Posts tagged ‘African American’

Piecing Me Together

Piecing Me Together.jpgTitle: Piecing Me Together
Author: Renee Watson
ISBN: 9781681191058
Pages: 264 pages
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, c2017.
Awards: Newbery Honor Award (2018), Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner (2018)

The front of the folder shows a group of black women–adults and teens–smiling and embracing one another. Woman to Woman: A Mentorship Program for African American Girls. Mrs. Parker is smiling like what she’s about to tell me is that she found the cure for cancer. But really, what she has to tell me sounds more like a honking horn that’s stuck, a favorite glass shattering into countless pieces on the floor. […]
“Why was I chosen for this?”
Mrs. Parker clears her throat. “Well, uh, selection was based on, uh, gender, grade, and, well, several other things.”
“Like?”
“Well, uh, several things. Teacher nominations . . . uh, need.”
“Mrs. Parker, I don’t need a mentor,” I tell her.
“Every young person could use a caring adult in her life.”
“I have a mother.” And my uncle, and my dad. “You think I don’t have anyone who cares about me?”
“No, no. That’s not what I said.” Mrs. Parker clears her throat. (17-18)

Junior Jade has a scholarship to attend St. Francis, a mostly white, expensive private school on the other side of Portland from where she lives with her mother and uncle. When she is called down to the counselor’s office, she thinks it’s about the study abroad to trip to Spain, a trip she’s anticipated for the last two years, learning Spanish and making money for by tutoring her classmates. Instead, Jade learns she’s been nominated for Woman to Woman, a mentor program that pairs her with Maxine, a graduate of her high school. Maxine however, doesn’t seem to be the best person to mentor, showing up late to or completely forgetting about plans and being more concerned about her ex-boyfriend then Jade. Jade doesn’t want to forgo the “opportunity” to get a full-ride scholarship if she completes the program, but the things they do make her feel more out of place then ever. She’s tired of being someone who needs help, and wants to get out of town and out of her circumstances; the trick is finding someone who can listen and help in the way she needs.

I finished Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson and it’s given me some things to consider as a mentor and a librarian. There’s a lot of excellent passages that I could quote from that provide insight and an evaluation of who we feel is “in need” and what we feel they need. After much self-doubt, Jade finally gets the courage to voice her concerns about the program to her mentor Maxine. Jade tells Maxine that just because her parents aren’t around doesn’t mean she needs a mentor. (In actuality, her mother just works an nontraditional schedule and is highly involved in Jade’s life and is not like other non-existent mother characters that are cliche characters in other books.) Just because she has the opportunity to go other places doesn’t mean she wants to see what she can’t afford. Just because she lives in a “wrong side of the tracks” neighborhood doesn’t mean there aren’t still things to see and people who can help from within. Why is Jade “only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” (direct quote from page 199) While it was a little preachy in places, I would recommend it for anyone who finds themselves with who we typically consider “underprivileged youth.” Sometimes even mentors need a reminder that the people they mentor are capable of contributing in their own way, and don’t need to be rescued by someone.

The material is also very relevant in relation to the Black Lives Matter conversation. Although that phrase never makes an appearance in the narrative. About two-thirds of the way in, an incident makes the news regarding a fifteen-year-old black female named Natasha Ramsey receiving a broken jaw and fractured ribs as a result of police breaking up a house party due to a noise complaint. Jade’s uncle E.J. (who is only a few years older then Jade) responds with scorn at Jade’s suggestion that they say a prayer.

“And what is prayer going to do?” E.J. asks. “Prayer ain’t nothing but the poor man’s drug.”
“What?”
“Poor people are the ones who pray. People who don’t have what they need, who can’t pay their rent, who can’t buy healthy food, who can’t save any of their paycheck because every dollar is already accounted for. Those are the people who pray. They pray for miracles, they pray for signs, they pray for good health. Rich people don’t do that,” he tells me. […]
“Be careful today, Jade. For real.” (182-183)

