Posts tagged ‘African American’

Finding Someplace

Finding Someplace.jpgTitle: Finding Someplace
Author: Denise Lewis Patrick
ISBN: 9780805047165
Pages: 214 pages
Publisher/Date: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, c2015.

”We’re trapped up here!” she shouted. […]
Reesie held her breath as first his feet disappeared, then his knees. Just as his face vanished, they heard loud splashing. His head popped up again. When he crawled off the ladder, he was wet from the waist down. Reesie saw his eyes and knew how scared he was. Her heart thumped.
“We gotta get on the roof,” he said, reaching for the crowbar. “Miss M, I’m sorry but we have to bust it up.”
”What?” both girls yelled at once.
“Calm it down, a’ight? Yeah, the roof. How else are we gonna get out of here?” (88-89)

Reesie (short for Theresa) Boone is looking forward to her thirteenth birthday party. Everyone else is looking at the upcoming storm, which the news forecasts is going to be the big one. Some neighbors and extended family members are evacuating, but Reesie’s father is on the police force and intent on staying at his post. When her mother gets stuck working at the hospital when the storm hits, Reesie must fend for herself during the storm. But after the storm hits and the water recedes, life does not return to normal, and Reesie wonders if it ever will.

Ressie is a realistic character who grows and changes as a result of the events and decisions she is forced to face. In the beginning she focuses on her birthday and party, and by the end she is thinking more about her family and world as a whole. She is bright, intelligent, and has a good head on her shoulders even while her actions are in line with what a teenager would do in those situations. Her family is equally realistically portrayed, with a variety of opinions expressed regarding responsibility to their community and their family, and what action should be taken. It was such a juxtaposition when her brother, who is away at college, calls before the storm to encourage her to evacuate, and then mentions in passing he has a date that evening. It reinforces the idea that life continues elsewhere in the world when a disaster hits, even as people impacted by the storm are hard-pressed to think of anything else and have priorities that are incomparable to anyone who didn’t experience them first hand.

It’s refreshing to see not just the time before and during the storm, but the story follows the family for months as they deal with the fallout and aftermath. Arguments arise, relationships change, and Ressie is faced with an unclear future, tensions at home and school, and nightmares. Readers are privy to all the uncertainties, rather than the glamorized survival instincts that a few other books focus on during their narrative. As we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the storm just months ago, it’s important to remember that even though the storm has passed, the work is just beginning and even 10 years later continues.

Princeless 1

PrincelessTitle: Princeless (first four issues)
Author: Jeremy Whitley
Illustrators: M. Goodwin (art and colors) and Jung Ha Kim (letters)
ISBN: 9781939352545
Pages: Unpaged (128 pages)
Publisher/Date: Action Lab Entertainment, c2015

That very day, the prince and princess were married. They lived happily ever after and had lots of beautiful children. The End.
“That story is complete hogwash. [..] First of all, it’s full of plot holes. I mean, really, what kind of dragon dies with one blow? Not to mention, how did he get her down from that tower?”
“I suppose he climbed.”
“Climbed? Climbed Mom? He climbed ‘the tallest of tall towers’. Then managed to get the helpless princess of his down without any kind of magic? Did you see that girl’s arms? They’re PIPE CLEANERS! She’s not climbing down anything! […] And how did she get up there in the first place? Who has the kind of grudge against this beautiful princess that they would lock her in a tower? […] Plus where do you even buy a dragon? Dragons are wild animals! You’re going to put that thing in charge of your daughter? What if it wanders off? What if it eats her? […] All I know is, when I turn sixteen, you and dad had better not lock me in some tower.”

Oh, but that’s exactly what happens to Adrienne, is she gets locked in a tower guarded by a dragon waiting to be rescued. After several princes get eaten and one runs away screaming, she takes matters into her own hands. Breaking both herself and her dragon Sparky free, they begin a quest to rescue the rest of her sisters from their respective towers. Returning to her home leads to a case of mistaken identity, and now she’s running from her own guards. Will a plucky blacksmith’s daughter with her own ideas of women warriors be an asset to her quest?

