Posts tagged ‘Based on a True Story’

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.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington

Sunday Shout Out series was created to remind/encourage me to provide links to news stories, blog posts, and other things that I think are interesting and noteworthy. If you’re interested in participating or being featured in my next Sunday Shout Out, just drop me an e-mail. Do you have some news or links to share? Feel free to link to your own Sunday Shout Outs in the comments.

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.

Building Our House

 

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. This one (along with some others) never made it into the blog, so forgive me while I play catch-up.

Building Our House.jpgBuilding Our House
Author/Illustrator: Jonathan Bean
ISBN: 9780374380236
Pages: 48 pages
Publisher/Date: Farrar Straus Giroux, c2013

Based on his parent’s experience building their house, Jonathan Bean brings to life the entire construction process. Starting with a blank unbroken field, the family toils and perseveres. Through rain, wind, and snow, they lay the foundation, raise the frame, and add the roof, windows, siding, and insulation, until they can finally move in. Lots of muted colors lend an understated tone, and the illustrations and story combine to bring a warm feeling to your heart. Look for the tiny details (such as a pregnant cat and kids playing with the wheelbarrow) as this family makes a house a home.

The Seventh Most Important Thing

Seventh Most Important Thing.jpgTitle: The Seventh Most Important Thing
Author: Shelley Pearsall
ISBN: 9780553497281
Pages: 278 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015.

Arthur’s first week back at school was about as successful as his first day or probation had been. Going from juvie to school was like going from one extreme to the other. In juvie, you learned to avoid everyone else. If some convict kid wanted to cut in front of you in the food line or steal your banana pudding at supper, you let him, no questions asked.
When Arthur got back to school in December, everybody avoided him. He felt as if he were inside an invisible box. Nobody bumped into him in the hallway. Nobody spoke to him. When he sat down in the cafeteria for lunch, the other kids picked up their trays and left. The whole school knew what he’d done, of course. Nothing was a secret at Byrd Junior High. You couldn’t fart without somebody knowing. (57)

Arthur T. Owens had his reasons for throwing a brick at the Junk Man’s head, but the judge doesn’t want to hear them. The judge also doesn’t want to listen to the fact that the brick actually hit him in the arm, but he will listen to the Junk Man. That’s how Arthur finds himself working 120 hours of community service for the Junk Man, whose real name is James Hampton. Mr. Hampton gives Arthur a list of seven things to collect, including mirrors, lightbulbs, and cardboard, which Arthur has to dig through trash, quite frequently in the snow, in order to find. But as his hours start adding up, Arthur’s involvement with Hampton also increases, until eventually it’s his investment that is the only thing keeping the project alive.

This story is one of those stories that you don’t think could possibly have happened, and then you realize it’s inspired by actual events. There actually was a James Hampton, an eccentric artist who lived during that time period, although come to think of it the only mentions to a year are in the very first chapters and the lack of technological references mean it could have taken place in any time period. Pearsall’s author’s note separates fact from fiction and includes a couple pictures, although it becomes obvious she’s taken a few liberties with details and timelines. But this is ultimately Arthur’s story, and it makes sense that Arthur’s character was the most developed. He’s not a bad kid, but he’s not seen as a good kid either based almost exclusively on his family history, and so when one thing goes wrong, the whole world turns against him. His judge and parole officer are no nonsense type people, his principal assumes the worst of him and is convinced Arthur’s the instigator in trouble at school even when told otherwise, and even his younger sister keeps calling him a bad person, but he makes allowances for her because she doesn’t understand. Arthur swings from proving them all right to proving them all wrong as he works at making his own reputation, and I feel like those attitudes are fairly accurate to modern day beliefs as well. This novel could provoke discussion on a number of topics.

Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun.jpgTitle: Circling the Sun
Author: Paula McLain
Narrator: Katharine McEwan
ISBN: 9780307989925 (audiobook)
Pages: 366 pages
Discs/CDs: 12.5 hours, 10 CDs
Publisher/Date: Books on Tape, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, c2015. (Penguin Random House, LLC, c2015.)

