Posts tagged ‘Racisim’

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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Run For It

Run For It.jpgTitle: Run For It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought For Their Freedom
Author/Illustrator: Marcelo D’Salete
Translator: Andrea Rosenberg
ISBN: 9781683960492
Pages: 175 pages
Publisher/Date: Fantagraphics Books, Inc., c2017 (original edition published by Editora Veneta, c2014)

Run For It (Cumbe) tells stories of black resistance to Brazilian slavery (1500s-1800s). Many Africans and their descendants rebelled; both directly, by running away to escape settlements known as mocambos, and indirectly, in the small acts of everyday insurrection on the plantations—which demonstrate the tensions inherent in a society shaped by violence. These stories, some of which are inspired by historical documents, offer an opportunity to reflect on that world. (Introduction, unpaged)

Four short stories, each only about forty pages long, portray similar and stereotypical aspects of slave society. Kalunga begins with a relationship between two slaves, but when one wants to run and the other wants to stay, both their lives are affected by the tragic results. Sumidouro, told through jumps between past and present, is about a protective mother who is determined to avenge the wrong enacted on her child. Cumbe portrays what happens when slaves outright and stage a rebellion. Finally, Malungo is about the love a brother has for his sister and his efforts to keep her safe.

Each of these tales rely heavily on the visuals, and each of the violent endings don’t quite turn out the way you expect. The author’s biography mentions he’s a teacher, and it shows in the bibliography and glossary, which is organized alphabetically instead of order of appearance, making it only slightly more difficult to find what you are looking for since it references only the first occurrence of the terms or images. Since the introduction alludes to inspiration from historical documents, I wish he’d also included references of where and from when those inspirations came from, although considering all of the bibliography titles are in a different language, I doubt I would have been able to consult the original material. The black and white illustrations are dark, possibly reflecting the dark futures of the characters portrayed. A moody tome of yearning, this will find an audience with those searching for well-researched reflection on life and the cost of freedom. Possibly recommend to those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement for a unique spin on themes of vengeance, righteousness, and revolution.

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’s 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 light 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.

Breakthrough!

Breakthrough.jpgTitle: Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780547821832
Pages: 130 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2015.

It wasn’t only that the operation was very complex and risky. The surgery he was about to perform on Eileen’s struggling heart had never been done on a human before, let alone one so tiny or frail. This was why the balcony-type observation stand along the west side of room 706 was packed with curious Johns Hopkins staff and why a movie camera had been set up pointing at the operating table. If the operation worked — if the patient survived — history would be made.
Moreover, Blalock had never performed this procedure, not even on an experimental animal. In fact, the only person to have done it successfully start to finish, wasn’t an official member of the surgical team. According to hospital rules, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the room. But he was there now, at Blalock’s request, standing just behind the surgeon on a wooden step stool. His name was Vivien Thomas, and most people at the hospital thought he was a janitor. (xiii)

On Wednesday, November 29, 1944, history was made. The first ever operation on a child to increase blood flow to the heart was scheduled to take place. Not only was it a moment in medical history, but it was also a moment in women’s rights and African-American rights. For over a year Dr. Alfred Blalock, chief surgeon and researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his African-American research assistant Vivien Thomas had been studying the research of hearing-impaired pediatric physician Dr. Helen Taussig. At Taussig’s request, they had been searching for a means to solve this reoccurring problem of abnormal development of the heart, which had cost her the lives of over two hundred patients. When they finally develop what they think is a solution, they find themselves in a race against time with undeveloped technology and unpracticed procedures to save the life of a young child.

An interesting introduction to a rarely considered medical event, this narrative nonfiction provides background contextual information, primary source photographs, and simplified descriptions of scientific concepts. Mentioned in the short description above, this book could be used to spread knowledge about medical, women’s, or African-American history. Vivien Thomas is unable to attend medical school due to the economic collapse of the 1930s, and ends up being essentially educated on-the-job after he is hired by Blalock, ten years his senior. With his boss and upon first arriving at Johns Hopkins, Thomas is forced to confront racist tendencies that had been culturally ingrained for decades. Dr. Helen Taussig also had to confront others’ prejudices against her, including not being allowed to take more than one or two classes at a time and not being allowed to study in the same room as her classmates for fear she would “contaminate” the other students. Her gradual hearing loss also proved unique problems that she solved in order to continue the professional career track she had fought so hard to achieve. Other social issues at the time that are still prevalent today, including animal testing, sterilization methods, and insider industry information, are touched upon to provide context.

It’s the personal vignettes behind the discovery that create the compelling narrative. The inclusion of period photographs featuring the people and places involved all bring the incredible story to life. The medical concepts are broken down into the barest, most simplistic terms. While that makes it easy to understand for readers, additional visuals to aid in comprehending the surgery and the anatomy involved would have been appreciated. The sequence of development of the heart on page 28 and the drawing of the chest cavity inside a child on page 49 was extremely helpful in envisioning it, although the captain makes it sound like the drawing was done by Thomas. Even enlarging the newspaper clipping found on page 77 would have sufficed, to make it easier to read the information contained and see the drawing provided, although it is a remarkably clear and readable scan.