Remember all those good things I said about Nimona, and how it subtly alluded to cultural tropes regarding superheroes, feminism, and tradition? Place all those things in glaring, blinding, glowing neon skyscraper height letters, and you get Princeless. Plastered on the front cover is a quote from Comics Alliance hailing it as “the story Disney should have been telling for the past twenty years,” but I feel that’s true only if Disney was being run by overly politically correct government officials. In less than two hundred pages we cover:

  • anti-feminist messages of old-fashioned fairy tales (quoted above)
  • blatant recognition of sexism in the costumes of female heroes (“What I’m saying is why should a woman’s armor have to show cleavage or stomach? […] Why not make real armor, which would actually be effective in a fight for a woman warrior?”)
  • the mistaken emphasis of women’s worth as a commodity instead of a companion that persists in some cultures even today (“And the worst part is, all he wanted was money for her”)
  • patriarchal views of the role of women in society (“It is not a woman’s place to rule, but to be ruled.”) and
  • the stereotyping against “feminine” qualities in men and “masculine” qualities in women.

Why don’t we just use Bedelia’s giant hammer to pound feminist philosophies into everyone’s head, as that would be about as subtle as this book. I guess for some people it’s necessary to be this obvious, but it seriously impacted my enjoyment of the story, not because I disagree with the messages. I agree whole heartedly that young girls need realistic role models of all types in literature, and have long wished that more superheroes took the functional female route instead of the spandex bikini-clad boobs and butts. However, let the story prove the point, and don’t make medieval characters spout modern-day political talking points ever dozen or so pages.

Now don’t misunderstand, I did enjoy the premise of the story. The details were really key, with Princess Adrienne actually falling off her dragon the first time she hops on due to the lack of a proper saddle. I like her ingenuity when it comes to getting herself out of trouble. Her ethnicity, minus one early mention about how she will never be a “fair maiden”, amazingly goes largely unremarked upon but is unquestionable in the illustrations. Princess Adrienne has an admirable attitude, not similar to Junie B. Jones but more to that point that she knows what makes sense and she’s not afraid say what she’s thinking. I’m hopeful the series will become less about what other comics and fairy tales are lacking and more about the good qualities that this storyline offers. There are certain scenes that really steal the show, especially the last one with Adrienne’s sister, and those are the types of scenes that I want to see more. A good, promising start if you’re willing to dodge the propaganda when necessary.

H.O.R.S.E. A Great Game of Basketball and Imagination

H.O.R.S.E.Title: H.O.R.S.E.: A Game of Basketball and Imagination
Author/Illustrator: Christopher Myers
Narrators: Dion Graham and Christopher Myers
Music: Mario Rodriguez
ISBN: 9781606842188 (w/ CD)
Pages: unpaged
Publisher: Live Oak Media, c2014 (audio) Egmont USA, c2012 (hardcover)
Awards: Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Honor Book (2013), Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production Winner (2015),

One day at the basketball court…
Hey, want to play a game of horse?

With those few words, a game that’s as much imagination as it is trash talking and skill, two boys start a game of H.O.R.S.E. The objective is to make a basket using a basketball in the most creative way you can that will prevent your opponent from making the same shot. With flights of fancy involving hands, feet, tongues, skyscrapers and space shuttles, the big question is, who’s the winner?

Although it’s questionable that a single shot is thrown, that’s not the point. The point is this book is pure smack talk. The most quotable line exchange: “Didn’t know I could go left, did you?” “You’re probably a specialist in left … left back, left behind, left out.” The sound effects — such as bouncing balls, scraping chalk on a blackboard, or traversing the stars — are well-connected with the dialogue, and a sound track gives an upbeat, city vibe to the whole production. I’m so glad that there are two narrators, leading an authenticity to the listening experience that starts from the title and continues through the author’s note read by the author. The two narrators even argue over what the page turn signal is going to be! The illustrations keep the focus on the game and the boys, with minimal background details interfering. The dialogue is printed in two different colors, making it easy to distinguish between the speakers. It reminds me of Andy Griffiths “My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad” short story from Guys Write for Guys Read, the original Guys Reads book edited by Jon Scieszka, and you could probably pair the two for a smack talk themed read-aloud session.