Jade is hyper-aware of her classmates’ response to the event, which seems nonexistent as there is no talk in the hallways, no discussion in the classroom, and from her perspective everyone is acting oblivious, except for her Spanish teacher whom she finds watching new coverage during his break. There are small instances of racism that keep frustrating Jade, especially because the only other person she talks to at school, a white classmate named Sam who also comes from her neighborhood, doesn’t seem them as racism. When Jade is the only one who gets in trouble for laughing at another student’s disrespectful comments about a staff member, Sam blames it on wealth disparity. “Her parents donate a bunch of money to the school every year. She can say and do whatever she wants,” Sam says. “That had nothing to do with her being white and your being black.” Jade responds “You know that’s what people are going to say about Natasha Ramsey. That it had nothing to do with her being black.” and Sam asks “Who?” Another time, Jade questions why she is always the one given these opportunities instead of Sam, who lives in the same area, is also lacking parents, and sees Jade as being ungrateful at having these opportunities to go places like the symphony. This is definitely a perfect scene to spark discussion for students and adults. When have their been times where two people have been in similar situations and the outcomes have been treated differently, and what factors played a role in the resulting outcomes?

We as readers will never know the real reason why her classmate doesn’t get punished for saying the comment but Jade gets in trouble for laughing at it. I think both reasons could be validated, as money and race both talk, but I also fear that as a white female I’d be accused of implicit bias if I brought up this possibility, just as Sam does. I can’t claim to understand what African Americans have to face in terms of racism, both overt and obvious, but I do understand that if you face enough situations with racial overtones, everything starts getting colored and about color. And there was at least one instance in the book of overt racism that Sam also discounts when faced with the account, that could be contributing to Jade’s mounting frustrations. Jade instead seeks out people who understand her feelings on the issue, and readers in turn gain an understanding of just how much the case has affected Jade and her friend from the neighborhood, Lee Lee. These girls are scared it could have been them or will be them, and the other white girls in Jade’s school don’t have that fear because they are insulated by their racial identity. Jade and Lee Lee feel a powerlessness that they are hesitant to admit, because then they fear it means they are, and they don’t want to see themselves or have others see them in that light. In studying Lewis and Clark and their slave York, which she finds out about from Lee Lee’s talking about her history teacher, Jade wonders if he ever “existing in a world where no one thought him strange” and I think Jade feels that otherness herself. Going to an all white school where she can’t relate her family life with that of other students, and then coming home where she can’t relate her options and experiences at school to her family, Jade and Sam share that feeling of isolation and being stuck in the middle.

I keep coming back to the previously quoted passage, “Why am I only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” Jade and Lee Lee are scared, but they don’t want to be seen as someone who needs protection, reassurances, or special treatment. They are women of action, and by the end, it’s inspiring that they found a way to tie resources from their community into a proactive attempt at change. Jade responds to a question that she has learned from the mentor program she doesn’t “have to wait to be given an opportunity” and I think that’s really the most important thing that we can teach the people we mentor. This book is placed in the teen collection at my local library, but I feel it would be appropriate for middle school reading.

It’s making me consider how I can reach out more professionally and personally to fulfill the needs and the desires of the kid I mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters and the public I serve. What are we pressing on others versus providing others? How can we identify what patrons need but also what they can give, and how do we tie the two together? I welcome your thoughts in the comments, and also recommendations for further reading on either enacting these goals, or working with populations that are traditionally seen as underprivileged, but should never be seen as uninformed or unable to contribute.

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Caldecott Awards 2018

WINNER

Wolf in the SnowTitle: Wolf in the Snow
See previous post (Man was I wrong about this one’s chances!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HONOR BOOKS

Big Cat Little CatTitle: Big Cat, Little Cat
Author/Illustrator: Elisha Cooper
ISBN: 9781626723719
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2017.

Endearing, minimalist black and white illustrations portray the circle of life and passage of time through a feline friendship. A newcomer is shown the ropes by the older, established resident cat. Eventually, the original cat “got older and one day he had to go… and he didn’t come back.” Roles are karmically reversed the day a new younger cat arrives, with the previous newcomer now taking the lead. A book that might help explain the death of a pet or sharing experiences with any new addition, whether at school or in the family. Short sentences place the emphasis on the ideas and pictures, and it ends with a sweet dedication to presumably all the cats the author ever had.