For a fuller picture of the historic event, it’s implications, and aftermath, readers should read the detailed source notes, which contain information that regrettably did not make it into the primary text. It’s my impression that most people neglect to read the included back matter in informational texts. For instance, while the text vaguely mentions that Thomas was later recognized, including a formal portrait, an honorary doctorate, and made head of the laboratory, the significance of his becoming an “instructor of surgery at the school, an extraordinarily rare appointment for someone who was neither a surgeon nor a doctor” is only mentioned in the source notes. Overall, the book does a solid job recognizing the accomplishments of scientists that no one has heard of or probably even considered investigating.

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

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.

Rhythm Ride

Rhythm Ride.jpgTitle: Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound
Author: Andrea Davis Pinkney
ISBN: 9781596439733
Pages: 166 pages
Publisher/Date: Roaring Book Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2015.

Berry was sick of seeing his hard-earned creativity and the talents of black performers go unrewarded. He began to seriously consider building a record label that would allow him to produce the work of black artists, to publish his music, to have complete control over the money he and the singers earned, and also to have control over how black performers were portrayed to the public. (19)

In 1959, Berry Gordy secured an eight hundred dollar loan from his family to begin his dream, the music company Motown. Motown became known by its nickname Hitsville, as the production company put out hit after hit from big name, local talent like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross. For slightly over a decade, Berry Gordy and his company, who were treated more like family, were behind some of the biggest hits in pop and R&B. But when Gordy moved to California to expand the company, the music lost its rhythm, and artists started pursuing other opportunities and other companies where they could garner the attention and money they felt they deserved. By the 1980s, only a few loyal artists were still garnering hits, and Gordy sold the company before the decade ended, as the era of Motown had already ended earlier.

The narrator is “the Groove,” which takes on the personality of a smooth talking tour guide who has a vested interest in your enjoyment, entertainment, and well-being. It makes the remembrance of pivotal historical moments, like the Civil Rights movement and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy, more manageable, reassuring readers that it’s in the past and we lived through it while not deemphasizing the importance of the events. Sometimes we forget the narrator is even present, and other times that effort is stressed in multiple paragraphs that try to reestablish the road trip ambiance. Some readers may like it, while others might have preferred a more straightforward narration with less embellishment.

Little details, like the decorum and manners training that each artist received, break up the monotony of the presentation, which at times can read like a who’s who laundry list of best hits of the 1960s. There are hints of personality for some of the acts, especially when they are soloists instead of groups, but the groups almost become interchangeable, especially when they don’t have those back stories to distinguish them from the other groups presented. The recordings that were more political in nature, such as MLK’s speeches and the concept album featuring songs about the Vietnam War, were unknown to me, and I wish Pinkney had focused more on the aftermath of those publications, or the dissent in the group prior to publication. I feel like that is important to set the tone, and readers just received a minimalist view of the dissension caused by anti-war cover album, especially considering Marvin Gaye was Berry Gordy’s brother-in-law.

Copious amounts of photos help delineate the different groups, but they are primarily staged publicity shots and very few show either the inside workings of the company or the community and culture that would have provided context. There is one page in particular that would have done well for thorough editing. When introducing the Primettes, soon to be known as the Supremes, Pinkney identifies the women pictured as “Betty McGlown, Diane Ross, Mary Willson, and Florence Ballard” in both a caption and in the text on page 94. On page 95, “Barbara Martin left to have a baby, so the newly formed quartet was down to three singers.” Further research on my part leads me to conclude that both women were only temporarily involved in the group, so maybe it’s not really an error, but I wish the discrepancy wasn’t there. We also are presented with a picture of the Temptations with new member David Ruffin before his replacement of original member Elbridge “Al” Bryant is discussed in the narrative. Minor mistakes, granted, but it leads to a feeling of sloppy editing. Another missed opportunity is consulting first hand-account source material. The detailed source notes pages are much appreciated, but it’s rare that a listed source is from that time period directly, with most of the sources being commentary or biographies published decades after events occurred.

Part of the difficulty Pinkney faces is making the subject matter important to children, as most of them are only familiar with Motown music as being the old songs that their parents (or maybe even at this point their grandparents!) listened to. While I’m a fan of the “oldies” because my father played them for me, I think most readers are going to be more familiar with Taylor Swift, One Direction, and Adelle, just to name a few. If they are already familiar with the subject, great, but I don’t think they’ll be running to pick this one off the shelves, even with the great appealing cover and the local connection to Motown as I work at a Michigan library. I understand the difficulties this would have added to the production, but I feel it would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of a CD with at least a sampling of the songs discussed in the book.

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

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.

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