Posts from the ‘Children’s Literature’ Category

A Birthday Cake for George Washington

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Birthday Cake for George Washington.jpgTitle: A Birthday Cake for George Washington
Author: Ramin Ganeshram
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
ISBN: 9780545538237
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2016.

In the kitchen, my papa, Hercules, is baking an amazing cake. But there is one problem: We are out of sugar.

Hercules, a slave owned by President George Washington, is a valued member of the White House Staff as the cook for the president. When Washington’s birthday arrives, Hercules is tasked to bake a cake, but there is no sugar to be found anywhere in the kitchen. With a little improvising of using honey instead of sugar, the cake is successfully made. The charcoal pencil pictures are supplemented with Photoshoped images of actual cookware. The enslaved kitchen staff are shown with a variety of skin colors.

Upon publication, there was quite a bit of discussion regarding this book. My library was one of the few to purchase and receive a copy before Scholastic discontinued publishing the title due to public outcry regarding the portrayal of the “smiling slaves”. I’m unaware if the reviews influenced the artist’s note at the back of the book, which stresses that “While slavery in America was a vast injustice, my research indicates that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. That is why I have depicted them as happy people. There is joy in what they have created through their intelligence and culinary talent.” An author’s note attempts to separate fact from fiction, clarifying that while Hercules’s daughter (who is the narrator in the story) doesn’t seem to have ever been at the center of government in the Philadelphia house, Hercules’s son Richmond was present for at least a while as a favor to the cook. The author’s note also emphasizes that Hercules along with the other slaves were rotated out to avoid allowing them freedom under a Pennsylvania law that freed slaves who resided in the state for more than six months.

I’m unsure how much control the author had over the illustration process, but it seems that the text taken by itself does not promote a “happy” situation. At various points in the story Hercules “roared at the kitchen maids”, “growled at Chef Julien” (a white chef from France) and at the kitchen boy, “scowled at the swirling, whirling snow” and “Only when Mrs. Washington comes into the kitchen does Papa turn his scowl into an easy smile.” I can imagine an imperialistic tone as he orders his staff around, repeatedly voicing “You! […] And you!” While the pictures show a smiling group of workers, the text reflects an uncertainty and anxiousness as they try a new recipe for the very first time to be presented at a Presidential birthday party. The cake (and the feast in its entirety) that is finally produced seems rather small for the number of guests one would expect at a birthday party for George Washington. The text presents an enslaved chef who is hiding his anxieties in front of his owner to avoid any disciplinary action, who takes responsibility for the entire cake so if something is wrong he saves others from being reprimanded, or worse. “No one seems to breathe until the cake platter comes back” empty, and Delia’s heart is “pounding” as the President approaches afterward. This is not the presentation of happy, accomplished culinary chefs confident in their ability, but slaves who know if they do something wrong it could mean dire repercussions.

When the controversy first surfaced, author Mitali Perkins publicized how she would have corrected the book to further stress the condition of slaves during that time period. While her rewriting of the text certainly stresses the dangers of not successfully caring out the orders of their owners, it’s a minimal change to a text that ultimately portrays a story that is intended for young children with a limited exposure to the concept of slavery.Writers portraying slavery and other historical social issues must balance a fine line of keeping it factually accurate but also factually appropriate for that age group. This book also provides a glimpse at a slave who was an anomaly, one who was well-known and dare we say respected, as evidenced by Washington allowing father and son to work together as a “favor”. My opinion is a different illustrator may interpretation of the text may have negated the controversy.

I am a huge admirer of Mitalie Perkins’s Bamboo People and thought that she also raised several issues regarding Scholastic’s decision to pull the book from production. Is it censorship? I find myself asking the same question, especially in light of other books being questioned post-production. It’s not only children’s books, but adults books as well. Back in 2012, The Jefferson Lies by David Barton was pulled from store shelves, and the publisher’s Senior Vice President and Publisher Brian Hampton was quoted in an NPR article asserting that:

“There were historical details — matters of fact, not matters of opinion, that were not supported at all.” […] “The truth is, the withdrawing a book from the market is extremely rare. It’s so rare I can’t think of the last time we’ve done this,” Hampton said. But, he said, “If there are matters of fact not correctly handled or the basic truth is not there, we would make a decision based on that.”