Crown an Ode to the Fresh CutTitle: Crown, an Ode to the Fresh Cut
Author: Derrick Barnes
Illustrator: Gordon C. James
ISBN: 9781572842243
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Bolden Books, an imprint of Agate Publishing, c2017.
Awards: John Newbery Honor (2018), Coretta Scott King Author Honor (2018), Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor (2018)

An author’s note explains that he “wanted to capture that moment when black and brown boys all over America visit “the shop” and hop out of the chair filled with a higher self-esteem, with self-pride, with confidence, and an overall elevated view of who they are.” That feeling I don’t think is limited to just the black and brown boys, but to anyone who needs some pampering, a boost of self-worth, or simply needs to be seen by others. Every picture exudes confidence, with the primary focus being on the people’s faces, upturned on almost every page. Regardless of if they are anchored in the barber shop setting or surrounded by swirling bright-colored backgrounds, they are striking a pose and a personality that pops from the pages.

The writing also sizzles, with descriptive, adjective laden verse that reads as if you’re having a conversation with someone. “He looks like he owns a few acres of land on Saturn. Maybe there’s a river named after him on Mars. He looks that important.” It’s an awe-laden but still matter-of-fact narration of a boy who has lost his idealized view of adults and still looks up to becoming a man one day who also has the air about him that he feels from others.

I had this idea that most hair books are geared towards girls (hair styling, dos and don’ts, etc.) but as I look at my local library’s offerings, I might be mistaken in that impression. While hair styling seems to be gender based, there are books featuring bad hair days and hair cuts with both genders represented almost equally.  The illustrations for this title are unabashedly African American, portraying everything from “butterscotch complexion” to darker skin tones, from do-rags to dreadlocks, fades to faux-hawks. I feel like those reviewers who point out how few white people were in the Black Panther movie. I’m pointing this out only to speak upon the realism of the portrayal, as most hair places are very segregated but is still a place where we can find (again to quote from the author’s note) “hardworking black men from all walks of life […] discussing politics, women, sports, our community, and our future.” It’s a slice of life without the social issues, and should be included in hair themed and African American history month story times.

A Different PondTitle: A Different Pond
Author: Bao Phi
Illustrator: Thi Bui
ISBN: 9781623708030
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Capstone Young Readers, a Capstone Press imprint, c2017.

Author Bao Phi combines two infrequently portrayed topics, fishing and immigration, in this quiet slice of life story. There is no tension, no conflict, no real problem to solve unless you count the fact that the boy and his dad (all characters remain unnamed) are attempting to catch fish, an effort that ultimately proves successful. There are subtle references to the state of the narrator’s family, for instance the fact that they have to catch fish even though his parents have jobs because “Everything in American costs a lot of money.” However, the universal themes and feelings are also there, and identifiable with most readers, including the contentment of spending time with a loved one, the pride in accomplishing a task, the mystery of a parent’s past, and a desire to be of service, have a role, and contribute to a group, in this case the family.

The backgrounds of the illustrations had the look of water colors, but the crisp lines and uniform coloring of the characters had a digital feel, so I went looking for information about her technique. I found an interview with Let’s Talk Picture Books where Thi Bui elaborates on her process. I highly recommend taking a look at her photos of the work in progress. The finished product conveys the calm of the early morning trip and the quiet connection and contentment that the characters feel for one another. She states in the interview that she wanted the focus on the boy, and visually she succeeds, centering him in almost every spread and dressing him in a red shirt that frequently peeks out beneath his jacket, a subtle nod to his inability to blend in with this new life. Use for Father’s Day, multicultural, or fishing themed story times with slightly older audiences, as some passages may be too wordy for the preschool crowd.

Grand CanyonTitle: Grand Canyon
Author/Illustrator: Jason Chin
ISBN: 9781596439504
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: A Neal Porter Book, published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Hotzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2017.
Awards: Robert Sibert Honor (2018), Caldecott Honor (2018)

“Rivers carve canyons. When they cut down into the ear, canyons grow deeper. As weathering and erosion break apart their walls, canyons grow wider. Over time, rivers wash all of the eroded material away. These processes have been at work for millions of year, relentlessly excavating the mighty gorge known as Grand Canyon.”