I closed my eyes and tried to scream, but only released a puff of air. I felt Paddy’s mouth again and knew I had no chance at all. He would eat me here or drag me off to a glade or valley only he knew of, a place from which I’d never return. The last thought I remember having was This is how it feels, then. This is what it means to be eaten by a lion. […]
The doctor gave me laudanum, and then stitched me up with a hooked needle and thick black thread. […]
“He must have been ready to let you go. Or perhaps you weren’t ever meant for him.”
I felt the tug of the needle, a pushing and pulling, as if just that part of my body were caught in a small current. His words were another kind of current. “What am I meant for then?”
“How wonderful that question is, Beru.” He smiled mysteriously. “And as you did not die on this day, you have more time in which to answer it.” (39-41)

Ironically enough, she did spend the rest of her life trying to find her place in the world. A fictionalized account of a real woman I have never heard of, author Paula McLain elaborates on the details of Beryl Markham. Beryl is a modern woman living in the turn of the century, in an English colony in Africa. Her father moves the family to a farm, even though he’s not a farmer. Her mother leaves with her brother Dickie after only two years, and Beryl is left with her father. She thrives in the bush with a native Kipsigis tribe and a particular young boy Kibi who becomes a life-long companion. But as she grows, she realizes that her upbringing was anything but conventional, and she balks at becoming a cultured woman with nothing to do except tend the hearth and home. From horse training to eventually learning how to fly, Beryl charts her own course, looking all the while for a man whom she can trust with her heart and high hopes.

Provided with engaging story-telling, which sounds quite frequently like you are gathered around a campfire in the safari leaning in to hear the speaker’s words, Katharine McEwan’s narration complements McLain’s descriptive prose. It drops to a whisper when she’s sneaking outside as a child after dark, and has a sense of urgency when faced with dangers and decisions. Beryl’s dialogue is higher pitched and more attitudinal when she is younger, separating it from her older experiences and the “looking back” narration that the rest of the book takes. While I have no idea how accurately the foreign words are pronounced or the people are portrayed, having never visited the country much less the continent, her pronunciations are beautiful. Distinctions between the African residents and those from the English areas are clear. With a novel that spans decades and two continents, it’s an impressive accomplishment.

Readers should read the author’s note at the end, which is where McEwan provides insight on the inspiration for her novel. Drawing information from Beryl’s autobiography West with the Night, McEwan elaborates on this unknown aviator’s accomplishments. First soloing in 1931, she was one of the first women to receive a pilot’s license. She pioneered the practice of scouting ahead for animal herds for safari groups. In 1936, she flew across the Atlantic and made headlines in the United States, but garnered barely a mention in the English papers. Earnest Hemingway recognized her writing skills, which was ultimately what resulted in a reprint of the manuscript 50 years later when Beryl was 80 years old. It’s a book that other readers intrigued by this fictional account may want to search out for the original inspiration.

The Marvels

MarvelsTitle: The Marvels
Author/Illustrator: Brian Selznick
ISBN: 9780545448680
Pages: 670 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.
Publication Date: September 15, 2015

”Leo was inspired by the stories of his great-great-grandfather Billy stowing away aboard a ship four generations earlier. So he decided to run away, too.”
Joseph leaned in closer to the speakers. ”Before the sun rose, Leo wrote a note to his parents, making it clear he didn’t belong in the theatre. Then he set off to the docks to board a ship bound for India. While he waited for the ship, though, he saw a strange orange glow in the sky. Some intuition told him something was terribly wrong, and he ran all the way to his family’s theatre. It turned out that earlier that evening, the doddering old Alexander must have knocked over a candle, or dropped a match, because the entire theatre was engulfed in flames . . .” (511-512)

Joseph Jervis has run away from his boarding school and seeks asylum at his uncle’s house, whom he has only met once. His Uncle Albert lives a peculiar and secluded life surrounded by old furnishings, clothes and toys in a house that has never been updated, with sounds coming from the walls. Joseph is not allowed to touch anything while his uncle tries to figure out how to reach Joseph’s unreachable parents and what to do with the wayward teen. But clues as to the secrets and stories the house is whispering about prove too tempting for Joseph, and he delves into the history of the house and his family. Things aren’t adding up though, and Joseph must finally confront his uncle to get the answers he so desperately desires.