Since then, we’ve had titles like A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall, where the smiling slave portrayal was questioned even as it won award recognition. Ghosts by acclaimed graphic novelist Raina Telgemeir is having its portrayal of Dia De Los Muertos questioned because it was slightly fictionalized and Telgemeir’s own experience in that culture is being questioned. And recently When We Was Fierce by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo is being “postponed” for “further reflection”. I must say I have not read any of these yet. Is this concern over cultural portrayals a desired response to the We Need Diverse Books movement, or will it backlash and yield even fewer depictions out of fear that they offend or prove too fictionalized? I’ve read reviews where factual inaccuracies have been brought to life in nonfiction books that don’t prevent their publication. Are we then being hyper-vigilant regarding fiction for a particular reason, and should we pass that same scrutinizing eye on nonfiction? If readers, reviewers, and the public in general are more willing to challenge a fictionalized publication, then we should evaluate why.  How much license should be allowed? I don’t have any of these answers, but they should be questions that are broached when discussing these and future incidents. In regards specifically to A Birthday Cake for George Washington, I think reprinting with a different illustrator and making a few minor corrections, like Perkins suggests, would make it more acceptable. However, I’m not a member of that African-American culture, and recent conversations seem to imply that I must defer my opinion to those who are members. That doesn’t mean I can’t voice them here.

Study Hall of Justice

Study Hall of Justice.jpgTitle: Study Hall of Justice
Series: Secret Hero Society
Author: Derek Fridolfs
Illustrator: Dustin Nguyen
ISBN: 9780545825016
Pages: 175
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Inc., c2016 DC Comics

This school is weird!
Yesterday I felt a kid blur past me. Today I witnessed a girl flying through the air. I’m not kidding. Not to mention there’s a ton of clowns and . . . I think I’ve even seen ninja lurking about.
It’s crazy.
My mind and body have been trained by the very best (Alfred saw to that with private tutors). My eyes aren’t playing tricks. So there must be a logical explanation for it.
My investigation continues. But I must also make time to beat level seven of Vigilante Fighter Turbo. Resist the urge to download a cheat code. (28)

Bruce Wayne has recently been accepted to the prestigious Ducard Academy. Upon arrival however, Bruce keeps noticing unexplained things happening. With the administration ignoring the warning signs and possibly aiding in the classroom chaos, who can Bruce turn to for assistance? Equally confused Clark Kent and Diana Prince are also hiding something, but they seem the best options to aid in his investigations. Now the key is to solve the mystery without getting suspended.

This book is a fast read described by some as a hybrid graphic novel, which confused me for a while as to where to put it. After it arrived though, it obviously belonged with the graphic novels. While the primary story is told in panels and pictures, supplemental information is provided in paragraph format in illustrated diary entries, memos, reports, and text messages. Told in short vignettes that propel the main plot of finding out the school’s secrets, many readers with only a cursory knowledge of the DC Comics world will recognize superheroes and super villains featured, including the Joker, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Bane, Lex Luthor, and of course the three main characters. Clark is shown as a bumbling do-good, who on more than one occasion either spills or comes close to spilling information about his secret. Diana is shown as slightly more competent, but also more assertive and angry than either of the boys. Bruce is portrayed as a lonely know-it-all, although my favorite line is when he questions the lack of masks for both Diana’s and Clark’s secret identities. There are passing nods to future events, such as Clark becoming a reporter and Alfred’s at the time off-handed comment to Bruce that “I certainly won’t be a willing partner in your flights of fancy, sir!” (151)

The whole story however is relatively anticlimactic. While yes there are strange things happening in the school, no one is ever in any real danger, and even the weirdness is relatively low-key (getting pied in the face in the hallway, Brainiac as a library monitor, and even the ninjas repeatedly noticed don’t interfere with day-to-day operations until the very end of the book). Although it appears this is a start of a series, the resolution leaves me wondering how these three investigators are going to be able to combine their efforts again in the future. Overall, it becomes a nice introduction and mash-up for super fans or those who like their superhero stories light.

Blackbird Fly

Blackbird FlyTitle: Blackbird Fly
Author: Erin Entrada Kelly
ISBN: 9780062238610
Pages: 296 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

“You may be on the list, Apple, but it could be worse. At least you aren’t Big-leena Moffett.” She paused. “Unless . . .”
“Unless what?” I said. The socked-gut feeling was still there. I wouldn’t have been surprised to lift up my shirt and see a big bruise.
“Unless you’re above Heleena on the list,” said Alyssa. She frowned.
Gretchen rolled her eyes. “That’s not possible.” She looked at me and said again: “That’s not possible, Apple. And the list is stupid anyway. Who cares?”
But we all knew that everyone cared. (46-47)

When Apple was four years old, her father died and her mother moved her to America, specifically Chapel Spring, Louisiana. As the only Filipino in her entire school, she was never the most popular, but at least she has been allowed to hang out with that crowd for years. Until the annual Dog Log is circulated around the school, and rumor has it she’s on it. Now she’s realizing that the folks she used to call her friends really aren’t all that friendly. She starts hanging out with new kid Evan, but he’s not going to help her popularity, and her mother’s constant refusal to get her a guitar, call her by a name that isn’t also a fruit, and order pizza instead of cooking Filipino food, just adds to her frustrations. How did sixth grade get to be so hard so fast?