Swing Sisters

Swing SistersTitle: Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Author: Karen Deans
Illustrator: Joe Cepeda
Pages: unpaged
ISBN: 9780823419708
Publisher/Date: Holiday House, c2015.

Dr. Jones loved music and wanted the children to love it too. In 1939 he started a school band that was just for girls, and he called it the Sweethearts.

Started as an fundraiser for a African American orphanage founded in 1909, the Sweethearts soon became something more. They played in the beginning for schools and church groups. When the musicians aged out of the orphanage, they stayed together, playing all over the country, including at the Howard Theater in Washington to an audience of 35,000 people and overseas in Europe for the troops during World War II. For years they quietly broke Jim Crow laws, allowing any women who could jump, jive, and swing on an instrument to join their band. This caused problems with some folks, forcing some of their members to sneak out of their bus and head to the train station via taxi rather than getting caught by the police in the company of African Americans. Eventually, the group disbanded as the women pursued other goals and interests, like other jobs or families.

It’s interesting to learn about an African American orphanage during the 1900s that taught literacy skills to children many saw as underprivileged, when so many African American children weren’t taught how to read or write. With sparse writing that conveys just enough information for younger readers which the book is geared toward, it’s a welcome addition that websites, books, and documentaries are available for those who would like to learn more, including a NPR broadcast and a Smithsonian feature from a few years ago. While just a blip in music, women’s, and African American histories, these trail blazers have not been forgotten, even if — as one interview remarks — few recordings of their work are still around.

The illustrations are multicolored and textured, and the oil and acrylic paintings lend a texture, similar to cracked paint, that encourage a lingering look and give it an old time feel. The crowd scenes are equally impressive as many of the people have distinguishing characteristics and skin tones, and the period clothing is quite colorful. The closing scenes of a silhouetted band playing in front of a sunset orange and yellow hued background, paired with an older women passing along a trumpet to a younger girl, reflect the closing sentiments of the book. “Those Sweethearts didn’t know it at the time, but they helped open doors for women of all backgrounds.” (unpaged)

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Draw What You See

Draw What You SeeTitle: Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews
Author: Kathleen Benson
Illustrator: Illustrated with paintings by Benny Andrews
ISBN: 9780544104877
Pages: 32 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, c2015.

Benny started to draw when he was three years old. Once he started, he never stopped. (6)

This picture book biography summarizes the life of Benny Andrews, an African-American artist born in the 1930s and living long enough to teach children displaced by Hurricane Katrina how to express their emotions through art. While I enjoyed the use of his actual works to illustrate, rather than having an illustrator mimic his style, I was somewhat disappointed that the majority of the pieces selected were from his later years. For someone who has lived and painted as long as he had, I expected a broader selection, although I found myself enjoying his later pieces (done in the last decade of his life) more than the very few earlier works that were included. A detailed time line pairs years with the information in the narrative, but they highlight works that are not included in the book. Back mater also identifies each of the images, and cites sources and resources, although most of them are not easily accessible as they are movies and exhibition catalogs. The narrative portrays racism in easy to understand vignettes, including walking to school, missing school due to work, and being unrepresented in museum exhibits. It’s important to enlighten children that there are other, more modern artists, rather than always falling on the classics (Van Gogh and Picasso). For that reason alone this book should be included in the collection, but it will have to be publicized as Benny Andrews is not someone most kids will search out and you may find yourself withdrawing it due to low use in just a few years.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingTitle: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
ISBN: 9780399252518
Pages: 337 pages
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books, published by the Penguin Group, c2014.
Awards: National Book Award (winner), Coretta Scott King Award (winner), Newbery Medal (honor), and Sibert Award (honor)