First, let’s chat about production quality, not something I typically address on this blog. The cover is glowingly embellished with contrasting gold lines against a navy blue background. The gold tones are continued onto the edges of the pages. While this makes for an impressive and imposing view from the side, it was more difficult to call it a true page-turner as the pages of my freshly arrived copy stuck together throughout. I doubt the next person who checks it out will have that issue, but it was frustrating as a first reader. A coworker did remark that you had a much more difficult time telling when the sections of print and pictures started and stopped, although if you look closely enough or fan the pages slightly there is still a noticeable color difference. Continuing the trend started with his previously published titles, the spine and back cover features the main character’s face, although we don’t see this particular piece of artwork until the last pages of the novel. Selznick as usual has spared not a single detail, down to the inside of the covers, as the front part features stormy seas and the inside of the back cover showcases a stunning sun over the ocean, giving readers a glimpse of the tempest (pun intended which readers will understand once they read the book) to come and the calm that comes by the end. Whether it’s setting or rising is anyone’s guess, but I think it could be interpreted either way. In the author’s note, he addresses the spelling of words as the British version, which I occasionally noticed but some might not, as an effort to keep the story firmly anchored in its British influences and history. I think this position is beautifully unique and admirably authentic considering how frequently those changes are made, such as the alterations made to J.K. Rowling’s works when they were imported.

Now, onto the story. I won’t say I didn’t like it, but it was more thought-provoking instead of awe-inspiring like his two previous works. In Hugo, we had a ground-breaking format, and in Wonderstruck there was a thought-provoking concept. In The Marvels, we have a story inspired by fact but also providing commentary on the nature of inspired-by-fact stories. What is truth and what is fiction, and how do we determine the difference? Is it really so important to separate the two? I loved what could possibly be the motto of the book, “You either see it or you don’t”, as a straight-forward observation that could be applied to not just physical elements of life but also more conceptual aspects. For instance, in terms of the We Need Diverse Books movement, this is another example of it being there (in this case homosexuality), but not being the main focus of the book, subtly riffing off the “You either see it or you don’t” theme. It’s okay if readers caught it, but it’s also okay if they don’t, as it’s never explicitly stated within the story.

As much as I love the illustrations Selznick put together for this work, they felt redundant this go around. With the inclusion of all the pictures to tell the story from the past, everything we previously witness through the preliminary pictures is spelled out in detail later on in the book. I’m interested to hear from other readers if having the pictures interspersed in the narrative instead of initially presented as a cluster would have changed your perception or enjoyment of the story. It’s understandable their inclusion is meant to more thoroughly engross readers into Joseph’s life and discoveries, to literally see what and how he sees and feel just as confused, frustrated, disappointed, and conned when the truth is revealed. But there is already a layer of separation for us the reader since we know this story we’re reading isn’t true, so I feel like the betrayal when it does come in the climax is never going to impact readers as thoroughly as it does Joseph. Instead I’m scratching my head and find myself referencing Rowling again, comparing the whole story to that one line of Dumbledore’s in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when he asks Harry “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real.” (723) I thought the real twist comes not with Uncle Al’s reveal, but with Selznick’s author’s note delineating what aspects of the story are inspired by real life events and people. In this way there’s almost two plot-twists, which might mean readers’ heads are spinning. Fans of Selznick’s previous works will be satisfied with this slightly circuitous story, but the revelations are what is truly memorable about this read.

Blizzard

BlizzardTitle: Blizzard
Author/Illustrator: John Rocco
ISBN: 9781423178651
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Disney Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, c2014.

On Monday, February 6, 1978, New England experienced one of the biggest snowstorms in its history. It snowed for two days, and by the time it stopped, parts of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut were buried under forty inches of snow. That’s four times the height of this book! The wind was blowing fifty miles an hour and created snowdrifts up to fifteen feet high. Where I grew up in Rhode Island, it took over a week for snowplows to get to our street.
This book is based on my experience as a ten-year-old boy in that blizzard and how I got to the store, over a mile from my house, with tennis rackets tied to my feet.

Beautiful illustrations detail the storm in all it’s glory, white space assuming the role of the heaps and drifts of snow. The intrepid young boy in the story shows his ingenuity when, after being snowbound for a week, he straps tennis rackets to his shoes and makes the journey to the store for necessary supplies. Along the way, he picks up orders from the neighbors. Slices of family life show the ups and downs of being snowbound, from playing in the snow to curling up next to the fire. The passage of time is subtly conveyed in the pictures, which read like a graphic novel, at one point bringing to mind the Family Circus cartoons. Based on a true story, this is the perfect book to snuggle up with during these record-breaking winter storms.

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