This slice of life tale didn’t really stand out to me, to the point where I had to skim it to write this review a month after I finished reading it the first time. Apple’s classmate Alyssa was the most realistically written, with dialogue that was self-serving but laced with sarcastic sympathy at the same time. “This is the worst thing that could possibly happen right before the dance. You can’t go by yourself when me and Gretchen have dates, can you? That would just be the most embarrassing thing ever.” (98-99) You cringe every time you hear her talk, because most readers are familiar with someone like that in real life.

Evan is the stereotypical new kid who doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him. As someone who was the new kid several times, I have a hard time believing that a sixth grader, who had friends at his old school, would enter into a new environment with a skin that thick to begin with and make no effort to find friends. Before he is even introduced to the popular posse, he wants nothing to do with them. While it proves to be good instincts on his part, it’s not realistic. More realistic is Heleena’s avoidance of the group, because she has suffered from the repeated ostracism and alienation of her peers and has resigned herself to her fate of simply keeping her head down and attempting to escape notice.

Apple’s insight in how popularity works seem to happen fairly quickly, although the eight week timeline during which the story takes place is difficult to pin down. We see the start of school and the Halloween dance, and there is talk of a quickly approaching field trip slated to occur just before Thanksgiving. But the escalation of teasing is shown in starts and stops, with multiple chapters spent on one day and then almost a whole month passing between two chapters. While I feel Apple’s self-consciousness about her race are accurately portrayed, her mother’s cluelessness seems over done. For instance, according to Apple she hasn’t eaten carrots in years, and yet they have what’s described as a “merry-go-round” style conversation, talking about the same things over and over.

By the end of the story, it’s frustrating to see this fractured family resolve it’s deep seated conflict in just a few minutes of discussion. The same could be said about how Apple’s ostracism at school resolves itself, which reminded me of a scene from Stargirl. However, Stargirl’s rise and subsequent fall from popularity rings truer than this overly optimistic conclusion to a tale where Apple has always been on the outside, but is just beginning to realize it, and isn’t sure she anymore if she wants to be part of the popular crowd. A good message for middle school students struggling to find their place, I just wish the story had been more memorable.

We Forgot Brock!

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a 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.

We Forgot Brock.jpgTitle: We Forgot Brock!
Author/Illustrator: Carter Goodrich
ISBN: 9781442480902
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

The weird thing about Philip’s friend Brock, dressed in garb reminiscent of a pirate, is that nobody else can see him and everyone calls him “Philip’s Imaginary Friend.” After a day at the fair, Philip falls asleep and Brock gets left behind. Luckily, a girl named Anne and her own imaginary friend named Princess Sparkle Dust find Brock and bring him home with them. Will Brock and Philip ever find each other again? Watercolor illustrations portray the imaginary friends in childish, crayon like states very different from the rest of the more detailed drawings, although if you look carefully you’ll notice they still cast shadows. The problem is neatly solved and everyone makes a new friend in the end. The story is realistically childlike, down to Philip posting “Lost” flyers, which prove surprisingly effective! A sweet story perfect to share with children who may have their own imaginary friend.

Crenshaw

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a 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.

CrenshawTitle: Crenshaw
Author: Katherine Applegate
ISBN: 9781250043238
Pages: 245
Publisher/Date: Feiwel and Friends, and imprint of Macmillan, c2015.