Sandwiched between equally informative opening (featuring a map of the area and some general facts) and closing (elaborating on its history, ecology and geology, along with a cross section and bibliography) spreads, Chin’s book is full of elaborate illustrations and factual tidbits. In an outline reminiscent of Jan Brett, species of plants and animals are identified in the mattes surrounding pictures of a child and adult traveling through all the levels of the canyon. These characters are never identified by name, and the narration uses “you”, inviting readers to travel along and assume a role in the journey, stylistically similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Alternating between these more informational spreads are full page flashbacks where you glimpse what the canyon could have looked like as the character travels through the timeline of formation. If that’s not enough, there are little cutouts incorporated that you sometimes don’t notice until you turn the page. The climatic finish of the “narration” is a four page wide fold-out panoramic view of the canyon, inspiring the awe that can be found and felt when visiting the real deal. Having visited a small portion of the Canyon last year, I was blown away when I first looked at it. This is the closest you are going to get if searching for a travel guide for children, with science seamlessly incorporated into the mix.

Jabari Jumps

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.

Jabari Jumps.jpgTitle: Jabari Jumps
Author/Illustrator: Gaia Cornwall
ISBN: 9780763678388
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2017.

The diving board was high and maybe a little scary, but Jabari had finished his swimming lessons and passed his swim test, and now he was ready to jump. (unpaged)

Debut author and illustrator Gaia Cornwall writes a rite of passage tale about African-American boy Jabari also doing something for the first time: jumping off the diving board at the public pool. After several false starts, his dad counsels him and Jabari completes his jump. Several aerial perspectives relay the height and anticipation that Jabari must feel as he looks down on the pool, where his father and sister wait in the shallow end. Details stay consistent throughout the story, and close examination of the illustrations allow you can track the movements of the other pool attendees.

The Ring Bearer

Ring Bearer.jpgTitle: The Ring Bearer
Author/Illustrator: Floyd Cooper
ISBN: 9780399167409
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC, c2017.

Jackson has an important job at the wedding, and he’s not sure he can do it. (unpaged)

In a mixed media style that has always reminded me of the pointillist art movement, Floyd Cooper conveys the fears that young Jackson feels in serving as ring bearer at his mother’s wedding. Straightforward text relays the tense moments before the ceremony begins, where un-aged Jackson and soon-to-be-sister Sophie are coached on how to walk down the aisle. Body language shows that this is a loving family and captures lifelike snapshots, such as Jackson riding astride the groom’s shoulders, with Jackson’s hands grasping his head and just missing his eyes. The facial expressions are also striking in their realism, from sheepishness to pride and confidence. Recommended for blended families looking for representation.

Jazz Day

Jazz Day.jpgTitle: Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph
Author: Roxane Orgill
Illustrator: Francis Vallejo
ISBN: 9780763669546
Pages: 55 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2016.

In 1958, Art Kane had a crazy idea. Gather as many jazz musicians as possible in one place for a big black-and-white photograph, like a kind of graduation picture. (ix)

A collection of poems inspired by a famous photo of jazz musicians from almost 60 years ago, I’m unsure how much appeal or interest children will have in picking up this publication. Jazz is not something that is played regularly on the modern radio, and has been relegated to a stereotypical niche markets of listeners, such as NPR donors or college students who swing dance. Learning the stories behind the people featured in the photo are interesting, but not the primary goal of the book, which means you can’t even promote it as a collective biography, even though there are short biographies of a select few participants in the back. It’s good that the original photo was included along with a chart for identification purposes, but including the chart in the back matter might mean some readers will miss it entirely. The illustrations, primarily in sepia tones, seem more successful when focusing on a single person or small group than when trying to squeeze the entire group onto a page. There is little action to propel the story since it’s basically the story of how a photo was taken, and the poems cover vignettes of either the participants’ previous experiences or embellished accounts of the day. While I can recognize and pay homage to the historical significance of the photo, it’s going to be a hard hand sell for anyone who isn’t already interested in the topic.

