his mother in the hopes of meeting up with an uncle in England, Aman faced some insurmountable odds. Finally making it across the border with the aid of a unique dog he named Shadow, Aman leads a relatively comfortable life in England. After spending six years in England, Aman and his mother receive the shocking news that their asylum request has been denied and they need to return to Afghanistan. They are locked away, awaiting deportation. That’s when Aman’s friend Matt and Matt’s grandfather make a last-ditch effort to save this family from a separation that could kill them.

Allowing Aman to tell the story in a flashback format prevents the urgency and apprehension from building. We already know that he and his mother make it to England successfully because he is locked there awaiting deportation. By the time readers catch up to present day, there are few pages left to resolve the conflict, and it’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen and you’re really not surprised by the ending. While the ending is fairly serendipitous, it’s also realistic, as you generally hear about “Hail Mary passes” being caught by someone and being taken all the way by a network of people.

The characters are likeable enough, but even Aman comes across as somewhat one-dimensional, as the focus is on the journey and not the people. Readers can sympathize with his situation, but you don’t get emotionally involved like some other stories encourage. Matt and his grandfather are supplemental, even though they are the only ones relating “present” events. I think it would have increased urgency if we had seen Aman’s state first hand, like when he was detained in the deportation “camp”.

However, I can see teachers using this in lesson plans about ongoing wars overseas, immigration, refugees, and comparing detention centers of today to other times we’ve had something similar occur, such as during World War II with Hitler’s concentration camps and the Japanese internment camps here in the United States. With short chapters, many of which have a dangling if not a true cliff-hanger ending, it would make an interesting read-aloud during transition times or for several minutes each day. Being written by Michael Morpurgo helps too, especially with the recent release of the War Horse movie generating interest in his war based realistic fiction. He provides some background information about asylum-seeking families and military dogs in his acknowledgements and postscripts. I’m very interested in getting the two movies he sites, Phil Grabsky’s The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan and In this World, directed by Michael Winterbottom, although I’m not finding either at any library locally at this time.

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