I noticed several weird things about the surfboarding cat.
Thing number one: He was a surfboarding cat.
Thing number two: He was wearing a T-shirt. It said CATS RULE, DOGS DROOL.
Thing number three: He was holding a closed umbrella, like he was worried about getting wet. Which, when you think about it, is kind of not the point of surfing.
Thing number four: No one else on the beach seemed to see him. (3-4)

Ten-year-old Jackson has recently rediscovered his imaginary friend, a black and white, over-sized cat named Crenshaw. His family is slowly preparing for becoming homeless and Jackson still remembers the last time they had to live out of their car. It was also the last time he’d seen Crenshaw, who kept him company during that time. Crenshaw claims he’s there to help, but Jackson wonders how much help Crenshaw will offer this time around. Although featuring a situation that needs more exposure in children’s literature, the addition of an imaginary friend that doesn’t play a huge role in the plot makes it more difficult to recommend to an older audience. Author name recognition will influence its circulation, but I don’t expect it to be a first choice among Applegate’s fans, as it’s much more introspective than Barbara O’Connor’s comedic How to Steal a Dog, which deals with the same topic.

The Fog Diver

Fog DiverTitle: The Fog Diver
Author: Joel Ross
ISBN: 9780062352934
Pages: 328 pages
Publisher/Date: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

My name is Chess, and I was born inside a cage.
Imagine a wooden platform jutting from a mountain cliff. Now picture a chain falling from that platform and vanishing into the Fog, a deadly white mist that covers the entire Earth.
That’s where I was born: locked in a cage, at the end of a chain, inside the Fog.
And I would’ve died there, too, if Mrs. E hadn’t saved me.
When she saw my face for the first time, wisps of Fog swirled inside my right eye, shimmering white shapes that marked me as a freak. That’s why I’ve spent thirteen years keeping my head down, staying quiet and afraid–but now Mrs. E needs help, now <em>she</em> needs saving.
It’s time to stop hiding. Everything is going to change. (1-2)

Scientists built nanites to clean up the polluted Earth, only they made them too smart. The nanites turned on their creators, scrubbing the Earth clean not just of pollution, but of the creators of the pollution. Now mankind has retreated to the mountain tops, and fog divers like Chess literally dive into the fog from flying barges to scavenge for resources. He and his rag-tag team of orphans were brought together by Mrs. E. Dreams of ascending to the safer parts of the mountain have always been a dream, but now they need money and resources to get Mrs. E the help she needs as fog sickness starts taking over. Fog sickness isn’t the only risk though, as the past Mrs. E rescued Chess from comes back to haunt him and hunt for him. Will they be able to escape all the dangers, or will Chess take his last dive?

For fans of the television series Firefly (which I’m watching right now for the first time), this street urchin crew may seem familiar. Maybe author Joel Ross, making his middle-grade debut, is a fan himself? Chess takes the place of River, being hidden in plain sight and with skills no one fully understands. But he is also part Zoe, serving as a second-in-command position to Hazel. Hazel is the captain of the crew, and much like Mal she has her unexpected soft side. Chess says she “wore long, flowing skirts, dreamed of fancy dances, loved pretty sunsets . . . and could bark out orders faster than the toughest junkyard boss.” (28-29) Pilot Swedish has the skills of Wash but the attitude of Jayne. Bea is Kaylee, the spunky, overly enthusiastic and optimistic mechanic, down to talking to the electronics and naming them.

The crew members are unique and highly developed, with characteristics and flaws that will allow readers to relate with at least someone, whether it’s the snarky asides of sarcasm, quick-witted thinking, or the more vulnerable moments of emotion. They form a tight-knit family who cares about and trusts one another, even when they are surprised by another’s actions or a never-before revealed secret. It reads like a swashbuckling pirate adventure, with rigging and scavengers, hidden treasures and double crosses. Highly recommended to those readers looking for something unique, or maybe those too young for the airships of Westerfeld’s Leviathan series.

The allusions to the world before are the basis for most of the laughs in this post-apocalyptic, dystopian world. There is little in the way of modern day conveniences, but that goes unremarked upon as they wrap their heads around what little they do know, and make up their own explanations for what they don’t understand. The characters routinely improvise, interchange, and just plain invent references. Primarily, these confusions come from Chess, who has a scrapbook made by his father of various cultural references from before the fog.

  • Chess decides against repeating the “old tale of ‘Skywalker Trek,’ about a space war between the Klingons and the Jedi, set in a future when people lived on distant planets and fought Tribbles, Ewoks, and Borgs.” (17-18).
  • He describes Valentine’s Day as “an old holiday […] when they used to wear green and say ‘be mine’ and kiss under a shamrock. […] They gave flowers to their sweethearts.” (82)
  • “I’m not sure the shell actually snaps.”
    “Of course it does! A snapping turtle is a turtle that snaps, like a bobcat is a cat that bobs. It says so in the name.”
    “Sure,” I said. “And grizzly bears loooove to grizz.” (178)
  • There’s also a reference to weird animals of the past like spelling bees and Hello Kitties which of course I can’t locate currently.