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

Ghost

Ghost.jpgTitle: Ghost
Series: Track #1
Author: Jason Reynolds
ISBN: 9781481450157
Pages: 181 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2016.

So on and on it went, the whistle blowing, one by one, boys and girls on the line, sprinting down the straightaway. Each of their times being recorded. Some were faster than others. Actually, most of the vets were pretty fast, but nobody was faster than the pretty boy, Lu. Nobody. And the coach kept saying stuff like, “Lu’s still the one to beat,” which was kinda pissing me off because . . . I don’t know. It just made me think about this kid Brandon at school, who always . . . ALWAYS picked on me. Not even just me, though. He picked on a lot of people, and didn’t nobody ever do nothing about it. They just said stupid stuff like, Can’t nobody beat him. Same kind of rah-rah this bowling-ball-head coach was kicking about this kid, Lu. It’s just . . . ugh. I mean, he was fast, but honestly, he wasn’t that fast. […] (15)

After challenging and holding his own against the fastest kid on the track team, Castle “Ghost” Cranshaw finds himself being recruited to that same team by Coach Brody. Ghost however isn’t used to running for anyone but himself. Training is difficult without the proper shoes, and his natural speed doesn’t always hold up against the training that the other athletes have received. If he keeps getting in trouble at school, he’s going to find himself off the team that he never dreamed he wanted to be a part of, much less stay on.

What I liked most about this story was that it featured an African-American but the plot didn’t revolve around the fact that Ghost was African-American. It wasn’t a civil rights or slavery or gang story. It’s also an appreciated change of pace that we see a sports story that doesn’t revolve around basketball or football or even baseball, but a sport that doesn’t always get its due recognition. While yes, Ghost’s family is not perfect and he’s suffered some things that most families don’t have to face, it was primarily background and the main focus was on Ghost and the track team. His teammates suffer from a variety of issues in their home life, which are easily shared with the group during an intimate gathering, even though they are supposedly secrets that they keep hidden from everyone. Couch becomes a role model and big influence in his life with surprisingly little effort. For someone who never has played or even considered playing a team sport, Ghost also quickly acclimates to the idea of regular practices and following directions and decisions made by this guy he just met. While I can’t speak for the realism of the track meet scenes, I’m glad the focus was on the track practices and events directly related to Ghost’s membership on the team, instead of slowing the pace of the story with extraneous scenes in school or at home. I expected more attitude from Ghost, especially after we see how he and Couch are introduced. But that bravado falls away and never resurfaces to the levels we witnessed initially, which is slightly disappointing that we can’t see a person of color maintain his attitude and assured nature and still succeed. Supposedly the first book in a series, I wonder if future titles are going to focus on Ghost, his other teammates, or some so far unmet character. Overall, an engaging read if you’re willing to overlook the ease with which the characters come together.

Fancy Party Gowns

Fancy Party Gowns.jpgTitle: Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe
Author: Deborah Blumenthal
Illustrator: Laura Freeman
ISBN: 9781499802399
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: little bee books, a division of Bonnier Publishing, c2017.

Ann thought about what she could do, not what she couldn’t change.
So she sat down and sewed the dresses herself. Then she stood up and ran the business.

Ann Cole Lowe was the designer of Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress when she married future president John F. Kennedy. Primarily covering her role in that momentous event and her career but skimming over her personal life, some of her other designs can be seen in the end papers and cover of the book. Many appear timeless and could grace the award show invitees today. The focus remains squarely on Ann, with most of the illustrations only featuring her face. Although I don’t know what materials were used to make the illustrations, they have a layered quality that pulls readers into the drawing and makes it seem as if you’re standing next to her, watching her struggle and succeed. Pay attention to the scene where she is watching a television in a store front window, and you’ll see her impressively rendered reflection! The repeating refrain quoted above is inspiration for anyone struggling, and also showcases that while her lack of business sense had her floundering financially, Lowe never lost her talent, spirit, and drive to succeed. A forgotten piece of history has been brought to new life.

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

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