Each day a new world
opens itself up to you. And all the worlds you are–
Ohio and Greenville
Woodson and Irby
Gunnar’s child and Jack’s daughter
Jahovah’s Witness and nonbeliever
listener and writer
Jackie and Jacqueline–

gather into one world

called You

where You decide

what each world
and each story
and each ending

will finally be. (319-320)

Jacqueline Woodson’s poetic memoir focuses on her childhood. Born in Ohio, her parents were divorced and she, her mother, and her two older siblings had moved down south to live with her grandparents before she even began to walk. She loved living with her grandparents, even when her mother left for Brooklyn, but they soon joined her and their new younger brother in the north again. Living in both hemispheres of the country, Jacqueline talks about the civil rights movements that she witnessed on television and in real life. As life revolves and revolutionizes around her like a merry-go-around, and even as she struggles with reading fast enough for her teachers, she begins to write down her story, so she and others can remember.

Woodson’s poems match her portrayal of herself. They are slow, reflective, and precise. She talks about how she doesn’t know the time of her birth, which is something unheard of for today as everything gets recorded, from height, weight, date and time to what you ate for breakfast. I imagine that might be one reason she became a writer, so she wouldn’t have to rely on “other people’s bad memory.” (18) There are a number of poems that appear multiple times, with numbers after their title. I wish the names of the poems had been included in the Table of contents at the front of the book. Read together, they paint their own story, especially the ones titled “How to Listen”. When she talks about growing up in the south, she and her siblings are identified by their relations “Sister Irby’s Grands / MaryAnn’s Babies”, which I could relate to being described that way countless times at family reunions and introductions. (45)

It’s readers ability to relate to Woodson’s life experiences that draws readers into the story. We may not have grown up in the same state or at the same time, but we sense what she is feelings. As an adult, I really understood when she described her mother’s dissatisfaction with moving her family back in with her parents. “Everyone else / has gone away. / And now coming back home / isn’t really coming back home / at all.” (46-47) Woodson also has that longing to identify with the people that surround her, whether it’s making up stories about her absent father, wanting to be smart like her brother, the joy she feels when she finds a book featuring an African-American character, or imitating the Black Panthers on television by proclaiming “I’m Black and I’m Proud”.

Middle school students are always coming into my library looking for biographies and/or autobiographies. While it’s light on specific facts and I’m frequently finding it in the poetry section because of the format, this would fit most assignment criteria. Woodson might agree, write this one down and don’t let it be forgotten.

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay

My Three Best Friends and Me ZulayTitle: My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay
Author: Cari Best
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
ISBN: 9780374388195
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, c2015.
Publication Date: January 13, 2015

A multicultural cast of characters support Zulay, an African-American student learning to use her cane for the first time. Zulay resents how conspicuous the cane makes her among her classmates. When the field day events are announced, Zulay is intent on competing in the foot race in her new pink shoes.

I love how adaptive the classroom is portrayed, with three-dimensional math diagrams and counting blocks, name tags written in Braille and written letters, and Zulay using a Brailler. Readers don’t realize in the beginning that Zulay is blind, with the first pictures showing her skipping and singing down the hallway with her friends. While probably an intentional decision by the author and illustrator showing similarities before differences, I wish it had been carried through to the front cover. Receiving assistance from her aid, Zulay doesn’t lose her independence, and her feelings are succinctly portrayed in just a few brief sentences. “I don’t like when I hear my name sticking out there by itself. […] But I don’t say the way I feel. I might stick out even more, like a car alarm in the night waking everybody up.” On my copy, the back cover contains a raised Braille alphabet for readers to experience, which is a unique and welcome addition. Use this book for discussions on disabilities or what makes people unique, especially asking what’s the same and different about the girls on the first page before and after the reading.


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