There are a lot of tight escapes, narrow misses, and nail-biting excitement, which is completely inline with the life they lead. While their actions are slightly more legal than the ones seen in Firefly, they are still the underdog in a rigged system. They don’t even own the ship outright, renting it from corrupt folks, making every effort to get out from under the debt and find that big score that will put them on the top. The technology is slightly steampunk in nature, although I would have liked more details on how they were able to adapt to this world above the clouds that today we would deem uninhabitable. While Chess’s rumored existence is initially stereotypical and his ability to go unnoticed for 13 years remarkable, the sudden interest in his skills and presence is explained adequately. The climatic end is just that, and it’s only at the last heart-stopping page that you receive a sudden but satisfactory resolution to the story, worthy of Ocean’s Eleven. While enjoyable as a stand-alone, there is definitely a sequel in the making, with The Lost Compass arriving in May 2016 which will hopefully bring more answers.

Egg & Spoon

Egg & Spoon.jpgTitle: Egg & Spoon
Author: Gregory Maguire
Narrator: Michael Page
ISBN: 9781491502167 (audiobook)
Discs/CDs: 11 CDs, 12 hours 51 minutes
Pages: 475 pages
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014. (audiobook) Candlewick Press, c2014 (hardcover)

She is an insane old woman, though Cat, but at least I’m safe in the warmth, and she knows ho to cook. The old woman was ladling pink broth into a bowl whose sides were etched with obscure runes. “Drink up, my dear. I find borscht a wonderful marinade when applied from the inside.” […]
Cat demurred and said, “Who are you really?”
“I’m Queen Victoria. I’m Nellie Bly. I’m Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean — what difference does it make? I’m hungry and I want to eat, so do my bidding.”
“I couldn’t dare take your supper. I have nothing to pay you with.”
“You’re not taking my supper, you’re supplying it.” (141-142)

Gregory Maguire creates a tale reminiscent to the Prince and the Pauper. Even though Ekaterina isn’t a princess, she has many more advantages than Elena, who is essentially starving to death as she tries her best to care for her sick mother after her father has died and her two brothers taken away from home. A lightning strike forces their unlikely meeting, and Elena finds herself in an enviable position when the Ekaterina’s train takes her away from the poverty and towards the Tsar’s palace. She hopes to use that opportunity to reclaim her brother from army conscription, but she doesn’t know that Ekaterina is hot on her trail with her own transportation. In their travels, they realize that Russia might be in more trouble than either girl, and are recruited by the fabled folkloric witch Baba Yaga to solve the problem of melting ice and disappearing magic.

Michael Page’s voice is properly moderated between the high pitched, stereotypical screech of Baba Yaga and the clipped tones of the prince (although he does sound vaguely English and not Russian). Even the two younger girls have slight differences that easily distinguish between the educated Ekaterina and the more rurally raised Elena. The sweeping landscape is described beautifully, and Elena’s situation is especially heart-wrenching when readers realize the troubles behind her meager existence.

Maguire’s tale is less impressive, for if readers are familiar with the story of the prince and the pauper, then they essentially have the plot of the first part of the book. The second half pairs the girls on an adventure to save Russia. It’s discovered that the floodwaters and dampened winter and magic are connected, involving the firebird and ice dragon. I was unfamiliar with the ice dragon legacy, and was intrigued by my introduction to this Russian myth. By the end of the novel, the twist, feel good resolution revealing the cause of the trouble is somewhat moralistic and preachy, encouraging the human race to whine and want less and focus more on reducing the wants of others. It’s an unexpected altruistic message, and while anti-materialists might appreciate the thought, I was disappointed that such a long journey yielded so little action in the conflict.

The magic in the story is supplied by the magic that the girls encounter through their association with Baba Yaga, who has multiple distinguished and unique traits including her unpredictability, attitudinal house which reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle, sarcastic shape-shifting familiar, and pattern of speech which allude to time travels or future premonitions. She is by far my favorite character in the whole story. I can only imagine the fun Maguire must have had in writing her scenes considering the fun I had reading them. Her nontraditional exclamation “Honey Buckets!” became a term of endearment towards her guests, who while certainly unpredicted are not entirely unwanted, regardless of what she alludes. I find that same sort of unexpected endearment towards her in what ultimately is a overly long, predictable plot. Extreme fantasy and fairy tale/folklore fans might appreciate this exposure of not-often portrayed Russian mythology, but most will probably loose interest before the quest even begins.

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